Yesterday’s New York Times article about the Q train (and Bryan’s post about it) reminded me of a famous comment made some eight years ago about the diversity of the ridership on New York’s subways, in this case the 7 train.
The comment is a perfect illustration of Thomas Bender’s point in the essay “New York as a Center of Difference” (from The Unfinished City ) that New York’s “historic cosmopolitanism” puts it odds with the cultural mythologies that have dominated Americans’ understanding of what it means to be American. Bender identifies these as Puritanism and Jeffersonian agrarian and argues that neither can give positive cultural or political value to heterogeneity or conflict. Each in its own way is xenophobic, and that distances both of them from the conditions of modern life.”
The comment is also a good illustration of the mindset that Thomas Frank describes in his study of contemporary U.S. conservatism, What’s the Matter with Kansas (2004): “People in suburban Kansas City vituperate against the sinful cosmopolitan elite of New York and Washington, D.C.; people in rural Kansas vituperate against the sinful cosmopolitan elite of Topeka and suburban Kansas City.”
The comment was made by major-league pitcher John Rocker, a native of Georgia, and (at the time) the closer for the Atlanta Braves. In an interview, Rocker told Sports Illustrated in the spring of 2000 that New York is “the most hectic, nerve-racking city. Imagine having to take the 7 Train to the ballpark, looking like you’re riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing.”
Rocker’s views may well have represented the views held by a fair number of Americans about their fellow citizens in New York. Indeed, one salon.com writer wondered whether Rocker “merely an expression of the national id whose blurted-out comments represent the sinister opinions secretly held by all the rest of us?” Nevertheless, Rocker’s comments were deemed offensive not only by New Yorkers, but also by Major League Baseball, which suspended Rocker for the rest of spring training and the first 28 games of the season (though the punishment was reduced on appeal to merely the first 14 games of the season).
Rocker never really lived down the controversy and (perhaps by coincidence) his pitching performance declined thereafter. By 2003, he was no longer playing major-league ball. Last year, he was implicated as a steroid user during an investigation into an Atlanta steroid ring.
You can learn more about Rocker’s views (and order a “Speak English” T-shirt) from his website, http://www.johnrocker.net.