Late yesterday, I was contacted by a reporter for The Bay Citizen, an online news outlet based in San Francisco. She’s preparing a story about how some of the politicians in midterm races are mocking San Francisco, equating it with lefty decadence – good grief, that tired stereotype is back again? – and she wanted to know what I thought of Pennsylvania senatorial candidate Pat Toomey’s mockery of San Francisco.
Well, I hadn’t seen such an ad, so I went to Toomey’s website…and there it was, a fresh bashing of America’s most beautiful city, a resurrection of a Republican trope that has persisted since the party coined the pejorative term “San Francisco Democrats” at its national convention in 1984.
The Toomey ad – actually, an extended video – opens by framing Democrat Joe Sestak’s face inside a “Fishermans Wharf of San Francisco” logo, as if it was a millstone around his neck. (Silly me. I had always assumed that Fisherman’s Wharf – with the correct apostrophe – was just a middlebrow tourist attraction; I didn’t know we were supposed to Be Very Afraid.) Subsequent images feature Nancy Pelosi beneath a logo of the baseball park, Pelosi looming large over the Golden Gate Bridge, Pelosi framed within a San Francisco trolley car, and Pelosi trapped within that Fisherman’s Wharf logo, capped by a message about how San Francisco’s political values are too “extreme” for a place like Pennsylvania.
I have no idea whether this attempt to marginalize San Francisco as insufficiently American might actually aid Toomey in his race against Sestak. The ad is online only, and, meanwhile, the polls are gyrating wildly (Toomey leads Sestak by seven points in a new Franklin and Marshall survey; Toomey and Sestak are deadlocked at 46 percent each in a new Reuters/Ipsos Public Affairs survey). And I have no idea whether Tim Burns, a Republican congressional hopeful, can score a victory in his southwest Pennsylvania race with the help of his current TV ad depicting Pelosi and the Golden Gate Bridge.
I’m not here today to speculate on potential cause and effect. My sole purpose is to stick up for the city that tonight will host Game One of the World Series.
Viewers of the Toomey video don’t need to see images of Castro Street to catch his drift. As a term, “San Francisco” is a conservative dog whistle; it conjures scary images of party-hearty homo stoners chomping on crunchy granola while engaging in trisexual orgies. Which really doesn’t seem quite fair, actually. Having been to San Francisco dozens of times, mostly for work, I can attest that one can visit all kinds of neighborhoods – Pacific Heights, Bernal Heights, Nob Hill, Chinatown, the Presidio, the Embarcadero – without once being tempted to hum that silly ’67 pop song about having flowers in your hair. In fact, if you go over to the Haight neighborhood in search of a hippie scene, you’re likely to wind up inside The Gap, or flashing your plastic at some other chain store or upscale boutique. The Haight hippie scene peaked around 1968.
All told, if you were to score this city to music, you’d easily pick Tony Bennett over the Jefferson Airplane.
But stereotypes never die. Two years ago, Missouri Republican congressman Sam Graves aired a TV ad that assailed his Democratic opponent for raising some money in San Francisco; in doing so, he featured imagery of a sexually ambiguous multiracial trio dancing spontaneously in front of a bar, with disco as a backbeat, as a narrator intoned about “San Francisco values” – thus implying (no doubt falsely) that the trio was actually dancing at the Democratic fundraiser. Heck, that trio could have been dancing anywhere; shocking as it may seem, there are vibrant gay communities deep in red territory as well, which means that perhaps this should be folded into the mix of “Dallas values.”
We do need to acknowledge that some Democrats bash San Francisco, too. Georgia congressman Jim Marshall is currently trying to convince his conservative constituents that he’s a real American, and naturally that requires this TV ad message: “Georgia is a long way from San Francisco.” And while the narrator speaks, the viewer hears a few chords of faux sitar music – and sees three central-casting headband hippies clad in the kinds of blouses that haven’t been worn since the LBJ era.
But these stereotypes are perpetuated because there’s an audience for them. No doubt Marshall’s ad would play well with those Phillies fans who hoisted signs denouncing San Francisco star pitcher Tim Lincecum as a “Hippy Trash” guy who might “Wanna Smoke.”
I wonder how those fans might feel if politicians spent decades railing against “Philadelphia Values,” with ads undoubtedly showing corrupt pols taking bribes on the Rocky steps, their jowls stuffed with cheesesteak, as police choppers dropped satchel bombs on an inner-city neighborhood. Yeesh. If that was the typical viewer’s image of Philadelphia, he might think more kindly about San Francisco.