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A Mossback Muses On All Things Seattle

By Philip Gold

This is a puff piece that leads to some hard questions and—possibly—some ugly answers. The puffery is well-deserved. The questions remain unanswered.

Mossback, sometimes aka Knute “Skip” Berger, has been among Seattle’s premier journalists and editors for decades and is arguably one of the best regional writers in the country. A founding editor of the old Eastsideweek, he did three tours as editor of Seattle Weekly and is currently the lead columnist for Crosscut, a local online newspaper that he describes as “making the transition from for-profit unprofitability to respectable non-profit status.” He also does radio (KUOW) and writes for several magazines, including this one. Seattle-born, educated at Lakeside School and Evergreen State College, he has lived here all his life except for two years in San Francisco.

Skip knows Seattle. I’ve known Skip for a decade or so and consider him a superb writer, a fine editor and, the Mossback persona notwithstanding, one of the most civilized gentlemen I’ve ever met.

He’s got a new book out: Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes on Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice (Sasquatch Books), an anthology of his columns. Rereading them was like encountering old friends, plus a couple I hated then and still love to hate. (Let’s just say that we disagree on the redeeming social value of the WTO riots.) His analysis of local politics and conditions is always nuanced and astute. Even his occasional rants—check out the piece on the Boy Scouts—are worthwhile.

Buy the book.

After reading Pugetopolis, I e-mailed Skip and told him to invite my wife and me to lunch so I could interview him for the puff-piece part. It was his turn to treat, and anyway my wife and I had to betake ourselves to a local gun shop/firing range. The 9 mm pistol my wife bought shortly after voting for Obama never had worked right. She figured she’d need it to protect herself against the riled-up anti-Obama contingent, who were squirreling away all the guns and ammo they could find, certain that Obama was going to take their firing power away. We were going to give the pistol one more chance before returning it. The weapon, as she explained over lamb shanks and saganaki, was either defective or “too stiff and unlubricated.” I mention this for two reasons. First, anybody who believes that firearms have phallic aspects is sadly misinformed. And second, it’s great fun to watch a Mossback blushing red, yellow and green, seriatim. (The pistol, properly lubricated, works fine now. Who needs a dysfunctional gun?)

After deblushing, Skip began to hold forth on some of his favorite peeves about the place and the people he loves. The “Myth of Seattle Nice”—how all those smiley faces too often conceal “civic self-deception” and less-than-unconditional love for humanity. The assorted delusions of local enviros, especially their beliefs that urban density helps the environment and that old buildings should be torn down. The Seattle penchant for process over decision: how it can get pretty irritating but how it has also stopped, nicely, a lot of bad ideas. The current Procrustean futon of falling real estate values and rising taxes. A personality or two. His abortive attempt to secure a spot on a local draft board. (He was granted conscientious objector status at the end of the Vietnam draft, and the prospect of him listening to CO appeals almost makes conscription worth considering.)

Then it was time to ask the questions.

Given the present economic crisis, national and local, and looking back over the last two or three decades, national and local, would it be fair to call Seattle the hubris capital of America?

He took a while to formulate a response. He began with a short review of Seattle history, of a place founded by two kinds of people: those seeking to get away from New York and those seeking to recreate it. The boom-and-bust cycle of the last century-plus. The 1960s, when, at last, Seattle was ready to say to America, “Look at us.” Then the glory days of Microsoft and Amazon, of Starbucks and WaMu and from time to time Boeing, of dot-com IPOs and instant zillionaires who didn’t seem to produce anything, including profits. Of the years when “Look at us” morphed into “We are the future; follow us.”

Then we doubled back to some of Mossback’s more venerable gripes. The Seattle obsession with process—maybe just a passive-aggressive sullenness with scant civic value? Our blindness to the ecological harm we do—a nasty case of destructive false consciousness? Our love affair with globalization—or our share in the destruction of a sound American economy?

No firm answers, save for wondering why, as a nation, all we could think of to deal with the disaster was doing more of what got us into it. Then my wife offered the most damning questions of all: Is it that we don’t know what to do or that we don’t want to know? Or is it that we do know but choose not to act upon our knowledge?

We postponed a decision.

So is Seattle, at least metaphorically, the hubris capital of America? The city has certainly known the excesses of capitalism, from the “Will the Last Person Leaving Seattle Turn Out the Lights” billboard of the 1970s nadir to the geek/yuppie insufferability of the 1990s. It has certainly thought highly of itself. But has it produced the intellectual and moral capital to come up with something better, something that might be shared with America?

The lunch concluded with some tap-dancing around the Seattle media situation, especially the then-impending demise of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and print in general as an endangered species. The following day, while writing this piece, I picked up the Sunday, Feb. 1 print edition (advance) of The Seattle Times. Suddenly curious, I began counting how many of the articles and columns were locally produced. Section A, 15 pages, was filled entirely with pieces off the wire. The “Opinion” section had one column by the editor, four columns and a cartoon off the wire. The other sections were also heavily dominated by products of the large corporate media.

Why mention this? Only as an example of how we Seattleites, for all our self-esteem, seem quite content—maybe—to let others do our heavy thinking for us. And why I hope that Mossback keeps on keeping on for many years to come. He’s us. He’s also himself. He thinks. And that ain’t bad.  L&P

—Philip Gold

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