The Burn Is Back

The Red Sox are champions again, which means Boston may finally be returning to its rightful place of being loathed.

For Bostonians, it is a strange thing to be liked. We’re used to being swamped with bile from the rest of the country, which seems perpetually annoyed at us for how we talk, how we root, and the fact that Hollywood has, for reasons past understanding, suddenly decided to set 70 percent of its movies somewhere between Charlestown and Southie. And yet, in the wake of April’s tragic Marathon bombings, all of the mockery stopped. The nation rallied to our side. The Yankees played “Sweet Caroline.” Boston became unassailable.

With the Red Sox back on top, though, it appears that things might finally be reverting to normal. Today on Gawker, Hamilton Nolan, one of the city’s most savage longtime critics, declared, “Fuck Boston,” and proceeded with a long list of things that the city ought to be fucked for. “Fuck the Boston Red Sox. Fuck your dirty beards. Fuck your scrappy-band-of-sailors persona. Fuck your iconic little ballpark. Fuck the big green wall in your outfield. Fuck the people wearing Red Sox hats, particularly pink ones. Fuck your undeserved underdog attitude. Fuck your celebrity fans. Fuck your regular fans. Fuck your riotous celebrations.” He went on. The predictable outrage ensued on whatever is your favorite social media channel.

Several months ago I met Nolan at a bar in Brooklyn, to try to understand the source of his antipathy. An amateur boxer from Florida, that penis-shaped, hurricane-bedeviled state in the South dominated by a tertiary Bush, which functions as a sort of giant drip pan for America’s reprobate population and whose most notable feature is the fact that, wherever you go there, you have an even chance of seeing a dead alligator cooking on a white-hot, traffic-choked byway lined with strip malls … Where was I? Right, Hamilton Nolan has been the most gleeful and vitriolic of Boston’s critics, slashing at the city at the slightest provocation. He told me that he hates Boston sports fans and the whole genre of white-gangster movies inspired by the city, but for the most part it’s recreational. “Making fun of cities is the same as hating a sports team,” he said. “It’s not rational, and it’s not factually based.” Nolan’s favorite prey animals are DC and Boston, but the revealing thing about Boston, he told me, “is how mad they get and how seriously they take it.” He likened it to when you’re hanging out with a bunch of friends and one of them busts your balls. “The worst thing you can do is start crying about it.” So the hate is just feigned? “I don’t have an actual problem with Boston,” Nolan said. “I can’t say I have any firsthand evidence of Boston being a shithole. But it’s not about whether Boston sucks or not, it’s about whether you can goad the people into getting offended.”

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For as long as there’s been a Boston, people have hated Boston. The reasons have been impressively consistent across the past two centuries. Bostonians are smug, puritanical, inhospitable, racist and/or pinko, and hopelessly blinkered and insular, and they go about all this in a manner that makes it next to impossible to tell if they’re suffering from the world’s worst inferiority complex or the world’s most gigantic superiority complex (in reality, probably both at once).

We can argue the merits of these charges all day, and, in fact, I spent many years writing about what it means to be a Bostonian, and what others perceive it to mean. I’ve cooed my love for the place and denounced it from on high in equal measure, but, even having left town four years ago after three decades there, I still subscribe firmly to the “You can’t say that about Boston—only I can say that about Boston!” school of intercity combat. I remain, for good or ill, a Bostonian.

With that being said, I can declare the following: (1) Though a good deal of the stereotype is true, it’s obviously not the whole story; and (2) it’s a good sign when hillbillies think you’re a bunch of effete liberal dilettantes using the flag to wipe up spilled caviar, while at the same time effete liberal dilettantes think you’re a bunch of braying vulgarians using the Cradle of Liberty as your own personal vomitorium. That’s the sweet spot, that is.

In the months leading up to last April, though, we saw a surge in a different kind of anti-Boston sentiment, one that’s harsher and less focused, nonpartisan, gratuitous, and indiscriminate. With life thankfully returning to normal—and the rest of America again feeling safe to rag on us—we might as well understand it. While the old tropes are occasionally invoked, it’s largely as pretense. The hate seems to exist for its own sake, fathomless and inscrutable.

It all started in the summer of 2011 when GQ called Boston the worst-dressed city in America, which, despite the unfortunate local propensity for fleece and ill-fitting khakis, was patently absurd to anyone who’s ever spent any time in the great flyover. It got worse from there. In a recent bit about the Supreme Court hearing arguments against the Voting Rights Act, The Daily Show ran a clip of Chief Justice John Roberts asking if “the citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North.” Stewart cut in: “No, we’ve been to Boston,” to the delight of the New York crowd, who, in a more sensible world, would be directing their derisive hoots of laughter at Alabammy. Or at least at their (and now my) own police department, dauntless as it’s been in the goal of stopping and frisking every single black person in New York City.

But it was the Deadspin writer Drew Magary who went all in, writing, “People from Boston labor under the mistaken belief that being a relentlessly cynical asshole makes you tough. Endearing, even. They believe their deliberate misery makes them harder and deeper than you. It’s all BULLSHIT…. There’s nothing tough about these people. France could invade New England tomorrow and seize 80 percent of the land with minimal effort, because Tommy from Quinzee would be too busy demanding that the bartender put more Everlast songs on the jukebox.”

Magary, who lives in DC—home to literally the worst people in America, a distinction for which it has been dubbed “Hollywood for ugly people,” and which is also the only city better than Boston at hiding its African-American population from outsiders—has authored a growing body of anti-Boston literature (“few have made a better living goofing on Boston people more than I,” he told me).

He detests Boston sports fans, the reflexive cynicism annoys him, the weather sucks (duh), and he hates the white gangster-movie thing, too. But generally, Magary’s issue lies outside of the city. “My goofing on Boston has, in general, come from famous people who no longer live in Boston who won’t shut up about how REAL Boston is,” he said, singling out Mark Wahlberg. “There’s nothing inherently grittier or tougher about Boston’s shitholes. Just because Whitey Bulger grew up near you doesn’t mean you get to act like you’re patrolling the Gaza Strip.”

Fair enough, sort of, but every city has a bunch of guys who think they’re tough because they grew up near a bad neighborhood. It’s a pretty thin justification for such an abundance of vented public spleen. Has Magary spent much time in the city? “Even though I goof about Boston online a lot,” he says, “I’ve actually enjoyed most of the time I’ve spent in the city itself. My brother lives outside of Boston. My aunt lives in Charlestown. Traffic is fucking awful, but usually I enjoy myself.”

As someone who spent the first three decades of my life in the area (and grew up in Quincy and owned that Everlast record), the intensity of Boston-directed loathing is something of a mystery to me. Of course Boston has its problems. The T is a mess, politics is a farce, and it remains the second-most-unfriendly place I’ve ever been to (by the grace of Bandera, Texas, go you). But by many standards measurable and immeasurable alike, it’s one of the great American cities. But it was in March that, for the first time since I left, I actually felt the twinge of provincial defensiveness emerge from retirement. The Onion ran a piece that legitimately got to me.

The satirical newspaper published a story headlined “Pretty Cute Watching Boston Residents Play Daily Game of ‘Big City.’” The satirical piece depicted Bostonians earnestly rushing around, playing at business and pretending to be chic urbanites, while the rest of the country looks on, utterly beguiled.

“When they look down at their watches and start hurrying down the street like they’re headed to some sort of huge, important meeting, it’s hard not to smile,” says one man in the article. “I mean, they look like they really think they are doing something significant.” Another adds, “All that hometown pride for a place so small and inconsequential? It melts my heart.”

Just like every other time Boston has come under (perceived) criticism, the response from inside the city seemed calculated to make everything worse. The Globe dutifully stepped on the first rake, running a jokey blog post purporting to uncover the “shocking truth” that “The Onion, a website that claims to be ‘America’s Finest News Source,’ is in fact not a legitimate news source, but a website full of satire and fake news.” The response to that meek little defense came in fast and mean. Gawker’s Nolan dutifully mocked the Globe and assailed the city for being “a cramped Hollywood crime movie set populated primarily by the lesser Wahlbergs…full of flinty Jameson addicts in tattered ‘Garciaparra’ jerseys roaming the streets in search of people different from them to harass.” He concluded, “Get it straight, Boston: We don’t kid because we love. We kid because Boston sucks.”

If only it had ended there. But, naturally, it didn’t. John Guilfoil, a deputy press secretary for Mayor Menino, stepped on the next rake, letting slip a great and blinding gust of angrified misspellings, tweeting at Nolan: “Id say ‘dem’s fightin words’ but you didnt say nething but ‘boston sucks’ I wanna say ‘screw you’ but you really should visit.” And then: “I don’t know you from a hoel in the wall, but based on your opinion of Boston, you should actually experience the city.” And then: “Or you could just be an indelible smartass trying to get hits on Gawker. Either way, your opinion of Boston is way off.”

Oh, Jesus. Nolan promptly posted Guilfoil’s tweets, then ex-Bostonian Richard Lawson wrote a damning with-faintpraise rebuttal for The Atlantic Wire: “For all intents and purposes, I don’t really like Boston. It’s just that there’s plenty to like about Boston; the hate is often wildly overdone and misguided.” For good measure, though, he added, “Calm down, I’m not saying I’m moving back.”

I reached out to Seth Reiss, the head writer at the Onion. I wanted to understand exactly how Boston had damaged him to the point that he felt the need to lob such a savage counterattack—and from the Onion office in, of all places, Chicago, the greatest city in the great Midwest (which is kind of like being the best-endowed man in Galway), and a place with a subway system that has succeeded in the impossible contest to be worse than the MBTA.

Reiss responded via email: “When the idea was pitched, people laughed and connected with it—three of whom had at one point lived in the area for over a year of their lives. The piece is playing into the whole Boston inferiority complex thing. That’s all.” So he doesn’t hate Boston? “I went to Boston University and enjoyed my time in Boston very much,” he wrote.

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In 1947, Cleveland Amory wrote a book called The Proper Bostonians, which should be given a place on every shelf in the city for the universal truths it contains. In it, Amory invokes John Marquand, a writer and Somerset Club member who was “severely critical” of the Proper Bostonians, but who “declared that all Americans have a sneaking fondness for the city.” (Though if this is true, responded Amory, “certainly many Americans have kept this feeling of fondness to themselves.”)

Ever thus for Bostonians. Why? Who cares? The outsider position on Boston is, in the end, irrelevant. They don’t kid because they care, and they don’t kid because they don’t care. They kid because we can be relied upon to freak out and step on rakes (and, more important, read, click, and comment) every time someone so much as says, “Boston sucks.”

The city’s response to criticism is either to rage incoherently or start pathetically regurgitating Chamber of Commerce bullet points. Both of which are precisely the wrong response, because each not only inspires total contempt, but also ensures that the cycle will continue.

So instead, let’s first enjoy that they care enough to hate. After all, the warmth we felt in the wake of the Marathon bombings was genuine. And Boston does wield disproportionate influence for a small city, meaning it’s weirdly prominent in the culture (even if the current manifestation is inspired by a version of the city that ceased to exist 15 years ago). As Drew Magary put it: “If Cheers was about a former Brewers pitcher, and there were 5,000 books about the Brewers being cursed for never winning it all, and ESPN put out a Milwaukee issue, and Good Will Hunting had been set at Marquette, you’d be like, ‘What is with all the Milwaukee love? Jesus.’”

What else should we do? Easy. Bostonians are no strangers to casual abuse and confrontation. The entire bilious nature of online commentary can be traced back to the way Bostonians speak to one another on a day-to-day basis. So, if just shutting up isn’t an option (and it isn’t), don’t complain, don’t back down, don’t play the victim and search the skies for an explanation for the cruelty of others. The answer, for the next incoming salvo, is to climb down off the cross, summon all that equally prodigious cold-weather native meanness, bind it to that worldly education, and savor the combat. Savor, also, that it has returned.

Joe Keohane is a Senior Editor for Esquire Digital. He tweets at @JoeKeohane.

  • epynephrin

    Nolan’s piece bothered me. Mostly because I seem to be one of the 12 people in Boston relatively unfazed by the World Series win (I know, I know, it’s a real shocker when someone from Boston doesn’t follow sports). So, it mostly bothered me to be lumped in with a bunch of half-hearted personal grievances that have little if anything to do with me beyond geography.

    That all said, I think the best thing to do now is ignore Nolan and hope he goes away.

    • John Osberger

      that’s the BOSTON STRONG thing to do

  • Allison

    I don’t get mad when someone insults Boston, but I do think “wow, what a dick.” Why? We’re not perfect, but we’re not terrible either. We’re a good city with a lot of pride, and maybe we get hate for being so vocal about loving our city. I don’t get why so many tourists come to visit, but I love living here and it would take a lot to get me to move anywhere else.

    • Raymond Soto

      Boston catches shit because Boston talks shit.

    • Glenn Taylor

      The funny thing is, you don’t need to rip on Boston, they do it themselves, which is why it’s so amusing.

  • William Bouchie

    I was going to rip into him. That’s when I realized something, he’s an ex-boxer…He just probably had one too many blows to the head. With that said, I’m actually starting to feel sorry for him, poor thing. His brain’s been damaged too many times that he thinks he’s now a journalist with teret syndrome, poor guy. Like Don Rickles used to say, “Give him a cookie and he’ll go away.”…

    • Glenn Taylor

      Wow, and now don’t you feel superior. Thank you for not “ripping” him. Bill, you really need to think before you spout.

      • William Bouchie

        You do know that I was merely being sarcastic, or do I have to spell it out for you?…We live in a society where everyone stands on a soap box. Some soapboxes are way too big for the person standing on them.

  • Paul Maloney

    I think, as Bostonians, we have to admit that all of these criticisms are absolutely correct. Boston really is a pathetic place! Its just that compared to the rest of America we’re so vastly superior. As I say when someone calls me a Mass-hole: “that’s just what they call someone with an education and more than one tooth!

    • Pierre NyGaard

      Is “They’re just jealous haters” the Massachusetts state motto or something?

    • Glenn Taylor

      Seriously, this is your comment. My God. Educated? Where? The only schools of note in Boston have about a 8% attendance rate by the idiots from the great state.

  • Dan Currie

    Even though (or because) he was born in Boston (and published his first and last works here), this is why Edgar Allan Poe loved to “hate” our city so much.

  • Troy Aldrich

    I am from Vermont/now living in Florida. Sox fan of course. I just love Boston. If I ever win the Lottery I am moving to Beantown. Boston is such a Wonderful place.

    • Jan Dumas

      Don’t call it Beantown, ever…

  • fastfinger

    East of Hahhtferd there is only one team- take it or get out- that’s why the fans are so ‘loyal’, they have no alternative. New York, Chicago,LA fans can actually pick which team to cher for but not those New England chowdahh heads… nope, them are wicked stuck with one team and gawd help anyone who doesn’t cher for them

    • Whaletwo

      It’s Hahhtfid, fastfinga. Ah’s a fah looziz.

  • rebecca

    Hamilton who? Who cares what he thinks? It’s too bad he’s gotten so many responses from people who should have just moved on with their day after reading his dumb comments. Besides, anyone from Florida who is attacking another state is just looking to deflect, methinks.

    • Vmmercan

      And that, in a nutshell, is why people hate Boston. You literally can’t defend yourself without ripping something else and then hide behind the excuse someone else has a problem.

      • rebecca

        Oh – so we’re supposed to take all these jokes but can’t make a (very mild, I might add) joke about Florida in return? Give me a break. Anyone who actually hates another city this much clearly has some other issues going on.

        • Glenn Taylor

          They are not Jokes, that point is missed by you.

  • jwr

    guys the issue is that bostonians have an inferiority complex and feel the need to defend themselves at all. thats why its so funny to make jokes about you. stop taking criticism of boston so seriously and learn to laugh at yourselves.

    anybody who responds with serious defenses of boston is missing the point of all this, and only serves to further the city’s inferiority complex. its the great irony of insecurity that the act of justifying oneself in an attempt to feel secure is what makes one seem insecure. just don’t do it and go about your lives. if your lives were truly too busy, you wouldn’t have time to worry about this silliness. relax.

  • Jan Dumas

    Yes I will admit those of us who live with in the City on a Hill can be a bit testy. Think for a moment about how when Boston gets testy things happen. Things like the Revolution, which we started and finished, and unlike the rest of you remember that France HELPED us do it! Our DNA is all over the Constitution, both the document and the frigate. If you think it is hard to find our blacks, try looking for our Arcadian’s!

    What people don’t realize about us, arguing is one of our favorite hobbies, right up there with politics, cheering on our sports teams, and revenge. Complain away, we will respond, it’s cold out we have to do some thing to keep warm.

    • Glenn Taylor

      Ok, JAN, get a life. First off, the contribution to the revolution was over-blown and you have no concept of history, this drivel you spout is probably something you learned in third grade Boston History class. Your DNA is all over the destruction of the constitution. Revenge? What revenge. Recently you have has a little sports success, however, other than the Celtics there is no long term sports team success whatsoever. Cheating ended and so did the “Dynasty” of Bill, who can’t win without cheating. The Sox have won a few lately, but what was it 550 years between titles? BEAN TOWN, BEAN TOWN, BEAN TOWN.

  • Alex M

    This is so childish.. It makes no sense why this dork lashes out.. its like me saying he is married to an ugly slob.. his mother is a whore and father is a ball less drunk.. Of course its not true but I can say anything I want because I can… Get it.. Its all talk and no basis of truth and reality

  • ferngilly

    Native here (born in the city, bred in the burbs). Boston’s not a bad place, but…but…butttt…I don’t love it. The history and intellectual culture is certainly a source of pride, but it does dismay me how one-note the city comes across as to non-Bostonians. The marathon bombings were awful to experience, but I felt the whole “Boston Strong” brand campaign was a disingenuous manipulation and made the city’s populace look like they, as a whole, lack perspective and tend to adopt an insular world view – ironic considering that there’s so much brainpower centered here. Not to mention how so, SO many locals said that “the wrong city was f***ed with”, and every pro sports team used the bombings to inspire ridiculous fan rhetoric. Give me Northampton (in Western MA) or Portland, ME any day. Those are each urban gems of New England and are filled with history, culture and charm.

    Don’t get me started on the traffic.

  • Glenn Taylor

    Boston is a self-righteous, racist, liberal hole.

  • Glenn Taylor

    There is nothing to Boston other than someplace to dump tea in a tax rebellion. Now they are the biggest tax hole in the Nation. They are the poster child for over-taxation and liberal idiocy. Re-electing a murderer because he can funnel more pork into the black hole was seen as a joke. I was in Boston the day they re-elected the murdering moron back into the Senate and I had to ask a few people why? I mean, a lot of Bostonians are hard-working Irish, right? They answer astounded me, they knew. The “Big Dig” was a project that gave the city more money than 12 entire states from the federal government for 5 years in transportation Pork, given to them by voting and control favors by one of the biggest bootlegging crooks to ever walk the halls. Lot’s of offense, Boston will be bankrupt just like Detroit in a few years.

  • Jim Mainey

    Lol, some of these comments are just so overwhelmingly ridiculous, I don’t even know where to start. First of all, I find it funny and kind of sad that so much vitriol is directed at a city that experienced a direct terrorist attack less than a year ago. And relax New Yorkers, we know nobody flew a plane into the Prudential. Hopefully we’ll be able to shut the f about it in less time than the 12 years you all have been prattling on about the 9/11 attacks.

    Yes, some of these criticisms are deserved. You want to rip our taxation system? Fine. We all agree it sucks. Our city’s infrastructure, highway system, traffic? Yeah, we know it blows. But when you start getting into the character of our people, you start making it way more personal than it needs to be.

    Saying Boston has a dicey history when it comes to race relations is putting it mildly. But calling the whole city racist is just retarded. Sorry. As non pc as that word is, I can’t think of a more apt description than that. Have any of you that have walked or driven around the city actually cared to look around at the diversity of cultures and ethnicity in the city, or are you just basing your comments off of some people you might have partied with from Southie or Charlestown?

    As far as linking our attitude towards sports with the general persona of the city; we have die hard fans for each of major professional teams the same way every other major city does. Undeserved underdog status? Don’t these type of comments sort of justify that attitude? When the rest of the country is trying to tell you straight faced that you suck in just about every way imaginable, is there lighter, more airy way we should approach telling the rest of you to go self fornicate? Inferiority complex? Boston teams have won 9 championships in the last 13 years. Inferior to who, exactly?

    Yeah, we talk funny. It’s worth about a minute in terms of laughter. Move on. And don’t blame us for all the white gangsta movies. Blame Hollywood, or if you want to get more local, Howie Carr.

    What I want to see from some of you people criticizing Boston as a city, are statements extolling the virtues of some of the other major cities you’ve got vast knowledge about. There are so many wonderful major cities to choose from. The leaders of industry, Detroit and Cleveland. Chicago (I hear the South Side is particularly pleasant). Los Angeles, for those who love plastic and the constant, lingering threat that your entire city might slide into the ocean some day. Of course there’s New York. Cause what’s better than beating your chest on being from the one city that EVERY major terrorist group wants to wipe off the face of the earth. Even Aliens and Godzilla want New York wiped out. But that’s okay, you New Yorkers are too busy rubbing elbows with Bobby Deniro at his Tribeca film festival and pretending not to be star struck while doing so.

    If you don’t like Boston, go some place else. Try not to let the door hit you in the aahhse on the way out.