Kvetching in Paradise
Published in the Brookline
August 10, 2000
Last summer, then-editor Peter Panepento asked Brookline residents "to
broaden [the TAB's] scope and bring some fresh voices onto the
commentary page." In response, I suggested a column that could offer three
things: the perspective of a newcomer with an independent, critical eye
(turning my unfamiliarity with Brookline and my lack of pre-existing affiliations
into virtues); academic expertise at the intersection of law, politics,
and social psychology; and a blending of the local, the political, and
My views, I added, "are often further to the left than mainstream liberalism
and often elicit strong reactions." And so they have.
One year and 30 columns later, I'm generally satisfied with my work and
thankful for the responses to it: 18 letters to the editor and 2 columns
(the majority disagreeing with my views); 25 email messages (mostly agreeing);
and 9 or 10 appreciative phone calls. The email and calls, plus many comments
made in person, confirm that my own reactions and analyses are often shared
by others who lack the time, motivation, or temperament to speak out on
I haven't yet written much about the many things I like in town.
There's Kupel's, of course, winner of our family's poppy seed bagel test.
And Griggs Park, among the prettiest I've ever seen. There's the Coolidge
Corner Theatre, successfully combatting mindless Hollywoodism. I've discovered
yoga teacher Roni Brissette, who deserves her growing reputation, and
chiropractor Ze'ev London, who dispenses Jewish philosophy while cracking
backs. Then there's Baja Betty's Burritos, Shawarma King, Zaatar's Oven....
The daily sights and sounds--and foods!--intoxicate after a dozen years
in Midwestern exile. It's a joy to show off my town to visitors.
Still, Brookline's not Paradise. Writing "The Newcomer" focuses me on
the downside--occasional elitist overtones; the smug smell of too much
money; complacent adherence to long-standing but imperfect traditions.
Impressed with what makes Brookline work, I'm distressed by barriers that
keep it from working better for everyone.
So I gravitate to things I'd like to see changed at the institutional
level. I may not always be right, but I stand by my basic themes.
My major regret of tone goes back to a column last fall, when I criticized
school Parent-Teacher Organizations for using competitive magazine sales
as a fundraising technique. I still consider the method unacceptable,
but one letter writer rightly chastised my implied criticism of PTO volunteers.
I'm sorry I didn't distinguish more clearly between the dispensable method
and the indispensable players.
When another writer called me "the TAB's last unreconstructed tax-and-spend
liberal" I regretted not clarifying sooner how my political analysis differs
from the liberal muddle.
Others have also given me flack for the emphatic views the TAB hired
me to express. I suppose I could be more tentative and stake out the cautious
middle. As an aging professor, I know how to obfuscate and blather responsible-sounding
ambivalence with the best of them. More research always needs to be done;
every side always has a point.
I try instead to be clear and direct in my writing--and in my politics.
Politics is about unequal access to power and about choices among competing
priorities. Recognizing that both sides always have a point doesn't mean
we shouldn't take sides.
Yes, policy solutions sometimes involve compromise. But frankly advocating
consistent values-based positions is necessary when the pragmatic, seemingly
responsible middle ground delays rather than delivers justice, equality,
or other important goals.
Unfortunately, the four TAB columnists who preceded the current crop--still
writing last summer about local politics--no longer present their own
diverse opinions on this page. Their absence represents an institutional
memory loss and a narrowing of the public discourse that Brookline needs.
Readers interested in the broader context of my own views can visit my
website, which contains all my opinion pieces as well as academic essays
developing in greater detail many of my TAB themes (http://www.dennisfox.net).
My approach to politics and society is also evident in my 1997 co-edited
book, "Critical Psychology: An Introduction." (Disclosure: That was a
shameless plug.) It's available for browsing at Brookline Booksmith, another
of my favorite hangouts.
Newcomer Columns List