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Brookline Newcomer 

Kvetching in Paradise 

Published in the Brookline TAB

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 the personal.

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 their own.

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.

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