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Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Town Meeting in Blue Brookline

Dennis Fox

November 11 , 2004

I had planned to write about next week's Town Meeting, Brookline's semi-annual exercise in citizen decision making, but my attention keeps returning to last week's election. As it turns out, though, the Town Meeting Warrant illustrates how Blue places like Brookline differ from all those pro-Bush Red states.

It will surprise few readers that I share the local horror at the president's re-election. It may surprise some that I don't share the widespread appreciation for our own Senator Kerry, whose push toward the swing-voter middle proved as wrongly aimed as it was fruitless. Yet still the prospect of Four More Years leaves me as nervous as my neighbors about what Bush Unbound will destroy next.

Still, unlike many of those neighbors, I didn't find Bush's re-election incomprehensible. In contrast to so many residents of liberal hotbeds like our own, I've actually lived in Red states -- a year in Georgia, two in Nebraska, and ten in Springfield, Illinois, technically the capital of a Kerry-Blue state but geographically and culturally right on the Mason-Dixon line.

I rarely felt at home during my interludes away from Boston and New York. My wife and I met good people, liked our jobs, and appreciated the lack of drive-time nastiness. We were pleasantly surprised that so many stores closed on holidays rather than stay open to make extra money. But we didn't belong.

It wasn't just that we had to work harder to find independent films, restaurants with hot-enough Asian food, and interesting places to take our daughter on weekends. More draining than the inability of smaller, tamer settings to meet our Eastern urban tastes was the alienation that came from just walking around. I never could fathom waiting patiently for the light to change before crossing lightly traveled streets.

Many of our friends, originally from one coast or the other, also felt out of sorts. Speaking up at work or community meetings to propose changes or complain about unfairness branded us as misfits, or even worse: impolite. Home-grown activists often fared better because they shared more of the local ethos, from food tastes and conversational styles to military experience and religious motivation.

I'm glad to be back east, especially in a town where dominant norms challenge rather than support people bothered by Asian and black faces in the street and gay couples next door.

But the truth is I'm also glad I've lived where daily expectations are so different. I'm glad I had students who grew up on family farms, went to church every week, and had life plans far more conventional than mine. I'm glad I liked many of them and that some of them even liked me, that we could connect despite our differing experiences and perspectives.

Nowadays I notice when people in the Northeast sneer at whatever lies west of the Hudson. That cultural norms are more conservative doesn't really justify the disdain. Not all Bush voters are dupes or dopes.

Here in Brookline, Town Meeting next week will debate whether to require townwide recycling in multifamily dwellings, express disapproval of corporal punishment, and facilitate more low-income housing. Members may rebuke the Transportation Board and Planning Board for paying too little heed to town residents. They will rename a park to honor Sumner Kaplan, one of Brookline's most public liberals.

Even the most difficult ideological debate -- whether to prolong the temporary picketing ban designed to protect abortion providers from anti-abortion protestors outside their homes -- pits abortion activists against civil libertarians, liberal against liberal.

It's different in Red country. Yes, many of those states have almost as many Kerry as Bush supporters. But where the dominant culture sees "liberal" as epithet rather than cause for honor, placing on the public agenda issues like those on Brookline's seems to many as preposterous as we find voting for George Bush.

If we understood conservative worldviews better, we could more easily demonstrate how left perspectives can complement the rejection by some on the right of materialism and consumerism, individualist selfishness and mass media superficiality, even corporate power and military aggressiveness. Whether we aim to persuade them or beat them, we need to get past our mutual incomprehension.

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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