Life During Wartime in a People’s Republic

Fenster writes:

Other than the fact that I am surrounded by sanctimonious hypocrites that are doing great harm to the nation and the world what could be better than living in a people’s republic like the one I live in, Newton Massachusetts?

No–that’s too harsh. Let me explain.

Newton has a lot to offer. In ordinary times you take its safe environment for granted but these are extraordinay times. So it counts for a great deal in wartime that I have zero fear of crime or violence. I lock my doors at night out of habit and prudence but in the summer will often say what the hell I’m not going downstairs even though I know I left the back door wide open. Black misbehavior and its aberrant cousin, white Antifa violence, are far-away things.

Lots of greenery and beautiful architecture. The faculty member who lives next door may preach modernist architecture at the university but he lives in a tastefully restored Victorian. The prevailing aesthetic is Christopher Alexander and Andres Duany, not Peter Eisenman and Thom Mayne. Newton consists of a passel of Victorian streetcar suburbs, and my Victorian condo is a short stroll from bars, restaurants, stores.

People are nice. I mean, really nice. They will almost certainly play the role of Samaritan in a crisis or emergency, and will do so happily no matter the gender or race of the person in trouble. Social trust–the bedrock of community–is high. You dont need a gun but you can get one if you want, after some minor inconveniences in the approval process. I mean, people in Newton are nice and so the police see little danger in approving a shotgun permit for, say, a retired college professor.

The Jewish communitarian impulse is strong. And not just Jews: the Unitarians and many others bring a sense of community spirit. Here, diversity works, or at least it is not a disaster. The Indian engineer volunteering at the Audubon Sanctuary. The Nigerian doctor engaged to your daughter.

At a time of identity politics and hostility to assimilation, a soft version of assimilation is everywhere. Most people share a common set of values–clearly American, even Anglo– in origin. The English language is universal. And good English, too! No Ebonics. Not even “ain’ts” Even the gentiles are gentle and genteel.

The library is incredible, with whatever books and movies you might want. If they don’t have it the nice reference librarian, Sharon Goodstein, will find it at a nearby university and have it for you in a few days. She’s professional, friendly and cute besides.

The Senior Center buzzes with activity–book clubs, outings to museums, support services. That same smart and pleasant Indian engineer from Audubon–a Brahmin so I have heard–leads the men’s book discussion on Thursdays. Yes, the nonfiction books have a certain je ne sais quoi in keeping with the Newton spirit–John Bolton’s memoirs more likely than Sean Hannity’s–but that comes with the territory, and in the next weeks we will be tackling Montaigne and Faulkner.

There are a few flies in the ointment of course. From the point of view of day to day living it is increasingly hard to express a political or cultural opinion other than the orthodox progressive one. The place has always been liberal but the old world of give and take, where progressives might find iconoclasts amusing or odd, has given way to a sterner view.

Not only is there limited tolerance for non-conforming opinions–you are also subtly expected to participate in various ritual activities as a way of showing solidarity with the prevailing views. “Allah–peace be upon him” is one such ritual formulation common in much of the world. Here, there is no analogous phrase to be uttered word for word. But there is a general expectation that people in normal conversation will find ways to disparage Trump, with that expectation extending to all within earshot, who are expected to either agree or signal assent in some way.

That is distressing and constricting of course–at least if you do not share the orthodox view. But such is life in a people’s republic. We are not only in wartime, with a relatively clear adversary, but also in the throes of a religious awakening. Goodness how do you expect people to behave under the dual pressures of war and zealotry? We are not immune from history so please don’t be aghast when the good citizens of Newton behave the way people have behaved since time immemorial under similar circumstances.

So you take the good with the bad. As far as lifestyle is concerned you put up with the cultural demands in return for the other good things, and if you don’t like it you (or rather I) can always leave.

That’s something I have considered. In the meantime I am in no immediate danger of facing a late night police raid, to be being dragged to the re-education camps. And I hope I’d have the good sense to leave before anything like that would ever happen.

But beyond the somewhat petty annoyances relative to lifestyle there are some larger political questions to consider. Taking a page from the progressive playbook, has Newton even begun to come to grips with its privilege? Its money privilege. Its status privilege. Its power privilege. Its white privilege. Its Jewish privilege.

Newtonites are quick to locate white privilege outside the city’s borders, especially when it manifests itself in communities where the residents are less well-educated and less affluent — less . . . privileged, if you will. So the situation reeks of hypocrisy.

But is that the end of the matter? If Newtonites were to suddenly come to grips with what they fastidiously deny–what then?

Would the scales fall from their eyes, leading to a sudden rush to repent even more energetically? Build that low-income housing project! Merge the schools with those in Dorchester! Dear daughter: marry not that Nigerian doctor but instead direct thine attentions to that Roxbury rapper with a rap sheet!

Or would Newtonites come to grips with the fact that they really like the life they have, and that they will move–indeed have moved–heaven and earth to secure its blessings?

If you want to know what people really believe it is better to watch what they do than what they say. So in my mind in Newtonites were to seriously grapple with privilege they would first look to hold on to what they have, and would be reluctant to make serious adjustments in line with their newfound, more honest, perspectives.

Is there anything wrong with that? Well, one can get lost in issues of political economy, and of the obligations of various classes and strata of society to one another in matters of taxation, government policy and political activity. Can one ever rest easily if there is injustice in the world? Does an ethical life as a good citizen, reliable taxpayer and community servant give you at least some sort of fair ticket to the life you are living.

Those issues are always in dispute, and not easily resolved.

But say this: if you opt to protect the things you love and to hold on to the world that you value at a minimum stop doing things that undermine the ability of others to do the same thing. Stop using the status, money and power privileges you deny to preclude others from doing the same thing you seek to do: live the life you wish to live.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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