Boston prides itself on being a haven of high-minded thinking—something that’s also made us insufferable.
Okay, let me be fair. We have excellent reasons to feel good about ourselves. Abolitionism, gay rights, universal healthcare: In each case, Boston has led the charge. We live in a city that in many respects is years ahead of the rest of the nation. May it ever be so.
But—and you know what I’m talking about—righteous progressivism can quickly devolve into almost militant piousness. It isn’t just that so many people around here take the moral high road when it comes to their special causes and allegiances. It’s that so many of them want you to know that they’re taking it. Must every menu list the source of its farm-raised beef—and then tout it to customers? Must I always be accosted on Mass. Ave. by earnest, pamphlet-packing young people eager to save trees/Cambodian seals/everything else? Do bikers always need to remind me that their way of getting to work is the healthiest option available? Being around so many well-intentioned people can be suffocating. As Robert Allison, the author of A Short History of Boston, puts it, “There’s a strain of sanctimony running through the city.”
Nowhere has that strain run stronger than among the Brahmins, who reached their patronizing worst with the Watch and Ward Society. From its founding, in 1878, until the 1960s, the society attempted to protect Bostonians from offensive or immoral art by forbidding its dissemination in the city. The Boston Public Library locked up objectionable books, Boston theaters put on plays in specially sanitized “Boston Versions,” and the phrase “Banned in Boston” became the topic of much national amusement. In 1926 the society even banned an issue of the American Mercury, the magazine edited by the ornery H. L. Mencken, who proceeded to sue the group—and win. The Brahmins, he famously and memorably fulminated, were like the Puritans, motivated by “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”