Saturday, January 10, 2009

Little Boxes and Coincidence

Last night, a couple of friends and I went to an art opening and one of the pictures showed rows upon rows of big houses. This made me think of the song "Little Boxes" which I've heard a lot lately because I'm watching the TV show Weeds on DVD. So I said so.

One of my companions quoted Tom Lehrer and said Little Boxes was the "most sanctimonious song ever written."

I didn't say this, but what I wanted to say was, "It's almost the Quaker anthem."

The lyrics seem quaint until you hear that all the people who build houses out in the suburbs all come out "just the same." It is derisive and sanctimonious.

More than once I've been at a Quaker sing and someone suggests Little Boxes. Smiles spread through the room like The Wave at the Metrodome and we sing loudly and look around as if we were saying to each other, "What in the world are those people thinking, why would they choose to march in lock-step with each other in the suburbs." And unspoken, because we'd never say such a thing, "Idiots."

The irony is that a similar song could be written about us. It would talk about our non-profit jobs and our service work and our organic gardens and our MA or MS or PhD degrees.

And our sanctimony.

On another note, I gave a workshop this morning on Quakers and social class for fifteen willing adults. (And I think it went well. More on this later?) At the end, I handed out copies of an article I referenced before by Betsy Leondar-Wright.

This afternoon, my partner Liz was on Facebook and said, "Hey, Jeanne? That article you handed out, is it by someone named Betsy Leondar-Wright?"

Yeah, it is.

Turns out, Liz was really good friends with Betsy's sister growing up.

It's a teeny, tiny little world on Facebook!


Martin Kelley said...

It was seven years ago now that I moved out of a Quaker-heavy hipster Philly neighborhood to live in a small, working class very un-hip town. This move was primarily motivated by the negotiations of my marriage to a South Jersian but I realized I was being led out of my cocoon independently of that. There was some sense of being too settled.

We don't live in a suburban subdivision but it's a relatively nondescript house in a nondescript neighborhood of a nondescript town. People don't use ironic air quotes when talking about going to Walmart and our Starbucks closed nine months after opening. There's no nearby university and no nearby Friends meeting. That doesn't mean that there's no service work. It just tends not to be PhD service work.

For a group that can talk on and on (and on) about that of God in others, liberal Friends can be very clannish. It's a shame, as there are often good people, holy people, in those Little Box houses, people trying to get by. It'd be nice to see Friends step out of the self-fan club more often to look around those weird neighborhoods. I think walking around and getting to know some of the neighbors and talking to them about Friends would do a lot of good in the world.

Jeanne said...

Amen, brother.

Liz and I are now block club leaders in this historically (and still predominantly) working class neighborhood (at least our block anyway). I think it's been easier for me to be accepting of the range of expectations of our neighbors because they feel familiar, like the neighborhood I grew up in. But I just can't imagine having Quaker folk over during any sort of neighborhood event.

Though now that I think of it, maybe that'd be a good idea.

natcase said...

It's a funny thing. The houses Malvina Reynolds was writing about, in Daly City, CA, were in fact working class houses... and they really were little boxes. See image here. Much of it was developed by Henry Doelger, kind of the Levitt of the Bay Area (see a nice article on him from the SF Chronicle here.

What's funny is the lyrics aren't about working class folk at all: "...there's doctors and lawyers, And business executives..." and later on "they all play on the golf course, And drink their martinis dry."

Malvina Reynolds seems to have conflated architectural conformity of working class housing with middle and even owner class social conformity. Which is what she was railing against in the song. Not accepting your box. Seems that way to me anyway.

Jeanne said...

Nat, that's very interesting information. I've had a similar thought about things I've read about the "slow living" movement that points out template houses. But most template houses in the earlier part of the 20th century were exactly a way to make homes accessible to people with lower incomes. It was a way to have nice design on an inexpensive scale.

We live in one of those houses in an historically working class neighborhood (and our block in particular is still predominantly working class).

But I think you're missing the irony I was pointing out. "Not accepting your box" is exactly what Quakers do, and all in very similar ways, therefore creating a new box. It's the same box Unitarians and other liberal Christian churches have created.

And the non-box includes a lot of self-righteousness about being outside of those other boxes.

Hence, irony.

Paul L said...

While I happen to think Little Boxes is a brilliant song (though I'd never have considered it the Quaker Anthem), your critique is time-honored. As early as 1964, Sing-Out Magazine published a parody called "See the Beatniks (An Ode to Non-Conformity)" written by Burt Siegel:

See, the beatniks in the Village
See, the beatniks on Macdougal Street,
See the beatniks in the Village,
And they all look just the same.

There's a tall one and a short one,
And a white one and a Negro one.
And they all go to the Village and they all look just the same.

And the boys all wear dungarees, and the girls all wear sandals,
And they're all non-conformists,
And they all dress just the same.

And they go to the university,
And they major in philosophy,
And they're all deep thinkers,
And they all think the same.

And they all read their Satre,
And they all read their Kierkegaard,
And they all talk about it,
But they all sound the same.

And they all like folk music
And they dig Woody Gutherie,
And just like Bob Dylan,
They all sound the same.

Jeanne said...

Brilliant, Paul. Thanks for sharing the song.

James Riemermann said...

As long as we're quoting songs satirizing the shallow end of the counter-culture:

Every town must have a place
Where phony hippies meet
Psychedelic dungeons
Popping up on every street

Go to San Francisco!

(First I'll buy some beads
And then perhaps a leather band
To go around my head
Some feathers and bells
And a book of Indian lore
I will ask the Chamber Of Commerce
How to get to Haight Street)

--Frank Zappa

Babette said...

I appreciate the efforts of Friends to address the "white bread" upper middle classist stuff about the Society- but want to share that it is a global issue. I moved to the Dominican Republic in search of Diversity and while my new friends may be of different colors, and speak different languages, we are all..sort of middle . I guess we just love to be with the folks like us. Elizabeth Roebling (asheville mtg(

James Riemermann said...

Seriously, though, I think it's a fun little song, a mere potato chip of social criticism without much weight. I wouldn't call it sanctimonious so much as not quite thought through in the writing. I think Malvina Reynolds didn't have a clear picture of who she was satirizing: as has been noted above, she tries to satirize the professional class using a metaphor--shoddy little houses to be found in a rather modest suburb--mismatched to the target.

But beyond that I think middle class conformity and conspicuous consumption and unreflectiveness are well worth satirizing, and 1962, when this song was written, was an era when the comfortable middle class warranted a bit of derision. Perhaps any era is.

The fact that some Quakers (not most in my opinion--I think your brush is a little broad here) have their own sort of conformity and conspicuous consumption and unreflectiveness--all true--doesn't mean there's no value to pointing out hypocrisy in our culture. I mean, isn't that the purpose of this blog?

Jeanne said...

Of course you're right--suburban life and culture deserve to be satirized. It's a great song (and a great song to be the theme to Weeds).

But I'm not so sure my brush is too broad. We'd have a lot more diversity (and I don't just mean class and race) if we too were not deserving of our own "Little Boxes" song. How about diversity in things like attire, political party affiliation, and vehicle choice?

I mean, where are the souped up muscle cars?

And I think we're mostly unaware that when we sing Little Boxes, we're pointing out the splinter in anothers' eye without looking at the plank in our own.

Zach Alexander said...

I hear you on attire. Among liberal Quakers you have to dress unobtrusively middle class – nothing too interesting, whether it's gold chains or a tie.

Though I'm not so sure about muscle cars, which I assume, perhaps wrongly, get poor mileage, and I carbon emissions are not a place where we need more diversity.

Though you would be right to point out (as you may have elsewhere) that if a souped-up muscle car is going to be penalized on those grounds, so should an old Volvo that gets the same mileage.

Jeanne said...


You're right--we're quick to look our noses down on muscle cars and not so quick on those foreign-made SUVs (or, for that matter, all the airline travel some Friends do in the name of fellowship or ministry).

But should we be penalizing anyone?

Did Fox penalize Penn when he asked if he should lay his sword down?

No, he exercised the most Christian of all traits: compassion.

Are we limiting Quakerism by wanting to penalize those who don't believe as we do?

Liz Opp said...

"The irony is that a similar song could be written about us."

This reminds me of something author and workshop leader John Bradshaw used to say:

"One hundred eighty degrees from sick is still sick."

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Zach Alexander said...


How and when and where we talk about climate change and expect people to take responsibility for their choices are important questions, and I'd agree "penalize" doesn't set the right tone. But do it we must.

Lone Star Ma said...

I have to admit that while I tend to agree with these posts, there is a part of me that wonders what class must look like in other parts of the country when I read them. I think I'm a stereotypical-middle-class-
teacher-social worker-Quaker myself, but in Texas, teacher/social worker really doesn't get you far enough from a working class neighborhood, or out of it all, to feel separated by much - just enough to maybe have to blush about your vegetarianism and pacifism when you get good-natured-ly teased about them all the time by your working class friends and neighbors. I would think that would be more the case up north where there are more good union jobs (that surely must pay as well as teaching and social work jobs) than here, but maybe not...I don't know. It's interesting. Not all Texas is South Texas, of course, but my own neighborhood is working class to quite wealthy all mixed together and a lot of the older neighborhoods are like that in these parts.

Yewtree said...

But you see, the Society of Friends is the Apple Mac among religions.

Pagans regularly have angst-fests about how middle-class we are - I wouldn't worry too much about it. The working class (at least in Britain where I live) is a vanishing category, mainly due to globalisation, I suspect.

If you have a lot of cultural capital, you're going to be aware of more religious options than the one you grew up in; and if you've got a PhD or a Masters, the religions (e.g. Friends, UUism, Paganism, Buddhism) where you don't have to leave your brain at the door will be more appealing than the ones where you do have to.

Zach Alexander said...

Yewtree, I would find it hard to believe that poor and working-class people don't leave their childhood religions just like educated people do -- but they might be more likely to end up at a religion that does outreach and makes its presence known.

There are a ton of religious groups in Boston who take out subway ads, for example. None of them are Quakers or UUs.

(See also:

Tom said...

speaking of boxes- this post and comments made me think of this little video