Deep background: Long time ago, like when I hadn’t been around very long, I was astonished by what looked like the ineptness of most town governments. (We’ve got six towns on Martha’s Vineyard, plus the County of Dukes County — no kidding, that’s the official name — which includes mostly Martha’s Vineyard but also the Elizabeth Islands just across the water.) My first theory was that change had come too fast and the town governments, mostly run by “locals,” hadn’t caught up.
Wrong wrong wrong. Boy, was I wrong. Took quite a few years to even begin to get a handle on it.
Fast forward: WordPress software, without which this blog would not be happening the way it is, offers a draft feature. I can start a post, save it as a draft, and tweak it as necessary till it’s ready to “publish.” Cool.
Last Friday I started a post about the resignation of Michael Dutton as Oak Bluffs town administrator. I thought this resignation was overdue. Dutton had made several high-profile mistakes, some related to finances and procurement procedures. It was past time for him to get out. I wasn’t done, so I saved it as a draft.
I still haven’t finished that post. I started wading through all the he said/she said that follows in the wake of a resignation or other newsworthy event, and I mentally reviewed what I’d heard over the months from friends in town. Pretty soon I was tied up in knots. I could see this one’s point, but I was pretty sure that one had a grudge against this other one that probably colored his comments, and whenever an outspoken female gets trashed on Martha’s Vineyard you can absolutely assume that sexism is involved. I thought of how much entertainment Oak Bluffs town government has provided over the years (my town of West Tisbury is positively staid by comparison), and that maybe my impulse to write about the resignation was really about making more fun of the town. Oh yeah, and I’ve known various members of the Dutton family for years and I didn’t want to make any of them feel crappier than they probably do already.
I’m not going to finish that post. I’m offering this one instead. What looks like ineptness, unbearable procrastination, and even corruption in town government often has to do with the fact that when you’ve been around for a while, you have first- and secondhand knowledge of almost everything that happens, and all of it makes some kind of sense. This does not make you want to march into a meeting laying about you with a broadsword. You’d probably cut someone you like, or one of their kin.
So though we may be pointing fingers and baying for blood in private, in public we tend to be circumspect. When something really needs to be dealt with, we can put it off forever.
The ones who march in and start laying about with broadswords tend to be more recent arrivals. Ineptness and inefficiency bewilder and infuriate them. They’ll root it out PDQ! But they don’t see the relationships and histories that lie behind the public picture — what I like to call “the backside of the knitting.” Passive resistance may well greet their decisive action, but often it’ll have lasting consequences.
Systems in long-evolved equilibrium nearly always lose to incomers who have no stake in the equilibrium. Hence Native America lost to the Anglos and the Spanish, and hence Martha’s Vineyard continues to lose ground to well-heeled new arrivals with their minds bent on improvement.