Before I lapsed from monotheism, I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church. My parents said that if I completed confirmation class, I didn’t have to go to church anymore. (They didn’t put it quite that way, but close enough.) Some 47 years later, I still remember two things from confirmation class. One was that up to almost the last minute, horsegirl that I was, I thought it was conformation class.
The other is the definition of a sacrament. I can still rattle it off verbatim: “the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”
The concept drifted from its theological mooring and took deep root in my supposedly secular brain. To my mind, voting is a secular sacrament: the outward and visible sign of something less tangible — democracy or vox populi or whatever you want to call it. If the less tangible something isn’t there, the voting becomes an empty ritual. Elections alone, even “free” elections, do not a democracy make.
It just dawned on me that we have negative sacraments: outward and visible signs that something within is very screwed up. Take the trophy houses and mega-mansions of the very wealthy. We mutter about them at least as much as we mutter about mopeds, and unlike mopeds they don’t go away at the end of the summer.
Last Friday’s Vineyard Gazette (December 2) carried a story headlined “As MVC Considers Regulating Large Houses, Builders Cry Foul.” Last week the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s land use planning committee met to consider making changes to the checklist it uses to decide whether or not a project is a DRI (development of regional impact). Yes indeed, this is the same MVC that managed for years to not-consider the proposed roundabout a DRI.
Arrayed on one side, according to the Gazette story, were island conservation groups, notably the Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS). On the other we had the architects of those huge houses. At one point a VCS representative called a mega-mansion designed by one of the architects present “a travesty.” That’s about as confrontational as politics on Martha’s Vineyard ever get.
Politics on Martha’s Vineyard also tend to get stuck on these negative sacraments, these symbols, these signs that something within is very screwed up. I posted this comment to the Gazette story:
Attempts to regulate the very rich are doomed to fail. In our economic system, money trumps everything, including ethics, the will of the people, and the “character of the island” (whatever that is), almost every time. But those who idealize and idolize Occupy Wall Street should take note: on Martha’s Vineyard and elsewhere many of the 99% make their livings serving the 1%. Those mega-mansions are disgusting, and the people who live in them will never, ever be Vineyarders, but how about the people who build them?
As a young antiwar activist, I learned that if, say, General Dynamics was the biggest employer in your town, your view of the defense budget and possibly the war currently in progress was likely to differ from that of someone whose income came from other sources or who had other options. Conservation groups are often, and with good reason, perceived as elitist because they don’t consider the implications of their positions for working people who are one, two, or three paychecks away from poverty.
For the most part, our material conditions shape our values. We hold the values we can afford to hold. People who have nothing to lose and people who can afford to lose a chunk of what they’ve got generally take more risks than people who are barely hanging on. Self-perception plays a role too, of course: some of us are farther from the brink than we think we are, and some of us are closer.
So I cheered when I read the comment of a fellow who, according to the Gazette story, “moved to the Island explicitly to build large houses.” This guy, Thomas Bena, said: “At every lunch break the guys and I sat around and said, ‘How the heck do you call this a home? It’s like a bus station in here and they’re only here for six weeks a year.’ For me, I had to stop being a carpenter. I didn’t feel good about it. I didn’t feel good about the work that I was doing every day.”
He sounds like a thoughtful man, and a brave one. The rules of our economic system give us no tools to deal with this, with the damage done to our psyches, our bodies, and our communities by so many of the jobs available to us. “You can always quit,” some would say, and in an ideal world we could. In this world of limited economic options and threadbare safety nets, we often can’t.
These mega-mansions are a negative sacrament, true, a sign that our society is out of whack. Huge houses built to be empty nine or ten months of the year while so many live in cramped, deteriorating quarters — if they have housing at all? Individuals with enough money to call the economic and political shots for the rest of us, even though we never chose them to run our lives?
Well, yeah, but if I had to finger a single cause for the slow decline of Martha’s Vineyard over the decades, it wouldn’t be monster houses or the people who build them. I’d point instead to rising property values. Once land goes for a certain amount per acre, farming becomes economically foolish. Once land prices outpace what working people can afford, working people who need to make a living and don’t have land in the family leave. Those who stay are working so hard they have little time or energy to spare for the voluntary activities that keep community alive.
At the same time, those rising property values make it possible for property owners to take vacations, send kids to college, maybe even retire.
How tempting it is to blame it all on those monster houses.