In 1985, when I moved to Martha’s Vineyard from the women’s community of Washington, D.C., I was expecting differences. Differences I found, you bet, but also surprising similarities. People in both places, for instance, were convinced they were special by virtue of where they lived. On the Vineyard, this “where” was a physical place. The women’s community was dispersed across the D.C. area, but we were linked by the places that made us visible to each other, like Lammas, the feminist bookstore; the Other Side, a lesbian bar; and All Souls Unitarian Church on 16th Street, NW, where I went to more dances, concerts, speeches, and meetings than I can count.
There’s nothing wrong with thinking you’re special, of course — aren’t we all? — and banding together is necessary for individual survival and well-being. But this notion of specialness tends to balloon out of control, into nationalism, xenophobia, and exceptionalism, among other things.
American exceptionalism has been in the news lately, most recently because President Obama used the word in the last paragraph of his speech on Syria and because Vladimir Putin took exception to it in a New York Times op-ed. “America is not the world’s policeman,” said President Obama, but America should act in Syria because we’re exceptional. He pretty much finessed the logical gaps in his argument by invoking exceptionalism.
What is American exceptionalism, exactly? Here’s a good discussion by Philippe Coste, staff New York correspondent for L’Express. More or less, it’s the idea that U.S. institutions evolved out of unique circumstances, are uniquely wonderful, and impose on the U.S. a unique role to play in the world. With all due respect to U.S. institutions (and much respect is due to them), they also evolved out of slavery, genocide, and a fairly brutal industrialization.
And if the proof of the pudding is in the eating, it’s hard to ignore that the U.S. lags behind other developed countries on the issues that matter most, like education, health care, income inequality, and economic growth.
The trouble with exceptionalism is that it usually veers into “don’t mess me up with facts” territory. We’re exceptional because we believe it and that settles it.
Which brings us to Martha’s Vineyard. You cannot hang out on Martha’s Vineyard for very long without hearing people rhapsodize about how special it is. Special is all well and good, but what makes it special? More to the point, are those qualities innate and eternal, or are they susceptible to change?
By way of explanation, a small example. The single most startling thing about Martha’s Vineyard when I landed here was that no one locked anything. This was so amazing I wrote “The Key Sestina” about it. Before I left D.C., I had 10 keys on my key chain, and I didn’t even own a car. It was so heavy it wore holes in my jeans pocket.
That, thought I and many people who’d been here longer, was part of what made the Vineyard the Vineyard: on the Vineyard it was safe to leave your doors open. But this has changed over the last three decades. I still don’t lock my front door and my car keys are almost always in the ignition, but some people think I’m crazy and older-timers often admit unhappily that they lock more than they used to.
Martha’s Vineyard is still Martha’s Vineyard, but part of what made it special is disappearing. The mutual trust that let us leave our doors unlocked and our car keys in the ignition has dwindled. What changed? A few random thoughts:
- About 20 years ago (that’s a wild guess — I think I was working at the paper at the time) a locksmith trying to drum up business ran a series of ads in the newspaper featuring Vineyard crime statistics. The statistics were pretty pathetic, but they were framed to make them as alarming as possible, e.g., “50% increase in break-ins!” might mean that the number of break-ins had increased from 2 to 3.
- The rapid increase in the year-round population over the last several decades has made it harder to assimilate newcomers into older ways of doing things. Many newcomers arrive with their own fears and assumptions about “human nature.” We see more and more unfamiliar faces, especially in the off-season, and wonder how far we can trust these people about whom we know nothing.
- With every passing year, we see less and less of each other. VCRs, then DVD players, and finally full-blown “home entertainment centers” replaced regular moviegoing. These days you can carry on an active social life without leaving home — and I have to admit that a fair amount of my online social life is carried on with Vineyard people a few of whom I’ve never met in person.
- Vineyarders watch the same TV shows and movies that everybody else does. Drugs! Crime! Sexual predators! When someone gets busted here, the incident gets plugged into the big amorphous fear whipped up by all those violent images. Danger, danger, danger!
- More people have lots of really valuable stuff. Of course they lock their doors. But locked doors are not enough. Electronic security systems have proliferated over the last couple of decades, and not just in predominantly summer neighborhoods.
The trust that enables people to leave their doors unlocked is very much related to community, and sure enough, we talk about community incessantly. It’s a big part of what makes Martha’s Vineyard exceptional. Yes, but what is it exactly?
Once again I’ve bitten off more than I can chew in a thousand words or less, and you know “community” is one of those subjects I can’t shut up about. So — to be continued. Soon.