At Large : A tussle of ideas
Islanders are refreshingly free of compunctions when it comes to debating public issues. Detailed understandings of the question under debate just weigh us down. We prefer our opinions au naturel, in the raw, uninhibited, bold, and brassy.
Mainly, as regards our opinions, we like to let the boys run.
Ah, you say, but what about facts?
Poof. That's what we say.
A case in point is the current, feverish battle between supporters of Bradley Square and the small but determined band of opponents. Across the broad and blistered landscape of this controversy just one fact appears to be established with bedrock certainty: folks Oak Bluffs-wide, but especially those who live, work, or have designs on the neighborhood, believe what they believe, and the concept of tactics embraces a broad range of rhetorical tools. What we hear is rarely intended to improve the listener's understanding of the issues sprouting from the Bradley Square battle, nor is it intended to improve the understanding of the official decision makers.
Many of the writers whose letters have appeared in the past few weeks in The Martha's Vineyard Times' columns, or whose comments have appeared online, have warned town zoning board members, the last official hurdles now that the Martha's Vineyard Commission has agreed to the plan and the town voters have agreed to help fund it, that catastrophe will ultimately descend upon the neighborhood, if Bradley Square is built as planned. Almost certainly, they exaggerate, for effect. There are catastrophic possibilities, of course - for the developers if they start construction but run out of money, or if no one wants to buy the housing units the plan calls for - but for the neighborhood, catastrophe is unlikely.
It's not unusual in our battles over change to find one side or the other resorting to catastrophic forecasts to drive its points home. Of course, while it's catastrophe from the critics, it's splendor from the supporters. Monday, the Chilmark selectmen, supporting their proposal that the town should buy the Home Port in Menemsha, suggested that if the town owned the property, it might lease it to a new restaurant operator at a rent that would offset entirely the cost of financing the $2 million purchase. And, besides, we could launch our kayaks from the beach. Put mildly, these notions were treated skeptically, as they should have been. Doubtless, the gloomy assertions of the opposition deserved to be weighted similarly.
Afterwards, as after so many public hearings, public airings, public discussions, and town meeting debates, the widely held view is that, at least everyone with something to say had a chance to say it. Which may be true, but does that guarantee that we know what we need to know, or that the wisest decision will emerge from the devouring flames of debate? Not always.
And that's okay, I suppose, because facts and logic, let alone expert advice, are not themselves guarantees of clarity and good decisions, particularly in political or public policy settings. Good judgments may be made on instinct or incomplete information, or even no information. We've all done it, and sometimes it's worked out.
Still, as an old logic text put it, "If reasoning is merely casual or haphazard, it is apt to be erroneous." So that on these important questions, it would be comforting to think that we are beating up on one another upon a common and extensive battlefield of facts.
And, if not, it is as Justice Brennan wrote of the First Amendment, in the precedent setting Sullivan decision of 1964, "Thus, we consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials...." It is a sentiment with which we Martha's Vineyard debaters heartily concur.