Soundings : Name that disease
My 1968 edition of Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language has no listing for the words "sexism" or "sexist." That's because back in 1968, these terms were so newly-minted, lexicographers hadn't caught on to them yet.
Most of us have experienced the power of that diagnostic moment when the doctor examines us and declares what's wrong. We're as sick as the minute before, but we feel better simply having a name for what ails us. We can have a conversation about it now; we can look it up online and learn about it. Most importantly, with the enemy now identified, we can plot a course of treatment.
One prerequisite for a productive conversation is a shared vocabulary that enables us to explore a subject together. The things we haven't yet named, like sexism in 1965, are hardest for us to discuss.
And so, with tongue only partly planted in cheek, I offer the phrase "blue ribbon syndrome" to open a conversation about a pattern that plays itself out, over and over again, in Vineyard political life.
Jack Ware, who died this June, was the most selfless public servant I've known in my three decades on Martha's Vineyard. One of the several times he was called out of retirement to serve his town of Tisbury was to lead a blue ribbon committee charged with proposing ways to improve the structure of government in town.
Jack and his committee worked diligently and thoughtfully on their appointed task, but when their proposals were taken before voters at town meeting, a few Tisbury department heads with fiefdoms to defend stood to say that the sky would fall, and in the end voters were persuaded to shelve the plan. Jack and his committee were stunned, left to ask each other: Why did we give up so much of our time for this?
This sort of thing happens in Island civic life all the time. The problem is that the process of examining an issue deeply moves you to a new place, opening you to new perspectives and to solutions you might not have accepted before. But when our blue ribbon committees return to the voters with the results of their work - be it study of government in Tisbury or bike paths on Chappaquiddick - they're addressing people who didn't do that hard work and haven't achieved that new perspective.
My father, a theologian, used to advise his students that when considering a difficult question, it's best to start with the easiest answers - discard them, and proceed from there. Too often, we convene blue ribbon committees to consider our stickiest questions, but the power we give them is only advisory. We reserve for ourselves the power to decide - but since we didn't do the work, those easy, sound-bite answers still sound pretty good to us. It's as if one set of people takes the semester course and another set takes the final exam - an excellent recipe for formulating good ideas, then setting them aside.
One of the most radical and potentially game-changing ideas now in play on the national health care front is President Obama's suggestion that MedPAC, the expert advisory board to Medicare, be given power to reduce wasteful spending and make medical care more efficient. Just imagine - with real authority, MedPAC might actually deliver better care at lower costs, instead of proposing good solutions and seeing each one shot down by lobbyists for industry and legislators with local pork to protect.
Now, imagine how different things might be if the selectmen of your town appointed a blue ribbon committee with the promise that to the extent possible, they would actually support that committee's recommendations and seek to carry them out.
According to the Island's conventional wisdom, plans and studies and committees are a waste of time because their final products merely fill up shelves and gather dust. But perhaps, instead of bashing the perfectly sensible idea of occasionally taking a hard, disciplined look at Island issues, we'd do better looking in the mirror. After all, we're the ones putting good ideas up on the shelf. u
P.S. Here's one more pattern of Vineyard life that we may recognize, but haven't yet named. We'll all have occasion to be reminded, in the next few weeks, what's wrong with August on the Island. But before we have the time and inclination and clarity of mind to have a healthy conversation about these problems, October will have come along and fixed them.
Now what do we call that?