Island gossip

In God’s family
By Philip Conkling | Dec 02, 2011

Those pundits who think inside-the-beltway politics are intense clearly have not spent a great deal of time discussing issues in New England’s small towns, where all politics are still local; nor are they likely to have visited many island communities where all politics are personal.

An island community’s real leaders are often not the apparent leaders who hold official town offices. The most significant leaders are those who help shape community sentiment on important issues of the day during conversations in the post office or on the ferry or on the VHF radio, well outside the walls of the town office.

By the time a vote is scheduled for an island town meeting, most decisions have already been made or shaped through highly personal networking based on trading and transmitting both hard information and local gossip among islanders until something like a consensus of opinion emerges.

The late maritime anthropologist George Putz used to remind me of the origin of the word ”gossip,” from the Anglo Saxon god’s sip or “god’s family.” If you are in on the gossip, even if you are also an object of island gossip, you are in the family. Almost the worst fate to befall one on an island is to be out of the gossip, when you do not even know what is being said about you.

If all island politics are personal, the corollary is that in intensely insular places your neighbors know more about you than most of our political leaders, even in today’s media saturated culture, would consider reasonable. There are few secrets on islands, except the ones you keep from off-islanders who are out of the gossip. On islands, people know what your disposition is in the morning when you wake up; what you eat and drink, and how much; what you watch on TV; how much you earn and whether you get checks in the mail from mainland accounts; how you treat your kids; and how you treat your neighbors and their kids, especially those least well endowed.

Islanders are acutely aware and totally unforgiving about any daylight between the way one presents oneself in public from how one acts in private. If character is what you do when no one is watching, then islanders have a way of revealing one’s true character for better or worse. And since most of us have rather homely parts of our characters, our flaws are more naked on islands and more vividly on display for all to see and discuss. There is an island saying that watching an island conflict is like watching crabs in a bucket: when one crab is crawling up the sides toward the top of the rim, the other crabs will reach up and pull the leading crab back down. In the best of circumstances, this scrambling around reinforces the instinctive egalitarian culture of islands; in the worst of circumstances, it can be mean and nasty.

Into this complicated realm of island leadership, outsiders with any experience tread even more lightly than islanders, who are deeply practiced in the art of treading lightly. Islanders are experts at avoiding conflict because conflict on islands is so devastating in places where no one ever forgets. To amend another saying for the island context, island Alzheimer’s is when you forget everything but a grudge.

Even so, those who have weathered all the slings and arrows of island politics become truly gifted leaders because they’ve seen both the best and worst of what local politics has to offer and have survived. Witness our First Congressional District Congresswoman Chellie Pingree as a case in point. And is spite of the risks and hardships, new island leaders emerge mostly because island communities ultimately desperately need everyone to pitch in and help.

During the past year, four emerging island community members — let’s not call them leaders for fear of pinning a label on them — on Peaks, Vinalhaven, Matinicus and Swan’s have been piloting a program to develop additional skills needed by their communities. It turns out that all of them are women, which should not be surprising because island women have long formed the backbone of all the truly important island institutions — island schools, churches, planning boards, historical societies and the like — often leaving the selectmen’s offices for, well, the select men.

Some of the issues facing these island communities revolve around learning how to put aside either subtle or overt conflicts, such as the deeply divisive debate over secession or family lobster territorial disputes in order to work on issues on which everyone can agree — educating the young, preserving island history, building library collections and investing in local economies.

Often the skills an emerging island leader needs to learn are as straightforward as how to run an effective meeting, where there is a sense of next steps to be taken rather than a deflated feeling that nothing was accomplished. But mostly, emerging island leaders now have an opportunity to share their stories with each other, a practical tip and a few words of encouragement in the unforgiving glare where the political is personal and the personal is political.

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