When Thoreau walked the shores of Cape Cod, he felt he could stand on the beach and “put all America behind him.” The edge-ness of this place is part of its appeal; there is a feeling that you can escape the rules that govern Elsewhere and make a smaller, freer life of your own out here.
In an odd paradox, there are months when everyone from Elsewhere is here, quietly camping out: leaders of the worlds of academia, finance, news media, and politics, all trying to put America behind them for a while.
The quiet and the remove usually persist, but every now and then the wires that connect us to the wider world light up. A shark attack. A lobsterman who finds himself in a whale’s mouth. Last year’s Covid-19 “Provincetown Cluster.” Each time, the national press went wild for the story. And the 48 Venezuelan refugees who were flown to Martha’s Vineyard last week and are now at Joint Base Cape Cod have become another.
The story is remarkable. The asylum seekers are incredibly brave, and the way they were shipped here is bizarre. The outpouring of local support for them has been amazing, too. But they are hardly the only immigrants who have been the victims of political stunts recently.
Manipulators like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis do cruel things for media shock value all the time. The people at Boston Children’s Hospital have had to deal with more than a dozen bomb threats because they offer gender-affirming care to transgender people. Merriam-Webster’s headquarters in Springfield was closed for days over threats to their editor — because the dictionary includes a definition of “gender identity.”
Why is this Vineyard story getting so much more coverage? Part of the reason is that the big shot political and media people are here to play, and escape.
It’s actually an old story. The Reverse Freedom Riders — African-American families deceived by Southern segregationists in a similar stunt in 1962 — were sent by bus to Hyannis specifically because the Kennedys were here. Martha’s Vineyard received these two planes of migrants almost certainly because the Obamas have a house there. Our state Sen. Julian Cyr points out that Gov. DeSantis himself was just on Nantucket for a $50,000-per-person fundraiser.
We may feel we’re alone in this place on the edge. But we’re not. For at least a few months a year, the Cape and Islands are much closer to the centers of power than you might think.
That becomes apparent when something goes wrong — when the peace is interrupted, and it turns out an entire city’s worth of journalists, lawyers, academics, and politicians were already here, relaxing. Then our small towns explode into national newscasts with the saturation-level coverage that Jackson, Mississippi’s water crisis ought to be getting.
Standing on this shore and looking out, we turn around and find all America looking at us. We’re not really on the edge at all.