Sex, Drugs and Secession in Vermont
By Bernie Quigley
- for The Hill on 4/13/09
If you drive across the hills between Brattleboro and Burlington where most people with more than one generation in Vermont live, you will see signs which read “Take Back Vermont” passionately painted on the sides of barns. They intensify on the way up to the Northeast Kingdom, as we call it, where there are still evangelical pockets left over from the 19th century. Everyone from the outside thinks these signs are in opposition to the civil union law passed during the Howard Dean administration. The signs began long before that.
But it is because rural Vermonters are generally so tolerant of outsiders, or at least so amused and bewildered, that free-thinking people come here. Helen and Scott Nearing, Taoist economic radicals, were early pioneers. They found the good life here in splendid isolation during the Great Depression. They were on pretty good terms with the locals but were magnets for the post-war alienated and disaffected, many of whom – bohemians, world socialists and utopians came here because the Nearings were here. Brahmins who identified with the world proletariat, the Nearings drank only water and homemade herbal teas—never alcoholic, carbonated, or caffeinated beverages. They were ill at ease with the fashionably hip, new leisure class from Boston, New York and beyond that started arriving up here in the early 1950s.
“Krishna had said each person must liberate her- or himself and strike out on her own path,” Helen wrote. “And so I did, without too much delay.”
Scott and Helen, like Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan, were chthonic spirits; wild, original awakenings of the earth; crouching tigers, hidden dragons and spiders from Mars which, if they lived long enough, would invariably see their original forms leave them far behind, arc independently into their own life cycles and finally resolve in a sea of penguins. Dylan, in his autobiography, Chronicles, would describe his adoring followers as a bunch of freaks trying to break into his house through the roof. Kerouac, beatnik founder and New Age Father Abraham, at the end of his life took pleasure in opposing everything the hippies stood for. He supported the Vietnam War and became friends with conservative columnist William F. Buckley, Jr. When more people headed north to Vermont, the Nearings built another house farther away, bringing their light to a forest further north. “Different values,” said Scott, when asked why he moved away from the newcomers.
The hippies were fun, but the conversation improved markedly when the huge gay scene arrived in the mid-Eighties. The tenor and sophistication of the choirs in the decrepit old Puritan churches did as well and so did the buildings. Most half at least of the 18th and 19th century buildings on my common here in northern New Hampshire were restored to top historical standards in that period. But most of the macho originals who brought with them elegance, élan and big cash have moved back to the city at least ten years ago. Too boring up here. A few remain, but usually keep a town and country thing between here and New York or Boston.
Each of these originals brought with them an idea whose time had come and when they left, that idea went forward without them of its own accord on a new level of management. It is a classic arc in the life cycle of an idea. Once it reaches a wider audience it has the needs of acculturation, sociology and institutionalization. At that point, phase two, the monkey gods who thought it up and embodied the idea, his and her work complete, return to the forest.
This week, when the Vermont legislature brought overriding victory to the idea of gay marriage after more than a decade of conversation, debate, acculturation and institutionalization, and countered Governor Jim Douglas’s veto, the original idea reached its apogee in phase two and entered phase three; entrance of the fully formed concept to the outer world. Now the other states will instinctively take it up.
After it has received the Vermont imprimatur, the issue faces a high likelihood of success elsewhere. 20 years hence gay marriage will likely be as uncontroversial as marijuana where in California today it is available to “almost anyone who tells a willing physician he would feel better if he smoked,” as the Washington Post reports this week. Barely more than four decades since friends of Kerouac on Vespa motor scooters with little pointy beards and black glasses first arrived up here, detouring from the Newport Jazz Festival back to New York, with beautiful dark-haired girls in pony tails and toreador pants riding behind, lighting up jumbos on main street.
For whatever reason, Vermont is a Petri dish. Whatever initiative awakens up here does so apparently in original mind and the rest of liberal America will consider it without discrimination. The other states simply amplify the action and passion of the original idea without the experience of the action and passion themselves. Oddly enough, this is a binary condition between Vermont and New Hampshire. When my friend and neighbor proposed a states sovereignty resolution in the New Hampshire state house a few weeks back based on Thomas Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolutions, 28 red states immediately followed suit.
The New Hampshire initiative and its sudden popularity across the country brought a shock to people knowledgeable about secession and nullification, but contemporary use of the Kentucky Resolutions as a tool to oppose the federal government - the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 made the claim that if the federal government does not keep to the conditions of the Constitution, the relationship between states and federal government is null and void - did not start in New Hampshire. It started across the river in Vermont at the beginning of the war on Iraq.
And it was likewise first conceived of by free and independent thinkers. Thomas Naylor, a retired economics professor from Duke who now lives in Vermont, proposed at the beginning of the war on Iraq that Vermont and the northernmost New England states not participate and under Jefferson’s view, had the Constitutional right not to participate. He was joined in this by Carolyn Chute, author of, among other works, The Beans of Egypt, Maine. Carolyn is every bit as fierce and dangerous in the mind as Helen and Scott Nearing and if there were only ten up here with her character and courage, the war on Iraq might never have gotten off the ground.
But there was little general interest in the idea at first. Massachusetts representative Barney Frank perked up at the idea of a “states rights solution” for gay marriage. And later, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California brought states rights challenges to the feds on auto emissions and trade, and even declared California to be not just another state, but the “ . . . modern equivalent of the ancient city-states of Athens and Sparta.”
Then in January, 2006, The Nation proposed in its “Top ten bold ideas” for the new century a regionalized America. One plausible example would be California asserting more powers of regional self-determination and “groups of states like New England or the Northwest might demand similar change.”
The authors, Gar Alperovitz and Thad Williamson, mentioned that George Kennan was one of a few influential policy makers who suggested regionalism. In one of his last books, Around the Craggy Hill, Kennan proposed that the United States might develop better as a dozen “natural states” as Tolstoy might have described them.
I have often diverted myself, and puzzled my friends, by wondering how it would be if our country, while retaining certain of the rudiments of a federal government, were to be decentralized into something like a dozen constituent republics, absorbing not only the powers of the existing states but a considerable part of those of the present federal establishment. I could conceive of something like nine of these republics—let us say, New England; the Middle Atlantic states; the Middle West; the Northwest (from Wisconsin to the Northwest, and down the Pacific coast to central California); the Southwest (including southern California and Hawaii); Texas (by itself); the Old South; Florida (perhaps including Puerto Rico); and Alaska; plus three great self-governing urban regions, those of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles—a total of twelve constituent entities. To these entities I would accord a larger part of the present federal powers than one might suspect—large enough, in fact, to make most people gasp.
Indeed, between 2001 and 2003 Kennan corresponded with and talked on the phone with Naylor even as America’s greatest ambassador since Franklin was on his deathbed on his 97th birthday. Kennan fully endorsed the idea of northern New England separatism.
Kennan wrote that in the idea of Vermont’s and the northeastern regions’ ultimate independence, whether separately or in union, I see nothing fanciful, and nothing towards the realization of which the efforts of enlightened people might not be usefully directed. Such are at present the dominating trends in the U.S. that I can see no other means of ultimate preservation of cultural and societal values that will be not only endangered but eventually destroyed in an endlessly prolonged association of the northern parts of New England with the remainder of what is now the U.S.A.
Of course, any attempt to separate territories from the remainder of the U.S. could, if it were to be any less than tragically unsuccessful, have to be gradual and protractive, he added.
Recently, as states sovereignty legislation has spread from New Hampshire across the red states, the idea of Vermont secession has begun to wander boldly out of the wilderness as well.
Ian Baldwin, founder of the E.F. Schumacher Society (US), co-founder of Vermont’s Chelsea Green Publishing Company which publishes the best of the Nearings’ work, and founder of and contributing editor to the pro-secession web site, Vermont Commons, writes eloquently this month of Vermont secession on the popular new age web site, Reality Sandwich, a web magazine for “ . . . this time of intense transformation.” Its subjects run the gamut from “ . . . sustainability to shamanism, alternate realities to alternative energy, remixing media to re-imagining community, holistic healing techniques to the promise and perils of new technologies.”
I long to be peaceably bounded in a small-scale polity, shorn of taxation for endless arrays of weaponry, ever-mounting war debts, insurance blackmail schemes for illnesses incurable and expanding, and free at last of my country's ceaseless chase after loot in all corners and every crevice of the globe. This is my dream. And Vermont seems a place where it could be realized.
To be free at last, he writes, “from the tyranny of what political scientist Sheldon Wollin calls inverted totalitarianism (aka ‘democracy in America’).”
The idea of Vermont secession has now entered phase two of its life cycle; the world of institutionalizers and acculturators, the people of cash and luxury, of beauty, taste and goodness. Captain Phillips aside, these are the people that the outside press seeks out and listens to when it imagines Vermont. Furthermore and this is most important, the idea of secession is now fashionably hip. It is now acceptable to a wide swath; the avante garde of the middle class (20% they say up here), as gay marriage was hip 20 years ago and smoking reefer was when it left the bohemian cellar club for the strip malls and suburbs, the corporate wives’ luncheons and the dusty stair wells of federal buildings 40 years ago.