Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Love it or leave it? No problem.

Way back when The Vermizzle was in high school, there was a tongue-in-cheek Vermont secession movement, chiefly a series of mock debates held in town halls around the state. I went to the one at the Statehouse, which as I recall ended in an overwhelming yes vote (ah, the Reagan years.) And I remember being bitterly disappointed when things didn't pan out. I was ready to man the barricades.

So when I heard about the secession movement led by a group calling itself the Second Vermont Republic, I assumed it was a joke. When a friend insisted these people were serious, I figured it was nothing more than a few people flying the freak flag for the demographic of grizzled Goddardites and wild-eyed libertarians who introduce resolutions opposing the fluoridation of water at town meeting.

But a phone call to one of the Second Republic’s founding fathers, Thomas H. Naylor, confirmed that this movement is no joke. Naylor, a former Duke University economics professor who moved up here to retire, says they’re “dead serious.” The union has lost its moral authority, and they want out. He says the secession movement gathered steam right after George W.’s reerlectation. “He’s our membership chair,” Taylor quipped. “Every time he opens his mouth, our membership goes up.”

He described the process by which Vermont would actually secede, which begins with a 2/3 vote at a representational statewide convention and ends with the words “then we’d come back to Montpelier and stop paying taxes, stop following the rules, and pray a lot.” The ball starts rolling Oct. 28 at the first statewide convention on secession in this country since 1861. It's going to be held at the Statehouse, and will feature some genuinely interesting speakers.

For some reason, the Governor, Lt. Governor and Vermont’s congressional trio all declined invitations to speak at the convention. Further requests for an account of where they stand on secession have been met, Naylor says, with stony silence. “That’s really a gutless move. The people of Vermont are entitled to know what their postion is,” Naylor said. He intends to “turn up the heat” on the pols by issuing press releases calling for them to explain their position. Disappointingly, he reports that no one in Vermont politics has come out of the closet as a secessionist … yet. “We have been in contact with legislators who are clearly sympathetic to our cause, and have given us advice, but will not go on the record as secessionists.” Write your congressman!

These people are to be taken seriously. Whether they’re in earnest or not, they’ve cooked up the mother of all media stunts. The Vermont secession story has so many elements that have proven attractive to the press. They’re providing a flashpoint of public opposition to Bush, which, at a time when his approval rating has never been lower, makes things easy for the news folks who have to write about it anyway. The quaint progressive antics of little Vermont always make for good copy. And hey, the reporters can come up here to cover the convention and catch the tail end of foliage too! Mark my words, the NYT is going to be all over it like white on rice.

“It’s a real David and Goliath story,” Naylor said. “Tiny Vermont taking on the greatest empire that ever lived? Our power lies in the absurdity of it.”

Oct. 30

So I decided to go check out the statewide convention on secession on Friday. The crowd was biggish, and intense: lots of older men with prodigious beards and women with gray ponytails and serious expressions, knitting. The rest were reporters, a handful of dredded-out twentysomethings, and a few teenagers who were clearly there on some kind of assignment.

I rolled up just in time to hear the keynote address by James Howard Kunstler, the author of a book called The Long Emergency. The subject of his talk was “The Cheap Oil Endgame.” I guess I should have been warned by the remoteness of this topic from Vermont secession (….but petroleum has EVERYTHING to do with Vermont secession, I can hear them crying now.)

Kunstler was like Chicken Little with a New York accent and a serious crush on himself. He spent the first minute or so explaining his thesis, which goes like this: The collapse of cheap petroleum will bring about the decline of civilization as we know it, alternative energies will fail, and within five to ten years we’ll all be up in the hills living off what we can grow and sleeping with one hand on the shotgun. Rather than presenting evidence to support this farfetched premise, Kuntstler spent the rest of his time at the podium taking potshots at the Bush administration and crowing about how he had reduced this or that group of people to dumbfounded silence with the excellence of his logic.

The crowd was loving Kunstler – they applauded like crazy as he howled about the evils of the suburban lifestyle and the supreme dumbness of the American people. And they continued to applaud as his vitriol picked out a more specific target: “The Nascar fans of the South are a pretty rude group of people. They crawled out of the mud and into the middle class 20 years ago, and have limited experience with society. And they worship firearms … I think we can expect a fairly violent future ahead.”

This observation drew enthusiastic claps and incredulous laughter. But it was approving laughter, the laughter of people shocked by his audacity for saying out loud what they all secretly believed. And then I remembered something about Vermont that I had forgotten.

For me, it's always been easier to focus on the positive side of Vermont’s liberal bias – the wonderful sense of community, two Independents in Congress, many good health food stores, and socially-responsible businesses. But it’s dark side is pretty ugly: a whole population that’s smug, self-congratulatory, and elitist. And doesn’t mind a bit of classist hatemongering on a Friday morning, just as long as it’s directed at the right kind of underclass.

After the talk ended I didn’t feel like staying for the afternoon panel about secession. I went to Capitol Grounds and scowled at the graying, Patagonia-clad, latte-drinking liberals. And then I decided that maybe the secessionists’ strategy was to make everyone else in America so sick of Vermont’s self-righteous indignation that they would be happy to part with us. If that’s their aim, I think they may actually have a shot.