On a recent visit to my parents in Vermont, I stepped into a little deli called Noonie’s. Back in high school, I’d visit Noonie’s every few weeks, devouring a massive turkey sandwich and kibitzing with friends. Middlebury had no coffeehouse, and I didn’t smoke pot in basements like everybody else, so a quiet little bistro sufficed for passing time.
The place has changed little in 14 years. If anything, the menu has improved. As I waited for my Purple’s Pleasure, a hopelessly complicated BLT, I found a newspaper rack and plucked up a copy of Vermont Commons, a biggish newspaper that includes “voices of independence.” I nested in the corner, ate my sandwich, and read these voices. And sighed with mixed emotion.
The headlines describe this paper better than I could:
bye bye miss american empire
organizing for a free vermont
the greenneck: jack of all trades, slave to none
an energy optimist: optimized energy lifeboats
hemp for (an independent) vermont
This final headline adorns the front page, which bleeds into two additional pages about the fine uses of Cannabis sativa. The front cover shows a grizzled old man in a tricorne hat, holding a musket and an American flag. The flag is upside-down, and it reads: “A Republic If You Can Keep It.” The quote is attributed to one “B. Franklin.”
If you know Vermonters, none of these sentiments are surprising. The state thrives on natural, social, and political concerns.
But for me, one concept stood out: Vermonters’ desire to secede from the United States of America. If a group of people can be serious about such a thing, these people are. The idea isn’t even a new one; author and professor Frank M. Bryan wrote his comic manifesto, Out: The Vermont Secession Book, back in 1987. He also wrote a book called Real Vermonters Don’t Milk Goats, but the joke has hardened over the years. The notion of the “Second Vermont Republic” is extremely appealing to smart, libertarian Vermonters. They fondly remember the state’s brief period of independence (1777-1791), and they yearn to raise their green flag over Montpelier. Vermont is more than a home—Vermont is a way of life, a spiritual womb. Unsullied by billboards and heavy industry, people can live how they please in Vermont. Why should 49 additional states bog down the Vermont way of life? Why pay for others’ mistakes, like petroleum wars and stock market fiascos? Vermonters are clean, smart, healthy, entrepreneurial, industrious and accepting. What’s more, they love to think of themselves as modest. The rest of the country is rude, misguided, superficial, and rootless. Firm up these borders, already!
I have mixed feelings about this philosophy.
Feeling #1: I Get It
On the one hand, I am a very progressive thinker, and I am an avid follower of the feminist, gay rights, anti-war, pro-labor, pro-environmentalist movements—a typical Green Party guy who loves to commute by bicycle and works weird bohemian jobs. So I have every reason to relish Vermont Commons, a newspaper that also applauds farmers and naturalists (I recently gave a thumb’s up to a passing car, whose bumper sticker said it all: no farms, no food).
Feeling #2: These People Are Nuts
On the other hand, Vermont’s secession is so insane and ridiculous that I actually become angry. The arrogance of these Green Mountain patriots is suffocating, and it’s only part of the reason I no longer live among them. Vermonters love to applaud their own lifestyle, turning up their noses at “Flatlanders”—the slur for any human being who lives anywhere else. Never mind that Vermont is the least ethnically diverse state in the U.S. Never mind that the economy relies on tourism. Never mind that Vermont exports very little, besides syrup, marble and dairy products, and the last time the state did seriously export raw material, those precious Green Mountains were almost completely deforested. Vermont Commons could not be published without imported computers, paper, ink, and delivery trucks. Vermonters may resent their connection to the outside world, but without the outside world, Vermont doesn’t work.
As for those 14 years of independence, they were lived in Colonial wilderness, when even dirt roads were rare. The land was a frontiersman fantasy: You could claim land, shoot all the Abenaki living there, clear the trees, build a pine cabin, wear animal skins, and, in theory, smoke all the pot you wanted. But that was 200 years ago. A Second Vermont Republic is like a New Camelot: The Green Mountain Boys could no more liberate 21st Century Vermont, nor defend it, nor even organize it, than King Arthur could conquer Washington, D.C. and put evil lobbyists to the sword. This idea isn’t productive. It barely makes any sense. Secession is an outgrown hobby, a game of Risk for smart rural pontificators with too much time on their hands. And it’s openly hostile to every other American. For a culture that takes pride in tolerance, secession is the least tolerant decision Vermont can make. We don’t like how you live, say the secessionists. So we’re making our own country, and you can’t join.
Feeling #3: But Seriously, I Get It
Still, I understand the impulse, especially at the onset of election season. Politics is the ugliest of all sciences, a toxic mix of psychology and economics, and the open gamesmanship has ruined any illusion of high ideals. Everyone knows that speeches are ghostwritten, candidates wear makeup, bills are passed unread, filibusters wreck nearly every good idea, and everyone is sleeping with everyone else, literally and figuratively. Worse yet, everyone knows the fate of a spirited young incumbent: He goes to Washington with bright eyes and strong words, he gets bitten, chewed up, digested, and shat out. That is the entire history of American politics, and it’s really the story of all democratic politics. (The alternative is monarchy, whose story ends in beheading). The only survivors of this battle are total criminals, whose great virtues appear only in stump speeches and never get in the way of their real goal, which is to wield money and power. Faced with degradation and infamy, where do all these bright-eyed incumbents come from? And what the hell is wrong with them?
Wouldn’t it be nice to leave all that behind? Live in a nation of 500,000 people, most of whom are related, or at least neighborly? Maybe the world’s most powerful military won’t notice if we quietly unzip ourselves from the American fabric and set up a Unitarian junta. In the Tea Party era, fraught with dystopic visions, any drastic measure sounds appealing. For better or for worse, folks like Sarah Palin, Glen Beck and John Stewart have transformed how we approach politics. We are now a culture of populist action. We keep eyeing the “undo” key. We wonder: If we’re all so irreconcilably different, if we don’t seem to live in the same America, why not just make our own?
Like all these radical causes, and nearly all individuals, Vermont Commons can be found on Facebook. I have debated becoming friends. Not yet. But maybe someday.