“The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know.” -- Harry Truman

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Explore The Vermont Way

A fresh look at a remarkable place


Restless Spirits, Popular Movements

From Ethan Allen to Bernie Sanders, Vermont has forged a separate path as a small, independent state with a strong sense of how to preserve its basic traditions while changing with the times. Green Mountain Politics revisits its unique story through movements and memorable people who have created the delicate balance of sovereignty and solidarity, political independence and mutual aid known as the Vermont Way. The journey features a memorable cast of characters. 


Many episodes have also been released on other websites, as well as in live presentations. The project also includes rare photos, dramatic stories and an episode from The Vermont Movie. Latest — Culture War in Bennington; Birth of the NPAs   2017 additions -- Cleaning up the World: Vermont's First Earth Day, Earth Day 1990: Making Peace with the Planet and Dark Shadows in Vermont's Past.  Also check out Class Struggle: From Socialism to the American Plan and How Traditions and Values Have Defined the Vermont Way (Green Mountain Noise, 2VR, Spring 2014) Publishing partners include VTDigger, Center for Global Research, Second Vermont Republic, ZNet, and Toward Freedom.   

Monograph available as PDF
What is the Vermont Way? The term has been used to describe everything from the traditional way to make maple syrup and smart farming in general to a political campaign agenda and the ability to make something out of almost nothing. Sometimes it extends into the phrase “the Vermont way of life.” When he left the Republican Party Jim Jeffords said, “Independence is the Vermont Way.” In her autobiography Consuelo Northrup Bailey, the first female attorney admitted to practice before the US Supreme Court and the first female lieutenant governor in the nation, said the character of Vermont was defined by “everyday, common, honest people who unknowingly salted down the Vermont way of life with a flavor peculiar only to the Green Mountains.”

"Serenade in Green"

Green Mountain Politics describes the state’s delicate dance of sovereignty and solidarity, independence and mutual aid. The subtitle refers to the focus on political, economic and social events, trends and personalities. Covering centuries, this transmedia project features unique stories, sketches of key figures, and original analysis that explains how the Vermont Way evolved. The following installments are available:

Dark Shadows in Vermont's Past 

The Parkway That Never Was
From The Vermont Movie, directed by Nora Jacobson
 This 5:53 film segment streams on this site and allows scrolling with audio

An illustrated print edition is being developed, with new insights about influential Vermonters like revolutionary leaders Matthew Lyon and Ethan Allen, Anti-Mason Governor William Palmer and feminist Clarina Nichols; railroad and marble tycoons, anti-slavery activists, major strikes and labor protests; Vermont-born Presidents Chester Arthur and Calvin Coolidge and progressive politicians James Burke and Ernest Gibson; intimate portraits of Governors Phil Hoff, Tom Salmon, Richard Snelling, and Madeleine Kunin, as well as Bernie Sanders, James Jeffords, and Howard Dean. Plus, the Vermonter who rescued America from McCarthy. Excerpts from Greg Guma's Dangerous Words and Maverick Chronicles are also available:

Subscribe to The Vermont Way for articles and event announcements. 
See more excepts at VTDigger.org

Video: Vermont Pastoral 

Photo Montage & Music by Greg Guma 

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Waving the Flag in a Culture War

Half a century ago a Vermont high school play 
sparked censorship, backlash and misunderstanding,
a harbinger of deep polarization during the Nixon era. This summer it inspired an exhibit at the Bennington Museum.

Fragile Paradise — Part Five: Impossible Dreams

Being a reporter in a small New England community at the end of the sixties reminded me at times of playing a witness in Inherit the Wind, the classic dramatic reworking of the Scopes Monkey Trial. But Bennington seemed to have no Clarence Darrow (or Spencer Tracy) to defend it against an assault on reason.

The first public flashpoint I saw there surrounded a musical production at the high school, an experimental adaptation of Brecht on Brecht, George Tabori’s innovative sampler of the German artist’s plays, essays, poems, aphorisms and struggles. Students and teachers were attempting to challenge the limits of what high school drama could be, just as Brecht had once challenged Broadway’s theatrical conventions. They were on the defensive before the curtain went up.

The spark was a clever poster idea — a swastika over sections of a US flag against a plain black background. At a school board meeting, the art department coordinator explained innocently that the intention was to represent “America’s victory over Nazism, with the American flag shining through the swastika.” Not everybody saw it that way, however, and the design was certainly open to interpretation. To some it suggested police state tactics disguised as patriotism at home. To others it felt insulting and un-American.  

As the posters went up around town over the weekend before the first performance, complaints came in to the Vermont State Police barracks in Shaftsbury. Mt. Anthony Union High School Principal Charles Keir soon got a call. The cops “were invoking the Uniform Flag Code, which says its illegal to use the flag or any part of it for advertising,” Keir told me. “We didn’t want to make an issue about it, so on that basis we removed them.”

In fact, he had already sent students around town to retrieve posters from dozens of walls and store windows, then locked them all up at the high school. The new superintendent agreed with his decision. “It didn’t strike me as offensive at all,” Catherine Corcoran acknowledged. But the graphic image could be misinterpreted, “and for that reason we felt we should take them down.”

Using the so-called “Uniform Flag Code” as a pretext was somewhere between a wild overreach and a red herring. Prior to the original Flag Day back in 1923 there were no federal or state regulations governing the display of the US Flag. After that the Army and Navy developed their own procedures, and in 1941, Congress stepped in with a law on use and display of the US flag for official purposes. Taken together, this collection of laws and procedures was called a code. But there were no penalties for misuse, no federal agency had the power to issue “official” rules on private use, and each state was free to pass (or not) its own flag law — within constitutional limits.  

In 1941, Vermont passed such a law banning - among other actions - publicly mutilating, defacing or defiling any flag, ensign or shield. But the US Supreme Court later ruled that even burning a flag is protected free speech, and the state’s existing law was basically unenforceable.

Uncertain whether to endorse the administration’s move, the School Board told Keir to confer with their attorney. But before he could do that the next morning, an officer at the Shaftsbury barracks was on the phone, asking him to turn over the posters. “I told them I wouldn’t do that,” Keir said, “and when I talked with Clark (the lawyer) he told me not to let the posters go until he could investigate whether there was actually a violation of the law.”

James Rigg, the art department coordinator who had defended the poster, insisted that this wasn’t about the law. “The state police received complaints and then looked for a statute that would cover the situation,” he charged. 

Corcoran and Keir tried to downplay suggestions of censorship and look at the bright side. If the school’s attorney established that the posters did not violate any law, Keir promised, “we’ll put them back up again.” Corcoran was less definitive. “It will probably take quite a while to prove whether it was legal or not,” she hedged, quickly following up with consolation. No more publicity was really needed, you see, since “we should do quite well after all that talk.” 

My Feb. 1, 1969 story on the dispute ran under the upbeat headline, “Uproar Over School Poster Also Publicizes ‘Brecht’.” But it led with the point that the image of a swastika superimposed over Old Glory had almost overnight “become the center of a controversy involving the US flag, Nazism, advertising and censorship.”  

No surprise, the posters never went back up, and not all of those that went out were ever recovered. Word of mouth had made them instant local collector’s items. But the publicity did not translate into ticket sales. On opening night the house was only half-filled. It almost felt like a boycott. 

As the drama unfolded on stage, a nervousness born out of misunderstanding spread through the auditorium. The director had constructed a polished example of what he described as “non-involvement” theater. Although employing multi-media effects and dramatic blackouts, the main objective was to “make the audience listen to Brecht.”
The production may have been “doomed before the house lights went down,” I wrote in a review. After covered the controversy I was still hoping for the best a week later. But many people in the audience seemed confused, unaware that this would be no conventional drama or popular entertainment, the type of “escapism” that Brecht found disgusting.

Production notes might have helped. The narrator, called “the Playwright” in the cast list, might also have asked everyone to read them before the performance began. But to be honest, there was probably no real fix.

Brecht didn’t want his audiences to feel obvious emotions and leave the theater refreshed. He wanted them to think. To that end, his approach was to destroy the illusion of reality and instead produce alienation, separation, even estrangement from the action. He described the theater of illusion as a “branch of the bourgeois drug traffic.” He wanted to create “epic” historical theater that reminded the audience they were not witnessing life itself.  

That said, attending such theater can be an uncomfortable experience. The form is almost an indictment of its audience. During Brecht on Brecht at Mt. Anthony High School, when actors decried a society that resembled modern America, nervous laughter spread through the room. At other times the silence, when applause might well have been expected, was cold and deadly.

Although comparisons between Hitler’s Germany and Nixon’s America were never intended by the playwright nor underlined by the production, they were implicit. And at one point, during a sequence involving soldiers who were too smart to fight because they think for themselves, a suitcase was marked “To Canada.” 

Not only the audience had trouble adjusting to the demands of Brecht’s approach. Much of the production consisted of short scenes, stiff monologues and political songs, and the actors often spoke as if they were disembodied, constantly telegraphing “I am not real.” Right, we get it, I thought.

At its best Brechtian theater isn’t an exercise in detachment, but instead promotes epiphanies by luring the audience in, then suddenly, at a crucial moment, destroying that reality. The playwright understood he couldn’t just preach. But this production emphasized Brecht’s more didactic tendencies, radical politics, horror of war, and disgust with bureaucracy.

And the sparse design didn’t always help; three levels on a bare stage, a large screen that flashed projections, frequent blackouts that became monotonous, and actors dressed so similarly it was hard to tell them apart. It was a lot to ask of high school performers, no matter how talented. Every flaw in pacing, emphasis and delivery was placed on full display. On the other hand, the screen projections — scenes of destruction, rebellion and Hitler’s rise — were excellent and effective.  

It was encouraging to see such a courageous production and students responding to changes in art, society and culture. Brecht on Brecht was a difficult play, but both the performers and the faculty had taken a giant step. Considering the time and place, they were heroes and pioneers. In the review, I noted that “Students are concerned about the state of the world. They make it an integral part of their daily conversations.” Suggesting that their theater should also be a forum for such discussions, I finished with some encouragement — “no matter what protest is lodged against the students or the school, it was an experience worth watching.” 
Nonetheless, it was also all too clear; the opening shots of a “moral majority” culture war had been fired. Not long after Brecht, two English teachers made the mistake of teaching a lesson about language with examples that included some sexual phrases. The outcry was immediate, irate and overwhelming, further deepening the community’s emerging cultural divide. 

This time “concerned citizens” packed the high school cafeteria, heckled the school board and demanded action, namely removal of the offending teachers. At one point, a parent sincerely argued that “Broadway plays” just shouldn’t be performed in small towns. 

Ironically enough, Brecht would agree. 

Concerned citizens fill the cafeteria for a showdown at MAUHS (1970), 
one of the photos included in the Fields of Change exhibit. 
Greg with one of the few remaining Brecht posters, a gift from
David Wasco after the Bennington exhibit opened.
His father Lon Wasco created it. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Nukes, Pot and Grassroots Battles: Vermont Vanguard Press - April 1979

It was quite a time... nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island, Vermont legislation to decriminalize pot, and new alliances rising across the state. In early April 1979, as flaks and officials said evacuation was “unneeded at this time,” 200,000 people were leaving their homes. And as everyone was told a meltdown could be avoided, it was already happening...

Doorknob to Hell 

The Vermont legislature came close to decriminalizing pot with a bill to reduce the possession penalty to $100. But it stalled after State Police spokesmen warned of calamities — fires, car accidents, weed-fueled homicide! “...its very nature requires that it burn in order to be used,” noted Major James Ryan at an April public hearing. Not anymore.

Claiming pot was “involved” in fatal fires and deadly auto mayhem, Ryan urged lawmakers to take his word that reduced penalties would be “taking away the only deterrent we have.” A year earlier decriminalization had passed in the Vermont House. But Sen. Chester Scott derailed that push with a floor speech about weed as the “doorknob to hell.” 

Things got even worse after that.

Meltdown Time

We had just started running a weekly national news column in the Vanguard Press when the Three Mile Island nuclear plant went critical. John Dillon and I produced stories for page 2, but we also covered the issue in Nation — and in the entertainment section. Even today, the list of worst “incidents” is startling. 

Along with covering the activist angle, a second item noted that Vermont’s US House Rep. James Jeffords had introduced a bill calling for “a moratorium on construction and licensing of new plants until a review of all ‘significant health and safety questions’ has been completed.” 

In Listings, the TV Highlights column reported, “Staying better than 24 hours behind what was happening, the networks preferred to let the fallout spread throughout the U.S. via charts, graphs, and experts’ opinions on radiation destruction instead of responsible reporting on evacuation procedures that were being carried out on Sunday and Monday, and not reported by the TV press.” Only ABC handled the disaster with some perspective, mainly because anchor Frank Reynolds showed a “true sense of concern for the people he reports on.”

“The System Doesn’t Work”  

One version of the Three Mile Island meltdown was that a valve got stuck, coolant tank discs ruptured, and staff tried to manually stop water replacement. But, as I reported less than a week after, pumping in cold emergency feedwater pushed a toxic gas bubble into the reactor core. And the core’s exposure led to damaged fuel rods and melting uranium. Ultimately, after pump seals also failed, the gas was released. 

It was a major disaster. But another one was the early government response. At first only a few thousand people were advised to evacuate, then more and more. And was there actually a meltdown? “Part of the reason that things appeared to improve was that less was being told to the public.”

As J.D.’s story revealed, Vermont companies that made valves and pumps for nuke plants were quick to deny responsibility. Velan Valve was making 90 percent of the valves, yet the company’s president was sure it wasn’t one of theirs. The NRC wasn’t so certain: “We don’t have a scenario on that yet,” a spokesman said.

Hayward Tyler Pump Co, making 50 percent of the pumps used by the nuclear industry at the time, was just as sure about its innocence. But manager Dave Woodcock was not so enthusiastic about the future of nuclear power. Hayward Tyler was already diversifying — to pumps for other industries and water desalinization in Saudi Arabia and Africa. “Nuclear power is not going away,” he predicted, but it’s also “the riskiest means of generating electricity.” Gee, thanks for the warning. 

The Week That Was  

Selecting events for the Vanguard’s weekly calendar spread could be tough, given the space limits of the design. But it looked cool! My favorite listing from 40 years ago this week is “Money and You,” an all-day workshop with “new age millionaire Marshall Thurber,” who had recently established an institute in Vermont to cash in on the human potential movement. He’s still at it.

The editorial column, which ran on page 3, focused on marijuana decriminalization in Vermont and nuclear issues surrounding the Three Mile Island meltdown in Pennsylvania. On pot, we concluded that “it is high time for a change.” In reality, it took almost 40 years. 

On nuclear power we discussed technical dependence and media complicity in “news management.” Our proposals included “developing local expertise” to handle future emergencies, seriously discussing decommissioning Vermont Yankee, and suspending future plant construction nationally “until the questions surrounding this risky route to energy ‘self-sufficiency’ are resolved. We will probably find, just as the anti-nukers have been saying for years, that this so-called peaceful atom represents an unacceptable risk.” 

That took over three decades but Vermont ultimately did decide to close its plant. Now the nuclear questions surround soon-to-arrive F-35s in Burlington.

And finally, some good news ... 
Small Battles, Big Victories

The Vermont Alliance changed direction in 1975, becoming a multi-issue, direct action community organizing effort. Its first focus was Barre — during a utility municipalization drive. By early 1979, when this cover story appeared, Vermont’s new “voice for the voiceless” had also established grassroots chapters in Hartford, Winooski, Bristol, Vergennes and Brattleboro. An early sign of progressive things to come.