Monthly Archives: August 2009

Your Government Is No Longer Mine

Arguably Vermont is the most radical state in the Union in terms of its commitment to human solidarity, individual freedom, sustainability, direct democracy, egalitarianism, communitarianism, political independence, and nonviolence; and it’s been that way for a long time.

Vermont’s radicalism goes back at least to 15 January 1777, when it became an independent republic. It remained independent until it joined the Union as the fourteenth state on 4 March 1791. Because it was never a territory or colony belonging to some other government, it was the only American state which truly invented itself, an event which has left an indelible mark on the character of its citizens over two hundred years later.

Secession represents the most radical form of peaceful rejection of the policies of the central government a state can choose. Although Vermont is home to one of the most active political independence movements in the country today, there is absolutely nothing new about the notion of secession in Vermont. As far back as 5 January 1815, Vermont joined other New England states in signing the report of the so-called Hartford Convention in opposition to the proposal of the U.S. Secretary of War to implement a military draft for continuing the mismanaged War of 1812 with England. This report was, indeed, a declaration of the right to secede.

In 1928 and 1929 a quirky little Vermont literary magazine known as The Drift-Wind published a series of tongue-in-cheek articles by Arthur Patton Wallace and Vrest Orton calling for Vermont independence. According to Orton, the purpose of such a movement would be “to constitute an Arcadia for persons of free thought, active mind, high standards, and aspirations and cultural imagination.”

In November of 1932, radical economist and political dissident Scott Nearing and his partner Helen Knothe, whom he later married, moved to the Pikes Falls region in the southern Green Mountains of Vermont. Near the town of Jamaica they organized an intentional community known as the Forest Farm experiment which was committed to simple living, self-sufficiency, sustainable agriculture, cooperation, mutual aid, and an ascetic lifestyle. The Forest Farm complex included eight stone houses and a 4000-tap sugar bush which the Nearings transformed into a self-sustaining maple candy business.

Nearing, who held a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Pennsylvania, was fired from teaching positions at the University of Pennsylvania and Toledo University for his political views. He was strongly opposed to American participation in World War I. Indeed, he wrote an entire book, The Great Madness, devoted to that subject. Although Nearing called himself a pacifist, a more accurate portrayal of his stance on war would be that of one radically committed to nonviolence. He was hardly a shrinking violet when it came to expressing his opposition to American imperialism. Not only was Nearing an active communist sympathizer for over a half century, but he was a nonsmoking, vegetarian, teetotaler. Above all, Scott Nearing was a rebel.

On 6 August 1945, the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Scott Nearing wrote to President Harry S. Truman that “your government is no longer mine.”

Nearing’s biographer John Saltmarsh described him as “a complete secessionist from capitalist cultural hegemony.” Saltmarsh opined that “Nearing moved through a series of secessions—from Christianity, from politics, and finally from American society itself. The secessions in his life were progressive repudiations of American canons of moral conduct as well as indications of Nearing’s perception of the fragmented, segmented, discontinuous nature of American society. Only in the isolated private sphere provided by homesteading could a radical resistance and constructive challenge to capitalist culture be nurtured.”

Nearing was not the only famous secessionist who spent time in Vermont during the twentieth century. Nobel Laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn spent nearly twenty years with his family in Cavendish, Vermont after he was deported from the Soviet Union in 1974 for the anticommunist books he had published. It is ironic that both men were attracted to Vermont even though one was an ardent communist and the other a vehement anti-communist.

In 1952, after twenty years in Vermont, the Nearings rather precipitously packed up all of their belongings in a truck and moved to Harborside, Maine. There they started a new homestead and continued practicing simple living, self-sufficiency, and sustainable agriculture until Scott’s death in 1983 and Helen’s in 1995. In 1954 they self-published Living the Good Life: Being a Plain Practical Account of a Twenty-Year Project in a Self-Subsistent Homestead in Vermont. When the book was republished in 1970 by a commercial publisher, it became a classic of the simple living, back-to-the-land movement.

The question raised by many was why did the Nearings leave Vermont so suddenly after twenty years there? Increased tourism, cultural isolation, and American individualism were said to have made it increasingly difficult to attract new members to the intentional community located near Pikes Falls. However, the harsh anticommunism associated with McCarthyism also took its toll in conservative Republican Vermont. Vermonters became much less welcoming of left-wing radicals during the Korean War period. However, there can be little doubt that the legacy of the Nearings spread by their numerous books and pamphlets contributed significantly to the huge influx of hippies to Vermont in the late 60s and early 70s, thus leaving a permanent imprint on the heart, soul, and political character of Vermont. And Scott’s granddaughter Elka Schumann continues to exemplify all of the virtues of the good life in Glover, VT where she is a vital mainstay of the Bread & Puppet Theater. It does not appear to be by chance alone that many of Scott’s political views have found their way into Bread & Puppet performances over the years.

To continue their vision of “the good life” beyond their own lives, after Scott’s death in 1983 and before her own in 1995, Helen arranged for the creation of The Good Life Center, a nonprofit organization based at their homestead Forest Farm, in Harborside, Maine. The mission of The Good Life Center is to perpetuate the philosophies and way of life exemplified by two of America’s most inspirational practitioners of simple, frugal, and purposeful living.

Building on the Nearing legacy, The Good Life Center supports individual and collective efforts to live sustainably into the future. Guided by the principles of kindness, respect, and compassion in relationships with natural and human communities, The Good Life Center promotes active participation in the advancement of social justice, creative integration of the mind, body, and spirit; and deliberate choice in efforts to live responsibly and harmoniously in an increasingly complicated world.

For additional information about The Good Life Center visit www.goodlife.org, write to P.O. Box 11, Harborside, ME 04642, or call (207)326-8211.

What differentiated Scott and Helen Nearing from contemporary environmentalists, simple living proponents, and back-to-the-land advocates was their commitment to radical politics aimed squarely at the American Empire. All too many Vermont downshifters and newly minted agrarians overlook the fact that the American Empire is currently engaged in the implementation of a series of military horrors including full spectrum dominance, nuclear primacy, the right of pre-emptive strike, the militarization of space, and imperial overstretch. Simple living may make one feel good, but it really doesn’t do a whole lot to curtail the influence of the Empire and its use of high-tech instruments of death.

Although Soviet-style communism has been discredited in the eyes of most Vermonters, many of the other ideas of Scott and Helen are as relevant today as they were when Scott and Helen were living in Vermont and Maine. For example, the concluding line of Scott’s book Man’s Search for the Good Life was “Live, and help live.”

Finally, I am struck by the similarity in the beliefs of the Nearings and those of the Second Vermont Republic. Supporters of the Second Vermont Republic subscribe to the following eight beliefs: political independence, human scale, sustainability, economic solidarity (buying locally), power sharing, equal opportunity, tension reduction, and community. The evidence is pretty strong that the Nearings subscribed to these beliefs as well.

The Nearings may have lived simply, sustainably, and ascetically, but pacifists they were not. They spent their entire adult lives actively confronting the materialism, the injustices, the racism, the militarism, and the violence of the American Empire. Where are Scott and Helen now, when we need them most?

Rebél
Thomas H. Naylor
September 1, 2009

What Can We Do About the American Empire?

In recent years the United States of America has evolved into the largest, wealthiest, most powerful, most materialistic, most racist, most militaristic, most violent empire of all times. The question is, “What can be done about it, if anything?” We shall examine six possible responses to the American Empire:

1. Denial
2. Acquiescence
3. Reformation
4. Affirmation
5. Escape
6. Confrontation

Denial

The vast majority of Americans are completely oblivious to the fact that our government has over 1,000 military bases in 153 countries and that our foreign policy is based on military doctrines such as full spectrum dominance, nuclear primacy, the right of pre-emptive strike, and imperial overstretch. Because of their abysmal ignorance of foreign affairs, most Americans are in a state of denial regarding the very existence of the American Empire.

Regrettably, most of our national political leaders, who should know better, are also in denial. The same is true of the national news networks including PBS and NPR. They are all steeped in the myth of “the home of the free and the land of the brave,” and they constantly refer to the United States as “the greatest nation in the world.” But it’s all pure bunk, and many of them know that it is.

Acquiescence

Although some armchair environmentalists, pacifists, democratic socialists, and simple-living adherents are fully aware of the perils of the Empire, they feel powerless to confront a government owned, operated, and controlled by Wall Street and Corporate America. They talk endlessly about how bad things are, and they try to live their personal lives in positive ways, but in relation to the government they do nothing but naively hope for the best. For these risk averse Americans it’s all about rolling with the flow. The name of the game is compliance.

Reformation

The real Pollyannas are liberal Democrats, so-called Progressives, and Libertarians who still believe the U.S. government is fixable. Liberal Democrats and Progressives like Bernie Sanders believe that all we have to do is elect the right liberals to the Congress, and they will enact campaign finance reform legislation which will solve all of our problems. This is, of course, pure fantasy. Wall Street and Corporate America like things just the way they are. Meaningful campaign finance reform will never happen.

Barack Obama was supposed to have undone all of the damage done to America by George W. Bush. The only differences between Obama and Bush are related to style and rhetoric. Their policies are virtually identical.

Both the Democratic and the Republican political parties are effectively brain dead. Neither has had an original idea for decades. It matters not whether the President is a Democrat or a Republican. The results will be the same.

Libertarians, on the other hand, have a somewhat different view of government reform. They think the problem of America lies with the fact that our government no longer adheres to the language of the Constitution. Everything would be just fine, if only Congress would follow the rules laid out by our founders. But this view is equally naïve. Wall Street and Corporate America use the Constitution to suit their own needs. They are quite content with the way in which both the Congress and the White House interpret the Constitution. None of the Tea Parties and state sovereignty resolutions sponsored by Libertarians are going to change anything.

Political and constitutional reform of the U.S. government are dead in the water. Neither is going to happen.

Affirmation

In February 2008 a poll conducted by the UVM Center for Rural Studies found that 77 percent of eligible Vermont voters thought the U.S. government had lost its moral authority; nearly 50 percent believed the United States had become unsustainable (politically, economically, militarily, and environmentally). And what were they prepared to do about this alarming state of affairs – elect Barack Obama President, which was tantamount to doing nothing at all.

One option which Vermonters might have considered was peaceable secession. Only 11.5 percent chose that option. Not unlike most other Americans, Vermonters were drawn to the federal government in search of a safe haven rather than fleeing from the principal cause of much of their angst.

As the American economy began to melt down last fall, Americans and foreigners alike sought financial security in the U.S. dollar and U.S. Treasury bonds. The dollar maintained amazing resilience in light of multitrillion-dollar government deficits. As the Federal Reserve began printing money like it was going out of style, the value of Treasury notes soared and interest rates plunged towards zero even though the risk of holding such notes was escalating upwards with each new government offering. It made no sense whatsoever! Conservative bankers stood in line to receive government bailouts, and liberals and conservatives alike fought for so-called stimulus funds. The government claimed it would solve the nation’s health care problems which it had helped create. Conservative politicians like Vermont Governor Jim Douglas showed up at the White House hat-in-hand. Indeed, Douglas was the first governor to have a private audience with Obama.

It was truly the Age of Obama, who promised to fix everything through “hope and change.” The only problem was, tens of millions of Americans actually believed him.

The flight back to America is unbelievably strong in light of the chaos caused by our government. Conservative Americans, many of whom are supernationalists, resonate to the fact that the U.S. is the only global superpower. The fact that America has become an imperialist nation is actually a source of pride to them.

Loyalty to the Empire remains the politically correct norm in America regardless of the moral, social, and ethical implications of that stance. American loyalists are indeed the 21st century equivalents of the British Tories back in 1776. They remain staunchly committed to the smug views that “might makes right” and that “everyone should be just like us.”

Escape

An increasing number of Americans are expressing their displeasure with the Empire by getting off the treadmill, distancing themselves from the Empire, and embracing a lifestyle based on simple living. They hope to achieve a quieter, simpler, more meaningful life by slowing down, working less, consuming less, buying locally, and becoming less dependent on fossil fuels. Downsizing and downshifting are important bywords of the simple living movement. Many downshifters view agricultural and energy self-sufficiency as necessary first steps towards eventual political independence. Not only is such a view based on ignorance, but it is politically naïve as well.

Japan, which has the second largest economy in the world, is neither energy independent nor food independent. It literally imports every drop of oil that it consumes and most of its food.

Unfortunately, many simple living, back-to-the-land practitioners become so self-absorbed and complacent with their newfound ideology that they overlook the fact that the world is still going to hell in a handbasket. From the isolation of their small town, village, farm, or commune they fail to note that the American Empire continues to bear the primary responsibility for the deaths of thousands in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Palestine, to mention only a few places. Buying locally may make one feel good, but it really doesn’t do a whole lot to curtail the influence of the Empire. One’s tax dollars are still used to purchase the Pentagon’s high-tech instruments of death.

Although simple living, localvore, conservation, and back-to-the-land are all worthwhile activities, they may also be forms of escapism, alternatives to confronting the American Empire.

Confrontation

A final alternative response to the Empire is confrontation which could take one of three forms – rebellion, revolution, or secession. Rebellion, armed resistance to the government, and revolution, the attempted overthow of the government, should be summarily rejected as exercises in utter futility. Such activities would be instantaneously snuffed out by the most powerful Empire of all time. Nonviolence is the only game in town.

This leaves peaceable secession as the only viable way of confronting the Empire. The Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were all brought down by a common nonviolent strategy, namely by demonstrating unequivocally that the leaders of these regimes had lost their moral authority. The American Empire will eventually implode just like the Soviet Union did, but the process can be accelerated significantly by hammering away at the corruption and loss of moral authority of all U.S. government officials and anyone who votes for or supports this government.

The Empire has no clothes, and the sooner we all realize this, the better off we will be.

Rebél
Thomas H. Naylor
August 10, 2009