Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

We've All Inherited Dr. King's Legacy

Aging into midlife robs you of some things, such as the unthinking optimism of youth. But in a week as momentous as this one, it also brings you a deeply satisfying sense of perspective and even a tempered, tentative optimism.

This is your brain on hope.

The inauguration of Barack Obama as our 44th president is of course a source of triumphantly joyful pride for black Americans. So it is, too, for many white Americans, especially those of us of a certain age.

We remember, as children, seeing on television the firehoses and police dogs turned on the brave black people who marched the streets of southern cities in the late 1950s and early 1960s. They sought the simple right to dine at a lunch counter, drink from a fountain, sit at the front of the bus.

We saw Peter, Paul and Mary, the whitest of folksingers, standing side-by-side with Martin Luther King and a host of black leaders as Dr. King gave his “I have a dream” speech.

We watched our cities be torn apart by race riots.

We woke up one sad April morning in 1968 to the news that Dr. King had not in fact made it to the mountaintop, that he had been gunned down in Memphis.

In response to that event, I took the American flag that hung outside our house, in the upstate New York town where I grew up, and placed it at half-mast. The white folks in our predominantly white town talked about that for weeks. A few of them made snide remarks. A few more thanked me for the gesture.

By that June, Bobby Kennedy, whose presidential campaign was for peace in Vietnam and racial comity at home, was gone, too.

I had been sensitized early on to the complexities of race because my parents and many generations before them were southerners. My great-great grandfather fought for the Confederacy. My grandfather, a Georgia dairy farmer, once belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. (He quit in disgust as it grew ever more aggressively racist.)

When I reached my teens, my father made a point of taking me to local meetings of blacks and whites. There, a black minister and a white worker from the Office of Economic Opportunity were trying to bridge the gap that separated the European-Americans of town from the African-Americans.

Several decades later, America’s small towns and the United States as a whole have yet to achive a perfect union.

But at least we’ve grown past some of our prejudices. We’ve elected not just an African-American president, but one whose name sounds like those of the decade’s most wanted men.

We’ve gone from Saddam Hussein to Barack Hussein Obama. From Osama bin Laden to Obama Biden.

When Obama spoke at the Lincoln Memorial this week, in front of Lincoln’s statue and in honor of Dr. King, he made just one passing reference to the civil rights leader. Barack didn’t have to say much about Martin. The president-elect’s very presence said it all.

“What gives me hope is what I see when I look out across this mall,” Obama said. “Directly in front of us is a pool that still reflects the dream of a King, and the glory of a people who marched and bled so that their children might be judged by their character’s content. And behind me, watching over the union he saved, sits the man who in so many ways made this day possible.

“And yet, as I stand here, what gives me the greatest hope of all is not the stone and marble that surrounds us today, but what fills the spaces in between. It is you -- Americans of every race and region and station who came here because you believe in what this country can be and because you want to help us get there.”

I’ve lived through a few decades of trying to do my small part to help us get there, too. And I can’t help but think of how much white activists -- along with Obama and a couple generations of black activists, too -- have learned from Dr. King and his successors.

At a peace rally not long after King’s assassination, in Washington up by the U.S. Capitol, I was wandering around behind the stage. I looked up one moment and there, marching resolutely past me in black boots, jeans and denim jackets, was Ralph Abernathy-- who had taken over the leadership after Dr. King’s death – plus Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young.

Impulsively, I clapped Rev. Abernathy on the shoulder and thanked him for all he was doing. To him, I was just a longhaired white college kid, who had startled him as he and his colleagues walked toward the podium. But we were all on the same side.

The next day, I joined a Quaker protest at the gates of the White House to challenge President Nixon’s claim that he acted out of Quaker principles. As we knew they would, the police came to cart us away. We sang “We Shall Overcome” as they escorted us to the paddy wagons and the D.C. jail. (The police action in removing us from a public sidewalk was later ruled illegal.)

This week in Middlebury, when town and gown gathered at the college’s Mead Chapel to honor Dr. King’s memory and movement, again the song was “We Shall Overcome.”

When climate activists from Middlebury College organized the recent Step It Up and Project 350 campaigns against global warming, they consciously took the civil rights movement as a model.

It’s the best playbook we have for how to broadly and peacefully organize to effect widespread
change --not just in policy, but in people’s consciousness, too.

Some of these climate activists camped out on my land a couple years ago, during their trek from Ripton up to Burlington. I took out a guitar and sang them an old civil rights song. It’s called “Thirsty Boots.” Eric Andersen wrote it for a friend who had been campaigning for integration in the South of the early Sixties:

Tell me of the ones you saw
As far as you could see
Across the plain from field to town
A-marching to be free
And of the rusted prison gates
That tumbled by decree
Like laughing children one by one
They looked like you and me

In the week when we’ve inaugurated our first black president -- 41 years after Dr. King’s death, when the dream seemed to die but didn’t -- that’s what I see when I look at Barack Obama’s America.

It looks like a rainbow coalition of colors.

It looks like you and me.

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Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Sins of Liberal Fundamentalism

Right about now in even-numbered years, I tend to get tired of talking politics with my liberal friends.

Lacking any other race to focus their fervor, Vermont’s ardent liberals seem to have decided that everything Sen. John McCain says, every move he makes, is evil, mendacious, and politically motivated.

And as for Gov. Sarah Palin, my friends seem to say, she should learn not to say “nucular” -- then crawl back into the cave where McCain found her.

These days, most every conversation with my friends turns into a discussion of the opposition’s idiocy, accompanied by a litany of McPalin’s latest outrage.

The new cellphone towers at McCain’s Sedona retreat that were supposedly placed there as a political favor (but turned out to be required by the Secret Service).

The number of times McCain rolled his eyes during the last debate. (No mention of Sen. Obama’s fake smiles when he disagreed with McCain, the kind of “I’ll suffer this fool gladly” attitude he must have learned at Harvard.)

And then there’s the delight that liberals have taken at Joe the Plumber’s failure to get a plumber’s license or belong to the union – not to mention the back taxes that Joe owes. As an MSNBC pundit said of Joe’s experience: People who are about to get their 15 minutes of fame
don’t realize that 10 minutes of it is a rectal exam.

Perhaps liberals were just taking their clue from Sen. Obama’s attack on Joe, delivered last week in New Hampshire, in which Obama derisively asked, “How many plumbers do you know who make $250,000 a year?

Secure in their ardent partisanship, my friends have conveniently ignored Obama’s call to widen the war in Afghanistan, which is a violent quagmire if there ever was one. Or his reneging on his pledge to take public campaign money. Or his sudden and scary conversion to favor offshore oil drilling – not to mention his longstanding love of nuclear power and “clean” coal.

Ultimately in these discussions with liberals – and here’s where fundamentalism enters the picture – it comes down to one question:

“Whose side are you on?”

You’re either with us or a-gin’ us. (Didn’t George W. Bush say something like that?)
We liberals have been so outraged by the Bush presidency — and so spooked by Willie Horton, impeachment, and the sheer immorality of the Iraq war – that we’ve vowed we won’t get fooled again.
But we’ve overdone it. We’re off the deep end in the land of true and unquestioning believers.
After last week’s debate, I suggested to a couple of liberal friends (pretty much the only kind I have these days) that McCain had scored several good points during the debate.
I thought, for example, that McCain made a lot of sense when he attacked Obama for his reflexive instinct to solve every problem with a solution from the federal government. That instinct is one of liberals’ greatest weaknesses, and it hurts us politically.
My friends reacted as if I’d said Obama was a child molester.
As for the obviously unqualified Sarah Palin, the left’s critique of her is rife with putdowns that wouldn’t be out of place in a freshman dorm. Sneers at how many colleges she went to or about her sportscasting abilities. Doubts about her intelligence or the validity of her religious beliefs because she happens to believe that abortion is immoral.
Even more troubling than the snooty superiority of Vermont’s liberals, though, is the black-and-white tunnel thinking that has become so pervasive – and so similar to the opposition’s.
The right has Rush and his Dittoheads, along with Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs.
On the left, we’ve all been living in the echo chamber of the New York Times op-ed page, “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” the Huffington Post and Salon.com. The red states that support McCain are Jesusland and only we blue states are the real USA. We sport bumper stickers about villages in Texas that are missing an idiot, and we buy our dogs little shirts that say, “McCain is Bush’s poodle.”
And then we shake our heads at how devalued and mean the political process has become.
The fundamentalism practiced by many American liberals has become almost as dangerous as Christian fundamentalism.
Both groups think they’ve got the right and true word. They both think that people who see the world in another way need to be saved, stripped of their deep and unfortunate delusions and made to see the light.
Perhaps I come by my skepticism of today’s liberals as a matter of professional habit. I spent more than 20 years as a journalist. If you don’t give both political parties a fair shake as a journalist, you’re not doing your job.
One of the things young reporters learn is that a lot of people lie to them. Liberals, it must be said, lie just as much as conservatives. You learn to be suspicious of everybody’s claims.
Nonetheless, whatever gripes I have with Sen. Obama on environmental issues and Afghanistan, I still believe he represents a brighter future for America. We haven’t seen this promise in a presidential candidate since Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy.
When I go into the booth on Nov. 4, I’ll vote for Barack Obama with a swelling of gratitude in my heart for how he and the Democrats have fought back over the last four years -- and for this better moment in American history and race relations.
The mere opportunity to vote in a presidential election for a major-party candidate who is as inspiring as Sen. Obama – especially at such a dark time for the country I love -- brings tears to my eyes.
So why do I worry so much about liberal fundamentalism?
Because I don’t want the newly invigorated, 21st Century version of liberalism – which is so finely represented by Sen. Obama– to cement itself into uncritical orthodoxy.
I believe Obama and the Democrats will soon win a great victory, precisely because they’re adapted liberalism to meet today’s challenges. They’ve shaken off the worst of the old shibboleths, and they continue to refine an ideology that again, at last, speaks to the majority of Americans.
To replace that with a new orthodoxy -- a self-righteous sense that we’re right and everybody to our political right is wrong -- is the best way I know to lose all we’ve gained, and all we’ve learned over the past eight, very dark years.

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Friday, January 02, 2009

Resolutions: Dreaming the Impossible Dream

In 2009, I hereby resolve:

I will see an otter along Otter Creek.

To go over the falls of Otter Creek in Vergennes, in a barrel. Twice -- once for each side of the falls. (Extra points if I spot an otter on the way down.)

To solve the mystery of the sign, placed over a urinal in a men’s room at the Middlebury College field house, which reads, “Thanks, from the Class of 1965. You were always here for us.” I mean, where did this sign come from, and who put it there? Why did they put it in the men’s room? And by “always here,” did they mean actually standing there at the urinal?

To give President Barack Obama the benefit of the doubt. (“President Barack Obama.” I love the sound of that.)

Not to complain about the economy. Being part of the gripefest is fun only when you’re in the elite, alienated and insightful minority.

To remember that many other people have it much worse off than I do, and therefore have ample reason to complain about the economy. Especially if they are unfortunate enough to be unemployed.

I will go at least a month without making a catty remark about Gov. Jim Douglas. At least not in print.

To tell the truth more often. Except if I get caught for speeding, because the offending officer and I both know that whatever comes out of my mouth is at best a half-truth: “Um, no, officer. I don’t know why you stopped me. Was it because of that ‘Legalize It’ bumper sticker on the back of my car? Was it that beautiful woman over there? –You know, the one on the left whom I was looking at while making a right-hand turn? Is she your sister? Your wife? Or are you a Yankees fan and I was playing the celebration on my car radio too loud after that Dustin Pedroia home run? Oh – you say I was doing 65 in a 40? I didn’t see the sign at all. Honest!”

To determine what mysterious force it is that compels flatlanders to try to drive over Lincoln Gap in the winter, past the “Lincoln Gap Closed” signs, over the gigantic snow berm, and along the snowmobile tracks that end up in the woods.

To solve the mystery of buried treasure up on Bristol Cliffs.

Not to buy another jacket. The 10 in my closet should serve me just fine. Unless, of course, I find that I’ve got absolutely nothing to wear outside between April 7 and May 10, when it’s raining and the temperature is between 52 and 61 degrees. In which case…

To throw out at least one T-shirt from a collection that spans back to my high school years.

To buy no more than four or five new T-shirts. At least not until summertime.

I will get to the Daily Chocolate and Fat Hen market in Vergennes at least once a month. Man does not live by bread alone. Or by T-shirts and jackets alone, for that matter.

I will not die of overdose by chocolate. Unless of course I stroke out, have a devastating heart attack, or contract a fatal case of cancer. In which case, bring on the chocolate.

I will keep my wine consumption below one bottle. On alternate Mondays.

To make an in-depth exploration of the Whiting-Leicester line. Just because it’s there.

To mention every town in Addison County at least once in this column. Sudbury, this one’s for you!

To ski Stein’s Run, that steep monster at Sugarbush, without stopping. Just once before I die. And given the slow deterioration that comes with age, appetite, inadequate workouts and a strong preference for Otter creek Stovepipe Porter, it’s gotta happen this year, or it never will.

I will not grind my teeth more than absolutely necessary when the potentially great state of Vermont, thanks to obstinacy, ignorance and a misguided sense of “what’s good for business,” fails again this year to take meaningful steps to curb climate change.

Never to exceed 60 mph when driving over Middlebury Gap. Unless, of course, it’s to pass some Masshole who’s driving a Hummer.

To have a western omelette at the Halfway House, and find out if the waitresses really do go about their rounds without a stitch of clothing.

I will, however, decline all offers to pose myself for the next calendar of nude locals. Unless it’s to raise money for a good cause such as a manure spreader for the Salisbury Select Board. Or a new lens for the spy camera on Holley Hall in Bristol.

I will catch a fish in the New Haven after July 1. Even if I have to shoot the damn thing.

To make my annual contribution to Middlebury College. Because, after all, the trustees’ meeting room hasn’t been renovated in at least five years, and the Astroturf on the playing fields needs to be replaced ever so badly.

Never to write another mock Christmas letter. The last time I did that, several people ended up believing that I have a wife who is an alcoholic and two children who’ve been to prison. In actual fact, only one of my kids has been in prison. The other two have gotten off with just probation. So far.

And lastly: I will never write another column with a pen in one hand, and a bottle of whisky in the other.

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