Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Honoring Murray Dry, Guessing on the Gov Race

Who’s going to win this nail-biter of a governor’s race? It's anybody's guess.

The polls say Republican Lieut. Gov. Brian Dubie and state Senate President pro tempore Peter Shumlin are in a virtual dead heat. And so it seems they will remain until Election Day next Tuesday, Nov. 2.

Hopefully there will be no need for a recount, as there was after the Democratic primary. But with the electorate apparently split straight down the middle, there's no guarantee this one won't go to a recount, too.f

But Dubie can’t be encouraged by the decision of the usually conservative Burlington Free Press to endorse Shumlin. Dubie’s political base is in the relatively populous Chittenden County, which is the heart of FreepLand, and the Freep backed Gov. Jim Douglas in his 2008 re-election bid.

Along with the Free Press and others, I'm impressed by Shumlin’s leadership in getting the Legislature to deny a renewal license to the dangerous Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. Shumlin also led the way in establishing the nation's first non-court-ordered law on marriage equality. He’s demonstrated the ability to get things done.

By comparison, Dubie's election would give us two more years of trench warfare between the governor and the Legislature. He’s sticking with the tired old story of running down Vermont because it's supposedly antibusiness, while advocating tax cuts for even the richest Vermonters. It says here it’s time to turn things over the Democrats and see what they can do.

You've got to wonder, though, why any sane person wants to be governor at this point. Much of the next governor's time will be consumed in trying to find the money to fund state programs -- and then overseeing severe budget cuts in most programs and perhaps the outright destruction of some.

The recession-caused tax shortfall -- and the difficulty of getting meaningful tax increases passed in a time when Americans seemed to have given up on investing in their future -- will give the next governor little choice.

In a classic "drop back 10 and punt" move, the 2010 Legislature did its best to avoid the worst of the budget crisis. But the state's budget crisis is serious enough that it can't be dodged again in 2011.

In fact, one might say that the winner of this year's election could end up being the loser. Whoever comes out on the short end will, after two years of budget cutting led by the new governor, have a ripe target for a repeat effort. Should he have the stomach for it.

* * *

Perhaps the most interesting local legislative races is in the New Haven-Weybridge-Bridport district, where Democrat Spence Putnam is squaring off against Republican Harvey Smith, who previously held the seat for eight years. Smith was knocked off in 2006 by Chris Bray. The seat is an open one in the wake of Bray’s unsuccessful, quixotic quest for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.

Putnam is that somewhat unusual Democrat who can claim deep business experience -- among other things as one of the top executives at Vermont Teddy Bear and Danforth Pewterers, and as executive director of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. On that basis, as well as for his extensive experience with local governmental and nonprofit organizations, Putnam deserves the seat.


My vote for best campaign sign of the season goes to Mike Fisher of Lincoln, who’s seeking re-election. Some of his bright-red signs don't even say who the candidate is. They just show the outline of a red fish.

Too bad redfish aren't native to Vermont. But then, Fisher's choices for a sign color were limited to out-of-state piscatorians. Yellowtail, orange roughy and bluefish aren't native to Vermont, either.


More on this topic later, but last Friday and Saturday's symposium honoring the Middlebury College teaching of political science Prof. Murray Dry showed just how huge an effect one teacher can have.

Many of Dry's students over the decades gathered for two days of papers, panels and a culminating dinner to honor his teaching career and scholarship.

All this, and Murray isn't even retiring.

The composition of the dinner crowd indicated the reach of his legacy, consisting of both graying Baby Boomers who had been in Murray's first Middlebury class in 1968 -- he forgot his lecture notes and had to dash back to his office to get them – and students who take his classes today.

There are certainly other teachers at the college who deserve this kind of tribute. But few of them have inspired as much loyalty as Murray Dry.

One reason? As a speaker at Saturday night's dinner jokingly put it, "In Murray's world there are three things: students, former students, and nonstudents."

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

350.org and Social Media Activism

Can Facebook, Twitter and YouTube truly subvert the old power paradigms? Perhaps, as the digital evangelists would have us believe, these digital platforms represent a new and powerful way to change the world.

The old Sixties phrase was that the revolution will not be televised. But will it be tweeted?

Or is social media just another form of entertainment – a diversion that gives us the illusion that we can be active for a cause, just by clicking a computer mouse?

When social media first emerged, many of us felt we could use online communications to move people to action, in ways we hadn't been able to do before.

International movements such as Free Tibet and the Save Darfur Coalition have garnered millions of supporters online.

Protests against the Iranian government were widely publicized on Twitter -- so much so that the US government asked Twitter to delay a scheduled maintenance shutdown, because Washington wanted Iranian activists to continue using Twitter to undermine the fundamentalist government of Iran.

But more recent thinking, as summarized in a recent New Yorker magazine article by Malcolm Gladwell, suggests it's all just a bunch of cheap thrills.

Gladwell calculates, for example, that the nearly 1.3 million people who have signed up to be "members" of the Save Darfur Coalition on Facebook have donated a grand total of about 9 cents each to the cause.

Gladwell compares this paltry activism to the extreme sacrifices of the American Civil Rights movement. Using block-by block, church-by church organizing against segregation, civil rights activists built a strong, hierarchical network that changed the nation.

Contrast that with the nonhierarchical, lounge-chair “activism” of people who get an angry e-mail from MoveOn.org, fire off copies to their friends -- and think they've contributed to making this a better society.

The only thing that will really change the world, Gladwell argues, is old-fashioned organizing, whether the cause involves a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter or at a coal-fired power plant.

He may well be right. We don't really accomplish much by "liking" some political cause on Facebook.

Even though online activism has proved to be a powerful means of raising money for political organizations right and left, there's no substitute for door-to-door canvassing for votes, few tools more powerful than getting people to public rallies and polling places.

There is, however, one very powerful exception to the critique from Gladwell and other critics. And it started right here in Addison County, with the efforts of author Bill McKibben and a group of recent Middlebury College graduates who formed 350.org.

The organization's phenomenal global growth has largely been fueled by the Internet -- focusing on the fact that 350 ppm is the maximum allowable concentration of atmospheric carbon to sustain life on earth as we know it.

Last year, for example, 350.org organized more than 5,000 events all over the world to focus on the number 350 -- in McKibben's words "the most important number in the world" because it's tied so closely to our survival. (And once you focus on 350 ppm as the sustainable ceiling, it's especially frightening to know that we are already at 390 ppm and rising.)

A year later, 350.org asked supporters around the world this year to do more than just highlight a number. They wanted everybody to get to work, on projects in their communities that would help ease global warming.

It’s one thing to ask people to take a photo of a hand-lettered “350” at an exotic location. It’s quite another to ask them to pick up a shovel. Would anybody show up? Or was last year's event just another example of photo-op activism?

The world got the answer this past Sunday, October 10 – “10-10-10” -- and it was a heartening one. All over the planet, people organized work projects in virtually every country in the world. More than 7,000 of them, exceeding even last year's effort.

The results that culminated in Sunday's events can be witnessed at www.350.org.
Religious Australians organized a national “ride to worship week. In Harlem they painted over the black roof of a school with white paint to reduce the building’s energy usage.

From troubled lands like Iran and Palestine, people sent in pictures of their actions. In Bangladesh, where rising seawater threatens millions of people, they gathered on bikes and in small boats to spread the word about 350.

There were more than 2,000 events in the United States – which is especially encouraging since we generate so much of the world's district of carbon. In Cornwall, Vt., for example, they worked on an organic garden at the local elementary school.

In Afghanistan, a country being torn apart by an endless war, students organized tree plantings to green up the atmosphere.

At Middlebury College, by comparison, only a few hardworking students turned out for Sunday’s events. Those intrepid students gleaned leftover food from farmers’ fields and orchards to feed the hungry in Addison County. Then they went door-to-door registering voters.

But most of the college’s 2,300-plus students stayed away.

Think about it. Afghanistan is coming apart at the seams -- yet more students turned out there to stop climate change than at Middlebury College, the very birthplace of this global movement.

Nonetheless, in thousands of other places around the globe, people inspired by the movement that began in Middlebury were thinking really big.

Last Sunday was the inspiration for solar panel installations in Bangalore, India, the Namibian desert, the Maldives, and Las Cruces, N.M. An estimated 7,000 people marched in the streets of Istanbul. They held an event with endangered penguins on a beach in South Africa. In Isafjordur, they pledged to "keep the ice in Iceland."

So much for the idea that digital media can't be used to organize. In putting together the world's biggest-ever environmental work party, 350.org may have shown the way to a new global commitment to curbing climate change.

As the 350 organizers are fond of putting it, we’ve gotten to work – and now it's time for our political leaders to get to work, too.

-- 30 --

Thursday, October 07, 2010

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