SECEDE FROM THE UNITED STATES?: Interview With Rob Williams of Vermont Commons
by Carolyn Baker
I recently caught up with Rob Williams, volunteer editor of VERMONT COMMONS which is the online voice of Vermont Independence. The organization has been working for some time to establish The Second Vermont Republic which is a peaceful, democratic, grassroots, libertarian populist movement opposed to the tyranny of the U.S. Government, corporate America, and globalization and committed to the return of Vermont to its rightful status as an independent republic, as it was between 1777 and 1791. More of the history of Vermont and the Independence movement can be read at the VT Commons website.
CB: Please explain the Vermont secessionist movement and why many Vermonters support it. Why do you support it? What do you think might happen to Vermont if secession does not happen?
RW: The Vermont secession impulse is born out of our understanding that the United States - once a great republic - has become an unsustainable Empire governed by a very few. Beyond massive (and bipartisan) national electoral fraud, 9/11’s unanswered questions, a
“war on terror” (that will not end, we are told, in our life times), the collapse of the U.S. Constitution, the erosion of civil liberties, and the practicing of “disaster capitalism” on a massive scale by political and economic elites, the U.S. is simply too big to function as a democratic republic in its current state. In other words, as astute observers from across the political spectrum have pointed out, the Empire is essentially ungovernable, unsustainable, and un-reformable.
We in the Vermont independence effort are a growing group of citizens who have moved beyond frustration with the current imperial system and are championing a more honest and hopeful paradigm - that of “small is beautiful” sustainability and, if need be, peaceable secession from the Empire, and the re-invention of Vermont as an independent republic, as it was from 1777 to 1791. Contrary to popular belief, New England was the first region of the country to openly call for secession - not once but several times - during the early 19th century, for similar reasons as our own in the 21st: concern about growing corporate and commercial power, and legitimate fears of a centralized federal/statist apparatus that trumps local decision-making and state sovereignty. Given expansive federal regulatory power over our food (USDA), our airwaves (FCC), our animals and livestock (NAIS), our educational endeavors (NCLB), and every other aspect of our lives, it makes sense to take a good hard look at some legitimate alternatives that exist as a forgotten part of the U.S. political tradition - this is what we are doing here at Vermont Commons newspaper.
While this is no small task, as a patriot and a secessionist both, I support Vermont independence (and indeed, the restoration of sovereignty for all states within this allegedly “indivisible” Union) because I think that peaceable secession is the only viable way to save what we so deeply appreciate about the ideals and values of our United States. And, without sounding too grandiose, secession may allow us to help sustain our civilization as a whole as we seek to “re-invent” our former republic-turned-Empire in the face of emerging “big picture” problems such as climate change, global peak oil, and the excesses of corporate globalization, what former Bush/Wall Street insider Catherine Austin Fitts calls the “tapeworm economy.”
CB: What does a “sustainable” lifestyle mean to you? What percentage of Vermonters would you say are living this way?
RW: “Sustainability” can be one of those vague and meaningless buzz words that is often used without thought. To me, living “sustainably” means practicing pragmatic but careful stewardship of our spiritual, physical, and economic resources - which leads, of course, to a thousand thoughtful daily decisions about how we live our lives. Vermont has a long tradition of frugality, self-reliance, community support, and what we call “Yankee ingenuity” - we’ll need all of these qualities in spades moving forward into this new century, which will look very different than the previous one.
And becoming more “sustainable” is a personal and collective process. Five years ago, my wife of fifteen years and I didn’t own land, keep chickens, split, stack and heat our home with local wood, grow and store some of our own food, and press our own cider, and now we do - thanks to continued collaboration with friends and neighbors who are as interested in these same sorts of issues, and are intent on finding local solutions to big picture problems.
CB: How and where do you see re-localization happening in Vermont? Which areas of the state are more supportive of the concept?
RW: Vermonters are speaking out on climate change (witness the Step It Up campaign, born out of a 5 day collective walk on behalf of “taking action on climate change” one year ago here in Vermont); beginning to adapt new and more local agricultural and energy/food consumption habits (our exploding Localvore movement, for example); conserving land for agricultural spaces (our vibrant land trust movement); seeking “alternative” energy solutions to fossil fuels (the explosion of local solar and wind companies here), and generally beginning to engage in some collective head-scratching about how we might steer our civilization towards more sustainable paths. Every Vermonter I know has a garden and knows how to grow food. Regarding regions, every section of Vermont is working on these dilemmas in their own ways. In one sense, I feel like Vermonters are returning to their roots by reviving practice in self-reliance and “do it yourself”-ness.
CB: Can Vermont feed itself? There is much talk of this, but in a state where the ground is frozen 8 months out of the year, how can Vermonters make this happen?
RW: You need a good-sized root cellar to pull this off! But more and more Vermonters I know are rediscovering the satisfaction that comes with canning, pickling, and preserving; of raising chickens and other livestock; of growing their own food and supporting CSAs, farmer’s markets, and farmers who are their neighbors. Specialty foods, many grown locally, are becoming a Vermont hallmark, as well. Once upon a time, one hundred years ago, Vermont proved much more self-sufficient then it is now. We have spent much time and energy these past few decades trying to preserve our family-owned dairy farms in the midst of a global dairy economy that milks them alive, while ignoring other agricultural needs - but we’re getting savvier in this arena, as well.
And one cannot exist on maple syrup, milk and cheese, and apple cider alone - ultimately, we need some state leadership on diversifying our food economy, beyond our “Buy Local” campaign, and we are, of course, continually discovering the joys of trading with our neighbors, as well as remaining plugged into a global food network while we can.
CB: How are Vermonters changing their form and quantity of energy consumption? How feasible is solar energy in Vermont? What other forms of natural energy are being used? How widespread is this usage?
RW: We Vermonters live in the midst of interesting times for energy here - 2/3 of our state’s electricity, for example, is generated by so-called “clean” non-carbon-emitting energy sources - Vermont Yankee Nuclear in the western portion of the state, and HydroQuebec, which owns the eastern border’s Connecticut River dams projects. The problem here is that Vermonters ultimately don’t have much say over the future of either of these out-of-state corporate energy sources, as “clean” as people perceive them to be in the short term. The state public service board, the legislature, and, to some extent, the governor’s office have all made some strides towards renewable and “alternative” energy. I think, though that local Vermonters and businesses are ahead of the curve. I’ve got neighbors who are growing solar panels in their back yard, bringing in wood stoves for more biomass, conducting energy audits to make their homes and businesses much more efficient, and the like. And this is what it takes - let a thousand ideas and projects bloom here in the Green Mountains.
Big picture - as with sustainable agriculture, there are many ideas on the table re: energy - my current favorite is a proposal I just read suggesting that we plant 100,000 acres of switch grass across the state. Switchgrass is a relatively carbon-friendly and renewable form of biomass energy - which could theoretically replace the entire state’s imported natural gas supply for heating our Vermont homes and businesses all winter. We’ve also gotten tremendous mileage out of our “Efficiency Vermont” energy conservation program - though there is much more work to do here. We are a state with the second oldest building stock in the Empire, too, so re-tooling our buildings to make them more energy efficient is key. In short, there is plenty of work to be done, and we’re well on our way. The bottom line is - we have to figure out how to do more with less energy, and do it more efficiently, and “incentive-ize” this in any way that we can.
CB: One of Vermont’s principle “industries” is education with the state spending more on education than many other states do. Is there opposition in the state to the No Child Left Behind Act? If so, how is this opposition being expressed? To what extent are people home-schooling their children?
RW: I’ve been a local school board member for several years now. While they have their problems, Vermont’s public schools are among the highest-performing of all fifty states within the Empire - we seem to be able to absorb NCLB’s demands - often unrealistic, opportunistic, and under-funded - without flinching too much, and, while I work with a vocal minority of NCLB critics, I am surprised there isn’t more public opposition to NCLB from the rank and file, though most teachers and administrators I know would prefer to test less and educate more. I know folks in Vermont who home school for a wide variety of reasons, but I don’t have any specific numbers here.
CB: Can you tell us a bit about Vermont’s new experiment with healthcare coverage, Catamount? What is your opinion of it? How will Catamount be funded and who will actually benefit from it? How prevalent are alternative health practitioners in Vermont? Vermont obviously sits on the Canadian border, so I’m wondering how successful Vermonters have been in obtaining medications from Canada. Please comment.
RW: Vermont is a great state to be sick in, aside from occasional life-threatening traumas that demand the kind of intense and immediate care that only a high-powered and high-tech urban hospital might be able provide. I think it is too early to tell how successful Catamount will be - the jury is still out, though I know that much is riding on its performance. Our once and future republic is a refuge and an incubator for a wide variety of alternative health practitioners - you can’t swing a live catamount in this state without hitting a physical therapist, yoga mistress, Reiki guru, or massage specialist. It is nice, actually - when we get sick or stressed, we have so many affordable options in our communities, and I know many folks who go over the border for surgeries of various kinds - it is good to have options.
CB: We hear much about “community” in Vermont, but what do you actually see happening in terms of people “living in community”? Are there intentional communities in Vermont? Please explain to readers the “village green” tradition in Vermont. Why is it important?
RW: The annual town meeting tradition, in which Vermonters take the first Tuesday in early March to attend their town and school board meetings to vote on budgetary matters, is under siege here - according to some recent figures, only 20% of Vermonters polled actually attend their town meetings on a yearly basis, and some towns are switching to Australian Ballot measures. This is too bad, as there is much to celebrate with our town meetings, which Henry David Thoreau called “the true Congress,” because we look at our neighbors face to face and deliberate matters vital to our communities.
And there is this funny paradox here - because we have no intermediate governing structures between town governments and the state, for the most part (no county seats, for example) - political decision-making is very centralized, in some ways.
But local Vermonters also donate tremendous amounts of time to school and select boards, planning commissions, ad hoc committees, neighborhood groups, volunteer fire and ambulance services, and the like.
And we in the Vermont independence effort have just started our “Free Vermont” campaign - to use annual town meeting as a way to jump start a debate about peaceable secession. Find out more at http://www.freevermont.net/ .
CB: What do you absolutely love about Vermont? What are some of the challenges of living there? What would you like to change about Vermont?
RW: Vermont is a small, rural, poor, sparsely populated, beautiful, and quiet place. This is both a blessing and a curse - it is easy to live and work out of doors, and the skiing and other recreational opportunities are phenomenal, if you can put up with cold, long, dark winters, as well as the aesthetic pleasures of “mud” and “stick” season.
But for someone who grew up in the suburbs and then spent ten years living in cities as a young man in my twenties, I love Vermont’s size, Vermont’s neighborliness, Vermonters’ “live and let live” approach, and what might be called Vermonters’ “jack of all trades” quality: everyone I meet here is involved with all kinds of fascinating projects, working with their minds, and hands, and hearts, and all are passionately dedicated to this place we call Vermont, despite our disagreements about the specifics.
I’d like to see more ethnic and racial diversity here - we have had historically and still have a very small population of color here (though trends like a growing number of African refugee resettlement programs in cities like Burlington are changing this, and for the better, I think). We also have 2,000 Mexican migrant workers, for example, working on Vermont’s farms, who tend to keep a low profile, for obvious reasons. Vermont’s legal support for “civil unions” after much contentious conversation is another example of our “live and let live” philosophy, and this, from state with gun laws so liberal you don’t even need a permit to carry a hand gun! And this sort of fascinating combination of factors is what makes Vermont unique. We’re 630,000 citizens who are not so easily pigeonholed, though the national media tries and fails to most every time.
Ultimately, I think it is Vermont’s balanced combination of fierce independence and “live and let live” attitude, of community-mindedness and self-reliance.That is most compelling to me.
CB: This question probably should have been asked first, but what is your background? Where did you grow up? How long have you lived in Vermont? Do you work with Vermont Commons full-time, or do you do other work?
RW: I am not only a “flatlander” (as Vermont natives like to call us new arrivals), I am what Ethan Allen called almost pejoratively, (I should add) a “Yorker” - I grew up in the New York suburbs just four hours south of where I now live in central Vermont’s Mad River Valley. I’ve lived in Vermont for six years - and I am volunteer (web) editor for Vermont Commons. I am an historian, teacher, and musician by training, and I teach history and media studies courses at Champlain College in Burlington, when I am not out and about at our home tending to kids, chickens, and chores.
Visit Carolyn Baker’s site at http://carolynbaker.net/site/component/option,com_frontpage/Itemid,1/