Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Good News, Bad News and No News

Good News

Last month's Opinions column on the Vermont Secretary of State's website, Voice from the Vault by Vermont's award winning State Achivist, Gregory Sanford, introduces historical accuracy to the discussion generated by Second Vermont Republic's own historical revisionism.

Sanford aptly raises the spectre of George Orwell's 1984 in commenting on an SVR founder's attempt and the Vermont Commons' publisher's efforts to spin Vermont history.   I wonder if they will be taking him to task soon for not approaching them first before writing his piece, that strategy having worked so well for them in the past.

Here's Sanford's piece in its entirety:
Voice From the Vault

by Gregory Sanford

Myths and Documents

One of the enduring lines from George Orwell's 1984 is: "He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future."

I often think of this line when I encounter folks attempting to achieve a future outcome by manipulating Vermont’s past. When done often enough we come to accept such manipulations as historic realities and incorporate them into our own rhetoric.

At the Archives, for example, we regularly receive requests for copies of the "escape clause" in the Vermont Constitution. This purported clause allows Vermont to withdraw from the United States. A variation, which we call the Brigadoon theory, is that this escape clause opens up every hundred years, presumably starting in 1791. After all, would Vermonters, after 14 years of independence (1777-1791), simply embrace statehood without leaving a way out? The requests come from across the political spectrum: those who do not like a national administration; oppose national foreign or economic policies; loath the federal income tax; or fear gun control or other potential restraints on individual freedom.

The truth, drawn from documents, is less satisfying; there is no, nor has there ever been, such an escape clause.

These thoughts emerged while reading news stories on current efforts to withdraw Vermont from the union. I have before me a news release by two Vermont supporters of secession. Part of their argument is based on historical facts of dubious reputation. Let me illustrate by juxtaposing italicized quotes from the press release with quotes from historical documents.

"Vermont did not join the Union to become part of an empire." At the January 1791 convention on whether Vermont should ratify the U.S. Constitution and join the union Nathaniel Chipman argued, "But received into the bosom of the union, we at once become brethren and fellow-citizens with more than three millions of people; instead of being confined to the narrow limits of Vermont, we become members of an extensive empire…" Chipman goes on to enumerate the advantages of joining this empire, the United States. His arguments carried the day and the convention voted for ratification 105 to 4.

"Vermont more or less sat out the War of 1812, and its governor ordered troops fighting the British to come home." Yes, Governor Martin Chittenden did order Vermont troops home from Plattsburgh, but they refused to return, explaining "that when we are ordered into the service of the United States, it becomes our duty, when required, to march to the defence of any section of the Union. We are not of that class who believe that our duties as citizens or soldiers are circumscribed within the narrow limits of the Town or State in which we reside, but that we are under a paramount obligation to our common country, to the great confederation of States."

"Vermont fought the Civil War primarily to end slavery." And yet in 1861 when Governor Erastus Fairbanks convened the special war session of the Vermont legislature he warned not about slavery but that, "The Federal capital is menaced by an imposing and well armed military force, and the Government itself, and the national archives, are in imminent peril." Jeffrey Marshall, the head of Special Collections at UVM, has read thousands of Civil War letters from hundreds of Vermonters. He reports that only a "handful" of the Vermont soldiers cited slavery as the reason they were fighting; they instead directed their ire at the secessionists, who they characterized as treasonous.

"After the Great Flood of 1927, the worst natural disaster in the state’s history, President Calvin Coolidge (a Vermonter) offered help. Vermont’s governor replied, ‘Vermont will take care of its own’." Whatever Governor Weeks might have actually said, the reality is that Vermont’s congressional delegation successfully lobbied for $2.6 million in federal flood relief. In addition Governor Weeks accepted a check for $600,000 from the Red Cross to help with flood recovery.

And so on. My point is neither to argue with our current secessionists nor denigrate the beliefs of the authors of the press release. Heck, most of us have, at one time or other, probably cited some of the historical "facts" the authors used. I am simply arguing the importance of having accessible public records to evaluate the rhetoric of public figures.

Locating, understanding and interpreting public records will never be as much fun as mouthing our cherished myths. Public records are, however, evidence of the actions we actually took as a State. They too can be pulled out of context or selectively (mis)used to prove a belief. And yet, I would argue, the stories they hold are as dramatic, and instructive, as those found in Vermont mythology.

That is why I think it so important that we pay more attention to teaching Vermont history and civics in our schools. It is why using Vermont’s historical records is so important to learning to become engaged citizens. To learn how to identify and interpret those records creates an intellectual skill that is essential to navigating through our "information age." If we do not learn how to effectively evaluate information in all its myriad forms we will never be able to perform our responsibilities as citizens. To paraphrase Mr. Orwell, "Whoever understands the past, understands the present; whoever understands the present can plan for the future."

Bad News

When the story of SVR and its founder's, Thomas Naylor, ties to white supremacists and their organizations first broke here this winter, one SVR supporter was quick to dismiss the possibility of a real racist connection in Vermont by citing the Southern Poverty Law Center's own list of Active U.S. Hate Groups in 2005 as reason to not worry, since there were no hate groups listed in Vermont.   That all changed when the SPLC published its new Active U.S. Hate Groups in 2006 this Spring.   It contains this sad and troubling addition:

Hardwick · Brotherhood of Klans Knights of the Ku Klux Klan

Rutland · Brotherhood of Klans Knights of the Ku Klux Klan
With Thomas Naylor and his supporters inviting known racist ideologues and groups to our state for his "conventions," I guess we shouldn't be too surprized that something like this has finally occurred.

No News

In April, SVR grandly announced that in yet another so-called poll of theirs Vermonters had "dramatically" increased their support for secession based on the new 2007 Vermonters Poll conducted by UVM's Center for Rural Studies. [1]

Those of you who have been regular readers will recall that I was able to determine that the poll questions had, in fact, been commissioned and paid for by SVR, according to CRS's officials.   Moreover, the questions used in the poll were of a type known to create a response bias.   [2]   [3]   Green Mountain Daily covered the matter succinctly.

In a piece by AP picked up and published around the state this weekend we get to observe the sort of uncritical reporting that gets produced by reporters who re-write press releases and call the results "a story."   I'm sure SVR, et al, must've loved it.   Not everyone else does   (NB: The reporter, John Curran, is Chris Graf's replacement at the VT AP).   For a more balanced analysis, consider this from today's Rutland Herald editorial:
In or Out

June 5, 2007

The republic of Vermont was an independent nation from 1777 to 1791. A group of Vermonters is promoting the idea that Vermont ought to declare its independence once again.

Secession from the union is one of those ideas that is far enough beyond the realm of the possible that it is interesting to talk about. If secession were a real possibility, we would get plenty of reminders of 1861, Fort Sumter, and the inviolable Union for which hundreds of thousands of Americans, including many Vermonters, gave their lives.

Maybe there's a constitutional procedure that would allow Congress and the Vermont Legislature to disunite the United States, though Article 4, Paragraph 3, of the Constitution talks about the admission of new states, not the independence of territories that are states already. But the legal specifics are not what the promoters of secession are mainly concerned with. They are concerned with what they view as the corruption of the American empire and the need for Vermont to give republican principles a rebirth.

An article in the Sunday Herald quoted a booster of secession: "The argument for secession is that the U.S. has become an empire that is essentially ungovernable — it's too big, too corrupt, and it no longer serves the needs of its citizens," Rob Williams argued. "Congress and the executive branch are being run by the multinationals. We have electoral fraud, rampant corporate corruption, a culture of militarism and war."

That is a trenchant indictment of the present state of the nation, which ordinarily might be dismissed as the complaints of a radical or the ravings of a crank, except that the conduct of the Bush administration has given the critique unusual relevance. Polls consistently show that a high percentage of Americans believes that the United States is on the wrong track and thinks that the nation has gone astray in Iraq. The military-industrial complex seems to have run amok. Confidence in the electoral process has been shaken by events in Florida and Ohio and by the apparent corruption of the Justice Department. And so the alluring prospect beckons for us to become the Switzerland of North America.

The idea of secession is usually a way of expressing one's political and cultural identity. Many Vermonters cherish the idea that the state is a uniquely effective small republic. We have learned to promote business and industry while protecting the environment. Our political culture values the civil liberties of our citizens. How satisfying it would be to free ourselves from the misadventures and waste of the federal government.

But the secessionist critique of the United States may contain its own refutation. If the American empire is as wicked as all of that, preying on and exploiting small nations, an independent Vermont would be more vulnerable than any to the economic coercion of the United States. The question is whether it is safer to be inside the tent or out. Vermont is not exactly an economic powerhouse, and it reaps many economic benefits from inclusion in the union. Further, because of the anti-democratic constitutional arrangement that gives each state two senators, Vermont has disproportionate power to influence the United States, and check its excesses, if it remains in the union.

The secessionists serve a purpose in emphasizing the independent spirit of Vermonters. For now let's put that spirit to work to help end the abuses that have given the idea of secession renewed currency.

In closing, I should point out that once again the questions used in the 2007 Vermonter Poll have not been published.   I'm not even going to bother to look for them and expose them as I did with the 2006 Vermonter Poll.   [5]   It isn't worth my time since by now we've all got SVR and Naylor's number.   I'd only want to add that no one has seemed to have noticed that Naylor's claim that "Vermonters support for secession increases dramatically," touted as 8% for 2006 and 13% for 2007, falls well within the margin for error when considering both polls together as he does to arrive at his conclusion.   That isn't very "dramatic" when you consider all spin, promotion, push polling and sloppy reporting that's occurred.   In fact, one can just as easily conclude that there may have been some slippage in support when factoring in the margin for error.

JD Ryan at five before chaos has more on a news organization that didn't do its homework here.   He's right.   This has gotten old.   Fortunately, people are taking notice where it counts.   Sanford's piece at the top of this post is more evidence of that.


At Wednesday, June 6, 2007 at 5:54:00 AM EDT , Blogger Las Vegas said...

"Whenever something is wrong, something is too big." --- Leopold Kohr

Step by step:

Vermont --> New England --> New American Republic

2050 --- Pacifica / Redneckistan / New American Republic




At Wednesday, June 6, 2007 at 10:17:00 AM EDT , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Welcome back Rowley!

Nice to see you again.

At Wednesday, June 6, 2007 at 10:28:00 AM EDT , Blogger Thomas Rowley said...

Thanks... I'd been staying out of the fray but since the VT AP has elected to offer truthiness in lieu of plain, old news, I thought it best to return for a bit with a few cold, hard facts.


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