A response to Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance, by Bill McKibben (Blue Rider Press, 2017)
In this, his seventeenth book on the environment, Bill McKibben adopts what is for him a new style of writing. He gives us a fable, a wild story of five people in Vermont who interrupt regular TV and radio broadcasts with their own outside-of-the-law, call-in talk show.
It happens in Vermont, during another winter without much snow. The story’s political climate is shaped by the Trump White House. The characters include a governor who is convinced that Vermont needs to go big time, one sign of which is a new stadium with retractable roof. For many in the business community, going big time means replacing local businesses with national chain stores and local craft beers with national brands.
Not so for Vern Barclay, who has spent much of his long life hosting talk shows on local radio. Sitting outside on a winter day that was too warm, he mused. “Goodness didn’t demand the one-way arrow toward Progress and More. It was, he thought, a blessing to have lived out his life in a place that spun slowly like that yellow leaf, an eddy in the American rapids, a place that was shrinking when most of the country was growing growing, ever-growing” (p. 78).
He partners with a young, slightly autistic techie and a life-long Vermont woman who teaches classes on how to live in Vermont to new-comers—mostly retired executives, lawyers, and academics who are choosing Vermont as the place where they could finish out their lives. They are joined by a young woman biathlete, an Olympic gold medalist whom Vern had coached. Before the story ends, Vern’s 96-year-old mother who lives in a nursing home is part of the team.
Their campaign’s edgy theme is that Vermont should withdraw from the Union and reestablish classic Vermont values and patterns of personal and community-based ways of life. Vern directs their efforts. Young Perry digs up information and uses his hi-tech skills to get them on the air and avoid being traced to their hide-away at Sylvia’s house. Trance, with her Olympic-based public persona, becomes the focal point of their climactic confrontation with Vermont’s law enforcement system and the F.B.I.
By story’s end, Vermonters all over the state are involved in the debate and, following Vern’s urging, are planning to discuss secession in the town meetings that soon will take place in communities—little and large—all across the state. While Vern continues to urge that the people renew their distinctive, localized, freedom-loving way of life, he edges away from his advocacy of secession. “He knew precisely how fallible he was—he sensed he was on the right path, he really did think the country was too big, out of control. But it was one thing to argue that, and another to act on it; and the pleasure he took made him all the more suspicious” (p. 169).
McKibben begins his two-page author’s note at book’s end by writing that an “advantage to writing a fable is that you get to append a moral to the end.” For this book, it is not that everyone should secede. “Instead, it’s that when confronted by small men doing big and stupid things, we need to resist with all the creativity and wit we can muster, and if we can do so without losing the civility that makes life enjoyable, then so much the better.”
As an example of how this idea plays out “in the age of Trump,” he cites the action on the first day of his presidency which “saw millions of (mostly) women in pink pussy hats on the street, followed in subsequent days by sights of conscientious Americans flocking to airports to protect immigrants, or thousands of New York bodega owners shuttering their shops for a day in protest of the new regime’s Muslim ban” (p. 219).
In his comment about the book published on the jacket, Bernie Sanders states two hopes: first, that no one secedes, but also “that Americans figure out creative ways to resist injustice and create communities where everybody counts.”
We’re enduring a period of harsh, angry confrontation that seems only to harden people in their positions, making it difficult for any kind of civil, sober discussion and development of new ways of responding to the crises that most people admit, at least privately, are sweeping the world. Pink pussy hats have been put away, the mid-term elections are past, and a different political mix is taking over in Washington and many other parts of the nation.
This is the time for serious conversation and prudent legislation in the real world. What will it take to make such talk possible? More episodes of creative civil resistance conducted with wit and civility might be one answer.