Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Goodbye, Vermont: The cover story (not on-line, but no great loss) in the latest National Review is about the changes that have taken place in Vermont that have made it, politicaly and socially, a haven for the left (with the only self-described socialist in Congress); at the same time, those changes have freed Vermont almost entirely of the burden of jobs and industry. The article disposes of any subtlety early on, though, and can't seem to grasp that the rural old guard of New England is, in its way, at least as luddite as the radical greens who want to declare the state a nature preserve (except for their charmingly decorated old farmhouse, of course).

Vermont, like most of the northern tier New England states (including part of Maine, non-coastal New Hampshire, Western Massachusetts, and Eastern upstate New York), while not exactly a Republican redoubt, has (or had) a wide independent streak, an aversion to outsiders, and a pretty severe allergy to non-local control over local decisions. This is the state, after all, that once tried to impose a registration fee on anyone who didn't own a gun, on the grounds that they were a larger burden on the police and couldn't contribute to the defense of themselves or the state. But that Vermont is obviously fading away, and a lot of the cursing of the flatlanders, the invaders from the tonier parts of the East Coast, is the usual rubbish that accompanies an aversion to change. That said, the fact that "the spruced-up old farmhouse in Vermont" type has become such a caricature of the east-coast-liberal lifestyle is rooted in fact. Estimates vary, but Vermont is approaching the point where a majority of its citizens were not born there.

Why do I mention it? Because I live in one of those parts of New England that used to be a blue-collar, working-class stronghold. It has become, in the past generation, gentrified, expensive, a bit kitschy, liberal -- something unlike its former self. There's nothing really wrong with this. Crime is lower now (though graffiti is more common here than in Giuliani's New York; to every stop sign is added the drippy scrawl of "Ashcroft"). There are more sushi places than mom-n-pop diners now. The schools have improved (though what they teach now is no doubt as unrelated to an actual curriculum as at any public school). All of which has led me to conclude that I like to live in a left-wing town. I like the food, the coffee (though I won't spring for fair trade), the movies and arts, the people, and the intellectual climate. On that note, though, the moral opprobrium takes some getting used to; reasonable disagreement is simply not possible. You're either progressive (i.e, socialist) or fascist.

Of course, nothing comes for free. The money that makes the gentrification possible comes from outside the town, where the jobs are. Rents are ridiculous, which further ensures the dominance of the boutique class. Consequently, the boutiques themselves rely on trhe business brought in by the tourism of quaintness-hunters, so there is little to buy in town of any use, though what is available sits only a few degrees behind on the fashion curve and runs at nearly New York City prices.

But National Review is taking shots at Vermont because it's the home of Howard Dean, who truly enough epitomizes the upper-west-side decampment to charming old New England, and the attendent movement by the transplanted left to make sure that the renovation their old farmhouse bears the last building permit issued in the state. But it is difficult to imagine NR heaping the same scorn on the more conservative, multigenerational residents of Vermont who celebrate their ephemeral "good old days" with the same fictionalized embroidery as the left and their equally false deification of the peaceful, environmentally aware American Indians who were the "locals" long before the proto-flatlander invasion of the Green Mountain Boys.

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