Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Bernie Rocks

 Warren VT, 4 July 2015: Senator Sanders in the Ship of State

           I have just returned from a delightful family vacation in Vermont where, thanks to an opportunity offered by the new “sharing economy” we were able to establish ourselves in a beautiful private chalet, with sufficient room for six adults and three small but energetic kids, near Warren, Vermont.  I had taken with me lots of “scholarship” and numerous brave intentions for “activities”.  What I mainly did, it hardly needs saying, was to hang out with my grandkids and read novels, though there was a respectable amount outdoorsy stuff of the genre reported on last week.

            There proved to be an unexpected politico-cultural highpoint to the week—namely the civic parade mounted by the Town of Warren on the Fourth of July.  The small town Fourth of July parade is very old-fashioned, very New England, and very Norman Rockwell.  From my many years teaching at Bread Loaf I was vaguely aware of the popularity and ambition of such parades, which are the rough equivalent in the American civil religion of many medieval saints’ festivals.  Bristol, not too far up the road from Middlebury, was reported to have a notable one.  Perhaps also Brandon and Salisbury to the south.  Within certain generic limitations, there is said to be a considerable amount of distinctive local spirit among these festivities.  Certainly the Warren parade has a delightful character all its own centered on a rather wacky float competition.

            The floats, intermingled with marching musicians, stray children and domestic animals, happy patriots and a few free-lance exhibitionists, move along several blocks of Warren’s Main Street, thickly hemmed in on both sides by enthusiastic spectators, before coming to rest a couple of hundred yards up a side road.  The atmosphere among both paraders and spectators was carnivalesque but also deeply patriotic.  One word that comes to mind is eclectic.  There was to begin with a certain amount of the usual.  There was a solemn-looking guy driving a stolid-looking tractor.  There was another guy with an antique motor vehicle, which of course died in the middle of the road and had to be shunted to one side.  So far as I could tell the medium was the message for these motorists, who pursued no identifiable political agenda.  Many others did, of course.  There was an enthusiastic group of female dancers, or perhaps cheerleaders, celebrating the recent decision of the Supreme Court concerning “marriage equality” and advertising their support for the LBGT community.  One of the subthemes, made explicit on tee-shirts among the crowd, was “Black lives matter”.  (This seemed to be a generally unexceptional and pious sentiment rather than a pointed local critique, though I did see three black people among a crowd I would estimate at many thousands.)  At least one of the floats was pointedly local.  It was a kind of mobile petition to reinstate “Laurie”—apparently a beloved teacher, school nurse, or librarian who had been let go under circumstances unknown to me by the local School Board. 

            It was the winning float, however, that was most instructive.  It was called “Bernie Rocks the Boat”, and it was the collaborative work of a like-minded group that included several of my son Richard’s Red Hook neighbors from Brooklyn.  These people have various connections with the Warren region, where several of them summer.  The world knows that Bernie Sanders, formerly of Brooklyn, is a United States Senator from Vermont, and that Bernie Sanders, though a political Independent, is a candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President.  What at least my personal part of the world didn’t know is that a lot of people in Vermont are very serious about his candidacy.

            I must describe the creators of this float as material artists of rare talent and absolute geniuses of political theater.  The boat that Bernie was rocking, the USS “Status Quo” berthed in Washington, was constructed mainly of lathe framing and expertly painted cardboard.   It would be hard to suggest an allegory more fitting to our current ship of state. The “Status Quo” must have been a good thirty feet long.  Out of it rose a huge simulacrum of Bernie Sanders, composed of God knows what materials.  Bernie’s enormous glasses, for example, seemed to have once been an automobile windshield.  The Senator 's  large mitts invited a certain amount of poetic license.   The boat was constructed in such a way that viewers along the route could not see the people within it who were helping to propel it and to make it rock dramatically every now and then.  It soon became obvious that the Status Quo being rocked was our Big Money Politics as Usual represented by various disquieted Republican candidates, but also, and conspicuously, by Bill and Hillary Clinton.  There were many other witty features that probably would have clinched the prize even had the content not been so widely approved.

 Mal-de-mer among the one percenters

           I grant that the demographics of rural Vermont have changed a bit since the Fourth of July in 1872, when Calvin Coolidge was born there.  Affluent urbanites with summer properties have replaced Robert Frost’s hired men.  Yet far better than most of our rural states, today’s Vermont has negotiated without excessive trauma the de facto disappearance of the early agrarian republic.  I noted years ago that the state is full of the kinds of eccentric human character, energy, and micro-entrepreneurship that conservatives prize, at least rhetorically.  Senator Sanders is usually an enthusiastic participant in two or three civic parades in the state he represents, but this year he was off in Iowa among the ethanol addicts where he was doing some rocking on his own behalf.  I was amused to read an article in Monday’s Times entitled “Sanders' Momentum in Iowa Leaves Clinton Camp on Edge.”   It began thus: “The ample crowds and unexpectedly strong showing garnered by Senator Bernie Sanders are setting off worry among advisers and allies of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who believe the Vermont senator could overtake her in Iowa polls by the fall and even defeat her in the nation’s first nominating contest there.”

Photographs courtesy of Richard A. Fleming, exercising his first amendment rights above, and Joan Fleming