Real Democracy

     Tuesday will be Town Meeting Day in Vermont, one of my favorite days of the year. I always try to go.
     Not because I find it interesting – I don’t.
     It’s boring.
     Good government usually is. And I daresay that the better the government, the more boring it is.
     I like Town Meeting Day because it lets me into a tradition that dates back to before we became a country – a tradition that still exists, though we’re not really a country anymore.
     We’re a bunch of preening, petted whiners, bitching at one another.
     I’ve lived in Vermont for just 8 years, and though I never want to leave, I know I will always be what Vermonters call a tourist.
     Real Vermonters have family graveyards down the road, with the bones of people who lived here in the 1600s – before Beethoven and Mozart, before J.S. Bach and George Washington. Some Vermonters live in the same houses as the people who lie under those thin, slate gravestones.
     Though I’m just a tourist, I know what to expect on Town Meeting Day. I know the name of the old lady who will stand up to complain about every goddam penny the school board asks for. No matter what it is.
     If a 50-year-old boiler blew up and killed an entire kindergarten class, two teachers, the principal and all the janitors, this woman would say it wasn’t that way when she went to school, and she doesn’t see why the school needs $5,000 for a new boiler.
     The 200 or so people in the room will listen to her, apparently respectfully, and then approve the school budget.
     When the roads budget comes up – the biggest budget item after schools – someone will make a joke about somebody else’s old truck. Everyone except me will know the truck the joke is about, and a lot of them will know stories about it. And may have been in some of those stories.
     I’ll cast my ballot, if there’s anything to vote for other than by a show of hands, and I’ll leave pretty soon. And no matter what the town decides, about anything, I approve.
     Because Vermont is the sanest, most sensible place I’ve ever lived.
     If my neighbors like it, then it’s all right with me.
     I don’t mind paying taxes for it, either.
     I realize this makes me sort of un-American today.
     I do not feel put-upon, overtaxed or cheated, and I’m not angry at anyone.
     Isn’t that a hell of a thing to say, in a political column?
     Who the hell do I think I am?
     Why don’t I get with the program?
     This ain’t a United States anymore. I don’t know what it is, but it ain’t a United States.
     Four hundred years ago, Sir Thomas Overbury – who was murdered in 1613 – wrote a little book called “Characters,” in which he explained the nature of the English freeman – the freest common man in the world, in those days.
     “There is no truer servant in his house than himself,” Overbury wrote. “Though he be master, he says not to his servants, ‘Go to field,’ but ‘Let us go’ … ‘”
     Sound like the United States today?
     No, it doesn’t.
     Does anyone in our screwed-up country want to be a “servant” in our own house?
     No, we don’t.
     So far as I can see, everyone wants to call the shots, and if he can’t, he wants to whine about how unfair it all is.
     I’m a lucky guy. I’ve lived and worked in 11 states and on an Indian reservation, and I’ve reported from every state in the Lower 48, and I found things to like about all of it, no matter how strange it seemed at the time.
     It seems to me that frozen Vermont has more in common with the Indian reservation where I lived in sweltering southern Arizona, and that both those places have more in common with what the United States used to be, than what this so-called country has in common with what it professes to be its beliefs. If you read the newspapers. If you follow politics.
     People in Vermont, and on the rez, don’t shove their religion down your throat, and they don’t shove down your throat what they say they think they believe about anything else.
     They know the virtues of shutting up.
     They really care about their neighbors.
     And they don’t yak about it.

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