Vermont's secessionist movement, born of the left, has forged a bewildering alliance with racist neo-Confederates
From 1777 until 1791, Vermont was an independent state complete with all the trappings — a constitution, a flag, even a mint to pump out its own money, the Vermont copper. But in 1791, Vermonters happily joined the new United States. Now, some of the locals want out.
In 2003, the Second Vermont Republic (SVR) sprang up to push for the independence of Vermont, a tiny, idyllic Northeastern state with fewer than 630,000 residents. In its seemingly quixotic quest, SVR took up the mantra that small is beautiful, arguing that secession would lead to sustainability, ecological balance, an end to military entanglements overseas, and a better life. SVR activists designed a new green flag for Vermont and started selling T-shirts, particularly popular with the state's many tourists, that read, "U.S. OUT OF VT!"
But in recent months and years, SVR's actions have gone from way out to worrying. Starting in 2005, SVR leader Thomas H. Naylor — along with SVR's very close ally, the Cold Spring, N.Y.-based Middlebury Institute that is headed by longtime leftist Kirkpatrick Sale — began openly collaborating with a collection of Southern extremists to build a national secession movement.
SVR's disturbing new partner is the white supremacist League of the South. The Alabama-based group is against interracial marriage, believes the old Confederacy never surrendered, and wants to reestablish "the cultural dominance of the Anglo-Celtic people and their institutions" in a newly seceded South. It seeks to accord different classes of people differing legal rights in what sounds very much like a medieval theocracy of lords, serfs and clerics. League intellectuals have defended both slavery (which was "God-ordained") and segregation, a policy described as protecting the genetic "integrity" of both blacks and whites. Right after Hurricane Katrina, league members put up "whites only" housing offers, including one from Alabama offering a trailer to a "white family of three or four," and another from Tennessee offering to temporarily house a "White Christian family."
Many Vermonters have been shocked by this alliance. After all, the Green Mountain State was the first to abolish slavery in 1777, and its men fought fiercely to preserve the union in battles during the Civil War, some of which are proudly commemorated in paintings displayed inside the gold-domed State House. But Naylor isn't worried about his fellow Vermonters' concerns, hotly defending as critical his newfound alliance with members of the radical right.
"For the last 30 years, people have been speculating on the idea of far left meets far right, and I saw the possibility for that not to be fantasy but to be real," Naylor told the Intelligence Report. "The objective is to bring down the Empire." The League of the South, Naylor added, though "not perfect," is "not racist."
Birthing a Movement
Talk of secession has been heating up in Vermont since the early 1990s and even before. In 1991, then-Lt. Gov. Howard Dean moderated debates in seven towns that then voted for secession. That same year, University of Vermont professor and current SVR advisor Frank Bryan argued for secession in a series of well-publicized debates with Vermont Supreme Court Justice John Dooley. With the election of George Bush and the onset of the increasingly unpopular Iraq war, secessionist sentiment in traditionally liberal Vermont picked up, with a 2006 University of Vermont poll showing 8% of residents interested in the idea.
It was Naylor who turned that sentiment into a movement, founding SVR after self-publishing The Vermont Manifesto in 2003. Naylor was spurred to create SVR by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which he does not believe were organized by Osama bin Laden, a "fundamentalist living in a remote cave," but rather were the ultimate result of American arrogance. In his manifesto's preface, Naylor writes: "Our nation has truly lost its way. America is no longer a sustainable nation-state economically, politically, socially, militarily or environmentally. The Empire has no clothes." A perennial curmudgeon, Naylor regularly berates government officials. He calls Vermont's elected officials "enemies of the state" and has labeled six-term Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, "a world-class prostitute."
To most Vermonters, SVR was originally seen as a far-out outfit that engaged in publicity stunts to push secession. At least in the beginning, its most enthusiastic supporters seemed to be the Glover, Vt.-based Bread and Puppet Theater troupe, a merry band dedicated to "cheap art" whose building hosted SVR's first statewide meeting in October 2003. One SVR attention-grabber was a "memorial service" held on March 4, 2005, commemorating the day in 1791 that Vermont joined the union. The service included everything from a reading from Ecclesiastes to the strains of Chopin's "Funeral March." A funeral procession with a New Orleans-style jazz band carried a flag-draped coffin containing the "deceased First Vermont Republic" to the State House in Montpelier, where it was placed at the feet of Vermont Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen's statue. SVR even achieved a symbolic political success, persuading the legislature to designate Jan. 16 as Vermont Independence Day to commemorate the establishment of the First Vermont Republic in 1777.
Naylor's leftist credentials were enhanced greatly by his close friendship with Kirkpatrick Sale, whose Middlebury Institute he helped found in 2005. Sale, a contributing editor at the left-wing journal The Nation and a chronicler of the militant, 1960s-era Students for a Democratic Society, is best known as the author of The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy, a 1991 history that was the first to denounce Columbus for "founding" the New World and ushering in the destruction of its native peoples. Between 1965 and 1968, he was editor of The New York Times Magazine. Thirty years later, in 1995, Sale was named as a "visionary" by the Utne Reader, a liberal journal. Sale also is known for his hatred of technology, once famously smashing a computer to bits on a New York stage.
In 2005, the Vermont secessionist movement also spawned a popular independent newspaper, Vermont Commons, that the SVR describes as a "sister organization." The newspaper promotes nonviolent secession and a "more sustainable Vermont future." Both SVR and Vermont Commons argue that the United States has become an unsustainable "empire" in need of dismantling.
From Mississippi to Montpelier
The image of SVR as a quixotic band of idealistic Vermontophiles fighting for an independent Green Mountain State has taken a public beating since 2006, when Naylor and Sale began openly working with the League of the South and other neo-Confederates. But the fact is that from the beginning, the SVR has been in many ways a Southern import that pushes 19th-century claims about states' rights and a revisionist take on Lincoln and the Civil War.
Naylor, the SVR's 71-year-old founder, is a born-and-bred child of the Deep South. He apparently developed his secessionist ideas under the guidance of former League of the South member and Emory University philosopher Donald Livingston — a man Naylor told the Intelligence Report is the "philosophical guru of the Second Vermont Republic" and who is also published in Vermont Commons. Livingston — who told the Report in a 2001 interview that "the North created segregation" and that Southerners fought during the Civil War only "because they were invaded" — has attended most of SVR's events. Livingston is also featured in the SVR video, "U.S. Empire and Vermont Independence," alongside SVR stalwarts Frank Bryan and Jim Hogue, who is an Ethan Allen reenactor.
Naylor is a native of Jackson, Miss. Some of his father T. H. Naylor Jr.'s correspondence is found in the archives of the infamous Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, a secret state spy agency that was formed to battle integration. The elder Naylor was even featured in the notorious film, "Message From Mississippi," which promoted the joys of segregation. Now retired, Naylor taught economics at Duke University in Durham, N.C., for 30 years, and has written 30 books, ranging from tomes on computer simulations to political works on Gorbachev. In the early 1990s, he worked as a consultant for companies in the USSR. During that time, he became convinced that the break-up of the Soviet Union was a harbinger of America's future.
Although the younger Naylor told the Report that while in college he refused to stand when "Dixie" was played at the University of Mississippi's football games, his ideology is now rife with neo-Confederate ideas. By 1997, Naylor, in his book Downsizing the U.S.A. — co-authored by William Willimon, the dean of chapel and a professor of Christian ministry at Duke University in North Carolina — was calling the Civil War the "War Between the States." Parroting the neo-Confederate anti-Lincoln line, Naylor calls Lincoln "arguably the worst" president in American history. "Lincoln invaded the Confederate States without the consent of congress," he wrote in his Manifesto, adding that Lincoln "may have also been the father of American internal imperialism."
And he adopted a revisionist view of the causes of the Civil War that has been roundly rejected by most serious historians. "Most Americans think the Civil War was fought about freeing the slaves, but rather it was fought to preserve the union and build an empire," Naylor told The (U.K) Independent last October.
Naylor also is down on desegregation. In a 2007 essay, "Minority States NOT Minority Rights," Naylor criticizes segregation but also "forced racial integration," complaining that the federal government was in the 1950s and 1960s "ordering me to associate with minorities whether I like it or not." Overall, Naylor can't abide by the idea that since civil rights legislation was passed in the 1960s, "minority rights always trump states' rights." He asks if integration "disempowered minorities, diluting their influence over their communities and implying that every solution to their problems always lies in the hands of the majority-backed government?"
Naylor's reasons for moving to Vermont are explained in Downsizing the U.S.A. He portrays his then-hometown of Richmond, Va., as overcome by crime and angry African Americans, saying it was in a "death spiral." When he moved to Vermont in 1993, Naylor almost immediately started calling for an independent state. He pines for a separate Vermont, perhaps allied with other Atlantic maritime entities, that would resemble Switzerland or Luxembourg — countries Naylor considers as close to perfect as possible. In Downsizing the U.S.A., Naylor sounds a theme similar to that of many white supremacists, suggesting that some parts of the country could be broken up according to ethnicity. "If Palestine could be divided into a Jewish state and an Arab state, why can't independent African American, Hispanic, and Native American states be carved out of the United States?"
In Vermont, Naylor grew close to an unlikely secessionist, the renowned diplomat George Kennan, described by Naylor as "the godfather of the movement." In his 1994 autobiography Around the Cragged Hill, Kennan had suggested breaking the U.S. into "a dozen constituent republics" for reasons that don't sound that different than Naylor's. In a letter to Naylor quoted in The American Conservative, Kennan wrote of "unmistakable evidences of a growing differentiation between the cultures, respectively, of large southern and southwestern regions of this country" and worried that "the very culture of the bulk of the population of these regions will tend to be primarily Latin-American in nature." Kennan questioned whether American society should be "recklessly trashed" for what he called "a polyglot mix-mash."
Though he has spent his entire life in the New York region and been a regular on the progressive intellectual scene in New York City, Kirkpatrick Sale, too, has sounded very Confederate of late. When addressing the League of the South's convention last fall in Chattanooga, Tenn., Sale came off like a newly minted neo-Confederate. Describing himself as a "Northerner but with the blood of the South running through my veins," Sale told the cheering audience that he was descended from the Sale clan of Virginia and Kentucky and that one of his ancestors, Charles "Chic" Sale, wrote a popular story in Southern vernacular on building outhouses called The Specialist. At the end of the league conference, the audience stood and sang "Dixie" together. In a more recent essay, Sale described his view of what happened when the South seceded the first time: "They were ruthlessly attacked and their society eventually destroyed."
Early last October, Sale's institute co-hosted with the league the Second Annual North American Secession Conference in the same Chattanooga venue. With about 60 attendees, most of the conference's speakers were members of the league or prominent neo-Confederate activists. The event also attracted interest in white supremacist circles outside of the South. For example, publisher Bill Regnery, backer of the white supremacist National Policy Institute, which issues reports on such things as "The State of White America" and "Conservatives and Race," was on hand. For a movement supposedly led out of Vermont and New York, Southerners seem now to be at least co-driving the bus.
Left Meets Right
Four years earlier, in November 2004, SVR held its first serious conference in Middlebury, Vt., in conjunction with Fourth World, a left-wing British secessionist group supported by Sale. That was the beginning of the close partnership between Sale and Naylor.
Attended by 35 people, the conference produced "The Middlebury Declaration," named for the place where it was signed, the Middlebury Inn. The original signers were Naylor, Sale and Donald Livingston, the former league leader. The declaration asserts that "[t]he American empire, now imposing its military might on 153 countries around the world, is as fragile as empires historically tend to be, and that it might well implode upon itself in the near future." Hence the need for a "new politics" based on separation.
Secessionists with League of the South connections were soon involved. Naylor said they approached SVR "as a role model."
Speaking at a Vermont Independence rally that same year was John Remington Graham, an expert on the Francophone independence movement in Quebec, Canada, and an affiliated scholar at the League of the South's Institute for the Study of Southern Culture and History. The main outcome of the meeting was a decision to create a think tank to explore secession around the world. That idea came to fruition with the establishment of Sale's Middlebury Institute in 2005 as a sort of secessionist gathering point that posts material on its website about secessionist groups around the world. The institute also holds conferences on secession, two of which have prominently featured league members as well as other neo-Confederates.
In November 2006, SVR and the Middlebury Institute co-hosted the First North American Separatist Convention in the Montpelier State House (which, ironically, is graced by a large statue of Lincoln). The secessionists-only conference brought together several groups, including the Free Hawaii movement and members of the Alaskan Independence Party. But the bulk of the crowd even then was made up of Southern groups including the racist League of the South; Christian Exodus, a theocracy-minded outfit headed by a former league leader from Texas; and the Abbeville Institute, which was established by Donald Livingston in 2003 after he finally left the League of the South due to its "political baggage." Livingston's institute is devoted to the "Southern tradition," including what it describes as the ignored "achievements of white people in the South."
In October 2007, the league, Naylor and Sale met again in Chattanooga for the Second Annual North American Secession conference, an event organized by the Middlebury Institute and this time officially co-hosted by the league. The conference issued the "Chattanooga Declaration" — a document that pronounced the "old left-right split meaningless and dead" and called for "diversity among human societies." It was while in Chattanooga that Sale spoke so fondly of his Southern roots.
Sale defended the league to reporters, telling The (U.K.) Independent that fall that he wanted to show the "folks up north" that league members are "legitimate colleagues" who have been wrongly declared "racists." (Sale declined to discuss the league, its history or anything else with the Report, saying by E-mail that he did not trust it "for one instant to be fair or truthful.") Sale has hotly contested the SPLC designation of the league as a hate group, telling The Associated Press in 2007 that the league — whose leader, former university professor Michael Hill, has engaged in such activities as sending out E-mails mocking the names of his African-American students — "has not done or said anything racist in its 14 years of existence."
Hard to Starboard
Naylor and Sale don't just share secessionist chitchat with their new neo-Confederate friends. Over the last two years, they have both become ensconced in the neo-Confederate movement and collegial with several extremists. For example, Naylor serves as an "associated scholar" at Livingston's Abbeville Institute, whose ranks are filled with current and former league members. Another Abbeville "scholar," Scott Trask, has written for the white supremacist newsletter American Renaissance, which is devoted to proving the intellectual inferiority of minorities and recently claimed that blacks are incapable of creating any civilization.
SVR, the Abbeville Institute and the League of the South Institute for the Study of Southern Culture and History all share as an advisor Thomas DiLorenzo, a professor at Loyola College who has done more than anyone to push the idea that Abraham Lincoln was a paragon of wickedness, a man secretly intent on destroying states' rights and building a massive federal government. "It was not to end slavery that Lincoln initiated an invasion of the South," DiLorenzo writes in his 2002 attack on Lincoln, The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War. "A war was not necessary to free the slaves, but it was necessary to destroy the most significant check on the powers of the central government: the right of secession."
Appointed to the SVR advisory board in 2005, Marco Bassani, an Italian college professor, is also an associated scholar at the Abbeville Institute. More importantly, he is a member of the xenophobic and anti-immigrant Northern League, whose leader, Umberto Bossi, has described African immigrants as "bingo-bongos" and suggested opening fire on the boats of would-be illegal immigrants to Italy.
Besides speaking at league conferences, Sale's speeches are for sale at Georgia League of the South leader Ray McBerry's Dixie Broadcasting, where Sale is described as a "social liberal who supports the Constitutional concept of the right of secession." The league advertises on its website that it will participate in the Third Annual North American Secessionist Convention, to be put on by Sale's Middlebury Institute next fall.
In the last two years, Sale and Naylor even signed on as guests for the now-defunct Tennessee-based hate radio program "The Political Cesspool," run by white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens board member and David Duke pal James Edwards. Naylor, who has been a guest twice on the program whose guest line-up reads like a Who's Who of the racist radical right, appeared during its celebration of "Confederate History Month" in April 2007.
In the case of Israel, Sale has views that are common to the far left and the far right. In a 2003 article for the left-wing journal Counterpunch called "An End to the Israel Experiment? Unmaking a Grievous Error," Sale asks "[w]hether the 50-year-old experiment known as the state of Israel has proven to be a failure and should be abandoned." He points out that "[t]he [Jewish] diaspora, after all, has existed since 70 A.D., far longer than the state has, and might even be thought of as the natural or historic role of Jewry."
Naylor sees it similarly. "We have a government that is unconditionally allied with the state of Israel, which is an apartheid terrorist state," he told the Report. He complained that the entire congressional delegation of Vermont "supports Israel."
Some Vermonters continue to stand by Naylor despite concerns. Vermont Commons Editor Rob Williams told the Intelligence Report that although his organization is completely separate from SVR, Naylor is "no racist" and a man whom he considers "a colleague" and whose essays his paper will continue to publish. A member of SVR's speakers bureau, Williams added: "The 'racism' charge, by the way, has become a convenient way for a few outspoken Vermonters who may not agree with our goals to throw stones at us."
The real racist, Williams said, is "the United States empire."
But playing footsie with neo-Confederates has cost SVR, as several members have left the group or distanced themselves from it in recent years. Former executive director Jane Dwinel quit the group in 2006, telling the Report later that she had had sharp disagreements with Naylor. John McClaughry, a supporter of decentralization, told the Report that SVR has "shaded over to hating America." According to the Vermont Secession blog, Dan Dewalt, a former SVR advisory member, was dismissed from the group for merely raising irksome questions about Naylor's connection to groups including the league.
Even many of those who remain Naylor's colleagues are worried by SVR's new Southern friends. "You've got to watch whose conference you go to. There's no doubt about it," SVR advisor Frank Bryan told the Report. Added longtime SVR ally Jim Hogue, "If [Naylor] was very flattering toward the League of the South, and they're racist, that was probably a bad idea."
In the face of these criticisms, Naylor remains defiant. "I don't give a shit what you write," he told the Report. "If someone tells me that I shouldn't associate with the League of the South, it guarantees that I will associate with the League of the South."
Sale seems to be losing friends, too. Roane Carey, an editor who has worked with Sale at The Nation, told the Report: "The Nation has no sympathy for or connection to the League of the South or any group of that ilk. A couple of years ago, we found out that the Vermont secession movement had the astonishingly poor judgment to make an alliance with the [League of the South], whose thinly disguised racism … and closed-mindedness we condemn without reservation.
"It's one thing to call for devolution, local self-rule, small-is-beautiful politics — even, in some circumstances, the idea of secession — in the cause of ending empire and enhancing democracy, personal liberty, equal rights and environmental sanity," said Carey. "It's quite another to make nice with groups, such as the League of the South, that use the language of secession and regional or local self-rule as a means of promoting Old South revanchism."
Carey added that he hopes Sale "comes to his senses."
Despite SVR's best efforts, for now the union appears to be safe — Vermont secessionists failed to obtain the signatures needed to put independence resolutions on 2008 Town Meeting Day ballots. They will try again in 2009.