Saturday, November 23, 2019

Destabilizing Ukraine: It Could Happen Here

Not long after the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, a Russian-speaking region in Ukraine. It was a textbook case of hybrid warfare, yet not widely understand as such at the time and, as it turned out, a test run for what was executed against the US two years later. 

Listen to "#13 Mind Games" on Spreaker.

The terrain was seeded with persistent propaganda and social media-fueled disinformation, followed by a quiet invasion with unmarked and unidentified troops. Their existence was denied at first, while the mysterious forces seized the means of communication. 

There had been demonstrations in Kiev since November 2013, culminating in the flight of pro-Russian President Yanukovych. That was not long before the Crimea invasion began. Pro-European Union protests deeply disturbed President Putin, who claimed that the US was behind them and other so-called “color revolutions.” Throughout this period, RT and other Russian media outlets echoed his accusations that some protesters were nazis and fascists. This type of disinformation was persistent and apparently persuasive for some on the American left.

On Feb. 27, 2014, troops in unmarked uniforms took over Crimea’s parliament, along with key locations like the airports, military bases, and TV stations. These “little green men” were actually Russian special operations forces. Of course, Putin denied it, and again, predictably, outlets like RT parroted the line. Along with them came a group of Internet trolls and bots to echo and amplify the disinformation campaign. A week later, at a press conference, Putin still denied that Russian troops were involved.

But not everyone sees what happened this way.  “The US-NATO were licking their chops wishing to grab Crimea (and its Black Sea Russian naval base),” writes Bruce Gagnon, who recently visited Crimea on a Russia Study Tour. “But they were thwarted by the people of Crimea.” 

“Licking their chops” is a provocative, revealing phrase. Equally provocative, and disputable, was a reference to Russia he employed: the people of Crimea wanted to be reunited with the “mother country,” he wrote. 

In fact, the new pro-Russian government in Crimea was installed within days, and promptly declared the Republic of Crimea to be independent.  Then a referendum was called for March 15, just two weeks after the invasion. The choice was whether or not to join the Russian Federation. Although the vote was overwhelmingly in favor, it was clearly taken under duress. It’s also important to keep in mind that 65 percent of Crimea’s population is ethnically Russian, while in Ukraine generally only 17 percent are Russian.

A few weeks later, Putin finally admitted that Russian soldiers were involved. That way he could take credit at home.

The UN rejected the annexation and referendum, and passed a resolution defending the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Russia was also suspended from the G-8, and a planned summit in Sochi was cancelled. Putin was slightly embarrassed. But in Russia, the annexation was quite popular. 

Most Russians see both Crimea and Ukraine as part of their nation. Annexation made them proud, suggesting a potential return to great nation status. But taking over the whole of Ukraine through invasion wasn’t possible, at least not in the same way; it’s too large, diverse and European. So, the fallback has been to make it dysfunctional, gradually persuading people that turning back East is the preferable outcome. This is known in Russian intelligence as a “frozen” conflict strategy. The objective is to make Ukraine vulnerable, and, if necessary, ungovernable, a failed state.  

Nevertheless, local email lists circulating on the left, in Vermont and elsewhere, continue to claim that RT, clearly a tool in Russia’s hybrid warfare, is more truthful than US “corporate media.” Asked what they think of the evidence emerging in the Trump impeachment hearing, too many left-leaning activists also claim they aren’t paying attention. Yet they argue that Russia is being scapegoated, Ukraine may still be infested with fascists, and is really part of Russia anyway. Stop picking on Putin, they charge. He’s no worse than the US capitalist establishment. 

In the old days, this kind of response was called appeasement or even collaboration. Today, it is a reason that, despite the ascendance of national progressives like Bernie Sanders, the left remains largely silent or equivocal about Russia’s information warfare.

On NBC one analyst recently described the Putin regime as “gangster capitalism.” It’s not “Russia-phobic” to make such a critique. You could even argue that this tragic development is a result of Western neglect and opportunism, even the humiliation of Russia, after the USSR crumbled. A fateful missed opportunity. But such a sympathetic motive, plus delusions and paranoia, do not excuse the crimes of Putin, or those of the emerging league of tyrants taking shape. 

In short, it’s no surprise Russia’s “strongman” is popular at home. The simple comeback to that is, “So was Hitler.” He’s not Hitler, obviously. But like Trump, he has used racial and ethnic prejudice, homophobia, and christian fundamentalism, along with brute force and sometimes murder, to hold onto power. 

On the other hand, the claim that Democrats are eager to restart the Cold War is also false, a way of changing the subject. The main threat to freedom worldwide is an authoritarian surge, which is advancing largely through the use of disinformation — manipulation of mass consciousness. This puts many people in the position of defending highly flawed institutions and people because they represent the remaining “guardrails” and moderating influences. 

That can feel uncomfortable. But when you see barbarians at the gates, the cops look a bit better. This cuts through traditional ideological lines, creates moral quandaries, and challenges deeply held beliefs. 

Trump cannot currently get away with jailing and murdering his critics. But there’s a palpable sense that he would if he could, creating the kind of “soft” fascism that he sees in other places. He often describes elements of it with envy. And he may yet succeed in having Supreme Court radically expand the powers of the President. 

I certainly don’t blame that on Putin. But it is useful to understand what has happened in Russia, Crimea and Ukraine, especially since it may point to some of what may yet occur here — even if Trump is impeached and Elizabeth Warren becomes president. 

Ironically, Republican Barry Goldwater saw this coming more than half a century ago. In The Conscience of a Conservative, he predicted that over time the US and USSR would become more like each other, perhaps even passing one another on the political pendulum. Well, he was at least half right.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Planet Pacifica: Identity Crisis

Progressive Media’s Fragile Democracy: After decades of struggle at Pacifica Radio over the control of local stations and program content, suspicion and distrust have led to hostile factions, crisis management, repeated lawsuits, and a byzantine, burdensome structure that has proven almost impossible to sustain. In this episode, Pacifica’s last decade: management fights, national collapse and succession struggles, along with audio excerpts of comedy, news and “radical” history from the 2006 network series, Informed Dissent.

A little skepticism can be a good thing. But too much can be dangerous, destabilizing, even contagious  — especially when it turns into deep suspicion and enduring distrust. At Pacifica Radio, after decades of struggle over the control of local stations and program content, it has led to hostile factions, crisis management, repeated lawsuits, and a bystantine, burdensome structure that has proven almost impossible to sustain.

The latest showdown erupted on Oct. 7 when a new ED, John Vernile, with apparent national board backing, shut down WBAI’s studios in Brooklyn and replaced local programs with a feed from Pacifica stations and other sources. The pretext was that the station’s debts were threatening the entire network.

By late October, however, the national board had reversed itself and suspended Vernile — who’d just been hired! In early November, in a court filled with WBAI backers, board members, producers and staff, a State Supreme Court Judge ruled that local programs should go back on air. 

It sounds like a Hollywood ending, right? Plucky underdogs beat the stiff-necked establishment. But the station was still a financial train wreck. According to NBC News, its last audit showed about $263,000 in assets, but $7.5 million in liabilities.

In short, there is more to this story than a simple struggle between right and wrong, scrappy locals vs. arrogant national officials. The truth is that Pacifica Radio has been at war with itself for decades, in the courts and on the streets.

Opening Questions

When I became Pacifica’s Executive Director in January 2006, several disputes were brewing, as usual. At WPFW it was the national board delegate election. At WBAI local board members were at odds over what some considered a “racially insensitive” remark. In Houston activists wanted KPFT’s general manager fired. And inquiring minds at all five major stations wanted to know: Was the new Executive Director a breath of fresh air — or an incompetent conspiracy nut. That was one of the rumors.

During a staff meeting a day before the Pacifica National Board’s quarterly meeting, I finally met most of the national staff and station managers. To my surprise, these marathon weekend gatherings — held on a rotating basis in New York, DC, Houston, L.A. or Berkeley — were the only times key managers and personnel actually got together to exchange ideas. 

At first I just listened. But eventually I couldn’t resist asking some questions. The network’s most popular show was Democracy Now!,which brought in more than $2 million annually in contributions. But during the hijack years it had become an independent production. Was there interest in launching another national show, one that Pacifica would own and direct? Congressional elections were coming up in the fall, an ideal moment to try something new. Everyone claimed that they agreed, but I sensed reluctance. In the end, Pacifica did produce a collaborative 10-week fall series called Informed Dissent, hosted by Mitch Jererich.

According to the agenda, I was expected to moderate a discussion about governance and management. The distinction wasn’t at all clear, and disputes over the exercise of power – in other words, over democracy vs. efficiency, and participation vs. production – were frequent and contentious.

The next day I provided a preliminary analysis. According to the new bylaws, the National Board was supposed to “ensure” that the Foundation’s purposes were fulfilled, monitor its finances and station activities, supervise its top managers, and delegate powers and duties consistence with the law. The operative words were “monitor” and “supervise.” 

OK. But what about the executive director and chief financial officer? The bylaws said that the ED was “responsible for general supervision of the foundation” and its top managers. Beyond that, I was expected to promote the mission, based on whatever powers the board decided to delegate. The CFO’s authority was more narrow. He was basically supposed to maintain the books and financial records, deposit and disburse funds – as directed – and provide the ED and Board with an account of transactions and the financial condition of the organization. For both jobs, reality was very different. But that’s another story.

Let’s just say, there was obviously confusion, especially when it came to supervision. Pacifica’s emphasis on broad participation made boundaries an enormous challenge. The goal was to get things done efficiently and on schedule; it was radio, after all. Yet the bylaws mandated processes that placed serious limits on managers and staff. As a result, disputes often arose about how various people and groups interpreted what was down on paper. Words were usually less important than the organization’s embedded culture and values. In the end, ideology and perceptions tended to trump precedent or legal authority.

During that first weekend, I also asked how staff and board members saw the line between those who governed and managed? Was the Board micro-managing? And if so, what would it take to change that? In Uneasy Listening, Matthew Lasar’s second book about Pacifica, he used a provocative term – anarcho-feudalism – to describe how Pacifica operated. Another word I heard was balkanization, referring to the organization’s tendency to divide into turfs and territories. Both suggested turf wars and the use of arbitrary authority. How did they feel about that diagnosis?

I also asked whether they thought the bylaws were part of the problem, and whether trust was a factor. In a poll of hands, most people answered yes to both. Finally, after noting that Pacifica’s managers were frequently, even routinely, under fire, I posed two final questions: How did this community really feel about leadership? More to the point, was the nature of executive authority in some ways fundamentally at odds with how Pacifica saw itself?

Mushroom Cloud Theater: The Bigger the Flag

Succession Struggle 

A year later, after the January 2007 National Board meeting in Houston, one member, Berthold Reimer, who later became WBAI Station Manager, circulated a revealing e-mail. 

It is not up to the board, he wrote, “to micro manage the Executive Director who should have the leverage to make decisions and implement them. If the Board is not happy with the way the Executive Director implements its directives, it can decide not to renew the contract or have an extraordinary session to terminate him/her. Short of that, we should let him do his job.” 

As the current Executive Director, I appreciated the sentiments. But there were at least two assumptions. One, that I actually had a contract. In fact, I had been working without one for more than a year, and an attempt to negotiate terms had been derailed in the Personnel Committee. 

And two, he implied that the National Board’s intent was often clear. On the contrary, there was rarely anything close to consensus. Divisions were especially apparent when the topic was “must carry,” the idea that some programs should be aired on all stations. You know, like a network. 

But whether it was a national special, Spanish language news, or a board-backed editorial, local control was a sore point. This became painfully clear when I attempted to “mandate” the national broadcast of a US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. 

At the direction of the national board, I had written and read an on-air editorial about Habeas Corpus, shortly after passage of the Military Commissions Act in 2006 undermined this basic right. Then, in January 2007, KPFA host and correspondent Larry Bensky urged national coverage of the Judiciary Committee’s questioning of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The Senators would be quizzing him about warrantless surveillance, suspension of Habeas Corpus, torture, and extension of domestic spying by the CIA and military. 

Covering key hearings was a Pacifica mainstay, and this looked like a golden opportunity. As it turned out, we were right. CSPAN ignored it, mainstream media coverage was minimal, and the questioning was dramatic. It essentially started the process that led to Gonzales’ resignation. But the reaction within Pacifica was revealing. And mixed. Several board members charged that I had seriously over-stepped my authority. 

I reminded them that the decision reflected a broad consensus and urged the board to let Pacifica “act like a network.” In resply, Bob Lederer, a WBAI delegate, said that the Board hadn’t specifically authorized national broadcast of the hearing. Therefore, stations should not have been required to air it. Period

Other Board members felt that voluntary collaboration was preferable to imposing a “must carry.” One person submitted a motion saying my action wasn’t authorized and I shouldn’t impose any more programs on stations. It didn’t pass. But the debate made it clear how limited the power of Pacifica’s CEO could be, depending on the issue. There were deep suspicions about the use of executive power — and doubts about what being a network really meant. 

Several national specials were produced during the next months, and most stations did air them. But new lawsuits were also filed, and the board ignored most of my recommendations for reorganization and programming changes, as well as repeated warnings about a looming financial crunch. 

When managers and national staff developed a policy to deal more strictly with obscenity violations, unpaid staff in New York almost succeeded in getting the board to block it. Local control advocates were mobilizing to protect station “autonomy,” and my early supporters were falling away, in part because I hadn’t satisfied their desire to “clean house.” 

Rather than offering me a contract the board decided to conduct an evaluation. The process took months and asked more than 140 people -- national staff, station managers, and every national and local board member – to rate my work. In the end, most staff members chose not to participate, apparently fearing that I might “retaliate.” How sad and telling.

About two thirds of those who did respond said I was doing all right, at least well enough to keep my job. But some thought I was unilateral, unresponsive, and presumptuous, especially in appointing a new general manager at WBAI. Although the comments and ratings were anonymous, it was easy to tell that most of the critics were from New York. The WBAI-based Justice and Unity Coalition wanted me gone. 

End of the Dream 

During the next months, the board spent hours debating what to do. The “greg-istas,” as my supporters dubbed themselves, wanted me as CEO as long as possible. Their opponents wanted to pick my successor before some of their board terms ran out. One member thought I should be fired immediately. We eventually settled on a date and an exit package. A hastily-formed search committee rushed to recruit a replacement in time. 

The only person interviewed by the board was Nicole Sawaya, who had been fired a decade earlier. Two months after starting work, despite a multi-year contract and broad backing, she quit. It wasn’t a big surprise.

Over the winter, there were negotiations to woo her back. Meanwhile, stations found it hard to keep pace with rising costs, particularly health insurance, legal fees, and governance. On-air fund drives weren’t meeting their goals, most stations had meager cash reserves, and WBAI was a half a million behind its fundraising target, mired in its internal power struggle, and unable to pay its central services fees. 

In March 2008, Sawaya agreed to return. The next shock came in July,  as budgets were being developed. The National Board had voted to convene, but the national office didn’t follow up and the quarterly meeting had to be cancelled. Soon after that, without explanation, Chief Financial Officer Lonnie Hicks disappeared from work. There was no announcement, but rumors had it  that he was on “paid leave to deal with family matters.” Later, more rumors suggested that an investigation of his activities was being pursued – also that he might sue. In the end, after briefly returning to his job, Hicks was officially removed — and did sue.

Sawaya announced her decision to leave (again) in August, 2008. Meanwhile, at meetings she tried to convince the Board and Finance Committee that Pacifica needed to “centralize” functions, especially accounting and reporting. Directors listened, but nothing changed. Departing, she pointed vaguely to "dysfunctional” governance and “shoddy and opaque” business practices that were plunging the organization into financial crisis. 

That September, the National Board began to discuss what was called a “national office collapse.” Even if a new chief executive could be found – and the Board could agree – there were elephants in the room: the financial crisis, and how to restructure programming and management to reverse the decline in listenership and income. 

By the end of the year, staff was cut at most stations. So were several national positions. Then, after another round of Board elections, the balance of power shifted again, and discussions online speculated about receivership, bankruptcy, and breaking up the network

A new Board chair, Grace Aaron of Los Angeles, became Interim ED. A decade later, by the way, she would step in again after another CEO was abruptly terminated. In April 2009, WBAI was $128,000 behind on rent, and owed another $75,000 in back payments for its coveted transmitter atop the Empire State Building. It was losing at least $500,000 a year, required repeated short-term bailouts, and owed the national office almost $1 million in back payments for central services. 

The station had weathered storms before. But this time the troubles could not only bring down WBAI but threaten the future of Pacifica itself. In May 2009, faced with the station’s imminent eviction from its New York studio, Aaron changed the lock at the transmitter site, removed the General Manager, as well as the powerful Program Director, Bernard White. As expected, the Justice and Unity Coalition and other White supporters threatened to protest, boycott, and possibly sue — unless this latest “national coup” was reversed. 

The search for a new Executive Director had just begun. 

In 2010, Pacifica finally settled on a permanent new ED, Florida feminist radio host Arlene Engelhardt. The intensity of conflict settled down a bit. For a while. But revenues from on-air fundraising continued to decline. Only KPFT in Houston had permanent management. 

By 2015, however, the organization had dismissed yet another executive director, the latest tumultuous step for an organization plagued by financial troubles and acrimonious management turnover. Summer Reese, who had been named the next executive director in November 2013 after holding the job on an interim basis for a year, had been terminated by Pacifica’s national board in March 2015. 

Before agreeing to step down she briefly barricaded herself in the National Office.

Reese’s dismissal was the latest in a series of changes both downsizing and destabilizing Pacifica and its stations. In August 2014, WBAI, deeply in debt, had laid off 19 of 29 employees, including the entire news staff. Five years later — with another ED and Board — the remaining staff was locked out and the station/s operations were briefly shut down again. 

No one faction is exclusively responsible for Pacifica’s decline. But snap dismissals have been no better than bolt cutters in solving the underlying trouble — a crippling, possibly chronic deficit of trust. According to Casey Peters, Pacifica’s National Election Supervisor in 2007, a “vacuum of power” had developed after my departure. It wasn’t the first time, of course. “With obvious instability at the top,” he wrote in his final report, “the election campaigns descended into chaos.” 

In June 2009, after her initial staff cutbacks at WBAI, Aaron had removed another General Manager, Ron Pinchback of WPFW in Washington, DC. That station had also lost listeners and fallen short on fundraising in recent years. But critics suspected racial motives: like Bernard White and Lonnie Hicks, Pinchback was African-American. That suggested to some people that the changes were really a purge of top Black managers. The fact that most replacements were also Black was rarely mentioned. 

Amy Goodman expressed “dismay” about White’s removal in a letter to Pacifica management. But the new CFO LaVarn Williams replied that he and previous managers were responsible for a “failure model” that jeopardized both “your program and the whole foundation.” Despite the popularity of Democracy Now!, Amy’s influence had become limited over the years, mainly governed by a mutually lucrative contract to air the show and assist with fundraising. 

Upset about staff cutbacks, Kellia Ramares, long-time journalist and board operator at KPFA, delivered her own swan song at a National Board meeting that July. After more than a decade with the network, including an arrest during the bad old “hijack” days, she announced that she was leaving. 

“Pacifica hires an election supervisor while they cannot keep a news tech at quarter-time hours?” she asked, rhetorically. “Is this the business of elections or radio?”

The critique went deeper still. Ramares said: “I now question the entire alleged movement that calls itself progressive.” Acknowledging that all media were taking an economic hit, she nevertheless concluded: 

“Citizen journalism, available across the political spectrum, but a special darling of the left because of its free speech nature and alleged purity of purpose, is destroying the ability of journalists to make a living. Paid journalists can’t compete with free. Is it progressive to expect, or even to demand, to receive free work in a society that demands that we pay for our food, clothing, housing and health care? Is it progressive to give donations to an institution for its infrastructure, but not to care about whether the workers in that institution can pay their bills?” 

“Can we do well while we do good,” she concluded, “or is progressivism just a fancy name we give our struggle and poverty in order to make our marginalization seem noble?” 

Bottom Line

So, how did it go during my time as Executive Director of Pacifica? Not as well as I had hoped. Still, not as bad as it might have gone. 

Attempts at reorganization ran up against protests about local autonomy and suspicions that there might be another national power grab. We improved collaboration in national programming, but the core demand remained that each station should control its own airwaves. 

The network’s technological investments and digital development were delayed by volunteer suspicions about digital licensing and budgets developed from the station up, an approach that left national issues and needs for last. When money was tight, cutting network-wide needs was often the easiest solution. And coordinated marketing? That was virtually impossible when no one really spoke for the organization — that is, without fear of being blindsided. 

Pacifica was grappling with several long-term challenges: adapting to fundamental changes in audio distribution, declining listenership, and the erosion of its traditional revenue source — individual contributions from at least 2 percent of the audience. But audience decline and listener loyalty could only be addressed by looking hard at programming. And this was linked to deep questions and confusion about Pacifica’s mission, goals and structure.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

The Year That Was: A World of Changes

VIDEO DIARY: Thoughts, ads and visions (12/18 - 10/19)  Uncle Sam gets an A... Orson Mansplains as Shadow does the wild thing... off to Arizona... Mom’s place... Ferlinghetti’s lament.. Bad dream of the future... Bennington memories... Fields of Change... Bernie Sanders on the human spirit... Real Change... Climate change and ecological security... Journalism and change... Miro’s mistake... Preservation and Change... and the People’s Republic podcasts

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

From Fragile Paradise to Fields of Change

Bennington in Changing Times

Opening a Senate investigation of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in March 1968, Sen. J. William Fulbright described what was taking place across the country as a “spiritual rebellion” of the young against a betrayal of national values. The war in Vietnam was coming home.

In Bennington a cultural storm was brewing as newcomers arrived in Vermont during the late 1960s. At its center were the schools. Fifty years later, photos and ideas from this video essay helped to inspire an exhibit in 2019 (6/28-11/3) at the Bennington Museum, Fields of Change: 1960s Vermont.  The sound track includes music by John Cage, Spirit, Donovan, Bob Dylan and Eric Anderson; guitar and vocals by Dave Putter; photos, narration, piano solos and editing by Greg Guma. With thanks to Jamie Franklin.

Although the epicenters of the counterculture movement were located in and around Brattleboro and Plainfield and throughout Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, the Bennington area boasted its own artists, artisans, photographers, clothing designers and political activists whose work brought the larger story to the local arena, sometimes resulting in opposition.”


In March 1968, Sen. J. William Fulbright described what was taking place across the country as a “spiritual rebellion” of the young against a betrayal of national values. Over half a million troops had been mobilized to fight in Vietnam. The operative logic was that it might be necessary to destroy the country in order to save it.

Then a shot rang out in Memphis and ended the life of Martin Luther King Jr. Demonstrations erupted in 125 cities.  More than 20,000 arrests. The mobilization of federal troops and the National Guard. Two months later, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles, just after winning the California primary. 

By Summer, there had been over 220 major demonstrations on campuses across the country. 

By then I had moved to Vermont. And I wasn’t the only one. Thousands of us came. I was with a group of young idealists who wanted to distribute and distribute films. The first step was to create film societies across the Northeast. 

The name of our dream was the American Film Academy.

“Strange country up here; New Hampshire and Vermont appear to be the East's psychic answer to Colorado and New Mexico – big lonely hills laced with back roads and old houses where people live almost aggressively by themselves.” — Hunter Thompson

That’s Kitty when she was around 20. We’d fallen in love and gotten married. She was from Shaftsbury, but we found a place in the Village of Bennington. And kindred spirits. 

Then a cooler place on Depot Street, with a health food store downstairs. We called it the Gingerbread House. But that was later...

In September, some young Republicans hired us to produce a multi-media light show for a state GOP meeting at the Paradise motel. It was a strange idea — but the Academy was in trouble and we were desperate. The reaction was less than enthusiastic. 

Afterward, Liz Dwyer wrote a scathing article for the Bennington Banner. It was so upsetting that we had to reply in a letter to the editor. We saw ourselves as creative entrepreneurs. But some people saw us as part of an unwelcome invasion:

As AFA employees, we are upset most about the glib manner in which our organization is maligned by people who do not understand our work and are afraid to inquire about it.” 

“We are teachers, students, and artists....We do not circulate underground or low-life films... In fact, we are now supplying the films for the YMCA film program.”

By then, two of us had taken temporary teaching jobs at The Prospect School, a progressive elementary school in North Bennington. Its aim was to deepen each child’s experience of the world through individualized instruction and working with all kinds of materials. The kids were free to move around, talk with others, and pursue their own projects and ideas.

It was great work. But soon I took a very different job, reporter and photographer for the Bennington Banner ... and found myself working with Liz Dwyer, the editor who had panned our light show. We became great friends.

On my third day the editor, Tyler Resch, took me to a school board meeting, drew a diagram of people around the table. And left. It was sink or swim. And a political storm was brewing. A new high school had been built. But it was also at the center of Bennington’s cultural divide. Its alma mater, “The Impossible Dream,” turned out to prophecy. An idealistic plan for progressive local education was about to be derailed.

The school superintendent resigned and a dispute had developed over who would replace him. The elementary school board wanted the Assistant Superintendent. The supervisory union wasn’t so sure.

It looked like a minor dispute. But it was really part of a bitter struggle, a local culture war, and the stakes were the future of education and community life.

A Golden Age

In the 1930s Martha Graham was instrumental in making Bennington College the epicenter of the modern dance world. The Bennington School for Dance, precursor of the American Dance Festival, was an innovative laboratory where pioneers experimented, trained students, and created early works that defined modern dance.

A generation later the area became a nexus for modern art. As the story goes, it began with art critic Clement Greenberg and painter Helen Frankenthaler. They were soon joined by Paul Feeley and other painters who helped connect the emerging avant-garde movement based at the college with the New York art scene. 

By the 1960s the community was hosting a veritable artist colony — although many folks did their best to ignore it. An article in Vogue even updated Vermont history, calling painters like Anthony Caro, Kenneth Noland, Vincent Longo and Jules Olitski the new Green Mountain Boys.

The original Green Mountain Boys were a revolutionary era militia led by Ethan Allen, who met at the Catamount Tavern in Old Bennington. It burned down in 1871.

A century later Greenberg’s idea was that art should be disciplined, but without sacrificing vitality. The concept combined distance with enjoyment and freedom. Bennington seemed perfect ... not far from New York and Boston, but sufficiently removed. An ideal place to play out an unusual artistic vision.

But the golden age was over by the time I arrived. And a conservative political storm was brewing. At its center was the high school.

Impossible Dreams

Mt. Anthony Union High School was thriving ... a new campus, engaged students, creative faculty. Even professional level productions of big musicals like West Side Story, The Fantasticks, and My Fair Lady. 

It wasn’t all about the arts. There were also innovative vocational programs and volunteer projects like DUO, a state idea. The name stood for “do unto others” and it let high school students spend half of a School year on a project that responded to a real community need. 

But what made Mt Anthony different was a creative spirit, and the dynamic head of the music Department, Jack Carton.

But a power struggle was brewing between two tribes. And then the state Commissioner of Education stepped in.

To break the superintendent stalemate he unilaterally merged Bennington’s Supervisory Union with another board and appointed its superintendent to head the new “super district.” George Sleeman could keep his job. But his rise had been blocked. His allies were stunned and his brother would not forget. The struggle between modernists and traditionalists would continue for years.

After that the first public flashpoint was a high school musical, and the spark was the poster. The poster was banned and on opening night the house was half-filled. It almost felt like a boycott. I didn’t realize it at first, but a moral majority culture war had just begun.

Yet protests were also growing — against the Vietnam War, and the culture war at home. 

Fifty years later it all became an exhibit at the Bennington Museum.

Greg Guma, a journalist, magazine editor, community organizer, and the author of several books including The People’s Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution, supplied numerous photographs and much of the background information for the exhibition. Like many young, progressive activists and hippies, Guma moved to Vermont after graduating from college. “It was 1968 and I was fairly traumatized by what was going on during my final semester,” he said. “The war, the election of Nixon, the protests, the assassinations. Like a lot of people, I wanted to flee the violence and try to find better values in a less complicated environment.”

Guma got a job as a reporter and photographer at The Bennington Banner where he chronicled many of the historic changes taking place in the state. “I was one of only two reporters, so I was exposed to many aspects of society,” he said. “I watched the culture war unfold.” — Stratton Magazine, 8/30/2019