About five weeks ago, the Vermont Historical Society announced a bit of good news: it won a $117,521 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to conduct research and create exhibits and programs about Vermont’s countercultural movement of the 1970s. (The total cost of the project is roughly $260,000; VHS is responsible for getting the rest of the money.) VHS curator Jackie Calder explains:
“By collecting objects, papers, and oral histories we will be creating a body of information for this pivotal period in our state history, making it available for generations to come. And our project’s community forums and public programs will engage Vermonters in learning about this important time in our history.”
It’s a worthy project. The countercultural movement had a lasting impact on Vermont — its politics, culture, environmental movement, its very active food scene, even its economy. (Ben and Jerry’s, anyone?) The idea of collecting oral histories is especially pertinent, since the firebrands of the 70s are now, ahem, getting up there in age and won’t be around forever.
So, all good, yes?
Yes, until the right-wing “news” site Vermont Watchdog got wind of the grant — more than a month after it was announced — and predictably headlined it like this:
Taxpayers stripped of $117,521 for naked hippie commune research
Ahh, nothing like a little moral panic to clear the sinuses, eh?
VW’s one and only staffer, Bruce Parker, hit all the high notes in his predictable screed: a “taxpayer-funded” project to study “the hippie commune movement that invaded Vermont” with its “oft-nude, drug-addled drifter colonies,” “idealistic youth dropping out of society,” “free-love vagabond communards,” and a former member reminiscing about how “We shared food. We shared sex. We shared clothing…”
Damn dirty HIPPIES!
This story combines two favored tropes of the far right: exaggerating government-funded activities to make them look ridiculous, and slamming the excesses of the left. Especially hippies. Damn dirty hippies!
But seriously, that 70s stuff — which itself had its roots in earlier back-to-the-land movements, as embodied in the works of Helen and Scott Nearing and pioneering New Hampshire-based food writer Beatrice Trum Hunter — did play a significant role in creating the Vermont of today.
The old Vermont, remember, was an extremely red state, ruled for over a century by the Republican Party. Montpelier was a famously stiff community where the sidewalks got rolled up at 5 p.m.
The transition is striking. And the role of the counterculture movement is definitely worth studying and discussing. Libraries and museums are the places that collect and preserve our past. That’s kind of important, no? We need to understand our past in order to understand how we got where we are.
I think Santayana put that a little better. But you get the point. Museums and libraries are the repositories of our history, our culture. They are the institutions that preserve what is important. And it’s inarguable that the 70s counterculture played an important role in Vermont’s history.
Even if you can’t stand damn dirty hippies.