Disclaimers first. Ben Hewitt is a terrific writer who’s accomplished more at a young age than I ever will. His book about the food scene in Hardwick is marvelous. He’s also got to be a better farmer than I, because our garden is friendly only to the hardiest of plants. (Garlic, green beans, potatoes, and tomatillos. Boy oh boy, do we get tomatillos.)
But I have to take issue with a commentary he wrote for VTDigger, entitled “The Northeast Kingdom’s True Prosperity.” It’s the kind of thing that makes millions of working-class Americans vote Republican.
Hewitt argues that the collapse of the Stenger venture is actually a good thing, because if it had been fully built, it would have radically transformed the Northeast Kingdom and its precious essence would have been lost.
The people of the Northeast Kingdom already have everything we need to truly prosper, and not merely in a material way. Indeed, with its abundance of unspoiled natural places, and its population of people who understand that a vital connection to the land and to one another is a type of affluence no silk-tongued developer can ever match, the Kingdom is already a region of true prosperity.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but holy f*cking crap.
I’m sure that’s a great comfort to the thousands of people beaten down by grinding poverty, substance abuse, and a dearth of real opportunity. The people who live in the dank corners of Saint Jay and Newport, or in tumbledown houses on dirt roads to nowhere. The women trapped in unsafe relationships because they have no way out.
Try to tell them that they “already have everything they need to prosper,” you might find yourself staring down the wrong end of a shootin’ iron.
This has been the way of the Northeast Kingdom since, well, the opening of the American Midwest in the early 19th Century. The Stenger/Quiros plan would have brought thousands of jobs to the region, especially to long-suffering Newport. It could have made a huge difference in the lives of many a Vermonter stuck in an endless cycle of just barely getting by, or worse.
I appreciate that Mr. Hewitt has found a trove of intangible prosperity by being a writer and farmer in the Kingdom. I understand that the landscape sustains him and his family, both directly and indirectly. But to many in the NEK, his words are hollow and insensitive.
He is asking those Vermonters to accept his definition of success and adopt his worldview, even though it is beyond their means and abilities.
There’s only room for so many writers slash organic farmers. Some people need a workaday job to keep the lights on, and need cheap mass-produced food to make ends meet.
If we abjure the blandishments of developers, Hewitt says,
We gain – and retain — the health and vitality of the land upon which we depend, an enduring connection to the people and places we hold dear, and the deep sense of meaning that comes of these connections.
That’s North Pole-cold comfort to people who can’t find a decent job or get any education or keep their kids from taking drugs or grab a handhold on the bottom rung of the ladder. You really can’t ask those people to content themselves with enduring connections and deep senses of meaning.
People like Hewitt are operating at the fourth and fifth levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy — esteem and self-actualization. Many Kingdom residents are down at levels one and two — physiological and safety.
It’s the gap between them that Republicans have used as a wedge to drive working-class Americans away from liberal politics. It’s why millions of Americans who will never be financially comfortable are voting for a wealthy plutocrat for President.
I’m not saying we should pay no attention to the earth and special places and enduring connections; I am saying we need to find a balance between those concerns and the more urgent needs of poor and working people.
That means accepting a certain amount of development and growth, of finding a balance between spiritual prosperity and addressing the needs of folks who can’t spare the time for the ineffable.
And actually, in Stenger’s case, the “damage” to the intangible qualities of the Kingdom has already been done. The expansions of Jay Peak and Q Burke are largely finished. The projects likely to go unrealized are in and around Newport, which is not a particularly special or endangered environment. Places like Newport need more economic activity, and that’s where it can best be accommodated. If the hotel and biotech plant had been built, it would have been a great benefit to the community, and no loss at all to the Ben Hewitts of the world.