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Frank Bryan: Nationhood

British social critic G.K. Chesterton, once said of the Irish : “All their wars are merry and all their songs are sad.”


Still, one doesn’t know whether to smile or weep. The Irish, one of the world’s great nations, have had remarkable difficulty in the business of state-hood.But they’re not alone. Even “The United States” has struggled throughout its history to put the notions of nation and state together. Joel Garreau’s book “The Nine Nations of North America,” chronicles the ebb and flow of nationalism on our own continent.

Personally, I think being Irish probably resembles being a Red Sox fan. I concluded this while waiting to get into a Sox game in Houston Texas one hot evening. Red Sox symbolism was everywhere and I heard a woman nearby say happily: “The Nation is out in force tonight.”

Vermonters too, often claim a kind of nationalism - a particular set of values born of geographic location, size and political tradition. For a Vermonter, seeing a Vermont license plate in some far off place stirs a special emotion; of values ill-defined but profoundly real. The “Welcome to Vermont” sign at the border on the interstate might as well say “Welcome Home.”

And who could deny that the flood of newcomers leaving urban-America to come to Vermont in the last half century was looking for more than a state? They were seeking a set of values coincidental to geographic boundary – a good definition of a nation – despite the fact that the “state” of Vermont is but a tiny part of a profoundly huge and powerful union of states called America.

I was thinking about these things last summer while driving from Starksboro to Manchester to speak at a conference of the International Trial Lawyers Association. My job at events like these is to set Vermont in the context of what an audience of very smart professional people “from away” might think about us.

And as always, I’m pondering my opening remarks.

Are we a yuppie haven of the politically correct? Or (as they used to say) are we still the “last stand of the Yankees”?

Suddenly a big homemade sign on a four by eight piece of plywood appeared in a pasture beside the road. You couldn’t miss it. It was painted white with six huge black letters divided into two little words.

VOTE NO, yelled the sign.

And I thought, “There you have it.”

The lawyers loved it.

The Nation lives.

Frank Bryan is a writer and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Vermont.
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