American Experience: The Big Burn

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American Experience: The Big Burn



We need to Save the Trees!

Deforestation has ravaged our once great forests. The dwindling tree population is choking the oxygen-starved atmosphere.

Sorry, environmentalists: I’m being sarcastic. Every word of that last paragraph is false.

First, a solid majority of new atmospheric oxygen is produced by water-dwelling pytoplankton. If you love trees and walks through the forest, that is perfect understandable. Scientifically speaking, however, we don’t need trees to survive.

Second, North America has way more trees than it had at the turn of the 20th Century. Right here in Central Vermont, deer sightings used to make the newspaper. Hubbard Park was a big, treeless field.

What happened? Did Conservationist save the day? Nope: the automobile was invented.

In the 19th Century, millions of acres of arable land were used for fields to feed horses. As horses were replaced by Model Ts, those fields became forests. Tree-Huggers should pause to hug a Ford Focus; it did more to save the trees than the US Forest Service.

Indeed, “The Big Burn” shows that the US Forest Service has been misguided from the very beginning.

In 1905, The US Forest Service was founded by patrician Progressives who valued idealism more than common sense, and trees more than people.

The fledgling Federal agency sent intrepid young men far and wide. US Forest Rangers even found their way to the remote Bitterroot region of Western Montana and Northern Idaho. When Rangers told the hearty locals that they were no longer allowed to use the vast forest for clearcutting and strip-mining, they were furious.

As the PBS documentary “The Big Burn” reluctantly admits, the Forest Service’s rules that chose trees over people ended up being a disaster for both trees and people.


The summer of 1910 was bone dry in the Bitterroot. When a heat-lightning storm ignited a dry patch of trees, the largest fire in the history of the Hemisphere began.

Despite its remote location, America quickly recognized the size and the seriousness of the blaze. Women and children were bustled out; Federal Troops rushed in.

Desperate men aboard the last train out of town were forced off their cars at gunpoint. Uncle Sam needed them to fight the fire, the soldiers said.

But those men were just being sent to their deaths. There was no fighting The Big Burn. By the time the blaze burned itself out, a layer of soot coated the ground as far away as Iceland. Ships in the Pacific Ocean couldn’t navigate because the air was so thick with smoke.

The only thing that could have stopped this fire in its tracks was a stretch of barren, treeless land. You know, the kind that you get when you allow people to clear cut a section of forest or build a strip mine.

In the end, the greatest boon to American forests was the invention of the internal combustion engine. And the greatest disaster was made worse by the myopic machinations of the US Forest Service.

We don’t need to Save the Trees. Take a drive down I89 and look around you. They are doing just fine without our help.


Peter and the Farm

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Peter and the Farm


A Montpelier lobbyist once told me that if you want to convince a Vermonter of your side, hire a farmer to present your argument. Vermonters trust farmers above all others.

There’s something weird about that. Seemingly, the only thing separating a farmer from you or me is that he has a terrible, terrible job.

200 years ago, 72% of American workers were farmers. Today, it is 2%. It’s a proven fact of history that most people eagerly leave the farm when given the chance.

Farming is the most dangerous, time-consuming, and emotionally taxing way to earn a living. Just ask poor Peter Dunning.

Peter is a profane old drunken philosopher. He lives alone on a farm off a dirt road near Springfield. Either you will hate him or you will pity him. Or both.

When you picture a family farmer, you imagine that he has a fatherly kinship with his animals. Like James Cromwell in “Babe.” Not Peter Dunning.

He treats his animals like commodities and pains in the butt. There is a graphic scene where he shoots one of his sheep to death and then skins and disembowels the corpse. The sad thing is, that is the nicest thing he does to a sheep the entire movie. Peter really hates sheep.

I’m not judging the guy. It is possible that 35 years of farming makes a man indifferent to death and suffering. However, if the government enacted a prohibitive sin tax on every item of meat sold in Vermont, I would heartily support the measure.

These days, being a farmer might actually be more dangerous than going to war. The few people I know who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan came home in one piece. Peter Dunning, on the other hand, has a three-fingered claw for a right hand as the result of a gruesome farm accident.

Another shocking fact about being a farmer: zero paid vacation days. In fact, zero vacations period because you are always needed on the farm. For decades, Peter hasn’t traveled any further than the Brattleboro Farmers Market.

Not that he has anyone to visit. Apparently, sheep aren’t the only mammals that Peter has mistreated over the years. Peter Dunning has two ex-wives and several children. He is estranged from all of them.

“Peter and the Farm” is a horror movie. Peter’s daily life is a living nightmare of loneliness, regret, and pain. He talks openly of suicide. He describes the deepest depths of alcoholism, where he has to get up in the middle of the night and guzzle rum in order to stave off Delirium Tremens.

As a Vermonter, apparently, you suffer from the strange mental affliction of romanticizing the family farmer. “Peter and the Farm” is your detox. There is nothing romantic about the life of a farmer. Just ask poor Peter Dunning.


Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race, and America

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Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race, and America



We are living in a time of shocking hatred and intolerance.

I am talking about college campuses, of course.

I imagine that you know what happened at Middlebury College last month. It made the national news. Charles Murray – a semi-famous, blandly mainstream political social philosopher – was invited to give a talk.

In Charles Murray’s 1994 best seller “The Bell Curve,” there were a few chapters that suggested that different races have different average IQs.

My first thought is that his conclusion is unverifiable and stupid. Middlebury’s first thought was that Mr. Murray has forfeited his right to speak and to even step foot on a college campus.

Never mind the fact that “The Bell Curve” was published before any of the students were born. Never mind the fact that Mr. Murray was there to talk about his new book “Coming Apart.” The Middlebury Thought Police concluded that students needed to be protected from the scourge of alternative ideas and free debate.

The anti-debate fanatics threatened Murray with physical harm if he didn’t leave and one of the professors was injured by the mob as he helped usher the speaker to safety.

I feel very fortunate to have been able to get my education during the easygoing 20th Century. Times have changed in a bad way. Is there any group of people more hateful and intolerant than a mob of brainwashed college students? Maybe the KKK?

Apparently not.

In this strange new world where progressive children aren’t allowed to talk to their ideological enemies, Daryl Davis stands out. He is either an angel among devils or an unforgivable apostate, depending on your perspective.

He makes his living as a rock’n’roll piano player, but Daryl Davis’s claim to fame is his unique circle of friends. Mr. Davis is a black guy who likes to befriend White Supremacists.

If you recently received a liberal arts degree, then “Accidental Courtesy” is guaranteed to offend you. Not only is it a film about people with differences having civilized conversations with each other, it dares to present Klansmen as…people.

In fact, it is the non-Klansmen who give Mr. Davis the hardest time. A trio of #blacklivesmatter activists brutally lay into him for being an Uncle Tom turncoat. Davis gets treated a little more respectfully when he visits the Southern Poverty Law Center. But when Davis suggests to them that they try to engage White Supremacists in dialogue, a civil rights worker laughs in his face. “All those people do is hate,” Davis is told.

But that isn’t true. No one just sits around and hates all day, obviously. It shouldn’t need to be proven, but Daryl Davis has proven it. In his thirty years of befriending White Supremacists, he has inspired dozens of Klansmen to rethink their values and leave the KKK. Mr. Davis proudly keeps the robes and hoods of the friends that he inspired to change.

Even the active White Supremacists who Daryl Davis sits down with act like respectable gentlemen in front of the camera (with one exception. Pastor Thomas Robb, who should probably be banished to South Sudan immediately).

The White Power kooks don’t seem all that angry. They are driven by one bad, outdated idea: the desire to be separate from other people. The Klansmen and Neo-Nazis agree that white people should live apart from non-white people and that they should not reproduce together.

This worldview is 100% wrong. But it’s not that different than the philosophy of Booker T. Washington. And it’s almost exactly the same as the racial separation theories of Marcus Garvey and Abraham Lincoln.

Daryl Davis’s life’s work is to demonstrate that a man can be wrong but not be a monster. And Davis continues to prove that it is more productive to talk with your ideological enemies than to demonize them.

I doubt it was Jewish director Matthew Ornstein’s intention to present Neo-Nazis as well-behaved conversationalists and progressive activists as mind-numbed fascists. But that is what happens in “Accidental Courtesy.”

Which is better? To be dead wrong and act like a peaceful gentleman? Or to be potentially right but demonstrate insufferable arrogance and intolerance? Young campus rioters need to look in the mirror and ask themselves that question.



Star Wars: Rogue One

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Rogue One



Picture it: You just finished a feast at a Chinese buffet.

You had six plates of food. Five was clearly the best, but the whole meal was wonderful. As the check is coming, you remember how tasty the beef with broccoli was and you foolishly eat one more heaping plate. Now you feel terrible. That last plate was a big mistake.

That final plate of beef with broccoli is “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens.”

“The Force Awakens” (2015) is a sentimental, uninspired artistic failure. It was as if JJ Abrams was doing a Star War touchdown dance, without acknowledging that it was George Lucas who scored the touchdown.

In 2012, The Disney Corporation bought the rights to Star Wars for $4 billion. So there is no doubt that we will be watching new Star Wars movies for the rest of our lives. The question was whether they’d ever make real films or just an endless string of two hour commercials for BB8 merchandise.

“Rogue One” answers that question.

“Rogue One” is not brilliant and it’s not perfect. But it’s a serious film for adults by adults. And that’s good enough.

[Spoiler Alert] The story takes place in the time between the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader in Episode III and the introduction of Luke Skywalker in Episode IV.

The newly formed Imperial Empire is trying to solidify its hegemony in the galaxy. And they’ve found a perfect way of doing it: the planet-killing Death Star battle station.

The Death Star will be able to wipe out uncooperative planets and annihilate the rebellion. Fortunately, Galen Erso – the scientist who designed the Death Star – secretly sabotaged the space station by leaving it vulnerable to attack from a single shot inside its core.

You know that already. But now we learn about the brave band of soldiers who stole the plans for the rebellion – led by the scientist’s daughter Jyn Erso.

At its heart, “Rogue One” is a gritty, WWII-style action film. There are no cutesy droids or silly animated creatures. There’s a lot of battle sequences and a lot of death. This is the first Star Wars movie that is absolutely not made for children. I liked it a lot.

“The Force Awakens” was a sickening bowl of beef with broccoli that we weren’t hungry for. “Rogue One” is the solid, wholesome meal that you eat for lunch the next day that makes you feel healthy again.


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          The Spirit of 76 has invaded our nation’s capital!

          I don’t mean that there is a new spirit of patriotism. I mean that politicians are more likely than ever to break the 7th commandment and the 6th commandment.

          If a politician spends enough time in Washington, he is very likely to break the 6th Commandment and vote for an unnecessary war. And he is nearly as likely to break the 7th Commandment and commit adultery.

          I am not here to judge. Adultery in Washington is virtually inevitable. Most Congressmen are average-looking men in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who – under normal circumstances – would never be able to attract the attention of a young woman again for the rest of their lives.

          But in Washington, these men are famous, powerful rock stars. And they are hundreds of miles away from their wives.

          He can go to sex therapy all he wants, but there is nothing abnormal about Anthony Weiner’s behavior (apart from failing to check ID). The problem isn’t the sexting, it’s the cheating.

          The documentary “Weiner” shows us the inner workings of a political power couple. And it taught me that there really is a way stop all that cheating in Washington.

          “Weiner” follows a few painful months in the life of national joke Anthony Weiner and his ridiculously powerful wife Huma Abedin.

In 2013, Democrat Anthony Weiner ran for the Democratic nomination for mayor of New York City. Weiner guessed that the sexting scandal that forced him to resign from Congress was behind him. He was wrong.

Based on his name recognition and wealthy donor connections, Weiner jumped out to an early lead in the polls. Then proof came out that Weiner had continued to have sexting relationships with young women after he had promised the world that he had stopped. Weiner was humiliated and destroyed. He finished 5th.

The movie “Weiner” isn’t so much a study in political failure; it’s a study in bad marital judgement.

Anthony Weiner is a fiery, charismatic, impetuous, irresponsible New Yorker. Huma Abedin is a reserved, calculating, focused, introspective Midwesterner. Sometimes opposites attract. Sometimes opposites don’t belong together and make each other desperately unhappy.

It is possible that these two loved each other at one point. It is just as possible that the marriage was arranged by the Clinton family so that Hillary’s top advisor would look more like a regular American family woman and less like a cold-hearted backroom dealer.

Late in the film, I had a revelation: it no longer felt like Weiner is a bad man because he is cheating on Huma. It felt like Weiner is a bad man for cheating on his true love – flirty internet women – with Huma!

Weiner demonstrates a passionate positivity when interacting with strangers on the campaign trail. And he has a visceral lack of patience, appreciation, and love for the people he knows. The same attributes that made Anthony Weiner a great politician are the vices that made him a miserable husband.

The problem of perpetual adultery in Washington DC can be solved….by only electing non-married, childless Congressmen! (Or elect nothing but women. That would probably work, too).

Instead of sending the perfect family man to Washington and turning him into a hypocritical adulterer, why don’t we elect a single womanizer who can openly enjoy the fame and attention that comes with being a powerful politician.

There you have it, folks. I solved the Spirit of 76! Well, the 7 part, anyway. I don’t know how to stop war.

Salam Neighbor


Now on Netflix

Salam Neighbor



A year ago, serious immigration reform wasn’t even a topic of conversation. Now, to the horror of the political establishment, it is a top issue for many voters.

Both political parties are on the exact same side of the immigration debate. Democrats are in favor of unlimited immigration. And Republicans are in favor of unlimited immigration, only they accuse Democrats of favoring “amnesty” so that they look tough.

When the will of the people is wildly different than the actions of the political establishment, no leader is safe.

Just ask Angela Merkel. On paper, she has been a terrific Chancellor. Germany’s economy is strong. The country’s middle class is as large and comfortable as ever. But she will lose power next election; entirely due to her record on immigration.

Merkel is a consistent advocate of the EU and its open-border policy. But the Chancellor really erred when she announced that all Syrian refugees are welcome in Germany. A year later, Germany is experiencing as much violence as any year since 1945. In the US, we suffer through terrorist attacks a few times a year. In Germany, it is more like twice a month, with new stories of refugees harassing German women published every day.

And this isn’t just Germany’s problem. As the war in Syria rages on, more and more people flee their homes. And, not surprisingly, fewer and fewer countries are willing to take them in. Many end up in refugee camps.

“Salam Neighbor” introduces us to a world we will never experience: a UN refugee camp. The film takes place in Za’atari. It is in Jordan. It’s just a few miles away from Syria. But it is its own little world. It is a tent city split up into eight districts. It is home to 85,000 people. Way more people than Central Vermont.

The neat thing about the movie is that documentarians Chris Temple and Zach Ingrasci don’t just tell us about Za’atari; they set up a tent and actually live there for a month.

The first day at the refugee camp does not go smoothly for Chis and Zach. First, the camp authorities tell them that it is too dangerous for them to sleep there so the Americans have to go to a nearby city every night. Second, a furious Syrian confronts Chris and Zach and accuses them of filming and/or stealing his women.

Eventually, the filmmakers settle down, have a happy month, and make several friends. But, conspicuously, none of their friends are female. The Americans never comment on it, but the movie certainly gives impression that Syrian women are the property and/or prisoners of their male relatives.

I am a moral relativist and I am committed to a lifestyle of non-judgement of others. There is a part of me that refuses to declare that our culture of equality is better than their culture of subjugation. However, I do feel strongly that they need to keep their misogynistic nonsense out of the United States. That is not welcome here.

Chris Temple and Zach Ingrasci are not unbiased observers. They are filmmakers with an agenda. The conclusion they want you to draw is that the refugees are just like us and we should eagerly invite them in. But I wasn’t convinced. There are real and serious consequences from letting too many strangers into your country. Just ask Angela Merkel.


Now on Netflix



          Edward Snowden is a traitor.

          That’s what a lot of Americans – smart, reasonable Americans – think.

          Not me, though. To me, Edward Snowden was a selfless hero for releasing those secret files when he had the chance. The NSA had been collecting data on millions of Americans without a warrant and it was only right that we knew the truth.

          The government knew that it was behaving badly. That’s why they were hiding the fact that they were doing it. Edward Snowden was simply helping the government and our society by exposing bad behavior.

          It is absolutely normal for a good government to go too far sometimes in the name of national security. And that’s why we sometimes need whistle-blowers and reformers to rein it in.

          “1971” takes us back to another moment in our history when American patriots illegally leaked classified government documents.

          In 1924, J. Edgar Hoover took over the law enforcement agency that would become the FBI.

          After nearly 50 years in charge, the FBI had essentially become the fourth branch of government. And with great power comes no accountability. J. Edgar Hoover’s personal prejudices and paranoias became the law. And elected officials were too scared of him to do anything about it.

          But eight young Philadelphia leftists weren’t. The documentary “1971” shows how they planned and executed a skillful heist at a Pennsylvania FBI field office.  

The files that they stole exposed the bureau as an insidious American KGB. The FBI hardly investigated criminals at all. Mostly it just spied on and harassed dissenters.

The Philadelphia 8 discovered that their local FBI had hired the telephone switchboard operator at Swarthmore College to keep tabs on left-wing students and professors.

The FBI was systemically infiltrating all known black organizations and women’s groups on college campuses. One female agent reported that the women’s group that she had joined never talked about politics. Mostly the women complained in detail about their relationship woes and sexual frustrations. Her superior urged her to keep at it and continue sending him detailed notes.

One agent who had infiltrated an anti-war group started a rumor that the leaders of the group, a husband and wife, were cheating on each other. The agent boasted – on official FBI documents – that he had broken up their family.

The release of these damning FBI files led Congress to hold hearings and establish a permanent system of oversight so these abuses could never happen again. The Philadelphia 8 – who obviously had to remain underground – were anonymous heroes.

“But Edward Snowden is different,” his critics will say, “because he betrayed the government that he swore to protect.”

I disagree. I don’t think Snowden betrayed the NSA; the NSA betrayed him.

Let’s say that a kid swears an oath to his local Boy Scout troop. When he starts going to Boy Scout events, however, he discovers that all they do is sit around eating Doritos and watching Islamic State propaganda videos.

If that new Boy Scout informs the authorities, he isn’t betraying his troop. His troop betrayed him by promising him wholesome projects and then behaving so disgracefully. To me, Edward Snowden is that whistle-blowing boy scout.

Edward Snowden is no traitor. He’s a hero, just like the Philadelphia 8.

How to Change the World


How to Change the World



It isn’t too hard to be an environmentalist.

You have to do three things: believe what the scientists say, recycle, and root against the bad guys (corporations and Republicans). That’s about it.

If you genuinely believe that humans are destroying the world right now, however, I would think that you’d have to do more. A lot more.

If I genuinely thought that my actions were killing the planet, I would have to move out of my apartment immediately. I’d have to move into a place that is within walking distance of work and sell my car for scrap.

I would have to avoid reproduction at all cost to reduce my carbon footprint. I would obviously have to go vegan because of the negative effect that animal husbandry has on the land. I would never buy a product that isn’t locally made. I would do my best to grow my own organic food. And I’d never travel so as not to unnecessarily burn fossil fuels.

Being an environmentalist is easy. Changing the world is hard.

“How to Change the World” introduces us to some legendary heroes of the radical environmentalist movement.

The documentary begins in 1971. The US government was planning on conducting yet another nuclear weapons test on the pristine Alaskan island of Amchitka.

A ragtag group of Vancouver hippies decided to risk their lives to stop the test. With a lot of bravery – and a lot of facial hair – the activists sailed through the treacherous Behring Sea and into history.

Though the Coastguard sent them back. The activists returned home as conquering heroes. The Nixon Administration quality closed down the Amchitka testing site a few months later.

Along the way, the group decided on a name for their organization. Since it consisted of anti-war activists and environmental activists, they chose the name: “The Tree-Hugging Dove Alliance.”

Just kidding. They called themselves Greenpeace.

Riding the wave of success from the Amchitka mission, Greenpeace founder Robert Hunter obtained a larger crew and a bigger boat. Then he threw the environmentalist community a big curveball. He decided that their next mission was to Save the Whales.

Greenpeace’s first mission to thwart a Soviet whale hunting ship is exciting and tense.

I’ll be honest with you: I’m not especially anti-whaling. I judge myself harder for eating a Sausage McMuffin last week than I judge a whaling crewman for doing his job. The pig lived its entire life as a meaningless commodity on a factory farm while the whale lived in pure freedom with its family up until its last breath.

Nevertheless, the sight of Greenpeace’s little speedboats standing between a monstrous harpoon and an innocent whale is unforgettable. Greenpeace forever turned the tide of public opinion against whaling.

“How to Change the World” shows how much sacrifice and bravery it takes to really make a difference when you are fighting against powerful businesses and governments. It also shows, frankly, how hard it is to remain philosophically pure when you become powerful yourself.

On Greenpeace’s second mission, the film admits, Robert Hunter had already begun to sell out. He was using maps given to him by the CIA that showed just where the Soviet whaling ships were going to be. And his boat was fueled by government money.

It turned out that Washington loved Greenpeace. Because it was embarrassing Moscow.

In the end, even Greenpeace learned that changing the world is hard. This would be a huge problem if the radical environmentalists were right about their claim that humans are destroying the world. Thank goodness they are wrong. We are not.