N.H. takes Hugo’s Free Oil: Say Goodbye to Live Free or Die

Here in northern New England we experience a kind of liberalism I would call detached. Or maybe a better word is unhinged. It is an organic product of changing demographics.



Not long ago — in my father’s day — it counted for something to be from these parts, because most people lived in the Northeast; Texas was a desert and California was a hinterland. New England, particularly its northern parts, was considered core to that sensibility which evolved into the American condition. So much flinty character we were imagined to have that when Gov. Sherman Adams — Yankees used to have names like that — put his mind to it, he would send Eisenhower to the presidency, even though Eisenhower hadn’t even put his name on the ballot. Even nowadays that rugged individualist sensibility resonates on big- and small-screen; the fictional president in “The West Wing” was, naturally, reared in New Hampshire.



But since post-war demographics have shifted to the South, the Southwest and just everywhere. The rise of dominant opinion and new American ideas, particularly in the South since Ronald Reagan, is a natural product of these shifting demographics. When the South became empowered economically, it voiced its own opinions, unbeholden to the Northeast. In places like Tobaccoville, N.C., where we happened to rear our kids, the change was dramatic. Over 80 percent of the people, having voted Democratic since 1865, changed their voter registration to Republican. They changed their religion, too. It was a full cultural empowerment, and it permanently shifted attitudes in America. As Newt Gingrich said, borrowing the ubiquitous ’60s refrain, the Northeast was no longer relevant.



There does seem to be a sense of being left behind here in recent decades, and the farther north you go from Boston, the more you feel it. Complaint has become loud and stringent; more a cry in the wilderness without conceivable objective than original thinking and considered plan of action. And right now it is going to get a lot worse, because the 40-some million people exactly my age born all at the same time within a few months of war’s end are planning to retire this year and probably at least 7 million of them are going to buy Subarus and put a bunch of bumper stickers on them and move up here to try to get the band back together that they left behind in high school.



So it gets stranger and stranger. And the public airwaves didn’t get the Gingrich memo, so anything we do up here — the crazier the better — will be fully reported in the press as somehow important and relevant, and will awaken or be amplified like a firestorm in some other faraway place like California or the Pacific Northwest.



Robert Redford, the movie maker who always wanted to be a professor and plays one in his recent movie, “Lions for Lambs,” makes a salient point about the new unhinged. He plays a professor who, like Johnny Cash’s wanderer, is looking for one good man: a spirit who would not bend or break, who would sit at his father’s right hand. He is looking for a warrior in a world of delusional liberal wimps. When discussing handing out clean needles to heroin users, the class, like a school of fish, universally embraces the idea and scorns the loner — Redford’s warrior — who compares this to assigning a separate highway lane for drunk drivers. Redford’s point seems to be that this kind of liberal dilettantism creates a psychological transference which sends the group aloft and detaches it from the key issues of the day, like the invasion of Iraq, torture, Gitmo.



Redford asks, How did we allow these things to happen? How did we deal the opposition a free hand? We did so by embracing the absurd and the irrelevant as ends in themselves; as substitutions for the real issues that needed to be confronted and the real work that needed to be done. We did so because we did not have the courage to face the political realities as they came to us and so we substituted fanciful issues in their place.



Here in the northern reaches of New Hampshire, rugged individualism has saved us from this kind of thing, or so we have told ourselves. But this week we have entered the horde. This week New Hampshire has agreed to accept free oil from Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela. It is the kind of thing I would expect from our neighbors, but it was unimaginable in Sherman Adams’s day. I thought it was unimaginable here in New Hampshire until last week.

According to press reports, New Hampshire becomes the last state in the Northeast to embrace the offer.

"A lot of people have said, ‘We need help and we value any help we can get,' " said Amy Ignatius, director of New Hampshire's office of energy and planning.

Chavez hates the United States. He hates George Bush. I don’t like Bush either, but I don’t hate him.

New Hampshire has signed on for the free oil just as Chavez visits Moscow, set to spend up to a billion dollars on Russian weapons next week. Chavez's shopping list could include three "Varshavianka"-class electric-diesel submarines and 20 Tor-M1 ground-to-air missile systems, sources say. According to a Venezuelan government statement Thursday, Chavez says Venezuela is looking to obtain new military hardware, including Russian tanks. The president already has bought Russian weapons, including Sukhoi fighter jets and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles.

Incidentally, last week Chavez threatened to cut off oil to the U.S. if it "continues to try to hurt us.” Presumably that would be states other than New Hampshire, which, as far as I understand it, has actually entered into a passive federalist accord with Venezuela in opposition to the United States. And this weekend diplomats speaking for Chavez’s best bud, President Lula da Silva of Brazil, said the United States deception in trade talks reminded him of tactics used by Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels.

Somebody tell these people: The ’50s called. They want their political parties back.

Chavez sees himself as the “new Castro,” sticking it to the Americans by getting the Old Alliance back: the Russians and the Chinese in particular, and throwing in Iran, Syria and a few others; just anyone with a grudge against us. And here in the U.S. what Chavez is looking for is — in the language of the ’50s — fellow travelers like those in homage to The God that Failed, as Stalin-era communism was called in a famous book by that title. Stalin called them the “useful idiots” — sympathizers and passive supporters of those who would despise us.

Doris Lessing wrote about subtle identification with one’s enemy and the path of political nihilism as a sick post-war soul in Europe and America; a kind of cultural possession which took her and her friends to the dark side well into the 1950s. They were useful tools to Stalin all during the gulag period, a time when tens of millions died, according to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s first-hand account. But their influence came to an end when Arthur Koestler wrote Darkness at Noon and denounced them as collaborators and appeasers. Koestler was himself a fellow traveler. That book and his other writings became a major influence in American thinking in the 1950s.

Lessing wrote about her experiences again in a New York Times essay in 1992: “While we have seen the apparent death of Communism, ways of thinking that were either born under Communism or strengthened by Communism still govern our lives. Not all of them are as immediately evident as a legacy of Communism as political correctness.”

She won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year for writing about this. But apparently they didn’t get that memo at Concord’s Office of Energy and Planning either.

I’m not surprised to see the surrounding states up here go along with Chavez, but I’d like to see a county-by-county ballot referendum in New Hampshire on who wants free oil from Chavez and who doesn’t.

New Hampshire was until this week the most Jeffersonian of states. We wear independence on our license plates and when a foreign leader like the newly elected Nicolas Sarkozy, intent on changing France’s trajectory, wants to show a (fanciful) flinty independence, his first symbolic act is to come to our cold lakes to bask. We even had a movie recently with Bruce Willis busting thing up under the anthem of our state motto.

But this independence has yielded to demographics. The tax rate up here is an attraction to outsiders, some of whom are not particularly independent of spirit but simply want to avoid taxes and the everyday responsibilities of republican government. These people are generally from the industrial parts of Massachusetts and have just in recent times moved across the border.

The trouble is, they have brought Massachusetts with them. And they outnumber the rest of us in the mountains.

New Hampshire still has the right stuff, which gave it its reputation, but now it is invariably overwhelmed by the mass-market corporate culture, which has moved across to the bottom of the state, creating a kind of Massachusetts pseudo-state just above the Massachusetts border.

We have clearly seen this new condition in voting patterns in recent elections; it was illustrated most vividly in the Democratic primary in ’04. At the frozen top of the state, Dixville Notch, which might be considered the gnarly essence of New Hampshire, Wes Clark won up to 80 percent of the vote. But at the end of the day it was all John Kerry, same as in Massachusetts. And in the Senate and House races today it is no surprise that some of the Democratic candidates seem to bear no relationship to the Northern tradition of flinty independence but rather seem right off the rack at Filene’s basement in Boston.

It may have been a harbinger when the stone face fell off the mountain a few years back. It is still on the license plates and so is the slogan, Live Free or Die. But that time has passed and now the new culture dominates. The free and independent mountain spirit of New Hampshire is a God that Failed. We are now North Massachusetts.





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