June 2016

From the June Issue: 

Louis Mannie Lionni, Burlington College

Charles Simpson, Facing West

Diane Gayer, The Barge Canal

Emer Pond Feeney, Faux Middle Class

Michael Long, Mawling Burlington

E. McCormack, Vermonters in the Clean Room

Stephen Callahan, Exerpts from Aesthetic Legislation 

Genese Grill, Reading Marcuse in Burlington, VT

Eileen Andreoli, The Elephant in the Room

Peter Garritano, Donald and Hilary

Louis Mannie Lionni, Some Questions about Affordable Housing

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The history of America may be told as a long drawn-out battle between the ideals of utility and beauty. Our break from Mother England, although ostensibly in the name of freedom of religion and self-rule, was also inevitably a rejection of the culture and beauty sponsored by Old World aristocracy. Here in New England, we still retain some of that old Puritan pride in the virtues of thrift, minimalism, and practicality, anathema to the wider European tendency toward libertinage, aestheticism, or luxurious wallowing in art or pleasure for their own sake.  By the turn of the twentieth century, Europeans saw America as the land of hygiene and technological innovation: refrigeration, efficient plumbing, and assembly-line cars, all of which might be admired for a certain sleek, machine-age style, but whose first allegiance was always to utility and profit.   Our rejection of the values of beauty, tradition, history, culture, and intellectualism has left a yawning abysm ready to be filled in by commercialism, simulation, and the spurious promise of technological progress. We have rejected the kinds of matter that are inhered with spirit in exchange for an empty materialism. Perhaps we would have done well to pay more attention to the warnings of de Tocqueville and Whitman, to name just two commentators who worried about how art and spiritual culture might be fostered in a democratic society.

An exception to our country’s depreciation of beauty for its own sake could be found for centuries in our love of nature, evidenced even in the world of high finance by funding dedicated to the preservation of National parks and wild wonders. This limited devotion to beauty is now on the wane, even in the largest city in the Green Mountain State, where our Progressive leadership has collaborated with the Democrats at the helm to destroy one of the last pieces of undeveloped green space in Burlington in exchange for an exorbitantly unsustainable development project. Their excuse is that this monstrosity will include 160 “affordable” units.  Which reminds us that a belief in the great god Utility is not only an American religion; workers’ housing was actually invented by good Europeans who meant well and who provided poor people with apartments with toilets and running water, that, while taking care of their basic bodily needs, were a blight on the landscape and the inhabitants’ souls. The Progressives in Burlington seem to be a species of this old order advocate for social housing, except that they considered it a boon even when a new expensive development only provided a small portion of affordable units. The old guard at least aimed for the greatest practical good for the greatest number, even if they neglected the fact that the “good” they provided did not include beauty.  Further, as is often the case, such reckless development is hardly ever really useful, sustainable, or reasonable anyway, leaving the local community footing the bill for a powerful developer and losing their green commons, their public voice, and the future health of their lake and land.

The problem is that without culture, beauty, intellectual activity, and  human relationships, people feel empty, so they fill up this lack with new schemes to destroy nature and communities. If people were to unplug their useful technology for half a day, or stay home on Sundays and make love instead of driving their S.U.V.’s to Home Depot, we wouldn’t need to be putting all those solar farms in the fields all over Vermont. If we were to combine some of that old New England thrift with some old world European sensual culture, we would be moving in the right direction.  Mere utility seems so often to be stuck in the realm of immediate necessity, thereby failing to be truly useful in the long run. Beauty, on the other hand, is born in the realm of possibility and vision. It invites us to dream and imagine better modes of living amid the vanishing gift of fragile natural and cultural resources.

From the Editor

 

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