Reed: ‘Pure Vermont’ is pure invalidation

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Curtiss Reed Jr., the executive director of Vermont Partnership for Fairness & Diversity.

Advertising history is replete with examples of cross-cultural branding blunders.

In 1994 “The future’s bright the future’s Orange” was the tagline of the French telecom company Orange. But when they took their slogan across the Irish Sea, it brought to mind the Orange Order. For Northern Ireland’s Catholics, the slogan suggested that the future was Protestant, loyalist and anti-Catholic.

Brian Dubie’s “Pure Vermont” brand is another example of cross-cultural blundering. Presumably, the slogan refers to Vermont’s agricultural products and environmental legacy. But for many Vermonters, these words denote racial, religious and cultural oppression. They imply that Vermont is a place reserved for white Christians.

Yet unlike the French company — which quickly ditched its offensive ad in Northern Ireland — the Dubie campaign continues to use the Pure Vermont brand in spite of efforts to bring this to the campaign’s attention.

Vermont’s population is becoming increasingly diverse. Over the past decade, 31 percent of the state’s new residents were racial and ethnic minorities. The “pure” brand perpetuates the “native” verses “flatlander” divisive wedge for the 60 percent of us who were born someplace other than this great state. Tens of thousands of Vermonters today come from non-Christian religious traditions whose recent histories recount public humiliation, persecution and genocide under the rule of oppressive regimes.

Dubie’s brand resurrects the horror of the Eugenics Survey and the 1931 passage of An Act for Human Betterment by Voluntary Sterilization. This measure codified the practice of racism, harassment, and the sterilization of the Abenaki people. “Pure Vermont” raises the specter of Hilter’s Aryan Nation and the Khmer Rouge where the purifying agent was genocide.

And the slogan is a bitter reminder of the bigotry and racial segregation experienced by blacks under slavery and Jim Crow. The precipitous drop of Vermont’s black population in the early 20th century was no doubt partially due to the Klan’s efforts to keep Vermont pure.

More than a remnant of our recent past, racism and bias are stubborn problems in our schools. The brand turns a deaf ear to the sensitivities of students of color and LGBT students. Too often the target of brutal bullying, suicide attempts among these student populations are three to eight times higher than those of white or heterosexual students.

The “Pure Vermont” brand is pure invalidation of the fastest growing segment of our population. And the brand’s handlers have been dishing out a healthy dose of avoidant behavior or, optimistically, benign neglect. The inherent challenges and opportunities of a more multicultural Vermont should not be ignored or buried in the polite discourse of denial. Failure to authentically affirm our presence today will prove, in years to come, to be the Achilles heel of Vermont’s economic recovery, prosperity, and a sense of community free of prejudice and discrimination of all kinds.

“Pure Vermont” does nothing to bring Vermonters together. Vermont deserves inclusive, decisive, self-aware leadership with the 21st century skills to negotiate the oncoming changes within and beyond our borders.

CORRECTION: Curtiss Reed sent an e-mail alert out on Oct. 22, 2010, regarding an error in his commentary. “Minorities accounted for 31% of Vermont’s population growth from 2000 thru 2009 not 94.5% as reported in my commentary. This latter figure relates to the growth rate of minorities as a group from 1995 thru 2009. My apologies to your readers for this reporting error.”

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  • David Carter

    I’m not sure the “Pure Vermont” moniker carries the connotation implied by the writer, but I am concerned about Brian Dubie’s attitude towards racially sensitive issues.

    A recent “7 Days” article commented about Dubie’s response to the notion of having Dr. Hsiao, a noted healthcare system reform expert, analyze and devise a system for Vermont, because he was from Taiwan. The implication was that Dubie discounted the credibility of Dr. Hsiao, apparently because he was from Taiwan.

    On a recent “True North” radio segment, 2 consecutive callers commented that they did not like the “Vermont Refugee” program that places refugees from other nations (primarily African nations?) in Burlington. Apparently the callers (one who Dubie identified as an old family friend) didn’t like the idea of people with skin darker than them and speaking languages they don’t understand living in their city. As I recall, Dubie repsonded that immigration is part of America’s history, and basically left it at that.

    My question to Mr. Dubie is this: Why didn’t you call these guys out for being the racists that they are, and show some political courage by telling them that you don’t want people of their mindset casting their votes for you? Could it be that you know that showing such political courage would alienate much of your base?

  • Mr. Reed is right. Most racial malevolence is couched in vague ambiguities. Though I do not suspect Brian personally of harboring a eugenic bias, I have no idea who his out of state media handler is and what underlies his media strategy. “Pure VT” should indeed be reserved for Vermont’s agricultural bounty and not its racial and cultural make up. We are responsible for our words even if composed by strangers.

  • John Barton

    I can’t imagine how someone could pull such a distorted idea from such a simple slogan. To suggest it is someplace between the extravagant over-analysis that lead to the Brattleboro Colonels losing their mascot, and the fear mongering that has so many people convinced that Obama is a Muslim who wasn’t born in America.

    I don’t support Dubie, but going to such extreme lengths to discredit him is certainly unnecessary. I can at least sympathize with his intended message, that maybe the 40% of the voting population that are actually from Vermont want some representation too, so the world won’t see us as a bunch of nuclear fearing, nudist who can’t stand the idea of southern colonels, which are the only things that the national media sees about us.

    • John, I used to respond to issues of this type in the same manner I see in your response. I wondered why people would put energy into the topic. Then I noticed not everyone feels the way I do, and in this area, ignoring others feelings created more discord in a vicious cycle. Not how I would set things up if the good Lord would follow my specifications, but set it up this way he did. That is my take. I respect yours. I might revert to yours someday, but for now, I find I get more peace and the world is more peaceful by letting people have their views. I prefer peace to war when I have a choice.

      That said, I do think some of the victims take things to improper extremes. I am just not going to say which ones I am thinking of. I will say an area where I feel we neglect history is right here in the USA, where we conquered and eradicated the inhabitants we found here. I think we have some soul searching left to do in that area. That is just my opinion. My mother, whom I love, strongly disagrees. She figures I am a heathen like the people eradicated by our forebears. I think populations of people need all kinds of views, no one of us has it right. Survival comes from the group having a healthy mix, not putting all its risk into one world view.

      • John Barton

        Sometimes people’s feelings do get hurt. I don’t think I, or anyone else, should be afraid of making an innocent statement for fear that someone might get upset about it. I realize that we’re talking about politics here, and that small semantic missteps can be a big deal, but that doesn’t make it right to twist simple slogans into hate speech.

        You’re right that populations of people need all kinds of views, but we need different views so that we can look at problems from different angles, and determine what is right. Merely stating that none of us are right gets us no closer to the truth. If more people engaged in honest discussion, with facts governing decisions more than feelings, then perhaps more things would would get done.

        The fact is that using the word “Pure” in a campaign slogan does not mean that he plans on racially purifying Vermont, and I don’t think anyone was confused by that.

        • Hi John,

          I agree with everything you said, except this part:
          >>>Merely stating that none of us are right gets us no closer to the truth. If more people engaged in honest discussion, with facts governing decisions more than feelings, then perhaps more things would would get done.<<

          The fact is that most of the time it is impossible to determine what is "right." The most we can do is our best and hope it is good enough.

          If it were possible to determine what is right, strictly on a factual basis, we would see more 9-0 decisions coming out of the US Supreme Court. 5-4 is more common.

          No one is more dedicated to facts separated from feelings than Supreme Court judges. They all devote their lives to learning the facts of what the law is. Then they apply elaborate rules of evidence to determine the facts of any given case. Then they apply the facts of the law to the facts of a case to determine what the law says should be the decision in a case. In the end, they cannot agree on the facts, even with essentially unlimited time to determine the facts. This proves that strictly fact-based analysis cannot produce a "right" result, unless you think nearly half the Supreme Court justices can be wrong on a strictly factual basis.

          Regarding "Pure Vermont," it is a lie. Hiring Corey Bliss, most definitely not a Vermonter, to manage the campaign cinches that. It would be like hiring Vladimir Putin to run a Pure America campaign. I'll bet $10 the slogan "Pure Vermont" was coined by a non-Vermonter, thinking it would be catchy.

          I don't think any better of Peter's campaign. My view is both candidates should be disqualified for permitting disinformation to pollute the election. If we cannot have a clear, clean election in Vermont, where can we have one? That would be my idea of Pure Vermont.

          • John Barton

            I did some investigation. Turns out that in the 08-09 supreme court term there were almost twice as many unanimous decisions as there were 5-4’s, with slightly less 6-3’s and a fair quantity of 7-2’s. A strange lack of 8-1 decisions, but that doesn’t change the significance.

            It is possible to separate facts from bias, people simply aren’t willing to do it because they refuse to admit that they are wrong.

          • John, that is interesting and important data, thank you the research and sharing it.

            I am still thinking, however, that those 5-4 decisions prove there are limits to human reasoning with regard to facts.

            Regarding admitting to being wrong, I have found I am wrong most of the time, with little correlation between my level of certainty and the likelihood of being correct. So, I assume I am wrong all the time. The biggest problem that causes me is that some others use my doubts as evidence supporting their beliefs, when what I am hoping it would support an open mind.

  • Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

    I very much agree with Mr. Reed. As someone who grew up amongst Holocaust survivors, and as the descendent of people who endured centuries of ethnic and religious violence, I have the kind of visceral reaction to “Pure Vermont” that the author describes.

    For me (and, it seems, for the writer), the issue isn’t whether Mr. Dubie harbors any ill intent. The issue is that many of us react with horror to these kinds of terms, and that the Dubie campaign doesn’t seem to care. For some people, the term “Pure Vermont” is either neutral or positive. For some of us, it is very painful.

    In describing our responses, we are not reading too much into words. We are making clear our sensitivities and our experience of history. Those sensitivities, and that experience, will not change. They are intrinsic to who we are.

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