Mark Steyn

Topical Take

Insufficiently Independent to Hold an Independence Day Parade

Happy Independence Day to all our readers in the original thirteen colonies, across the fruited plain and halfway over the Pacific. Wherever you are, we have the song for the season.

In all my years in the United States, the most depressing Fourth of July I ever had was two years ago, when a lone control-freak statist took it upon himself to cancel one state's half of my local twin-state parade. I'm happy to say that this year - at this hour - the July 4th observances are set to proceed as scheduled. But I reprint my column from 2015 as a cautionary tale, and a reminder that liberty requires eternal vigilance - because there's always some twerp wanting to take it away from you:

So, no, since you ask, I didn't have that Glorious a Fourth. I almost wrote about it yesterday, but was too sad to find the appropriate tone. I'm still very sad, so if you want to cut to the chase and get on with your day, the takeaway is America might as well hang a sign on its door saying, "Final Three Days! Everything Must Go!!! Ultimate Storewide Blowout!!!!!"

As readers may know, the Steyn worldwide corporate headquarters is located in Woodsville, which is part of the township of Haverhill, New Hampshire. Actually, the only reason readers would have any cause to know it at all is that an hilariously inept attack poodle called Bernie Quigley wrote in The Hill that I had no idea what the real, authentic America was like and to demonstrate the point plucked three real, authentic, entirely random American places off the map (well, two off the map and one off his LP collection) and said that Steyn would "would get a rash in real places like Tobaccoville, N.C., Haverhill, N.H. or Luckenbach, Texas".

What are the odds of that? Of all the bazillions of pinpricks on the American map, Quigly takes a blind stab and hits mine.

So, on Saturday morning, I was in Haverhill, NH working on my rash. I'd had to swing by Steyn Global HQ in Woodsville for one reason or another and got there about 9.45, and already the elderly veterans and widows and spinsters were camped out in their lawn chairs holding their miniature flags in readiness for the 11 o'clock parade. Gotta get there early and grab a good spot. But I figured I could get the work wrapped up at the office and still skedaddle back to the main drag and catch the Fourth of July observances. For decades, Woodsville has joined with Wells River across the bridge in Vermont to host one of the biggest Independence Day parades around. Between them they have a population of about 1,500, but folks come from neighboring towns because they seem to like the whole twin-state vibe. So the parade always starts in Woodsville, marches down Central Street, and over the Connecticut River into Vermont where it wraps up on Main Street, Wells River.

Anyway, one thing led to another and I had my head stuck in some rather tedious materials from my upcoming trial of the century when I heard the sound of the band approaching. So I thought, whoops, the festivites are underway, I better get up to Central Street. And by the time I got to the front door and out of the building, I didn't need to hurry along to the parade because the parade had hurried along to me. Instead of heading straight on and over the bridge to Vermont, all the beauty queens and 4-H floats and fire trucks had hung a left and come straight past my office door.

Which struck me as weird. Because they'd never done that before. And judging from the thin knot of people out on the street to watch no one else had been expecting it. So the parade went down the hill and petered out at the community field.

And afterwards I found out what had happened. Over on the Vermont side at 10.15am - 45 minutes before the parade was due to start - the one-man police department, Constable Glen Godfrey, had noticed that the "detour" signs had not been posted on the roads. I wouldn't want to make this sound more complicated a problem than it is: By "roads", I mean that Wells River basically has two of them - an east-west road and a north-south road. And Constable Godfrey had three-quarters of an hour to use his wit and ingenuity to find a workaround, to show a little bit of - oh, what's the word? - "independence" of mind.

Instead, with 45 minutes to go, a part-time village constable canceled the Independence Day parade.

As he told the local reporter:

"You're supposed to have the right signs out on the road," Godfrey said. "They just did not have the signs up. By law, I cannot let them have the parade without the signs."

Boy, if only George III had thought to try that line with that Boston tea-party thing, we could have skipped the whole revolutionary unpleasantness entirely.

Incidentally, who is this "they" to whom Constable Godfrey refers? It's not the responsibility of the parade organizers to put signs up on Vermont streets. It's the responsibility of another agency of officialdom - the same officialdom that the part-time constable represents. So it would have been more correct to say: "We just did not have the signs up."

As I said, it would have required three signs - one to the south, one to the north, one to the west. Or, if he'd deputized two volunteers to join him, three men raising their hands to halt whatever very minimal traffic approached the village during the parade. Instead he called the Orange County Sheriff's Department who, with the classic brain-dead cover-your-ass attitude of the bureaucracy told the local copper to make sure that Uncle Sam shall not pass and to "prohibit the parade from entering Vermont". Constable Godfrey was the Paul Revere of the hour: Instead of yelling "The British are coming!", he'd called the Sheriff's office and yelled, "The loyal patriotic flag-waving Americans are coming!" After 240 years that's what it's come down to. Happy Independence Day! Pin the flag to your ass and Shelter in Place!

[UPDATE: I now learn that no deputizing was necessary as two Sheriff's deputies were already present in Wells River to police the parade. But of course they decided to side with the useless jobsworth constable - because it's easier just to pick up your salary for doing nothing than making a human decision and risking be in violation of Rule 4,731(b) iii.]

At 10.15, the Wells River side was just like the Woodsville side - the l'il ol' ladies had carved up the prime sidewalk real estate with their folding chairs - but with the additional complication of the reviewing stand, where the parade announcer, the five float judges, and the singer of the national anthem were already in position. But, instead of doing anything to make the parade happen, Constable Godfrey instead told them that, if they wanted any red-white-and-blue and "You're A Grand Old Flag", they needed to scram over to the New Hampshire side of the river 'cause it ain't happening here.

And that too is poignant and symbolic on Independence Day. Don't you find increasingly that this is a society where no one can make anything happen? That people can give you a thousand reasons why something can't happen but can no longer figure out a way to ensure that it can.

And so the citizens of Wells River meekly shuffled over the Connecticut River bridge to the designated parade-holding area in the adjoining state. By the way, consider that: if this hadn't been a twin-state parade and the Granite State portion thereof not within Constable Godfrey's jurisdiction, there would have been no Independence Day observances at all. He would in effect have canceled the entire national holiday over failure of signage compliance.

As effete and enfeebled as post-"Live Free Or Die" New Hampshire is, Granite Staters are not quite as thoroughly castrated as are the heirs to Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys. So, on the eastern bank of the Connecticut, the organizers decided the Woodsville-Wells River Fourth of July parade would go ahead without the Wells River part and hastily improvised a new route. Which is why they wound up detouring down my road and past my office window.

Now here's the thing: Obviously, as it had never been intended to be part of any parade route, my road had no official signs up on it, and in fact, unlike the flat even plain on which Wells River's Main Street is located on, the grade drops steeply and very dramatically down to the community field. And yet, clinging on for dear life as the floats plunged down the incline, all the cute little gradeschoolers and tiara-clutching beauty queens somehow managed to survive.

Yet, while I salute the New Hampshire end for declining to let some jumped-up Vermont twerp rain on their parade, I don't think that was quite the ideal solution. When someone like Constable Godfrey tells you are no longer sufficiently independent to hold an Independence Day parade, the correct response is: Sorry, pal, we're coming through. You can stand in our path, and we'll let the 4-H-ers plow you into the asphalt. Or you can call for back up from the Sheriff's Department and tase us into submission. But you're gonna have to tase us all. Because isn't that what the Declaration of Independence was all about? George III thought this was the King's highway and freeborn Americans told him, get lost, creep, it's the people's highway. And on this Independence Day the people are coming through!

I like to think that's what the late Ray Burton, longtime NH Executive Councillor for the North Country, would have done. He marched at the head of the parade for years alongside his car (license number "1") , and I find it hard to imagine him meekly consenting to be turned away. But lots of other folks wouldn't agree to it, either. Had, say, the Dearborn Ramadan Parade or the West Hollywood LGBTQWERTY Parade taken a wrong turn, like Bugs Bunny at Albuquerque, and wound up on that Connecticut River bridge, do you think they would have submitted to Constable Godfrey's diktat? Not at all. They would have brushed him aside and poured through. And their willingness to do that is why the gays and the Muslims win everything they want - and compliant losers don't.

And, in fact, try telling those despised "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" in France that Bastille Day's off because of insufficient signs - or Quebeckers on St-Jean-Baptiste Day. This prostration before irrational, capricious but deeply totalitarian officialdom is unbecoming to a supposedly free people.

So, as ridiculous as Constable Godfrey's behavior was, the bovine acceptance of it by the citizenry is far more disturbing. In my Fourth of July rerun of an old Telegraph column, I noted how the regulatory bureaucracy was crushing the spirit of independence. That was back in the Nineties when "safety" was being used to hyper-regulate anything involving children. Two decades on, we are all children. When you can have your Independence Day cancelled by bureaucrats on 45 minutes' notice, you are not citizens, you are not even subjects - you are wards of the state, a state that no longer recognizes you as capable of functioning adulthood.

Incidentally, in previous years the parade organizers had never applied for any permit in the State of Vermont. Hitherto, it was known to all that they'd be holding the parade on July 4th, and they went ahead and held it. This time, for the first time ever, they were prevailed upon to apply for a permit, and they were entered into the system - and then the system failed. That too is a perfect distillation of the way it goes in the Republic of Paperwork: you play along with the system, and then the system screws you over anyway. Right now, the local constable, the county sheriff and the state agency of transportation are all referring questions on who should have done what back and forth to the others. That's three different agencies of government, which is two more than it would be in any functioning society:

"Me and the sheriffs, today, it's all our fault," Godfrey said. "But it's not our fault if the sign's not up."

Glen Godfrey has been constable for 20 years. It's an elected position, and it would be heartening to think the burghers of his community would toss him out on his ear. But, given the mind-numbing invocations of "safety" and "security", I expect they'll return him to office with an increased vote. His plaintive whine of "it's not our fault" does, however, suggest that, as in so many other areas of the bureaucracy where human judgment and sense of proportion are no longer required or indeed permitted, he might just as well be replaced by one of those prototype Japanese robots who can be programmed to perform simple tasks.

But you can't replace everyone - from Godfrey to the Sheriff's Department to the Vermont Agency of Transportation to the citizenry to the J-school newspaper reporters who wrote up the story as some kind of cute small-town foible: "Red (Tape), White And Blue: Lack of Safety Signs Stymies Parade"... "Sign Glitch Detours Woodsville-Wells River Parade"... "Two-State Parade Whittled To One Because Detour Signs Not Up"...

But it's not cute at all, it's pathetic. The Caledonian Record's story has a choice (but paywalled) passage:

Godfrey, who has served 22 years as constable, said it was an unfortunate situation but he stood by his actions.

"We hated to do it," he said, "but we didn't want to see anyone get hurt."

In the past he put out parade detour signs. Now only AOT employees can put signs on state highways, he said, and those signs must meet federal guidelines for size, color, dimension and lettering, according to state highway officials.

"In the past we put [the signs] up. But you can't do that anymore," said Godfrey. "The law says you have to have certain kinds of signs."

This is the wretched passivity of a supine people. The local government can't do anything unless it's got permission from the state government and the state government can't do anything unless it complies with the national government (there's nothing "federal" about a sign law that prevents a village holding a parade). But "we didn't want to see anyone get hurt" - so just stay at home and shelter in place until a federally-approved sign can be installed by a state-credentialed official. For this you threw off a king?

Such a generation could not have won the Revolutionary War - and indeed such an attitude is not unconnected to why we don't win any wars today. A people that lack sufficient independence to hold an Independence Day Parade mocks the very meaning of the day. As some old dead guys once said:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness...

But on Independence Day, on the bridge to Wells River, it's not looking all that self-evident anymore. Any other self-evident truths?

That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.

But as the Declaration also notes:

All experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

And so in Wells River they suffer the evils of the Commissar of Parades. In my very prescient (if I do say so myself, which I do) bestselling book After America (personally autographed copies of which, etc, etc) , I quote Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Committee on Foreign Relations, and the very definition of a sober, respected, judicious paragon of torpidly conventional wisdom. Nevertheless, musing on American decline, he observed:

The country's economy, infrastructure, public schools and political system have been allowed to deteriorate. The result has been diminished economic strength, a less-vital democracy, and a mediocrity of spirit.

That last is the one to watch: A great nation can survive a lot of things, but not "a mediocrity of spirit". And I'm afraid on Independence Day, that's the tattered banner Wells River, Vermont chose to wave.

~from Steyn on America, July 6th 2015. A week later the ructions from the Glorious Fourth inglorious fiasco were still rumbling on:

The Valley News has now followed up with a story bearing the amusing headline "State, Local Officials Throw Each Other Under the Parade Float". But in fact there seems to be remarkable unanimity at all levels of government that it was far too risky to permit Americans to observe their national holiday without federally mandated signage:

[Part-time town constable] Godfrey said that if he had it to do all over again, he would still have pointed out the lack of signage to the sheriff.

"I'm looking for safety," he said.

Orange County Sheriff Bill Bohnyak (behind paywall), who supported and enforced Constable Godfrey's insane decision with his deputies, agrees:

"I'd be upset too if I lived up there and this happened. But the bottom line is safety comes first."

Sheriff Bohnyak's bottom line is somewhat variable: Down the Connecticut River but still in Orange County, another twin-state parade in Orford and Fairlee was permitted to march into Vermont and flounce around in flagrant defiance of federal signage requirements. So his bottom line seems to have a mismatched left buttock and right buttock.

Reader Dave Hymes thinks all this "safety" stuff is just a feint for their real concerns:


I think part of the problem is this. In this lawsuit-happy society the constable, who by the way brings to mind Barney Fife, was afraid that if the detour signs weren't the prescribed size, color, dimension and lettering and some unsuspecting tourist were to break a finger nail avoiding a float, the community/police/government could be sued. The comment, "we didn't want to see anyone get hurt" is cover. They really didn't want to see anyone get sued, specifically themselves.

Of course you're right on target that a Ramadan or gay parade would go forward unmolested, the risk of a law suit would be the least of their worries. In that case, the risk there to be avoided is being labeled in the media as anti Muslim or homophobic or whatever.

Dave Hymes

I'm not so sure about that. I would once have agreed that, in a land of legalisms, "safety" is a euphemism for "liability". But I wonder these days if it's not the other way around, and that a cynical acceptance of the need to avoid "liability" provides cover for a massive statist expansion under the convenient catch-all of "safety". What's interesting is that both the town constable and the sheriff assume that "safety" is something that is in the gift of the state, and that only the government can confer. Aside from being, as a practical matter, complete codswallop, that ought to be philosophically anathema to Americans. As Laura Rosen Cohen likes to say, apropos the last minute cancellations of speeches by Ann Coulter or Geert Wilders or whoever because of "security concerns", "security is the new shut up". Yet, if you accept Constable Godfrey's and Sherrif Bohnyak's obscenely expansive definition of "safety", you don't have to be in the least bit controversial or remotely risky: they'll shut you up for doing things every American took for granted until the day before yesterday. You might as well just shelter in place permanently, curled up in a fetal position with your celebratory Stars and Stripes fluttering from your butt.

Vermont readers assure me that Glen Godfrey is no doubt sincere in his belief that the Fourth of July parade was too dangerous to let into his state. As one correspondent put it:

Constable Godfrey would not be capable of figuring out a solution, let alone notice the irony of the date on which he was being called to display his judgment. Most who have come across him would say his elevator doesn't go to the top floor. Intellectually he seems to be at his least nimble when directing traffic, and maybe he took that into account in deciding to sever New Hampshire and Vermont.

But presumably a somewhat sharper judgment is required to serve as county sheriff, and Bill Bohnyak's attitude is therefore more disturbing. I've looked at both the federal and Vermont signage manuals and there's no doubt in my mind this was an over-reach and therefore an abuse of power. Indeed, what Bohnyak and Godfrey did is, as the Declaration of Independence would put it, both an injury and a usurpation. It's an injury in that it buggered up a lot of people's day, and it's a usurpation in that Bohnyak and Godfrey do not have the power to do what they did. The citizenry's willingness to put up with it is regrettable.

The Bridge Weekly offers some further viewpoints. USAF veteran and commander of VFW Post 5245 in North Haverhill, NH, Wayne Mitchell:

As commander I was very disappointed that someone would take this approach on such a day! The Fourth of July means freedom to me and someone was denying me the privilege of trooping the flag of our country on its usual route because of a minute detail! Better decisions could have been made! I was very tempted to march across that bridge in defiance of a lousy order!

You should have done - and one day you're going to have to. Because, if the Bill Bohnyak/Glen Godfrey view of your liberty prevails, then there is no America. And there's no point to that flag - or the songs or the T-shirts or any of the other souvenirs of freedom - unless you're prepared, as someone once said, to live free. Which means marching across that bridge.

~As I said above, at this hour the parade is set to march across that bridge. But, after the pitiful humiliation inflicted on it two years ago, I take nothing for granted - not even small-town Independence Day parades. Make America Independent Again: it's a vital concept.

Programming note: Tomorrow, Wednesday, Mark will be on the air north and south of the border - first with Toronto radio legend John Oakley live on AM640 at 5pm Eastern, and later with the great Tucker Carlson on Fox News coast to coast at 8pm Eastern/5pm Pacific. We hope you'll tune in.

Among the benefits of membership in The Mark Steyn Club is that you get to march up and down our comments section to your heart's content. So feel free to zoom around below in reckless disregard of health-and-safety procedures. Membership of The Mark Steyn Club is not for everyone, but it does ensure that all our content remains out there for everyone - in print, audio and video, around the world and perhaps even changing a mind or two here and there. For more information on The Mark Steyn Club, see here.

from Topical Take, July 4, 2017



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