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Amherst, MA: Utopian Impulse

The light changes and the bird chirping begins. This “call” was introduced in large cities to help the blind safely cross the street. I’m on the sidewalk of a small college town in western Massachusetts, where I could probably count the number of blind people on one hand. But that doesn’t matter here. The most important thing is that everyone feels included.

Cars in the parking lot sport a variety of bumper stickers: “Hockey Mama for Obama,” “Be a Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown.” Across the street the regular weekend protesters implore passing cars to honk to stop the war.
I pass the locally-owned penny-candy store. In the window is a t-shirt which reads “Amherst, where only the ‘h’ is silent.” Here, everyone is encouraged to have an opinion.

Utopian societies throughout American history pursued a better life through social, economic, and political experiments outside the mainstream. Utopian impulse and desire for a better way of living is profoundly American.

Amherst never planned to form a utopian society. However, this righteous town, with its commitment to social justice, individual liberty, and political activism, is a current, thriving example of American utopian village culture.

To many non-residents, Amherst appears crazy and extreme. The town spends time and energy on idealistic initiatives out of step with mainstream America. Last year, the town voted to send the federal government a letter, stating that they would willingly accept any cleared, released prisoners from Guantanamo Bay as Amherst residents, despite the fact that no prisoners from Guantanamo are allowed to enter the United States. Repeatedly, the town has voted to authorize local voting rights for non-citizen immigrants residing in Amherst. Recently, Amherst amended its human rights bylaw to specifically protect transgender people from discrimination. Apparently the existing bylaw outlawing discrimination by sex, race, ethnicity or sexual preference was not enough.

The archives of the Amherst town meetings are a catalog of well-intentioned if impractical motions. Many see these initiatives as a waste of time for a town meeting that should be focused exclusively on immediate concerns. But there is something quintessentially American in both Amherst’s utopian impulse and in the bylaws themselves.

Accepting cleared, and therefore wrongly accused, prisoners from Guantanamo Bay exemplifies presumption of innocence. Proposing voting rights for non-citizens demonstrates an absolute commitment to the 14th amendment and no taxation without representation. Including transgenders in the human rights law shows a fundamental reading of the Declaration of Independence which asserts each citizen’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Unlike other utopias, Amherst is not an attempt to pursue “Eden on earth” or an industrial paradise. Its utopian impulse is instead the backbone of America: the belief that government should protect each person’s right to pursue their own destiny.

Brook Farm, the Shakers, and the Oneida community were all utopian societies that eventually fell apart. The town of Amherst is not likely to fall apart and disappear, although it could one day adopt more mainstream values.

However, Amherst’s utopian beliefs have survived for many decades, absorbing and converting new residents like me. It becomes a way of life to prioritize inclusion, freedom of expression and individual rights. Maybe Amherst is a little nutty, but maybe it is truly that “city on a hill”: a society committed to the personal freedom and inclusion that were a part of the original American dream.

This is Becca Cooley’s junior declamation.