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Monday, July 23, 2018

Of Parties, Primaries, and (Gubernatorial) Endorsements

It's 15 days until the August 7 primaries here in the state of Kansas, and early voting begins today. I'm a vote on the day-of person myself (I just like the vibe of going into my designated polling place on election day), so I still have two weeks to change my mind about which Democratic candidates I'm going to support--but given all the thought I've already put into it, the odds of anything happening that could make me rethink things some more is unlikely. So, as a few people have asked me which Democratic candidate for governor I'm supporting, I'm giving a follow-up to my post from months ago here--but you're going have to wade through all my usual pedantic ruminations first. Sorry, that's just the way I blog. (Hint #1: just go to the fifth paragraph if you can't wait. And if you absolutely can't put off the announcement even that long, Hint #2: it's the one from Wichita who has graduated from high school.)

1) I know party primaries are a problem. Primaries emerged onto the scene of American politics more or less a century ago, in conjunction with a large number of other Progressive reforms on the local, state, and national level, with the aim of taking power away from party bosses and the plutocrats who supported their positions and giving it to party members instead. Today, though, thanks to changes in campaign finance laws, communication technologies, and the internal rules of parties themselves, primaries don't do a particularly good job at preventing those candidates with large pockets and/or the explicit support of other wealth donors from quickly dominating the nominating process. And along the way, primaries bring their own pathologies with them: low voter turn-out makes it ease for well-organized extremists to dominate the intra-party debate, and the competition between even narrowly divided candidates can create narratives and animosities that end up driving media dynamics and funding pitches for the remainder of the campaign. So, yeah, primaries often create more problems than they're worth.

2) That said, I have no confidence whatsoever that the participatory genie could ever be put back into the bottle. Even if it were legally, organizationally, and politically possible to get us back to state of affairs where either of our two mass political parties were able to effectively choose, groom, and present candidates to voters (and doing so would, in my judgment, at the very least require the Supreme Court to overturn multiple precedents laid down over the past 40 years), I am highly doubtful that voters of either party would accept such a state of affairs--I strongly suspect I wouldn't, and I say that as someone fully aware of all the above-mentioned problems. And moreover, it's not like resurrecting that level of party control would somehow prevent all the corruptions that primary elections were originally designed to combat from flooding back.

3) So is the problem political parties entirely? Possibly, but I know of no other mechanism whereby a mass liberal democracy can be operated so as to actually respect the freedom of citizens to organize themselves around and in support of distinct causes and candidates except through some kind of party structure. The people who wrote the Constitution didn't really give that possibility much thought, but within a few election cycles the democratic need for parties was blindingly obvious. General plebiscitarian contests simply won't do it, despite being pushed by vaguely (but rarely actually) populist dreamers for decades. This year we have Greg Orman running as an independent candidate for governor, and he's an impressive guy, with a smart grasp of both the fiscal and the electoral realities facing our state. I like Orman, and have a lot of respect for his Lt. Governor pick, John Doll. Ultimately, though, Orman's whole drive remains deeply self-referential, insisting that he represents nothing more or less than independent, practical, business-minded thinking, as opposed to any particular set of beliefs. And human beings, being the communal animals we are, generally both want and need to be part of set.

4) Why is the Democratic party my set? Well, it's not my only set, nor the one I'm most attached to, either politically or in terms of time or money. But yes, here in Kansas in 2018, in the long wake of Governor Brownback's still-mostly-unchallenged transformation of the state Republican party into a vehicle for economic individualism as a religious conviction, the state Democratic party, for all its flaws (and heaven knows it has plenty), is the only place that folks who are committed to promoting egalitarian economic policies and expanding civil rights have to organize themselves electorally, at least practically speaking. So while the idea of switching to the Republican party so as cast a vote for a responsible conservative as opposed to an actually dangerous one had some appeal for my wife and I, ultimately we decided to stick with this particular set to see what we could do to help their candidates across the finish line in November.

5) Which brings the rubber to the road: what mix of strategy, symbolism, and substance is leading me to endorse one candidate over another? Well, like every other voter in every other primary contest everywhere in the United States, I'm thinking about what ideas best represent my wishes, thinking about what different candidates reflect in terms of different factions within the party, and thinking about what are the relative odds for any candidate to win in the general election. For Democrats (and liberals, progressives, socialists, etc., whatever your preferred handle) in Kansas, given that we're significantly outnumbered, yet have a genuine window of opportunity in 2018 thanks to the Brownback stink, that last component--a kind of second- or third-level chess, trying to figure out who has the greatest likelihood of winning one contest while still keeping themselves in contention for the next--is even more important, even though it becomes more and more of a crapshoot the further you attempt to extend your analysis forward. In any case, here's why I've come down on Brewer's side.

(Wait!, you're saying; there will be more on your ballot than just the Democratic primary for governor! True, but I'm not going to weigh in on the Laura Lombard-James Thompson race to be the Democratic candidate to run against Republican Ron Estes to be the congressional representative for Kansas's 4th district. I like and respect both of those candidates, do not see any major political differences between them, have known and supported one of them for a long time, and plan on continuing to do so. For better or worse, I don't see a need for a lot of thinking there.)

5a) First, I like all three of serious candidates (yes, I'm dismissing without comment both Jack Bergeson, the Wichita high school student, and Arden Andersen, the cool but slightly whakadoodle doctor from Olathe). Senator Laura Kelly is a smart, savvy, experienced poll, who almost certainly is the best positioned of these three--in terms of finances and in terms of party support--to run a traditional state-wide campaign for Governor. The criticisms which have been lobbed against her regarding a procedural vote of hers on the proposed expansion of Medicaid, or regarding connections between her campaign and interest groups opposed to expanding Medicaid, are, in my view, cheap and silly, reflecting no real knowledge of how legislation needs to be positioned for votes in the long term. And her Lt. Governor pick, the flat-out brilliant Lynn Rogers, is one of my favorite people in all of Kansas politics. I also like Joshua Svaty, in part because he and his Lt. Governor pick, Katrina Lewison, absolutely do represent something desperately needed in the state party: generational change. I like Svaty's practical yet unconventionally progressive opinions about the future of agriculture, and I like the fact that he was the only gubernatorial candidate sufficiently unconcerned about the "progressive" label as to make the time to get out to the Bernie Sanders rally here in Wichita. Most of all, as a religious believer with more than a couple conservative streaks in me, I like the fact that he hasn't tried to deny or repent of past votes he's taken but instead allows himself to argued about right in the middle of messy debates over abortion, faith, and much more.

5b) Still, for me, for now, it's former Wichita mayor Carl Brewer, who is almost certainly the least well-funded and the least organized of the big three. Though my contacts with Carl have been minimal over the years, I've long admired him, and have supported him since he first declared his candidacy. Why, especially given that the political ends I value most--economic egalitarianism and democracy--he's quite possibly the least progressive of the three? It comes down to substance, symbolism, structure, and--yes--strategy.

5c) On the level of substance, Carl's stated goals as governor aren't significantly different from any of the other two. He will govern with Democratic party priorities in mind, and for all their limitations (and again, I can think of many!) those priorities--pushing Medicaid expansion, loosening the penalties on marijuana usage, reforming Kansas's criminal justice and child welfare services, and most importantly, working to overturn the legacy of Brownback's tax experiment--are ones I support. On the level of symbolism, it's obvious: there have only ever been two African-Americans elected governor anywhere in the U.S., and Kansas, so far as I have been able to discover, has never had an African-American serve in any statewide elected position. Carl almost never makes reference to racial symbolism in his campaign (though it comes out occasionally; in a recent debate, after another candidate talked about his grandfather's impressive political history, Carl started his reply with the quiet snark "of course, my grandfather wasn't able to hold political office..."), but obviously, to even be able to vote for a black candidate for governor is, to my mind, a huge step forward. On the level of structure, I plead my own personal affections and interest. While there is a lot of movement between the state and the national level in American politics, there isn't nearly enough movement between the local level and the state level--and in an era when the continued urban concentration of people are making the governance of cities more and more crucial to whatever the next steps in American democracy will be, bringing the sort of real, tactile knowledge which being a longtime city leader teaches into the realm of state governance is, I think, of major theoretical and even constitutional importance. (Besides, it's been a century since a committed Wichitan, someone from the Kansas's largest city, became governor; it's time for that to happen again.) And as for strategy? Frankly, Carl doesn't have the baggage that the other candidates have, which may mean he could hold together the state Democratic coalition better than the other candidates could. Am I certain of that? Not at all. Does Carl seem able to inspire new, progressive voters? The jury is out. Will racism doom his candidacy in the general election anyway? Quite possibly. All these, and others, are legitimate strategic concerns that Democrats have to ask themselves. But to my mind, above and beyond all the aforementioned rationales, in a year when Orman will be looking to poach Democratic voters, a thoughtful, mild-mannered, quiet candidate, one who doesn't offend any particular group of Democrats and thus could be acceptable to just about all of them, is nothing to sneeze at.

6) Let me make it clear; I will strongly support, both with time and money as well as my vote, whomever wins this primary (unless something truly nuts happens, and the high school student wins, and the Republicans choose a moderate like Jim Barnett as their candidate--then all bets are off). But primaries are what we have, and so primary calculations we must make. These are mine.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Songs of '78: "Take Me To the River"

There is some confusion on when, exactly, the Talking Heads's cover of Al Green's "Take Me to the River" was released. It was the only single released off their second album, More Songs About Buildings and Food, and Wikipedia can't agree on when that album officially hit: either July 14, 1978, or July 21, 1978, forty years ago today. And was the single released before the album was, or along with it, or long after? Since the song didn't hit its peak on the pop charts until 1979, it might have been the latter. But lacking any better information, and given that me memories of 1978, dim as they are, claim this song for this year, I'm just going to go with the latter date and call it good.

It's such a wonderful recording of such a wonderful song--Talking Heads (and Brian Eno!) gave it their patented spare yet funky, post-punk, not-quite-techno treatment, without losing the elemental piety and sensuality of the Al Green original. That, actually, is the reason why I think "Take Me to the River" is the only song played during their famed concert film, Stop Making Sense, that isn't an improvement; the concert version is such a wild, art-house rave that the slow-burning, soulful element of the song is lost. See the movie, of course--but for this song, stick to what hit the airwaves, four decades ago.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Catastrophe, Technology, Limits, and Localism

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

Charles C. Mann's The Wizard and the Prophet, published earlier this year, is a fabulous book. Not a perfect book; sometimes, in order to bulk up this two-pronged thesis, he will throw in supplementary material that threatens to bog down his central investigation. But that investigation comes through loud and clear all the same, and it is one worth looking at closely.

Basically, Mann invites us to contemplate the (supposedly) inevitable end of the human species, and whether there is a way to escape that (possibly) biologically determined fate. He posits two alternatives, and picks representative champions of both. In the corner of scaling back and adopting smaller, more sustainable ways of living on the planet, so as to avoid ecological catastrophe, he chooses William Vogt, a little-known and often controversial but nonetheless pioneering figure in modern environmentalism. In the corner of science and technology, and the vision of ever expanding and improving our opportunities, he chooses Norman Borlaug, the somewhat better-known but still oft-overlooked (primarily because he wrote so little) partial father of the Green Revolution, and therefore the industrial agricultural system that today enables this planet's resources to feed more than 7 billion people. It may not seem like a fair fight, and it's pretty clear that Mann is on the side of Borlaug and technology (the "Wizards"). But he does a fine job laying out the warnings of those (the "Prophets") dubious of humanity's ability to always and everywhere grow more food, burn more fuel, build new things, and create new markets. For people who take the promise, or even the necessity, of localism seriously, whether for political or moral or environmental reasons (or all three), Mann gives us something vital to chew upon. Despite our collective affection for Wendell Berry (who is never mentioned in the book) and his warnings about how the promise of the new--new technologies, new jobs, new ideas--invariably causes people to lose touch with the wisdom of their limited, particular, embedded places, maybe localists in 2018 need Borlaug's wizardly to pull off something like our hopes? Or do localists need to content themselves with standing with the prophets, all the way down?

Mann introduces us to his investigation in light of the work of Lynn Margulis, a biologist whom he knew and respected greatly, and who pithily described human beings as "an unusually successful species." Unfortunately, in her view--and Mann basically accepts this, as a conclusion avoidable to anyone who takes seriously what the scientific method has allowed biologists to be basically certain about--successful species always end up in the same place: destroying themselves by exceeding the capacity and resources of their environment (which, in the case of human beings, is the whole planet). As Mann put it:

To avoid destroying itself, the human race would have to do something deeply unnatural, something no other species has ever done or ever could do: constrain its own growth....To a biologist like Margulis, who spent her career arguing that humans are simply part of evolution's handiwork, the answer should be clear....All species seek to make more of themselves--that is their [biological] goal. By multiplying until we reach our maximum possible numbers, we are following the laws of biology, even as we take out much of the planet. Eventually, in accordance with those same laws, the human enterprise will wipe itself out. Shouting from the edge of the petri dish, Borlaug and Vogt might has well be trying to hold back the tide (pp. 35-36).

To people of a religious bent, who disagree that evolution's logic fully imprisons human beings (even if they generally acknowledge the validity of the science which underlies it), this sort of talk often closes ears to the questions being asked. This is unfortunate, particularly in this case. While Mann never betrays any interest in non-scientific challenges to the laws and theories he is working with, he actually does to a much better job than most science journalists keep his readers aware of the conceptual limitations of the claims being made (he even has two whole appendices attached to the book, specifically considering all the problems with climate change research, though he himself completely accepts that global warming is both real, man-made, and a terrible threat). And more importantly, one has to get into a scientific frame of mind to understand the way in which the alternative paths that, as Mann presents it, Vogt and Borlaug sketched out shaped so many of the socio-economic and political debates over our day. So even if that isn't the way you see the world, try to see it for the duration of this book; you'll be rewarded, I think.

Along the way, you'll learn about these two fascinating men. Both, in their own ways, were profound outsiders to their respective disciplines and intellectual cultures. Both, despite their respective educations, were significantly self-taught. Both were mostly men of action, rather than theory. Both were radical thinkers who were captivated by paradigm-shifting scientific visions (the catastrophic environmental consequences of unregulated industrial consumption and unlimited population growth, in Vogt's case; the enormous agricultural possibilities of capital-intensive, industrially fertilized, genetically developed food resources, in Borlaug's), and both of them came to these insights through endeavors that were ridiculously underfunded, mostly unnoticed, and utterly orthogonal to where the disciplines they came to shape were focusing (in Borlaug's case, studying plant diseases in a generally ignored Mexican experimental station; counting guano-producing birds in total solitude on islands off the coast of Chile, for Vogt). They only met once, in an unproductive wheat and maize field east of Mexico City in 1946, where Borlaug was slowly hatching ideas about how the proper technology could make even that dusty, parched farmland productive, and Vogt was growing horrified at the idea that human beings never retreated before the kind of obvious environmental limitations he saw in front of him, but instead insisted on finding was to change or transcend them. They are almost certainly not the best possible examples of "apocalyptic environmentalism" or "techno-optimism," but they were fascinating shapers of those movements nonetheless.

After sketching out their lives and insights, Mann applies their perspectives to four environmental limitations which our species--which most demographers currently think is on track to top out at around 10 billion people by 2050--faces: food, fresh water, fuel, and the climate consequences of pursuing growth in all of the latter. The observations and conclusions of these chapters--though often thick with scientific jargon--are sometimes surprising. (Mann, for example, comes to the conclusion, after running through the long history of always-disproven oil shocks and panics, as well as the endlessly inventive ways humans have developed to find, retrieve, use, and restore oil, coal, and natural gas resources, that as a practical matter, "fossil-fuel supplies have no known bounds," thus dismissing peak oil in a sentence--p. 282.) They are mostly important, though, to show the breadth of the implications of committing to either the Vogtian or Borlaugian path--and for localists like myself, it is the former that seems the incumbent, rather than the latter. The one passage from the chapter on food captures the distinction between the two visions particularly well:

Which [type of farm] is more productive? Wizards and Prophets would disagree about the answer, because they disagree about the question. To Wizards, the question means: which farm creates more calories--more usable energy--per acre?....Every attempt to sum up the data that I know of has shown that in side-by-side comparisons, [small-scale, sustainable farms] grow less food per acre overall than [industrial-style, monocultural] farms--sometimes a little bit less, sometimes quite a lot. The implications for the world of 2050 are obvious, Wizards say....Prophets smite their brows in exasperation at this logic. To their minds, evaluating farming systems wholly in terms of calories produced....[ignores] the costs of overfertilization, habitat loss, watershed degradation, soil erosion and compaction, and pesticide and antibiotic overuse...[and] doesn't account for the destruction of rural communities....

The difficulty is that both arguments are correct on their own terms. At bottom, the disagreement is about the nature of agriculture--and with it, the best form of society. To Borlaugians, farming is a species of drudgery that should be eased and reduced as much as possible to maximize individual liberty....The farm is a springboard, essential as a base, but also a trap. [Small-scale, sustainable] farms may mimic natural ecosystems, but they are also ensnared in them, unable to rise above their limits. To Vogtians, by contrast, agriculture is about maintaining a set of communities, ecological and human....It can be drudgery, but it is also work that reinforces the human connection to the earth. The two arguments are like skew lines, not on the same plane
(pp. 209-210).

Anyone who has ever engaged in arguments with friends or foes (or family!) over anything pertaining to limits has probably felt the reality of those diverting skew lines. You argue about whether you should shop at Walmart or the local farmers market; the evidence on one side is about personal affordability and convenience, the other is about community health and ecological diversity. You argue about whether you should help your son buy his first car or insist he continue to be use his bicycle; while he talks about personal freedom and opportunity, you're talking about environmental impacts and long-term costs. You argue about how you should vote regarding a proposed cutback in city funding or regulations regarding bicycle paths; the supporters are focused on everything that you can choose to do with the tax money you save, whereas the opponents speak of civic pride and future generations. And so it goes. Shopping local (and thus missing out of cheap deals), mending your own clothes (thus failing to impress the visiting corporate bigwig), staying close to home (thus losing out on the job opportunities in the next city over)--these and thousands of other arguments, even when they have nothing to do with anything that specifically relates to our use of the natural environment, can be productively understood, I think, in light of the skewed perspectives of Vogt ("Cut back! Cut back! was his perspective. Otherwise, everyone will lose!") and Borlaug ("Innovate! Innovate! was his cry. Only in that way can everyone win!"--p. 6)

As one might guess, in a world where capitalist expansion and technological innovation is almost always celebrated (and industrial costs almost always either apologized for or shoved off for our children and grandchildren to deal with), Borlaug, in the due course of time, was celebrated, winning the Nobel Peace Prize and being praised around the world, while Vogt's later years consisted mostly of frustrated in-fighting among small organizations for often smaller stakes. But I should rein in my grousing, no matter how deep my Vogtian, "use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" sympathies. After all, Borlaug's vision, and the whole panoply of efforts and ideas that have filled grain elevators and food pantries around the world, has resulted in tens of millions of people being alive today that almost certainly wouldn't have been otherwise. And isn't it likely that those tens of millions of lives have meant--often, anyway--tens of thousands of families, villages, and communities, creating their own cultural forms which have added to the excellence of human life, completely aside from the obvious moral imperative to help people live rather than suffer and die? While a more complete picture of Vogt's aims (which Mann provides in detail) would include not only how he became entangled with--and partially agreed with--some of the worst advocates of population control and enforced sterilization later in his life, but also how his vision aligned some aspects of environmentalism with the old, often racist, aristocratic and anti-industrial "alt-right," if you will: those members of the political and business elite who have never seen any good reason to pollute the world and break up established traditions in name of lifting up (or even just properly feeding) the masses, since most of those masses are probably uncivilized, un-Christian idiots, anyway.

But no--even with all those caveats, even while acknowledging all the ways that the technological empowerment of the individual and the spread of industrial solutions have saved lives and made the world a better place for hundreds of millions, I remain Vogtian at heart--my vision of the good life values "a kind of community" over "a kind of liberty," and is much more amenable to the notion that we have to be "tied to the land" than to the belief that progress will always leave us "free to roam the skies" (pp. 250, 362). The differences between Berry's agrarianism and Vogt's conservationism are deep, though; the Vogtian perspective is one that is filled with solar panels, crop diversification, reforestation, graywater reuse, drip irrigation--much that goes far beyond Berry's insistence on "local knowledge." (Though, to be fair, most of the sustainability-minded approaches to feeding and fueling billions of people are far more ground-level and participatory than the Borlaugian "hard path" of massive desalinization plants and deep-water oil wells.) Embracing the gospel of less, of the small and local and communal, need not oblige one to deny the talents and blessings that specialization has brought.

As with all hypothesized dyads, practical wisdom necessitates that even creatures of limits recognize the openings which science have brought us, how those have changed our daily lives, and think responsible about how to sustainably make use of them. Perhaps Vogtian localism would find a perfect match in the "do-it-yourself futurism" that characterizes the work of economists like Juliet Schor. Perhaps a half-century of growth in statist and capitalist Borlaugian systems--the top-down impositions of industrial agriculture and wireless networks and interstate highways and the global marketplace--has by now reached far enough that individuals and communities really can use them to create, in their own particular places, specific and sustainable paths towards the good life. I'd like to think so. If we are to escape the species extinction that Mann assumes would normally be our biological destiny, then I would like our escape route to look more like one of Vogt's envisioned patchwork of communes, than one Borlaug's endless rows of nutritious, delicious, genetically modified corn. (Though I'll still eat the latter, sometimes, same as all of you.)

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Songs of '78: "Who Are You?"

The single "Who Are You" was released 40 years ago today; it was the lead song off of The Who's album of the same title, which would get its full release in August. There are, to be sure, multiple other songs by The Who which might even better reflect their brash, undisciplined, whip-smart excellence: "Won't Get Fooled Again," "Behind Blue Eyes," and, of course, "My Generation." But this song has become, I think, simply iconic in its association with the band, far beyond any of the others (personally, I'd attribute a lot of this to CSI, but maybe that's because my wife and I were addicted to the original version of the show for several seasons, and thus had this song hammered into our skulls weekly.) But regardless of how the song gets into your head, you can't deny: it's their to stay. Keith Moon's drug addiction and alcoholism was killing him, but he could still smash those cymbals; Pete Townshend's guitar was echoing all over the room; Jon Entwistle's bass was steady and pulsing throughout; and, of course, Roger Daltrey was screeching and preaching (from a chair!) like nobody's business. Forty years on, it still rocks.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Songs of '78: "Fool (If You Think It's Over)"

Chris Rea, an English musician who has had a long and productive career in the United Kingdom and throughout western Europe, released his debut album, Whatever Happened to Benny Santini?, 40 years ago this month, and this sweet bit of heart-break poetry was its lead single. It was the only song of his to receive anything like significant radio-play in the United States, thus earning this talented, idiosyncratic, introspective artist the "one-hit wonder" label, which is really disrespectful to a guy who has had multiple hit albums in his home country. Still, that's what I thought of him for decades--he was the writer of that cool, sly, surprisingly deep little soft-rock number, the one that crept around the corners of my consciousness, catching me unawares and throwing me back to my childhood when I'd hear it on the radio. Rea himself apparently is ambivalent about the song--it's nothing like the sort of music he's mostly committed himself to over the years, but then, how can you distance yourself from the one song much of your English-speaking audience knows you best for? Of course, given the subject matter of the song, maybe such ambivalence is appropriate. The past is the past--except when it isn't, right?

Friday, July 06, 2018

What Do Farmers Want?

[Cross-posted to Front Porch Republic]

The obvious response to the title of this post is: I don't know; why don't you ask one? Well, Robert Wuthnow and his researches did, at great length. The result is In The Blood: Understanding America's Farm Families, the last (it was published in 2015) of a list of books which Wuthnow's extended sociological study of America's small, rural, mostly agricultural, mostly Midwestern places, and the people who live there, has produced. Earlier this year, while thinking about Wuthnow's latest book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, I ended up exploring this series by Wuthnow to learn what it can tell us about how those of us who are part of, or next door to, or have memories of, or are in other ways dependent upon, the productive world of those who work the land think about the changing world around them. In The Blood didn't change my mind about that analysis, but it did deepen it quite a bit.

The clearest point which comes through Wuthnow's thoughtful engagement with the dozens of farmers he and his assistants interviewed, and with the reams of data about rural populations, farm economics, and more that they assessed, is simply this: most American farmers, most of the time, are not agrarians. This is hardly news to anyone who takes conversations about localism and sustainability at all seriously--but still, for people like me, for whom the appeal of agrarian thinking is strong, such reminders are necessary. When Rod Dreher quotes, as he did just recently, Wendell Berry's "The Work of Local Culture," with its determined placing of hope in the few surviving rural places in America--because "rural people...see all around them, every day, the marks and scars of an exploitive national economy....and in rural communities there are still farms and small businesses that can be changed according to the will and the desire of individual people"--he adds mournfully "Berry published that thirty years ago. I don’t know how true any of it still is. Very little, perhaps." He was right to say so. Wuthnow isn't focused on the farming families of the 1970s and 1980s, much less on the farming families of the 1870s and 1880s (even assuming the more community-oriented, nature-connected, and self-sufficient world which agrarianism holds as an ideal was achievable then, which is doubtful). Rather, he's focused on those farmers who still live today in small towns or on isolated plots throughout the American South, Midwest, and Great Plains, farming families and individuals who have survived multiple financial crises and technological transformations and found a way to survive in the 21st century. That survival has required huge changes in how farmers think, and what they hope for.

I recently finished a beautiful little book, Water at the Roots: Poems and Insights of the Visionary Farmer, a collection of writings by and a brief biography of a man named Philip Britts, an Englishman born in 1917 who became a pacifist, joined the Brudehof community, relocated with that group to Paraguay in the early days of World War II, and spent the rest of his short life (he died in 1949) farming, writing poetry, and preaching to his fellows. There is much beauty in his thoughts, and a quiet radicalism too; in a 1946 essay, "How Shall We Farm?," Britts urged caution in regards to post-WWII trends in agriculture science; while he said there was no reason to reject all technical achievements--"we still believe in 'the useful plow'"--he warned that the worst possibility of progress would be to lose the organic connection with and intimate, tactile knowledge of the land: unlike "that indescribable sensation that comes, perhaps rarely, when one walks through a field of alfalfa in the morning sun, when one smells earth after rain, or when one watches the ripples on a field of wheat." That is the agrarian spirit, the spirit of Wendell Berry and so many localists everywhere. It is a spirit, unfortunately, which Wuthnow's respectful engagement with the rural world of today reveals to be mainly quaint, and little more. True, there are farmers whom Wuthnow interviewed that shared that kind of immediate connection with their land (he writes about a wheat farmer who likes to drive out to one of his fields in the evening. "I just listen to the crops grow...listen to nature, take time to meditate, soak it all in")--but more of them were quick to downplay any view of the land that was "too pretty and romantic." Instead, they conveyed--insisted, really--that the "real business of farming" today is "managing information" (pp. 127, 132, 134). As Wuthnow summarizes:

Among farmers whose relationship to the land was becoming more distant...an important result was that their understanding of the land was less visceral and more conceptual. The land was still a matter of bodily experience to the extent that it felt a certain way when walking across it and looked and smelled in familiar wars after a warm spring rain or during harvest. The embodied relationship to the land, though, was less prominent in farmers' descriptions than accounts of its size, history, ownership, and use....Acreage that used to be measured by walking a field in yard-length steps was now measured by satellite imagery. An experienced farmer could still guess the approximate yield by walking into a field of wheat or cotton, but computerized information could now tell the exact yield for each part of the field. Seeds were distinguished by the numbers assigned to them by agribusiness companies rather than by feel. There was no regret in farmers' descriptions of these changes, only an awareness that the meanings of farmland were shifting as a result (pp. 132-34).

In other words, what is found in the rural parts of America today, and the probably fewer than 3 millions people total engaged in agricultural work there (in an age of concentrated animal feeding operations and global seed and fertilizer corporations, definitions of "agricultural worker" can get a little vague), isn't, by and large, clones of Wendell Berry, Philip Britts, and others who have articulated a vision of the good life intimately connected to the land. But to decide that I, therefore, don't have anything to learn from what the farmers of today hope for would not only make my localism even more hypocritical than it already is, but would out me as, in Rod's words, one of those "educated elites who read Wendell Berry sympathetically but have no use for actual rural white people who aren’t Wendell Berry." I don't want that. So....what else does Wuthnow's research reveal about those who occupy that place which Jefferson once imagined to be the heart of a pastoral nation, but which today--at least if economic power and cultural authority is taken to be the measure of where a nation's heart is to be found--is anything but? Well, of the many points the book makes about family, faith, and farming in rural America, here are a few take-aways:

--Economics and social patterns and history and race all play into the political conservatism of nearly all of white rural America, but that shouldn't eclipse the fundamental dispositional conservatism of those who choose to farm, or choose to stick with it. Generational continuity and "being significantly connected to the past" is central to "the mentality of farming," in Wuthnow's judgment. Some of the farmers he interviewed make statements about family traditions and the legacy of the dead which sound straight out of out of Edmund Burke or Alasdair MacIntyre: "this experience of intergenerational continuity," Wuthnow observes, is what farmers mean when they say that farming is in their blood" (p. 14). Unlike the great bulk of professions in America today, the few farmers which remain regularly see their work as an inherited vocation, and a meaningful one at that.

--Farmers are deeply aware of how the community consciousness which shaped the world they inherited from their parents has been weakened by the reach of modern technology (more here), the demands of commodity agriculture (more here), the abandonment of controls which once privileged sustainability over profit (more here), and the competitive mindset which all three have exacerbated. Distances are greater, towns have emptied, fields have grown larger, and the farmers which manage to hold on economically are obliged/encouraged/pushed to pick up distant plots that keep them even further away from one another. "Mr Hebner...said the farmers in his community simply are less visibly present than they were when he started farming. He thinks about this when he cuts wheat at night. There used to be a kind of togetherness from seeing a neighboring farmer's combine lights in an adjacent field. Now those lights are much further away, if they are still visible at all" (p. 53).

--If there is one political commonality which has likely been continuous with the majority of the whole history of farming in America, it is that farmers understand themselves to be, and insist upon the right to be, their own bosses. At times this really did present itself in Jeffersonian terms (such as the one farmer who commented that there were "two classes of people...there were people in business for themselves....and there were those who worked for wages: they were in second place"--p. 103). It affects the way those committed to farming think about authenticity, responsibility, accomplishment, and knowledge: real independence means being true to one's own fundamental character, accepting responsibility for one's own mistakes and not hiding the value of one's own work, and prioritizing that which is learned through and is specific to particular experiences. Hence there was, again and again in the farmers' comments, a strong defense of property rights, a skepticism towards (or, just as often, a worried concern about) abstract, non-contextualized knowledge claims, and an emphasis upon practical education and respecting the rules (pp. 111, 115, 155).

--That commonality, though, is exactly what leaves so many of the farmers Wuthnow and his team interviewed feeling such ambivalence about matters of technology and trade. No serious, non-intentional-community-dwelling (e.g., non-Amish), full-time commodity farmer or rancher in America today fails to understand themselves as businesspeople, and that means they are always conscious of how using advanced technologies and expanding into new trading markets can increase their revenue and provide them with more financial security. But that financial security, many of them seem to think, comes with the price of reduced independence. The development of new breeds of crops has been going on "since the dawn of time," according to one farmer--but now genetically modified seeds and grains "all are copyrighted and owned by agribusinesses somewhere," forcing farmers to accept legal consequences if they don't follow specific instructions while using the seed. The ability of large agricultural corporations to dominate trade opportunities are seen as only speeding the destruction of rural communities--as another farmer put it, Monsanto, Tysons, and Archer-Daniels-Midlands may "have a community outreach program, but it ain't nothing compared to what the family farmer can do." Hence, even the most independent-minded farmer Wuthnow spoke with still insisted, like everyone else, that farming subsidies from the federal government were essential: "If you want the government out of it, then you get the Rockerfellers in there....and it'll be one big guy who will dictate things" (pp. 161, 179-181).

It may be that ultimately we won't be able to avoid that end; the constant drumbeat of production, production, production ("if we want to avoid mass malnutrition, we're going to have to up our food production by 70 percent by 2050"!) makes it almost impossible to contemplate turning American farmers in a more organic and localized direction, even if there was either the will or a strategy for doing so, which there isn't. What that will mean for the ways of life and particular virtues (admirable if, unfortunately, not necessarily agrarian ones) of America's farming population? Little good, perhaps. Depression and suicide in farming communities is a huge and growing problem social problem. The trade wars which President Trump seems determined to wage divide one group of farmers and ranchers from another, along partisan and regional lines. Perhaps the future envisioned by some farmers, of "robotic-driven machinery that would permit farmers to avoid fieldwork altogether and genetically engineered seed that would dramatically increase yields and render irrigation unnecessary," a future where family farming would still exist for only for ever "fewer and fewer families" (p. 161), is the best that can be hoped for.

Wuthnow though, for his part, doesn't think so. He is not a critical or comprehensive thinker; rather, he reports on what he sees and hears, and puts it together as best he can. He feels no loss for the mostly mythical agrarian worlds of the past, nor (unfortunately, in my view) for the various intentional agrarian communities and programs that have, on occasion, managed to allow the visions of people like Britts and Berry to flourish. He does note, that, that human beings are inventive, changing definitions and narratives of meaning and schemes of valuation as their contexts change as well. He concludes:

Whether the deep meanings inherent in farming are sufficiently robust to withstand contemporary challenges remains to the be seen. It worries farmers that neighbors behave like sharks in the water and that more of these neighbors are investors who have little understanding of farm life or are corporations....[But] farming is fundamentally local and thus inherently diverse. If there is a subculture shared to an extent by farmers in different parts of the country, it is a pattern of meanings and values that is also refracted through the local adaptations that each family has made. It reflects the distinctive opportunities and constraints that the land provides (p. 189).

Here in Kansas, where nearly 90% of the total land area is given over to industrial agriculture, such adaptations and opportunities are hard to find. But nonetheless they exist--as local co-ops, entrepreneurial experiments, small-scale grants, and more. My father, born in 1943, was convinced that by the time his children were grown, we'd all be living off vitamin pills, and that the feed mill he took over from his father would go the way of all the earth. But that hasn't happened (yet); some kind of real work with plants and animals and the land, corporatized and industrialized as so much of it is, yet remains. My father is gone now, and the agricultural world he knew and brought us kids up in--milking cows by hand, cutting alfalfa, bailing hay, etc.--is gone for the majority of those who had access to it a half-century ago as well. Hence, I can sympathize with Rod, once again, when speaking of his own father: "People of my generation and younger don’t know the land like they did, because we didn’t live on it, and with it, like they did....There’s so much we don’t know, and never will know, because they are gone, and there aren’t enough of us to carry on their work." All true...and yet, the families and towns--some of them, anyway--are still there. They have a greater understanding of their ambivalent situation, and greater energy to engage its challenges on the local level, than simple-minded red-blue, Republican-Democrat readings of rural America allow. What do farmers want? For help and assistance in rethinking and thereby preserving their livelihood, one place at a time. It's a good work to be called to, I think.