Monday, February 27, 2017

Life on the Farm

Grandma Moses Country, 1978.
I must have been about nine or ten years old when this happened. I was standing with my grandfather, who was chatting with one of his farmer friends. Grandpa asked his friend about another friend, and the farmer replied something like, "I think he went on the county." Nobody said anything for a brief moment, and then the conversation resumed on another topic.

I believe that was my first exposure to the concept of welfare. I didn't know what it was, but children are sponges for subtext as well as text, and I knew that being "on the county" was shameful.

Another day my grandfather and I were standing by the dirt road that ran in front of our house. He was talking with a man who had stopped his truck for a chat. It turned out that our new arrival was selling homemade applejack out of the back of his truck. I couldn't figure out whether my grandfather knew this guy or not. At one point he just said, "I like it, but it doesn't like me." An old guy dodge, tossed in with back-and-forth on such things as the weather, how the crops were doing, the price of milk.

And, after a while, the truck and its driver moved on to their next stop down the road. I didn't realize it at the time but that was probably my first experience with the concept of tax evasion. A direct line back to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.

And again, one fine summer day - actually these were all probably fine summer days - my older brother and I went to a Grange meeting with my uncle and aunt and their children, our cousins. The meeting was in the Grange hall not terribly far from where my uncle and aunt and cousins lived. I recall a pleasant lunch at trestle tables, where we sat on benches. I'm afraid I wasn't following the subsequent business meeting very carefully - my cousins could be quite amusing - until my aunt told me that the meeting was going into a segment where people who did not belong to the Grange were not welcome. And so, she said, my brother and I should go outside and play in the parking lot.

Which is what we did. I don't recall being upset. I believe we may have played the radio in my uncle's car, and eventually we were readmitted to the meeting.

And that, I believe, was the first time I experienced a closed social group from the outside.

Some readers may not know about the Grange. The formal name (I looked this up) is The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry.  It is an organization of farmers dedicated to mutual self-help - an "agricultural fraternity," as the Grange puts it. The Grange was founded in 1867 by a group of people that included several Masons. If I had known this years ago, I wouldn't have been puzzled by the Grange's inclusion of secret proceedings.

Survival of an Old Culture
So, self-reliance, mutual assistance, evasion of authority, and secrecy. These are all salient features of a small community organized specifically for survival in a dangerous world.

What we're looking at here are remnants of a very old culture. This is the village culture of Europe, which dates back at least to the year 1000 and was shaped by the needs of poor farmers - the vast majority of the population - dealing with everything from the uncertainties of the weather to the exactions of the local lord of the manor.

"Daily face-to-face encounters among neighbors in these small rural communities were the principal social environment for most Europeans from the early Middle Ages to the nineteenth century." (Richard C. Hoffman, "Villages: Community," in Joseph R. Strayer, ed., Dictionary of the Middle Ages, v. 12, c. 1989, pp. 437-441, at 437. See also Fredric L. Cheyette, "Villages: Settlement," op. cit., pp. 442-447.)

The internal dynamic of the village was to seek unilateral control over its own affairs and to dictate the terms of its relations with the outside world. Countering this dynamic were church and state - the parish priest and the local lord, who had an interest in law and order and also in taxes.

With the arrival of the industrial revolution, many of the villagers moved to the city. And guess what? They may have left the physical village behind, but they brought the mental village with them - a millennium of experience in how to deal with the world. This deeply engrained structure of custom and, yes, prejudice is alive and well today.

In the United States, because our history of slavery and racism is essential to understanding the American experiment, I think we may at times overlook or minimize the role of village parochialism.

So what does an urban village look like? In The Other Paris (2015), Luc Sante describes the typical quartiers, or neighborhoods, of Paris in the nineteenth or early twentieth century:

"The neighborhoods were self-contained and independent, each with its church, graveyard, main street, central square, range of shops and ateliers, as well as its own culture and ambiance, its folkways and politics. They were like the country villages of their time not just in their particular mix of atmosphere and occupation but also in that most people remained within their borders from birth until death, and many seldom ventured outside for any reason less momentous than a fair or an execution." (Pp. 35-36.)

Urban villages persist to this day and go a long way toward explaining the balkanization of politics in places like Philadelphia.

I would also argue that Donald Trump intuitively understands the villager worldview and panders to it shamelessly, and that this meeting of the minds goes a long way toward explaining why he is in the White House. Let's take just a few examples.

Taxes. Perhaps the most basic tension in the medieval village was over taxes. The villagers didn't want to pay them, possibly because they didn't see them having any positive effect in the life of the village. On the other hand, the local lord and the parish priest thought taxes were a lovely idea. The hatred of taxes is visceral, and appeals to rationality will not work.

America First. Isolationism is just the villager's insularity writ large enough to fit a nation. People intuitively know that the right solution is to shut out the outsiders. Again, appeals to rationality will not work. They're sure they're right.

You can't trump Trump by fighting him on issues like these. But I do think there are some things we can do to be more effective. Democratic leaders clearly find the villagers - whether rural or urban - to be puzzling. Just look at Candidate Obama's comment about clinging "to guns or religion" or Hillary Clinton's "basket of deplorables."  We do need to get past our lack of comprehension.

And as a first step, stop patronizing them. They think you think you're better than they are. And maybe you do. And maybe you are. But you need to stop acting like you think you're better than they are. It's good politics, and a little humility never hurt anyone.

Stop expecting them to change. These people are not going to wake up one morning and discover that they have become liberal cosmopolitans. So stop trying to win them over with arguments that appeal to liberal cosmopolitans.

Get them some money. The middle class in this country has been hollowed out. We need to refill the shell, or at least show them how we would do it if they voted for us. Our ace in the hole is that Trump is never going to help these people in their pocketbooks. He'll put on a very entertaining show persecuting Mexicans and Muslims. But he's never going to deliver the bacon. That's something to work with.

One Last Story
In this last story I'm not a child anymore, and it's winter. One day my brother and I stopped by to visit someone we had known since childhood. He had grown up on a neighboring dairy farm, worked on that farm and, for a variety of reasons, decided to go out on his own. He had a small place not far away, and was exploring various niches, like serving as a nursery for baby cows until they were ready to go into the milking business. It wasn't going very well. If you know about dairy farming, you know that things in general are not going very well unless you have an extremely large factory operation in a place like the central valley of California.

With a characteristic smile and twist of humor, my farmer friend said the banker who gave him his start-up loan had told him that making a go of it would be hard, "but he didn't tell me it would be impossible."

See also Rugged Individualism: From Daniel Boone to Barack Obama and There: Now You've Got Something You Can Eat!

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