Monday, November 22, 2004

Creeping agrarianism

Prefatory note: We'll have to wait a little while longer for my promised "Political Theater" piece--the election and some other stuff having taken away my research time for a little while. But here's something else I've been thinking about of late.

Lately on the local community radio station, I heard a song by John McCutcheon called "It's the Economy Stupid," part of an album of polemical tunes he's written about Clinton and Bush-era political and social issues. Other titles include "Hail to the Chief" which cleverly weaves together a bunch of Bush malapropisms and "I'm Packing," which spoofs concealed weapons carriers.

All fairly typical of your folk lefty.

But "It's the Economy Stupid" really struck a chord with me, and not a receptive one. This in spite of the fact that I'm generally in agreement with McCutcheon is his other left-of-center sentiments, from fear of yokels with concealed handguns to contempt for George Bush's intellectual capacity.

But "Economy" resonates loudly with an agrarian populism I'd come to hope the left had left behind, or had left to the nutters on the right. But, surprisingly enough to me, a new sentimentalist, crypto-nativist, populist agrarianism has taken hold on the left, and McCutcheon's lyrics are the most direct expression of it I've heard, so I will quote them here in their entirety:
It's the Economy, Stupid (2001)
words and music by John McCutcheon
Written after reading Wendell Berry's fabulous novel, Jayber Crow.

It's the economy, stupid
A victory sign
A mantra
An explanation
A reminder
A warning
An omen
An onus
A threat
It's the economy, stupid

Farmers' wives bring eggs
Whole milk
Fresh butter
To the local market
To the store
Come in with groceries
And leave with groceries and money

Small farmers raise crops
For local markets
Up at dawn
Home at dusk
More in fallow
Than under the plow
Dark loam
Rich with earthworms
Defying erosion
Anchoring forest borders
Home for
Now virginity is no longer fashionable
Even in our forests
We will harvest another crop
Of walnut
Cherry, oak
If we only live
Another hundred years.
Man was the last piece
Of creation
And has been playing catch up
Ever since.

Farming is a balance
Of muscle
And conservation
Becomes the muscle now
Allowing us to work
Into the night.
We plant our debts
Fencerow to fencerow
Every bitter dram
Of expert advice
'drunk with dreams
of fortune

We grow
What we cannot use
What we used to raise
What we used to save
What we used to treasure
What we used to revere
What we used to love
It's the economy, stupid

I am not a nostalgist
I am a most pragmatic man
I look at what naturally occurs
In the living world--
And see diversity
Not specialization.
I look at
Hometown banks
Hardware stores
Where your name
Is your credit
And decisions are rendered
By people who know you
Where you are more than
The five banks
And the four airlines
And the three newspaper chains
And the two big box stores
And the one-and-a-half political parties
And the one retort:
It's the economy stupid

And the standards
That demand that
Every teacher teaches
Every student
Exactly the same thing
And, like these students
I have to ask 'why?'
It's the economy, stupid

Now those educated
Appraised students
Ride their buses
From their consolidated schools
Back to their small towns and farms
And cannot wait
To drive their cars away
On that highway of diamonds
Into the consolidated cities
Where they look back
In shame
And wonder
Between what they know
And what they've been sold
It's the economy, stupid

The economy that looks
For the maximum return
For the quick turnaround
For the short term gain
For the unearned income
For the Big Lotto
It's the economy, stupid

And the economy
Is impatient
It has a short attention span
It is easily bored
It is hungry
It is late for its next appointment
It puts you on hold
It does not return your call
It's the economy, stupid

The economy
Has you working two jobs
It is mandatory overtime
It is expensive sneakers
Made by sweating children
It is cheap food
Picked by landless hands
It is good paying jobs
Disappearing from American towns
And reappearing
It is your closed up main street
And it is your boarded up mill
And it is your condo-minimized factory
And it is your cookie cutter mall
And it is not accountable
It is not America
It's the economy, stupid

The economy now has no borders
Or horizons
Or faces
Or hands
The economy has only one rule:

And the economy lies.
The economy tells us it is about Freedom.
The economy is about Dependence.
Not on land
Or animals
Or weather
Or neighbors
On machinery
And fuel
And credit.
Most farmers
Have borrowed their way
Right out of farming.
No government loan
No government program
Will change
That cycle.
Because the government
Is powerless now, see:
It's the economy, stupid

And the government is the economy's
Biggest cheerleader.
It plays by the same rules:
The quick fix
The stronger army
The bigger bomb
The dependence on machinery
To do work
That can only effectively be done
By humans.
It consolidates
When diversity is required.

It's about economy
It's about small towns with
And baseball teams
A general store
Family cemeteries
A schoolhouse
A lumberyard
A radio station
A newspaper
A roadhouse
A funeral home
A filling station
Open space
Open opportunity
Open eyes
Open hearts
It's about economy

Craigston, Carriacou, Grenada February 2001

©2001 John McCutcheon/Appalsongs (ASCAP)

Keep in mind, I live in Northern Michigan, and though the town where I live is fairly moderate, much of surrounding area is rural. There are few minorities or foreigners here. To me, a lot of this sort of song really seems to me to appeal directly to the racism and xenophobia which are very strong ideological undercurrents in this area, even on the left.

And I am not doing the white guilt thing here--finding reason for the whites to castigate themselves everywhere--I am merely observing that popular movements here like the effort to shut down the Perrier water plant in Macosta, Michigan make pretty freely appeal to nativism and xenophobia to get people excited--the company is FRENCH! (or, somewhat less dramatically, Swiss) or its a MULTINATIONAL! (code word for "foreign") and the scandal is that "our" water might be taken so that foreigner can profit by it and some brown-skinned people somewhere may get to drink it.

Keep our water here!

If this sounds a lot like the sort of agrarian nativism Richard Hofstadter wrote about in his works on American populism and nativist paranoia, well it should.
The American left is slowly but surely leaving behind its commitment to things like science, social progress and urbanity and embracing irrationalism, nostalgia and, rather more surreptitiously, the sort of "blood and soil" ideology that gave a bad name to this line of thinking in the first place.

The time to head this off is now. The way to do it is by facing up to some hard truths: we are stuck with modernity; We are stuck with the rest of the world; We are stuck with negotiation, compromise and politics no matter how righteous we think we are; We are stuck with uncertainty, complexity and complication.

More on this topic later.