‘The Idiocy Of Rural Life’

That’s the unforgettable title (quoting Karl Marx) of the cover story in The New Republic, December 8, 1986. I never read the essay nor its follow-up by the late Henry Fairlie, though I did read other articles in those issues at that time.

I remembered these unread essays today when we had some gorgeous bloodsports between regulars Kyle Rowland and Elliott Blatt, starting at 1:34:20.

Here are some highlights from that original 1986 essay by academic Jeffrey L. Pasley, who grew up outside Topeka, Kansas (Idiocy of Rural Life):

HOW, THEN, did American family farmers become, in Harkin’s words, “the most efficient and productive in the world”? Family farmers can keep labor costs very low because the family provides the bulk of the labor. Family farms operate under vastly different labor standards than the rest of American industry. “Child labor laws do not apply to family farms because family farms must have child labor to survive,” wrote Minnesota politician and family farm alumnus Darrell McKigney. “Twenty or thirty years ago farm families commonly had ten or more children. [With automation] today five or six is a more common size.” From a very early age, family farm children participate in every phase of the operation, from work with dangerous heavy equipment to close contact
with carcinogenic chemicals and disease-carrying animals. In numerous farm areas, so many children are taken out of school at harvest time that the schools officially close until the harvest is finished. Practices that would be outrageous at a textile mill suddenly become all warm and cuddly when they appear on the family farm.

Family farmers also achieve efficiency through a draconian work schedule that no self-respecting union would allow. “The farm family does physically demanding and highly stressful work at least 14 hours a day (often at least 18 hours a day during harvest season), seven days a Week, 365 days a year without a scheduled vacation or weekends off,” wrote McKigney. “The farmer must endure all of this without the benefit of a health plan, safety regulations, a retirement plan, workmen’s compensation, or any of the benefits that most U.S. labor unions demand.” Psychologist Peter Keller, past president of the Association for Rural Mental Health, pointed out that many farmers are permanently tied to their farms. A dairy farmer, for instance, cannot just take off for a two-week vacation and not milk his cows. “Farmers lose perspective on the other things in life,” said Keller. “The farm literally consumes them.”

And the family farm physically consumes those who work on it, too. According to the National Safety Council, farming is the nation’s most dangerous job—more dangerous even than working in a mine. In 1983 farming clocked in at 55 job-related deaths per 100,000 workers, or five times the rate for all major industries combined. In 1984 Tom Knudson of the Des Moines Register published a Pulitzer Prize-winning series that cataloged the myriad health and safety risks run by farmers. Farmers working with powerful farm machinery face death or maiming by crushing, chopping, asphyxiation, or electrocution. (“As he reached for a stalk of corn dangling from the corn picker, Vern Tigges of Dexter felt a jolt. In the next moments in a fierce and frantic struggle with the machine, three fingers were ripped from his hand.”) They may be poisoned by the nitrogen dioxide gas that accumulates in grain silos, or have their lungs permanently damaged from breathing the air in enclosed hog pens. They may be crippled by “farmer’s lung disease,” caused by moldy grain dust. They may develop leukemia from contact with herbicides used on corn. (Iowa farmers contract leukemia 24 percent more frequently than the average American.) Knudson wrote that recent health findings exploded “the myth of farming as the good life of fresh air and sunshine.”

BUT WHAT ABOUT the benefits of good-old-fashioned-lemonade values and the supportive friendliness of a rural community? Though hard data is difficult to come by, many small towns appear to suffer from teenage pregnancy, alcoholism, and other social maladies at rates that are higher than average…

THE USUAL lesson gleaned from the facts of farm life is that there is nothing wrong with the family farm that higher commodity prices won’t solve. Yet farm programs have come and farm programs have gone, and still farmers (and especially farmer’s children) have left, for the simple reason that life is usually better off the farm. “It is a way of life, but so was the village blacksmith,” says economist William H. Peterson. The urban “wage-slave” worker, for all his lack of “independence” and supposed alienation from his work^ has some decided advantages over the rural yeoman. He has the security of a regular income, and definite hours set aside for his leisure. More often than not, the law guarantees the non-farmer a safe place to work, and protects him from the whims of his employer. The urban wage-earner has daily contact with a wide variety of other people, and access to cultural events and decent public services…

Tyrants from Stalin to Mao to Pol Pot have subjugated their populations by forcing them to “stay on the land.” Given the conditions of life on the family farm, if ATT or Chevron or Tenneco really does try to force some family farmers off their land, they might well be doing them a favor.

Henry Fairlie responded with the essay “The Idiocy of Urban Life”:

…bring the rat race.

[LF: One chooses how much one must participates in the rat race. How is a tough schedule in the city any different from a tough schedule in the country where cows must be milked every day?]

* Urban life today is aggressively individualistic and atomized. Cities are not social places.

[LF: It depends. Orthodox Judaism is highly social. Traditional religion tends to be highly social. If you want to be a writer, it helps to live in the city where you can meet regularly with other writers. I don’t “aggressively individualistic” is a good way to live, but that’s my subjective opinion. People in East Coast cities tend to be more socially connected to family and community than people in West Coast cities. Religion, schooling, family ties strike me as more traditional on the East Coast of America.]

* The lunacy of modern city life lies first in the fact that most city dwellers who can do so try to live outside the city boundaries…

[LF: How is that lunacy? People want what they want from cities and country and adjust themselves to maximize the things they want and minimize the things they don’t want.]

* Disdaining rural life, they try to create simulations of it.

[LF: What’s wrong with maximizing what you want? Some people want wifi when they go to Yosemite. So my girlfriend and I paid $10 for some lodge wifi one day on our visit. Some married people want to create simulations of single life so they play games. Some Orthodox Jews like to intellectually explore heretical opinions or they eat kosher versions of trafe food such as fake meats.]

* The homes, restaurants, and even offices of city dwellers are planted thick with vegetation.

[LF: And why is this worthy of contempt?]

* The professional people buy second homes in the country as soon as they can afford them, and as early as possible on Friday head out of the city they have created. The New York intellectuals tuals and artists quaintly say they are “going to the country” for the weekend or summer, but in fact they have created a little Manhattan-by-the-Sea around the Hamptons, spreading over the Long Island potato fields whose earlier solitude was presumably sumably the reason why they first went there. City dwellers take the city with them to the country, for they will not live without its pamperings.

[LF: Everybody takes their past and their preferences with them wherever they go. So?]

* Every European points out that Americans are the most round-shouldered people in the world. Few of them carry themselves selves with an upright stance, although a correct stance and gait is the first precondition of letting your lungs breathe naturally and deeply. Electric typewriters cut down the amount of physical cal exertion needed to hit the keys; the buttons on a word processor need even less effort, as you can tell from the posture of those who use them. They might as well be in armchairs. They rush out to jog or otherwise Fonda-ize their leisure to try to repair the damage done during the day. Dieting is an urban obsession. Country dwellers eat what they please, and work it off in useful physical employments, and in the open air, cold or hot, rainy or sunny. Mailmen are the healthiest city workers.

* Work still gives meaning to rural life, the family, and churches. But in the city today work and home, family and church, are separated.

[LF: Work, family and church give meaning to people in cities as well. Many people find great advantage in separating home and work and church. I don’t see anything inherently wrong in this separation.]

* What the office workers do for a living is not part of their home life. At the same time they maintain the pointless frenzy of their work hours in their hours off.

[LF: Not true. Everything we do affects us. How is hard work pointless frenzy? Some people choose to live busy lives. What’s wrong with that?]

* They rush from the office to jog, to the gym or the YMCA pool, to work at their play with the same joylessness.

[LF: Orthodox Jews don’t tend to dawdle. People with busy lives don’t dawdle. So? I haven’t noticed any difference in happiness between rural and urban living.]

* As the farmer walks down to his farm in the morning, the city dweller is dressing for the first idiocy of his day, which he not only accepts but even seeks-the journey to work.

[LF: How is commuting idiocy? It represents a trade-off between where we want to live and where we need to be for work. Why is compromise idiocy? I have created a life where I’ve not had a daily commute longer than 20 minutes.]

* There are no more grim faces than those of the single drivers we pedestrians can glimpse at the stoplights during the rush hour. It is hard to know why they are so impatient tient in the morning to get to their useless and wearisome employments;

[LF: I guess that’s why they call it work.]

I think Henry Fairlie got the worst of this exchange. Jeffrey L. Pasley gave killer facts and insights, Fairlie just evoked some feelings. I don’t see it as terribly significant that city dwellers want to recapture some parts of country life. We all want what we don’t have. Every man with a Ten yearns to have sex with someone new. That doesn’t make the Ten defective.

I grew up in the Seventh-Day Adventist tradition that regarded cities as dens of iniquity. Almost all of my experiences were rural until age 27 when I went to live in Orlando and then Los Angeles. I love cities. I love country. I don’t think either is an objectively superior way of living.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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