On June 21, 2001, Richard Lewontin, a respected Harvard scientist,
published in The New York Review of Books an article on genetic engineering
and the controversy about it. In the latter part of his article, Lewontin
turns away from his announced premise of scientific objectivity to attack,
in a markedly personal way, the critics of industrial agriculture and
biotechnology who are trying to defend small farmers against exploitation
by global agribusiness.
He criticizes Vandana Shiva, the Indian scientist and defender of the
traditional agricultures of the Third World, for her appeal to "religious
morality," and calls her a "cheerleader." He speaks of some of her allies
as "a bunch of Luddites," and he says that all such people are under the
influence "of a false nostalgia for an idyllic life never experienced." He
says that present efforts to save "the independent family farmer . . . are
a hundred years too late, and GMOs [genetically modified organisms] are the
wrong target." One would have thought, Lewontin says wearily, that
"industrial capitalism . . . has become so much the basis of European and
American life that any truly popular new romantic movement against it would
Lewontin is a smart man, but I don't think he understands how conventional,
how utterly trite and thoughtless, is his reaction to Shiva and other
advocates of agricultural practices that are biologically sound and
economically just. Apologists for industrialism seldom feel any need to
notice their agrarian critics, but when a little dog snaps at the heels of
a big dog long enough, now and again the big dog will have to condescend.
On such occasions, the big dog always says what Lewontin has said in his
article: You are a bunch of Luddites; you are a bunch of romantics
motivated by nostalgia for a past that never existed; it is too late; there
is no escape. The best-loved proposition is the last: Whatever happens is
inevitable; it all has been determined by economics and technology.
This is not scientific objectivity or science or scholarship. It is the
luxury politics of an academic islander.
The problem for Lewontin and others like him is that the faith in
industrial agriculture as an eternal pillar of human society is getting
harder to maintain, not because of the attacks of its opponents but because
of the increasingly manifest failures of industrial agriculture itself:
massive soil erosion, soil degradation, pollution by toxic chemicals,
pollution by animal factory wastes, depletion of aquifers, runaway
subsidies, the spread of pests and diseases by the long-distance
transportation of food, mad cow disease, indifferent cruelty to animals,
the many human sufferings associated with agricultural depression,
exploitation of "cheap" labor, the abuse of migrant workers. And now, after
the catastrophes of September 11, the media have begun to notice what
critics of industrial capitalism have always known: The corporate food
supply is highly vulnerable to acts of biological warfare.
That these problems exist and are serious is indisputable. So why are they
so little noticed by politicians of influence, by people in the media, by
university scientists and intellectuals? An increasing number of people
alerted to the problems will answer immediately: Because far too many of
those people are far too dependent on agribusiness contributions,
advertising, and grants. That, I think, is true, but another reason that
needs to be considered is modern society's widespread prejudice against
country people. This prejudice is not easy to explain, in view of modern
society's continuing dependence upon rural sustenance, but its existence
also is indisputable.
Lewontin's condescension to country people and their problems is not an
aberration either in our society or in The New York Review of Books. On
June 29, 2000, that magazine published this sentence: "At worst, [Rebecca
West] had a mind that was closed and cold, like a small town lawyer's,
prizing facts but estranged from imaginative truth." And on December 20,
2001, it published this: "The Gridiron dinner, as the affair is known,
drags on for about five hours, enlivened mainly by the speeches of the
politicians, whose ghostwriters in recent years have consistently outdone
the journalists in the sharpness and grace of their wit (leaving
journalists from the provinces with a strong impulse to follow the
groundhogs back into their holes)."
It is possible to imagine that some readers will ascribe my indignation at
those sentences to the paranoia of an advocate for the losing side. But I
would ask those readers to imagine a reputable journal nowadays that would
attribute closed, cold minds to Jewish lawyers, or speak of black
journalists wanting to follow the groundhogs into their holes. This, it
seems to me, would pretty effectively dissipate the ha-ha.
Disparagements of farmers, of small towns, of anything identifiable as
"provincial" can be found everywhere: in comic strips, TV shows, newspaper
editorials, literary magazines, and so on. A few years ago, The New
Republic affirmed the necessity of the decline of family farms in a cover
article entitled "The Idiocy of Rural Life." And I remember a Kentucky high
school basketball cheer that instructed the opposing team:
Go back, go back, go back to the woods.
Your coach is a farmer and your team's no good.
I believe it is a fact, proven by their rapidly diminishing numbers and
economic power, that the world's small farmers and other "provincial"
people have about the same status now as enemy civilians in wartime. They
are the objects of small, "humane" consideration, but if they are damaged
or destroyed "collaterally," then "we very much regret it," but they were
in the way--and, by implication, not quite as human as "we" are. The
industrial and corporate powers, abetted and excused by their many
dependents in government and the universities, are perpetrating a sort of
economic genocide--less bloody than military genocide, to be sure, but just
as arrogant, foolish, and ruthless, and perhaps more effective in ridding
the world of a kind of human life. The small farmers and the people of
small towns are understood as occupying the bottom step of the economic
stairway and deservedly falling from it because they are rural, which is to
say not metropolitan or cosmopolitan, which is to say socially,
intellectually, and culturally inferior to "us."
Am I trying to argue that all small farmers are superior or that they are
all good farmers or that they live the "idyllic life"? I certainly am not.
And that is my point. The sentimental stereotype is just as damaging as the
negative one. The image of the farmer as the salt of the earth, independent
son of the soil, and child of nature is a sort of lantern slide projected
over the image of the farmer as simpleton, hick, or redneck. Both images
serve to obliterate any concept of farming as an ancient, useful, honorable
vocation, requiring admirable intelligence and skill, a complex local
culture, great patience and endurance, and moral responsibilities of the
I am not trying to attribute any virtues or characteristics to farmers or
rural people as a category. I am only saying what black people, Jews, and
others have said many times before: These stereotypes don't fit. They don't
work. Of course, some small town lawyers have minds that are "closed and
cold," but some, too, have minds that are open and warm. And some
"provincial" journalists may be comparable to groundhogs, I suppose, though
I know of none to whom that simile exactly applies, but some too are
brilliant and brave and eminently useful. I am thinking, for example, of
Tom and Pat Gish, publishers of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky,
who for many decades have opposed the coal companies whenever necessary and
have unflinchingly suffered the penalties, including arson. Do I think the
Gishes would be intimidated by the frivolous wit of ghostwriters at the
Gridiron dinner? I do not.
I have been attentive all my life to the doings of small town lawyers and
"provincial" journalists, and I could name several of both sorts who have
not been admirable, but I could name several also who have been heroes
among those who wish to be just. I can say, too, that, having lived both in
great metropolitan centers of culture and in a small farming community, I
have seen few things dumber and tackier--or more provincial--than this
half-scared urban contempt for "provinciality."
The stereotype of the farmer as rustic simpleton or uncouth redneck is,
like most stereotypes, easily refuted: All you have to do is compare it
with a number of real people. But the stereotype of the small farmer as
obsolete human clinging to an obsolete kind of life, though equally false,
is harder to deal with because it comes from a more complicated prejudice,
entrenched in superstition and a kind of insanity.
The prejudice begins in the idea that work is bad, and that manual work
outdoors is the worst work of all. The superstition is that since all work
is bad, all "labor-saving" is good. The insanity is to rationalize the
industrial pillage of the natural world and to heap scorn upon the
land-using cultures on which human society depends for its life.
The industrialization of agriculture has replaced working people with
machines and chemicals. The people thus replaced have, supposedly, gone
into the "better" work of offices or factories. But in all the enterprises
of the industrial economy, as in industrial war, we finally reach the end
of the desk jobs, the indoor work, the glamour of forcing nature to
submission by push-buttons and levers, and we come to the unsheltered use
of the body. Somebody, finally, must lift the garbage can, stop the leaks
in the roof, fix the broken machinery, walk in the mud and the snow, build
and mend the pasture fences, help the calving cow.
Now, in the United States, the despised work of agriculture is done by the
still-surviving and always struggling small farmers, and by many Mexican
and Central American migrant laborers who live and work a half step, if
that, above slavery. The work of the farmland, in other words, is now
accomplished by two kinds of oppression, and most people do not notice, or
if they notice they do not care. If they are invited to care, they are
likely to excuse themselves by answers long available in the "public
consciousness": Farmers are better off when they lose their farms. They are
improved by being freed of the "mind-numbing work" of farming. Mexican
migrant field hands, like Third World workers in our sweatshops, are being
improved by our low regard and low wages. And besides, however
objectionable from the standpoint of "nostalgia," the dispossession of
farmers and their replacement by machines, chemicals, and oppressed
migrants is "inevitable," and it is "too late" for correction.
Such talk, it seems to me, descends pretty directly from the old
pro-slavery rhetoric: Slavery was an improvement over "savagery," the
slaves were happy in their promotion, slavery was sanctioned by God. The
moral difference is not impressive.
But the prejudice against rural people is not merely an offense against
justice and common decency. It also obscures or distorts perception of
issues and problems of the greatest practical urgency. The unacknowledged
question beneath the dismissal of the agrarian small farmers is this: What
is the best way to farm--not anywhere or everywhere, but in every one of
the Earth's fragile localities? What is the best way to farm this farm? In
this ecosystem? For this farmer? For this community? For these consumers?
For the next seven generations? In a time of terrorism? To answer those
questions, we will have to go beyond our preconceptions about farmers and
other "provincial" people. And we will have to give up a significant amount
of scientific objectivity, too. That is because the standards required to
measure the qualities of farming are not just scientific or economic or
social or cultural, but all of those, employed all together.
This line of questioning finally must encounter such issues as preference,
taste, and appearance. What kind of farming and what kind of food do you
like? How should a good steak or tomato taste? What does a good farm or
good crop look like? Is this farm landscape healthful enough? Is it
beautiful enough? Are health and beauty, as applied to landscapes, synonymous?
With such questions, we leave objective science and all other specialized
disciplines behind, and we come to something like an undepartmented
criticism or connoisseurship that is at once communal and personal. Even
though we obviously must answer our questions about farming with all the
intellectual power we have, we must not fail to answer them also with
affection. I mean the complex, never-completed affection for our land and
our neighbors that is true patriotism.