I don’t like Olmstead’s argument. Worried by a recent poll about the American tendency to relocate, she urges her readers to stay where they are and to bloom where they’re planted. … Stay put. Don’t change. How much better can it be anywhere else?
Reading Olmstead’s article made me think instantly of F.A. Hayek’s essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” In it, he points out that “one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such.” I have rarely seen a more thoroughgoing example of this kind of timidity than in Olmstead’s piece.
Stay where you are because it is where you are. If you leave in order to pursue economic opportunity, a wider range of social networks, a more appealing set of choices in restaurants and stores, or maybe just the chance to stay on the 29th floor of the Sofitel, you are betraying yourself.
I can understand Skwire’s critiques, and should perhaps add a caveat to my earlier post: not everyone always can or should “stay put” (especially if you’re defining this, as Skwire seems to be, as “staying put” in the place you grew up in, and never venturing into the outside world). Particular circumstances and people are important to take into account.
However, what I was hoping to point out—and what I think is important to understand—is that there has been a troubling migratory pattern in American life over the past several decades, and it’s beginning to take a toll on many communities. The goal of my post was to point out that we are, on the whole, too eager to move from place to place in modern America. Some people moving is not a problem: but a large percentage of people moving from place to place, not getting established in a community, does indeed become an issue. An interesting story in the Washington Post highlighted this trend Friday, and noted that some people are “going home” in order to hopefully “revive ailing towns and find a way forward for rural America”:
Nationally and globally, cities dominate. Four out of five Americans inhabit urban areas on a fraction of this country’s land, while rural residents continue to decline as a percentage of the population. As one America shrinks, the other overflows; both are searching for solutions.
As one mayor tells reporter Libby Sander, simply yet truthfully, “We need people.”
In my original post, I wrote, “We will never live in the city or town of our dreams. The grass will always be greener on the other side of the fence.” Skwire seems to think this only references the siren call of the city, its attractive urban setting. But in reality, I was speaking of a more general restlessness that often stirs in our souls. It doesn’t matter where we live, or where we move: there will always be a temptation to discontentment. Right now, I don’t live in my native land of Idaho, and I miss it. It is very easy to see all the flaws and weaknesses of living in one place, when you’re longing for another. But I believe that, since moving to Idaho (or anywhere else) is not possible for me right now, I should be invest myself as deeply in this community as I possibly can. Even if I did move back to Idaho, it wouldn’t be perfect: I would probably miss this place, the comforts and communities it brings. But we should care for our corner of the world, wherever it is: using our gifts and resources to build a better street, a better neighborhood, a better town or city.
Another interest argument that Skwire makes is that “humans have always relocated in order to better their economic position or to find freedom or for countless other reasons … Since when have conservatives tried to discourage others from taking responsibility for improving their own lives?”
I definitely would not discourage people from “taking responsibility for improving their lives.” By no means. Of course, some situations (violation of human rights, for instance) are horrific, and require relocation. All I would ask is that we consider whether moving is always necessary for improvement, or whether we can—in fact—make improvements and foster growth where we’re at. The importance of this is, of course, that if we only ever move, we may actually lose certain opportunities to grow and improve on an internal and local level. Although “seeking a better life” someplace far away is not always a bad idea, I think we too often assume that far-off places will be idyllic, exciting, full of promise—because we don’t know them, their weaknesses and hardships.
We will never find a perfect “place” or “home” in this life—because every place is flawed. But I do believe that—whether you’ve moved once, 12 times, or never—you can make your current habitation, your town or city, a home. You can love it, cherish it, invest in it. And that is what matters most.
The Atlantic has published an excerpt from Wendell Berry’s recent book, Our Only World: Ten Essays. It’s a thought-provoking piece, and I urge you to read the whole thing. But in one particularly interesting passage, Berry writes of an alarming change he observed along the Kentucky River:
I don’t remember what year it was when I first noticed the disappearance of the native black willows from the low-water line of this river. Their absence was sufficiently noticeable, for the willows were both visually prominent and vital to the good health of the river. Wherever the banks were broken by “slips” or the uprooting of large trees, and so exposed to sunlight, the willows would come in quickly to stabilize the banks. Their bushy growth and pretty foliage gave the shores of the river a distinctive grace, now gone and much missed by the few who remember. Like most people, I don’t welcome bad news, and so I said to myself that perhaps the willows were absent only from the stretch of the river that I see from my house and work places. But in 2002 for the first time in many years I had the use of a motor boat, and I examined carefully the shores of the twenty-seven-mile pool between locks one and two. I saw a few old willows at the tops of the high banks, but none at or near the low-water line, and no young ones anywhere.
The willows still live as usual along other streams in the area, and they thrive along the shore of the Ohio River just above the mouth of the Kentucky at Carrollton. The necessary conclusion is that their absence from the Kentucky River must be attributable to something seriously wrong with the water. And so, since 2002, I have asked everybody I met who might be supposed to know: “Why have the black willows disappeared from the Kentucky River?” I have put this question to conservationists, to conservation organizations specifically concerned with the Kentucky River, to water-quality officials and to university biologists. And I have found nobody who could tell me why. Except for a few old fishermen, I have found nobody who knew they were gone.
Berry uses this example to point out that “experts”—in conservation and agriculture, particularly—are often poorly qualified to do their job, because they don’t understand local ecosystems. No matter their scientific proficiency, they lack a vital ingredient to truly understanding—and thus caring for—their environs: they are not natives.
Berry has grown up in Kentucky. He’s a descendent of Kentuckians. He knows and understands his place with the intimate knowledge of a native. Thus, he noticed the willows, and wondered what might have happened to them. Though two biologists are now at work on the dilemma, they have not as yet discovered any answers. The experience taught Berry this lesson: “Experts often don’t know and sometimes can never know. Beneficiaries of higher education, of whom I am one, often give too much credit to credentials.”
But this anecdote speaks to a different dilemma, as well: namely, that people are not staying in their place, and thus are ignorant as to the ecosystems they are inhabiting. They don’t understand them—and thus, how are they to care for them? In an increasingly mobile America, we must consider the problem this presents.
Confronting industrial agriculture, we are requiring ourselves to substitute science for citizenship, community membership, and land stewardship. But science fails at all of these.
… We have an ancient and long-enduring cultural imperative of neighborly love and work. This becomes ever more important as hardly imaginable suffering is imposed upon all creatures by industrial tools and industrial weapons. If we are to continue, in our only world, with any hope of thriving in it, we will have to expect neighborly behavior of sciences, of industries, and of governments, just as we expect it of our citizens in their neighborhoods.
We need more people to become “natives” of their place.
Millennials, some businesses complain, are horrible hirees. But why? Cliff White discusses these complaints in an article for The Week, then offers a millennial businessman’s rebuttal:
“One dig against millennials is that they’re never satisfied or that they’re flaky, but I look at it differently,” Bushner said. “I don’t think there’s been a giant shift in the way young people think or the way they want to act in the last 20 years, or for that matter, the last 200. I just think that maybe the millennial generation is just less afraid to go after what they want.”
… One CFO at a mid-sized manufacturer in New England (who’s related to me, and who asked to not be named so as to avoid bad-mouthing millennials publicly) is wary of hiring millennials after experiencing high absenteeism among their ranks.
“Many are high maintenance and don’t want to work hard,” he said. “Working to repetitive deadlines is not something millennials do well.” In response, Bushner said executives that think of millennials as lazy might want to reevaluate the way their own businesses are run.
“No, we’re not a punch-the-clock kind of workplace, but when we’re in a crunch, my team works harder than anyone,” Bushner said. “Are there millennials who are lazy? Sure, but to write off a whole generation as lazy is naive. If you put me into their more traditional company, they would probably call me lazy too and I’m working 60- to 80-hour weeks. Where an older generation of business leaders see laziness, I see creative energy that’s not being properly harnessed or applied.”
It seems that both White’s relative and Bushner have some good points. The former sees young employees who don’t have the traditional work ethic or sense of loyalty that older generations may have demonstrated; Bushner sees an ambitious set of young people who are more likely to push boundaries, yet also likely to bring great enthusiasm and creativity to a job they consider worthwhile or meaningful.
Millennials have grown up in a world that is debatably more globalized and individualized than ever before. We see this globalization reflected in the rise of the Internet and social media, the expansion of our individual worlds to literally include the world, rather than the more limited, local sphere emphasized in the lives of prior generations. We also see more grad students and young people moving about and living alone, seeking career and life opportunities in new places and cities. Millennials have a tendency to put off marriage, leave the church, live in the absence of society’s private institutions.
All these attitudes seem (at least somewhat) spurred on by a multiplicity of choice, an awareness of the options and the avenues that lie outside our present career paths or personal goals. This awareness often leads us into discontent, uncertainty, restlessness, even laziness. We struggle to commit when the array of surrounding choices encourages a deep inward angst, a sense of not having, doing, or experiencing enough.
Millennials in the workplace may (and, from limited personal experience, often do) experience this sort of restlessness and discontent. It makes it difficult for them to fully commit to their current jobs. There is always a sense that they could be missing out on the next opportunity to advance, to find a more fun or promising career, to find deeper meaning in their vocation. One could say that FOMO informs our career decisions as much as it fuels our social lives.
How do we combat this trend? Not by emphasizing the importance of hiring millennials on their own terms, as Bushner seems to suggest. This only reinforces a sense of entitlement and control, a tendency for them to see their current position as “settling.” Neither should companies worry that they must constantly “innovate” in order to keep young employees, as the article’s author seems to suggest. “New” does not always mean “better,” and it would be wrong for millennials or their employers to adopt such an attitude.
But here’s one idea—it seems that more companies need to build their individual workers into a team: a well-knit, reinforcing, mutually-supporting group of employees who are responsible for each other and accountable to each other. By building such camaraderie, companies remove jobs and employment from the realm of individual ambition, and give them a larger sense of community. Not every job is glamorous. Not every career carries with it a sense of special purpose or meaning. But every job can offer employees a chance to be part of a team, part of a cohort that is connected and close. And it could be that this is what millennials need in order to forsake their dissatisfaction, and stay put. Other tactics—offering greater workplace flexibility, financial incentives, company benefits—could be viewed as secondary, if employees really feel they are part of a team they enjoy working with.
Watching “Insurgent,” it was easy to get caught up in the laughter and enjoyment of the audience. The second film adaptation of Veronica Roth’s popular YA dystopian series, “Insurgent” features some talented young actors and actresses, some great visual effects, a couple intense action scenes.
But the problem you will hear consistently from reviewers and watchers is this: it’s a cookie-cutter version of a book, and thus a movie, that has been made several times over throughout the past decade. Obviously, it still has some appeal—”The Maze Runner” series, final installment of “The Hunger Games,” and final adaptation of the “Divergent” series will all be coming out over the next couple years. Yet audiences are still expressing some weariness over these parallel plots.
They usually feature some sort of sorting system or hazing ritual for the books’ high school protagonists. There is also some sort of authoritarian government ruled by out-of-touch grownups. The character cast often features a young and likeable side character who dies, or is hurt in some way. And the protagonist is always some sort of Luke Skywalker-esque “chosen one,” who approaches their fate-appointed leadership role with an alarmed, selfless “Who, me?” response.
It should be apparent why this storyline so often appeals to young adults who read the books: we all like to be the wronged and tortured ones. When we’re young, it’s easy to think our lives are dramatic, star-crossed—we even like a little tragedy, as long as it doesn’t directly hurt us. We often also like to think the adults in our lives are evil dictators, trying to prevent us from being happy. The modern dystopian novel just adds action and drama to a modern high school setting.
In addition to all this, the book/films’ protagonists are not emotionally complex or interesting. They’re not even consistent, most often. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is a stormy, moody character—but without any consistent internal development, personal conflict, or overarching motive. Her familial affections are constantly overlooked, clouded, or forgotten in light of her romantic interests—which seem to waffle from page to page. Her relationship with the antagonist (President Snow) is at once defiant, then terrified, then sullen. Because of this volatility, we never get to really understand who Katniss is—thus making it very difficult to empathize with her. Divergent’s Tris, while similarly moody and overwrought, develops a sliver more consistency in voice over time. But both Jennifer Lawrence’s and Shailene Woodley’s portrayals of the books’ protagonists seem considerably more developed and consistent than the authors’ versions.
Why we haven’t seen more diversity in the dystopian genre as of late? It would be one thing if these were just films: we’re used to seeing the same underdog sports story, the same superhero films, over and over again. But these are book adaptations, plots created by authors who are regurgitating up the same tired stories at a ceaseless rate.
It could be that Hollywood has not discovered some unknown gems that may lace the dystopian genre—and if so, hopefully such works will begin to surface. But we still need some new novels—if not for our own sakes, at least for the young adults who more consistently read them. They needn’t be entirely new and brilliant; but couldn’t we at least write something more along the lines of Brave New World than 1984? It would feature a contrasting world, a diverse yet interesting array of characters. It would look at the consequences of hedonism, rather than the consequences of authoritarianism.
But perhaps the reason Huxley’s dystopia is the less popular of the two, is because it hits too close to home. It’s more fun watching domineering bad guys get crushed by upstart teenagers than it is to see a pleasure-centric society killing itself with ignorance and lust.
Since fall of last year, I’ve had a bushel of vegetables delivered to my front doorstep every other week. The boxes (recently switched to more-sustainable bags) contain everything from tomatoes to parsnips, fresh herbs to polenta.
The company I get my produce from—From the Farmer—is a locavore-minded company headquartered in Beltsville, Maryland. Founded four years ago with a customer base of one or two hundred, the delivery company now serves 4,000 customers in a 200-square-mile radius, scattered over 600 zip codes in the Maryland, D.C., and NOVA area.
I mentioned the company to Forrest Pritchard, farmer and author of Gaining Ground, last year when talking to him about the future of sustainable farming. He got very excited. This is how you know a market is flourishing, he said—when the intermediaries spring up. When it isn’t just direct farmer-to-consumer sales, like CSAs (community-supported agriculture) and farmer’s markets, but when others step in to facilitate those sales. From the Farmer is a sign, Pritchard said, that sustainable farming is what consumers want—and that they’re trying to get it, even if they don’t have time for farmer’s markets or CSA drops.
So why does From the Farmer do what they do? Is all their produce local? What are their plans for the future? To find out, I drove Thursday to the company’s headquarters.
The warehouse-style building is open and bright. The front room is focused around a large square table, where the FTF team usually eats their meals together. One of the company’s employees had smoked meat for the team’s lunch, and the smell still wafted through the room when I arrived.
Most of the people at From the Farmer are young millennials who probably fit several hipster stereotypes. They drink local artisan coffee, enjoy eating granola, talk a lot about sustainability. But I can’t help but wonder whether it’s these people who will revitalize America’s food landscape—not by circumventing free market models, but by presenting a new ethic of value to the American populace.
Jason Lundberg, co-founder of From The Farmer, walked me through the building as he talked about the company, its customer base and methodology. The company has 21 employees: 14 work during the day, seven during the night. Their space is purposefully community-centric: “no conference rooms, no walls.”
In the back room, two assembly lines of employees were putting vegetables, loaves of Lyon Bakery bread, and Whiffletree Farm eggs into their respective bags. Customers can either opt for an automatic selection of produce, or customize their bag according to their tastes (i.e., more carrots, no cabbage, and a loaf of Jewish rye).
Lundberg explained the timeline: the farmers usually pick their produce around 5 a.m., and the company’s trucks pick it up by 8. The trucks return to FTF headquarters around 11 a.m., and everything is packed by 6 or 7 p.m. The trucks leave for deliveries around 10 p.m., and work all through the night. “It’s about a 24-hour turnaround,” he said.
I have noticed that the FTF bags will occasionally contain oranges or avocados. I’m not complaining—both items have been fresh and flavorful—but I was curious as to how the company incorporates this into their local vision. Lundberg said this is a way for them to satiate customer’s needs and desires, while also helping fund future local sales. Their vision is to buy mostly local, but to occasionally supplement with “non-local, honest” items. Most of the farmers the company works with are the same ones they partnered with four years ago—and they hope to continue working with them in the future.
I’ve also been surprised at the pristine assortment of vegetables in my basket—in fact, they’ve been spotless enough to leave me skeptical. If this is farm-fresh, shouldn’t there be some ugly ducklings in the bunch? Jason explained that they’re very picky about what they put in their bags—and they have to be, because customers are likely to complain about any bruised or less-than-perfect produce. (This is a consistent American dilemma: consumers are used to pristine fruits and vegetables, and their choosiness—combined with careless consumption practices—leads to astounding food waste.)
But FTF fights food waste in a couple different ways: first, by conscientiously composting. “We generate one bag of trash per week,” Lundberg said, while gesturing to two large composting bins in the center of the room. They give their composting items to a composting company and a local farm.
FTF is also trying to educate their customer base, to explain that bruised or deformed items are often okay, even delicious. In the meantime, however, they have to be selective. He showed me huge boxes of produce that were deemed “not good enough” by sorters. At first, I was horrified. They all looked perfectly good to me. But Jason said that almost all this rejected produce is either eaten by the FTF team, or donated: to the Montgomery County men’s shelter, to a local Baptist church’s food shelter, or to “Misfit Juicery”—a D.C. company that, as the name suggests, uses bruised or damaged produce to make juices.
Of the company’s sales, approximately 40 percent goes back to the farmers (the percentage is sometimes higher, sometimes lower). Lundberg admitted quickly that, if people want to support their local farmers, the best way to do so is by joining a CSA or visiting a farmer’s market. He ranks his own company fourth in the best ways to support local farmers, behind CSAs, farmer’s markets, and farm co-ops. The company’s flexible schedule, in which customers can turn orders “on” or “off” from week to week, is structured so that customers can take a leave of absence for summer CSAs or a weekend’s farmer’s market.
But FTF has been remarkably successful for a company that chiefly advertises its existence via word of mouth. And much of this success seems to stem from its easy, customizable nature: considering the chaotic lives of many in the D.C. metro area, FTF provides goods to people who may be unable to join a CSA or visit a farmer’s market. By delivering the farm to your doorstep, they cut out a step that many have trouble taking. This intermediary service may be what many farmers need to reach a wider customer base.
Lundberg still has some concerns, however, with the growing online farm-to-consumer market. Throughout our discussion, he emphasized the importance of trusting partnerships: “We want long-term alliances with specific farmers,” Lundberg said. When they picked up their first two apple crates from a local farm four years ago, the farmer never thought he’d see the two city boys and their truck again. Yet Lundberg says they paid that farmer a quarter million dollars last year.
What would happen, though, if an online farmer’s market similar to Amazon were to spring up, with different produce and meat farmers all advertising their various products? In the absence of relationship, Lundberg fears this farmer-Amazon would hurt independent, small enterprises in the same way the real Amazon has hurt small book publishers. “I’m scared about what happens if technology takes over,” he said. This is why locavorism is different, why an emphasis on rootedness in place has become so important to so many food consumers: in a world full of choices, sometimes the best thing you can do is to focus on the choices next door to you.
Lundberg is right that, if you want all of your money to go directly to the farmer, a CSA or farmer’s market is your best bet. But From the Farmer serves a very unique purpose: from its doorstep delivery model to its plans for eliminating food waste, the company presents a vision that is farm-focused, while also transcending the farm.
A lot of Americans are committed to staying close to home—but that doesn’t mean all of them are happy about it. The newest Heartland Monitor Poll considers where Americans live, and how they feel about their place. Responses were mixed, as The Atlantic‘s Gillian White reports:
Those who hail from rural areas and small towns were more likely to report staying in one area for multiple decades than their peers in larger metropolitan areas. Southern inhabitants were more likely to pick up and to move in 5 years or less, while those in the Mountain and Northeast regions were more likely to stay put.
Even though most Americans said that they liked the general direction their local areas were headed in, respondents had mixed feelings about the opportunities available in their areas for young people. Fifty percent of respondents said that they would not recommend their local area, while 42 percent said they would. City dwellers were the most apt to see their area as best for young people, with more than half saying they’d tell them to settle down there, while those in rural areas were less likely to encourage young people to come to their neck of the woods. … Even though they are aware of the problems in cities and towns where they live, most Americans aren’t considering moving any time soon. Sixty-one percent of respondents said the probability of relocation was not very likely—with 41 percent saying it wasn’t likely at all.
A lot of people make decisions to move (or not move) based on job opportunities. Also, there’s the college dynamic: higher-educated young people are more likely to pick up and move, either before or after they finish their education. As the New York Times noted last October, “about a million [college graduates] cross state lines each year, and these so-called young and the restless don’t tend to settle down until their mid-30s.”
Staying put—fully inhabiting, loving, and stewarding the place in which you live—is a conservative idea in many respects. It’s interwoven with the idea of civic care and involvement, the importance of commitment to the political, economic, and cultural wellbeing of a community. But it is also, increasingly, an option that makes financial sense. Although metropolitan areas offer more jobs and higher salaries, they also often mean exorbitantly priced housing and longer commutes, as well as expensive groceries, household items, and childcare.
That said, being mobile and moving to a new place also offers greater independence, financial security, lifestyle options, and economic incentives. City dwellers live in a vibrant intellectual and cultural environment, with a plethora of restaurants, theaters, and museums at their disposal. They can spend more time with their peers: the city is more likely to be overflowing with young, like-minded professionals than small-town Iowa is. New buildings, attractive downtowns, and thriving commerce areas are all more likely to be present—and will contrast starkly with America’s ghostlike heartland towns.
It’s tough to make a case for the small town, and it’s tough to stay in a small town. So why do people do it?
White talked to Marilyn Brown, a woman who’s decided to stay in Cleveland despite growing crime and lack of opportunity. “I don’t have a great big family. We’re all right here together,” she told White. And in addition to the family incentives, White writes, “Brown’s reticence is partially because she doesn’t think that a move would eliminate the hassles she faces in Cleveland, but instead just introduce different ones. ‘Everybody is having problems with one thing or another.’”
Many people have realized that mobility takes a long-term toll on their family and community life. Not only that, moving to a place for recreational or consumeristic purposes is a sapping and exorbitant lifestyle choice, in a time when employment opportunities are still tenuous, especially for younger Americans. Staying “close to home” is more attractive when you know that there will be a safety net, a support group, and a community in that place—to help you even through times of financial difficulty.
But Brown’s answer also reminds us that there is no such thing as a perfect place. We will never live in the city or town of our dreams. The grass will always be greener on the other side of the fence. That’s why committing to a place—its people, its quirks, its flaws as well as its strengths—is one of the most freeing options we have. It is in planting ourselves that we can learn to thrive.
On Friday, March 27th, I’ll be participating in a Capitol Hill symposium organized by The Family in America and cosponsored by the Front Porch Republic. The panelists will be discussing the importance of “The Home Economy,” and how best to revitalize it. I strongly urge you to join us for the event!
“Rediscovering the Home Economy”
Friday, March 27, 2015, 11:00 a.m. – 1:00 p.m.
The Capitol Skyline Hotel, 10 I (eye) St. Southwest, Washington, D.C.
The American Home Economics Association organized in 1908. Through laws designed to revive rural America (Smith-Lever Extension Act of 1914) and promote the family (Smith-Hughes Vocational Training Act of 1917), the discipline became the favored child of the Federal government, reaching its apogee during the 1950s. During the 1960s and ‘70s, however, Home Economics came under attack by feminists and others, and the discipline essentially imploded.
In the second decade of the 21st century, though, a new vision of the home economy is rising. Home businesses, home schooling, home gardens—around the U.S., movements are brewing. Americans are increasingly dissatisfied with big, corporate, and remote, and are instead looking for ways to make their homes into vibrant economic centers once again.
Our tax codes and legal system have not yet caught up, stuck in the “bigger is better” mantra that arguably enervated the old Home Economics and that has otherwise let us down. How might we go about crafting a new public policy? How might the errors of the old Home Economics be avoided? And what would a policy that supports the 21st-century home and family as economic centers even look like?
(Author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture)
Mark T. Mitchell
(Author of The Politics of Gratitude and co-founder of The Front Porch Republic)
(Associate Editor at The American Conservative)
(Editor at The Family in America)
Free Panel and Lunch: To Register or for more information, contact Nicole King at (815) 742-4387 or Nicole@profam.org
The town of Alexandria, Virginia cultivates a particularly fierce brand of loyalty. Those who grew up there—or live there long enough—develop a sense of loyalty that ties them to the city. Alexandria even seems to naturally grow attitudes of classical conservatism: a desire for conservation, cultivation of the small and family-centric, stewardship of the classical arts and architecture, pride of place, etc. These old-fashioned mores spill over into the way people shop, the pastimes they pursue, the bars and restaurants they frequent. Those who live in Alexandria become Alexandrians.
This was abundantly clear when conversing with Chad Sparrow and Larry Walston, two of a four-person team that just opened a new restaurant in Alexandria’s Parker-Gray neighborhood called Mason Social. The four partners (two of them brothers) all grew up in Alexandria and attended TC Williams High School. Sparrow’s parents live up the street. His kids are “third-generation Alexandrians,” he says. He knows members of city government and local businesses owners.
“I honestly thinks it’s one of the best places you can live,” he told me.
Considering their roots, it makes sense that the four friends are trying to keep the spirit and history of Alexandria alive through their most recent project: the opening of Mason Social. The new restaurant is located in a formerly abandoned property in Parker-Gray, part of an area that will be extensively redeveloped over the next several years. Sparrow, Walston, and their associates saw the potential of the area, and decided to take the plunge.
“We wanted a place where locals could hang out, not tourists,” said Sparrow. He explained that most restaurants on King Street, especially near the waterfront, attract large crowds of visitors, but rarely offer a community hub. They hope to counter that with Mason Social.
But the restaurant team not only seeks to “create a space where the diverse and growing neighborhood could gather”—they also seek to resurrect and preserve local history. The restaurant is named “Mason Social” after Thomson Mason, a grandson of the founder George Mason and former mayor of Alexandria. He was both farmer and lawyer, and the restaurant stands on land he once farmed and owned.
Mason Social brings this theme of Alexandrian history alive in distinct ways: Sparrow and Walston’s team have used antiques, old industrial pipes and architectural components, mason jars, and old-fashioned light bulbs to tie the restaurant’s design to its roots. They collected old black-and-white photos from local library archives—photos of farmland and historic buildings—and used them to wallpaper the walls.
Even the food is inspired by this vision of honoring the local and historic: the food, says Sparrow and Walston, is 100 percent locally acquired, featuring “rustic dishes with a modern twist.” I sampled a roasted squash salad, a chicken sandwich topped with celery hearts, guajillo pepper and paprika-spiced fries, and—my favorite—brussels sprouts with bacon and cider. Executive Chef Joseph Lennon already has practice cooking in this vein: he once worked at King Street’s upscale restaurant Vermilion, under then-Executive Chef Anthony Chittum. Vermilion is also committed to supporting local vendors.
Mason Social is small—but the owners wanted to offer a close-knit communal setting. It’s meant to be a neighborhood watering hole, an “every-other-night place,” where you go to watch football games or catch up with old friends. Sparrow says they’ve already built a following of regulars, and hope to continue cultivating those relationships.
Mason Social’s story also offers interesting commentary on the changing nature of Alexandria’s Parker-Gray community: as more people move to Alexandria, the neighborhood north of King Street appears to be changing to become a more upscale, renovated, mixed-use area. The Parker-Gray neighborhood has an interesting and important history, one that hopefully will continue to be preserved as new buildings and housing complexes are built, and as restaurants move in. As historic preservation planner Catherine Miliaras told the Washington Post last year, “Markers and memorials, lectures and oral histories can capture and honor cultural significance and meaning, but our collective understanding is greatly enhanced by having a physical building, place or street for understanding the past.”
What perhaps makes Mason Social so perfect for the area is its long-term, community-centric vision: the owners are using an already-existing building, property, and history to create something new. “We want to be pioneers in this area,” Sparrow told me—but they’re rather old-fashioned pioneers. They’re Alexandrians, after all.
“Crony capitalism, crony capitalism, that’s all they ever say, over and over again.”
Arkansas Republican Randy Barsalou’s words to the New York Times aptly describe the Republican establishment’s frustration with Tea Party free marketeers. The latter’s strong nose for cronyism often pits them against their GOP allies, who are less dogmatic about free-market issues. This has recently become evident in debates over the little-known Export-Import Bank, and whether Congress should reauthorize it—as reporter Jonathan Weisman wrote Monday:
The Export-Import Bank guarantees loans to overseas customers of thousands of American companies. Without congressional reauthorization, it will cease to exist after June 30 — an 81-year-old institution felled by the passions of the Tea Party movement. Conservatives hold the bank up as the essence of crony capitalism, a market-distorting favor factory for huge companies like Boeing and Caterpillar. Its death, they argue, would herald a new era of free-market governance.
In the last two weeks, the battle over whether to save it or let it die has begun in earnest.
For conservatives, frustrated by their failure to overturn the Affordable Care Act or stop President Obama’s immigration policies, killing the Export-Import Bank has taken on enormous importance. They do not have to overcome a presidential veto or beat a Democratic filibuster. They simply have to refuse to bring it to a vote.
Created in 1934, the “Ex-Im Bank” is meant to “supplement and encourage” private sources of capital, reach international agreements to reduce government-subsidized export financing, and provide financing at rates and on terms that are “fully competitive” with those of other foreign government-supported export credit agencies (12 U.S.C. 635 (b)(1)(A)(B)). “Supporters believe that the Eximbank helps U.S. companies compete against foreign companies that receive government support and provide leverage in trade policy negotiations,” says the Government Accounting Office in a report about Ex-Im.
But Washington Examiner columnist and investigative reporter Tim Carney disagrees: “Ex-Im Bank guarantees private loans to foreign buyers to buy U.S. goods,” he said during a panel on cronyism at February’s Conservative Political Action Conference. “This takes away the moral underpinning for free enterprise. We have to believe that when people pursue profit in open, free market, it opens up opportunities for all.”
The Congressional Research Service summarizes the two conflicting sides thus:
Debate over Ex-Im Bank reauthorization is rooted in an underlying debate over the appropriate role of the U.S. government in export promotion. Congressional and stakeholder views on Ex-Im Bank vary. Proponents contend that the Bank supports U.S. exports and jobs by addressing shortfalls in private sector financing and helping U.S. exporters compete against foreign companies backed by their governments’ ECAs. Critics assert that it crowds out private sector activity, picks winners and losers through its support, operates as a form of “corporate welfare,” and poses a risk to taxpayers.
Does Ex-Im create U.S. jobs, as its proponents suggest? Not according to the Government Accountability Office, which says government export programs like Ex-Im “largely shift production among sectors within the economy rather than raise the overall level of employment in the economy.” Delta airlines claims that “By some estimates, the [Ex-Im] Bank’s loan guarantees have resulted in up to 7,500 lost U.S. carrier jobs, and up to $684 million of lost income for U.S. airline employees annually.”
Even the money that does help create U.S. jobs doesn’t really assist small businesses, says the House Committee on Financial Services: even though “Congress requires that 20% of Ex-Im’s authorizations go to small businesses,” they report that “Ex-Im consistently fails to meet this statutory requirement. In reality, only .01 percent of America’s small businesses receive any help at all from Ex-Im.”
Finally, according to data from Ex-Im and the U.S. Department of Commerce, Ex-Im financed only about 1 percent of total U.S. exports in 2014. It doesn’t seem that critical to our economy.
However, there is a diplomatic/foreign policy angle to this debate that shouldn’t be overlooked. As the GAO notes in a report about Ex-Im, “Seventy-three countries have export credit agencies,” and each of the seven largest G-7 industrial nations “maintains various types of export finance assistance programs. … [These programs] all help exporters compete for market share in developing markets by providing loans, guarantees, and insurance.” According to this view, the Ex-Im Bank fulfills a national interest by ensuring our competition with the outside world—a world in which some economic players aren’t as devoted to free market principles as we might like.
But free-market defenders would argue that such a position leads to protectionism, which “runs exactly counter to the principles of free trade and private enterprise that Adam Smith enunciated and that have enriched the world,” as my fellow associate editor Jonathan Coppage adroitly characterized the argument. “Business should do business where it can, and governments picking winners and losers leads to an arms race with everyone camped behind their borders, not freely trading, not being mutually benefited.” Carney points out that even if the bank’s defenders “point to foreign Ex-Im banks to justify U.S. Ex-Im,” those banks are also pointing at us to justify their subsidies.
Both sides have their strengths: whether from a national interest perspective, or from an economic viewpoint. As in many foreign policy debates, this issue comes down to whether we think governments must energetically compete with each other, or whether we think a laissez faire approach can, in fact, be beneficial to all parties.
If Republicans do not renew the Ex-Im bank, they’re likely to face push-back from their constituents, like Ted Cruz has. For them, standing firm on Ex-Im may become a politicized and even damaging move. As the GAO notes, “Given the growing importance of exports to national economic performance, and the belief that government export finance programs contribute to this performance, achieving the ultimate objective of eliminating all financial subsidies may prove difficult.”
The Wyoming Food Freedom Act is a rare beast: a bill, just signed into law by Wyoming’s Governor Matt Mead, that fights for the deregulation of locally-produced foods and promotes direct farm-to-consumer food sales.
As The Republic reports, the act exempts “Wyoming food sales from government inspections, licensing and certification as long as they are single transactions between a producer and an ‘informed end consumer.’” This applies to farmers’ market sales, as well as “the ability for small farmers or other individuals to sell homegrown or locally raised products.” Such direct-to-consumer sales will no longer be subjected to any “licensure, permitting, certification, inspection, packaging, or labeling” requirements by state agencies.
“This law will take local foods off the black market. It will no longer be illegal to buy a lemon meringue pie from your neighbor or a jar of milk from your local farm,” Representative Tyler Lindholm, sponsor of the bill, told Farm to Consumer. Farm to Consumer notes that, despite some fears of public health, the bill had widespread local support:
The Senate committee hearing was packed with consumers, ranchers, farmers and small food producers. They told the senators that the government should not be involved in dictating what kinds of food an individual wants to buy.
“The government is not my parent,” said Cheyenne resident Lisa Glauner. “I would much rather have food the way God made it than to have FDA-approved food that is not even real, like Kraft macaroni and cheese that doesn’t even have real ingredients.”
Frank Wallis from northern Campbell County, said many rural residents also depend on being able to sell their locally produced foods as a way to supplement their incomes. “I urge you all to vote for this bill; it will be good for the rural economy of Wyoming,” he said. “It will help small ranchers and farmers make a living.”
Joel Salatin, in his book Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal, describes the beauty of local food sales—a system in which we could enjoy local baked goods from our neighbor, a steak from a steer “that never stepped onto a trailer to be co-mingled at a slaughterhouse with animals of dubious extraction,” but was rather killed on its home farm “by the farmer who cared for it,” washed down with wine from “the neighbor’s grapes.” It’s a vision of community-based entrepreneurship, a system that would allow start-ups and small artisans to thrive.
Why doesn’t this system exist? “Because everyone is paranoid of the unscrupulous,” Salatin answers. This fear is one we hold in common—traditional conservatism encompasses a healthy appreciation of human fallibility and sin, the tendency to act out of greed rather than out of care—but the way in which we address this fear of the unscrupulous often differs considerably from the liberal position, which strives to address corruption and error via a top-down system. This is the system currently in place—but in practice, regulators and government bureaucrats are just as prone to human error and greed as producers are. The “government-can-fix-it” mentality just leads to crony capitalism, regulations that favors agribusinesses and hurt the small farmer or artisan.
As Salatin puts it, “While [the government fix] may start sincerely, by the time it gets implemented on the ground and has been through the sieve of corporate dinners, it hurts the little guys and helps the big guys.” Eventually, the food deemed “safe” becomes more and more homogenous, in order to prevent any sort of error: “In the name of offering only credentialed safe food, we will only be able to eat irradiated, genetically adulterated, inhumane, taste-enhanced, nutrient-deficient, emulsified, reconstituted pseudo-food from Archer Daniels Midland, ‘supermarket to the world.’”
Salatin’s language is colorful and humorous, but hopefully it doesn’t distract too much from his larger point: federal regulations can’t and won’t fix the unscrupulous. Oftentimes, they just whitewash it. While federal accountability isn’t wrong in and of itself, it’s an expensive and often impractical means of accountability. A more efficient, diverse, and principled system (though more personally-taxing) is the local one, in which consumers can visit, converse with, and personally inspect the farms from which they procure their food. It’s a system policed without government cost, and reinforced by self-interest.
Of course products sold nationally, over great distances, may continue to require a standard of public health, so that shoppers know the process by which produce makes it into their grocery carts was sanitary, responsible, and consistent. But why should the standards required for this sort of long-term travel also be applied to direct farm-to-consumer food sales? It’s not only impractical—it’s expensive, for both consumer and producer. And it’s why Wyoming’s Food Freedom Act makes so much sense.
“House of Cards” was quite brilliant in its first two seasons. Netflix created a drama that was innovative, interesting, and intense. The key characters elicited a combination of shock and reluctant likability that kept audiences hooked. The crux of all this was Francis Underwood’s (Kevin Spacey) sinister, adept political savvy, coupled with the cold beauty and resilience of his wife, Claire (Robin Wright). They were a mysterious, fascinating pair: almost impossible to figure out, inexplicably cruel, yet somehow charming. You can see this reflected in Laura Bennett’s review of the first season:
“As the series progresses, the depth of Underwood’s viciousness is slowly revealed. One character after another gets manipulated into compliance with his dark will. … Underwood be the unknowable black hole at the center of its twisted morality tale. There is an opaqueness to Spacey’s performance, and to the show overall: a coiled tension, a tightly managed hostility, that never quite explodes. Underwood gets exactly what he wants, as expected.”
And, perhaps most frighteningly, we wanted Frank to win. That’s what made the show so fascinating: despite his evil, Frank keeps drawing us in with his southern charm and iron willpower. In season two, we see him slyly weave his way into the position of U.S. president. It’s a stunningly ruthless journey, with shocking plot twists along the way. Throughout, Frank remained that brilliant Machiavellian politician—ruthless, self-reliant, feared (yet loved), “treacherous, pitiless, and irreligious.”
And then there’s Claire: the perfect complement to Underwood’s brusqueness, Claire has always been just as cold, calculating, and ambitious as her husband. She succeeds in achieving what she wants through a lethal combination of guts and grace, dignity and disguise. Yet in the first two seasons, she never seemed soft: she got what she wanted with the same lethal fortitude Frank displayed. The two were presented in the first two seasons as a dark and lethal duo: they didn’t seem to care much about each other’s sexual exploits or affairs, as long as they continued to further the end goal they held dear as a couple: procuring power and glory.
At least, that’s what I thought after finishing seasons one and two. But then I watched season three. And things seemed … different. Indeed, it almost seemed like an entirely different team of writers put this season together.
To start, Frank isn’t his lethal, politically savvy, fearsome self. He seems more like a willful and petty child who can’t get what he wants, and throws tantrum after tantrum. No one listens to him. No one likes him. Everyone sees through his various schemes—which is disappointing, because that’s what made him such an interesting character in the first place: he was crafty, a master of deception. He was both fox and lion: able to frighten off the wolves, able to elude traps and snares. Yet in this season, we see Russian President Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen) outsmart, out-maneuver, and out-fox Underwood at every turn. Underwood doesn’t frighten off the wolf, and he falls right into the snares.
Then there’s Claire: as mysteriously powerful as she seemed before, now she seems puzzlingly weak. She lets her husband boss her around, gives up her political aspirations when told to—yet is inwardly bitter and angry about it all. But this isn’t the Claire of the first two seasons: that Claire was as icy and calculating as her spouse. That Claire, one supposed, would use her husband’s apparent weaknesses in this season to advance her own career. I kept waiting for her to jump at some chance to perhaps usurp or betray Frank—to show that she had a plan, and would ruthlessly execute it. Yet Claire, too, seems unable to display the calculating genius of past seasons.
All these things are indicative of another puzzle: in the past two seasons, both Claire and Frank’s marriage seemed more like a contractual political agreement than a marriage, per se. They seemed necessary to each other in the sense that a king and queen need each other on a chess board—but their amicability and loyalty to each other seemed more that of business partners than of lovers. During this season, Claire realizes that Frank is willing to sacrifice her for his own greater political goals, and she responds by falling apart. Slate puts it thus:
One might have assumed that Claire had already accommodated herself to this reality—has she met Frank?—but both she and Frank are fantasists when it comes to their relationship, always imagining it to be more solid and glittering than a partnership between power-hungry snakes-in-the-grass ever could be. Claire’s realization that Frank puts his own success first, obvious as it sounds, undoes her faith in their marriage. (Doug emerges as a kind of counter-point to Claire. He’s a figure more than slightly misused by Frank who is, nonetheless, unfailingly loyal, even if it’s almost to the point of psychosis. Doug doesn’t mind being the man behind the man: Claire begins to bridle when she realizes that being the woman behind the man is all she is.)
This is an interesting viewpoint. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I always thought in the beginning seasons that Claire viewed her marriage with a great degree of clarity and rationality: as a good means to a greater political end. But if this were true, she wouldn’t fall apart when Frank betrays her—she would act with swift and lethal precision. That’s why the Claire of season three seems so foreign.
The ending episode of season three, however, does not disappoint: it has three sleight-of-hand moves, by three of the series’ most important characters. In each scene, these three characters face a drastic, important choice, and appear to make the right one—then, at the last minute, turn around and do the opposite after all. At least, that’s true of the first two: the last choice is more complicated. Does Claire make the right decision? Or has she thrown everything away? It’s suspenseful and tricky, reminiscent of the first two seasons.
I’m torn: this season most definitely did not live up to my expectations. By the end of the season, I was tired of Frank’s petty attempts at greatness. He seemed silly. I was surprised more characters didn’t just laugh in his face. Claire, meanwhile, while a sympathetic character, seemed to have lost some of her regality. The supporting cast, however, did a grand job, Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel) being a notable example: we see Dunbar slowly losing her virtuous principles to political ambition, and it’s chilling. Despite the loss of icy grandeur at the heart of the series, characters like her and Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) may continue to make “House of Cards” worth watching.
“I don’t have super high hopes it’ll go anywhere,” says Lori Sanders, outreach director and senior fellow for The R Street Institute.
She’s talking about the Harvest Price Subsidy Prohibition Act, a bill introduced February 12 that targets the harvest price option (HPO) crop insurance policy—known as “the Cadillac coverage option of federal crop insurance.”
The Knoxville News Sentinel explains the bill, and why it matters:
Under traditional crop insurance, farmers buy a policy that pays if they earn less money at harvest time than they were projected to make when they planted their crop. The policy locks in a guaranteed level of revenue and provides a safety net to protect farmers from catastrophic and unanticipated losses.
But farmers who want more protection can pay a higher premium and buy a harvest price option policy. The plan differs from traditional crop insurance because it guarantees the farmer will be paid either the standard locked-in price at planting time or the market price at harvest, whichever is higher. …
For farmers, the profits can be handsome. In 2012, when corn and soybean prices jumped 32 and 23 percent from planting to harvest, the harvest price option boosted payouts to farmers of both crops by a total of $6 billion.
The American Association of Crop Insurers, the Crop Insurance and Reinsurance Bureau, and National Crop Insurance Services called the bill “just another example of agriculture opponents trying to erode the risk management tools on which farmers depend,” according to AgWeek. But in a press release, R Street argued that “This product goes above and beyond the definition of a safety net. It is the crop insurance equivalent of your auto insurer surprising you with a new Cadillac Escalade after you’ve totaled your Toyota Corolla.”
Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn) told Taxpayers For Common Sense, “Big agro businesses and insurance corporations have a sweet deal with our crop insurance. … The largest corporate farms collect the lion’s share of the money, creating an unfair playing field for family farmers. Ninety-nine percent of the people in my district do not get subsidies from the federal government to run their businesses.”
The farm bill’s crop insurance measures inordinately help large industrial farms stay alive, giving them an unfair advantage over small to midsize farmers, who cannot afford the same coverage. As Sanders wrote in a piece for TAC last year, “The federal government pays, on average, 63 percent of producers’ crop insurance premiums, regardless of whether it is a small family farm or a large, multi-million dollar business. Twenty-six farms receive more than $1 million in premium support, while 80 percent of farms receive $5,000 or less.”
The bill has bipartisan support: it was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), and in the House by Duncan. It is also supported by a bevy of libertarian and conservative think tanks such as Heritage Action, the American Enterprise Institute, FreedomWorks, the National Taxpayers Union, Campaign for Liberty, Taxpayers Protection Alliance, Center for Individual Freedom, Coalition to Reduce Spending, Less Government, Taxpayers for Common Sense, Club for Growth, and the Environmental Working Group.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill bill could save more than $18 billion over the next decade, “with no effect on the premium subsidies farmers receive for standard crop insurance policies,” says R Street.
So why doesn’t Sanders think it’ll get past committee?
“It’s very arcane, few know about it outside the Farm Bureau,” she told me—and the Farm Bureau has developed a reputation for supporting agribusiness, to the detriment of smaller family farmers. The Farm Bureau is just one piece of the Big Ag lobbying behemoth that dominates Washington: “In addition to the American Farm Bureau Federation’s twenty-two lobbyists, no fewer than 20 of the state Farm Bureaus, including Missouri, have registered lobbyists in Washington, leading the field of agribusiness lobbyists,” Ian T. Shearn wrote for The Nation in 2012. “Over the past decade, the nation’s ten largest agribusiness interests gave $35 million to Congressional candidates—led by the Farm Bureau, which gave $16 million, or 45 percent of the total.”
Govtrack.us gives the bill a 7 percent chance of getting past committee, and a 0 percent chance of being enacted.
David Dayen of The New Republic put it thus last year: “The shift from direct payments to crop insurance ensures that those handouts can be distributed in a hidden, more politically palatable way, making it more difficult to ever dislodge them.”
Sanders believes a lot of the Farm Bill’s cronyism is indirectly supported by Americans’ ignorance. People assume that support for the farm bill equals support for the local, family-run operations they consider the backbone of American agriculture. “Mainstream America just doesn’t know,” she said.
However, Sanders does hope that this bill—as well as the AFFIRM Act, which will be reintroduced to Congress in two weeks—will help raise awareness about the cronyism the farm bill supports, and what reforms need to be made. “We need to keep the drumbeat going.”
Farmer’s markets are very popular right now. But they may not be as healthy, cheap, and fresh as you think they are—or at least, this is what a recent study of farmer’s markets in the Bronx seems to indicate:
A study of every farmers’ market in the Bronx finds they are basically boutiques, offering produce that is more exotic, and more expensive, than the grocery stores located nearby. What’s more, their merchandise includes “many items not optimal for good health.” … In the journal Appetite, Lucan and his colleagues describe a detailed study of precisely what was on sale at 26 farmers’ markets and 44 nearby stores, all located within a half-mile walking distance of such a market. All were located in Bronx County, New York, and visited in the summer of 2011.
Among their findings:
- Farmers’ market produce items were more frequently local and organic, but often tended toward less-common/more exotic and heirloom varieties.
- Farmers’ markets offered 26.4 fewer fresh produce items, on average, than stores.
- Compared to stores, items sold at farmers’ markets were more expensive on average, “even for more commonplace and ‘conventional’ produce.”
- Fully 32.8 percent of what farmers’ markets offered was not fresh produce at all, but refined or processed products such as jams, pies, cakes, and cookies.
Let’s consider the study’s main findings one by one.
“FMs were open substantially fewer months, days, and hours than stores.”
This only makes sense. Farmer’s markets are usually only open on weekends, in the mornings. Farmers aren’t full-time grocers: they have a job to maintain during the week. Although some FMs operate year-round (there are several in the NOVA and D.C. region that do), others will understandably close up shop for the winter months, due to a decrease in business.
“FMs offered 26.4 fewer fresh produce items on average than stores.”
There could be a variety of reasons for this—but the first and most obvious reason would be that most farmer’s markets are smaller and feature less vendors than your average grocery store. You can’t compare a farmer’s market, even a large one, to the produce aisle in Wegman’s or Whole Foods. One has goods from all over the country; the other is sharing produce from a relatively limited share of producers.
Also, it’s worth noting that the types of produce offered at a FM are (or, at least, should) feature less variety than those you would find at an average grocery store—because, at least in theory, farmer’s markets are supposed to feature local produce. They shouldn’t be selling tomatoes year-round. (If they do, you might want to ask the farmer some questions about how he grows them.)
“FM produce items were more frequently local and organic, but often tended towards less-common/more-exotic and heirloom varieties.”
First, who defines what’s “exotic”? Kohlrabi? Huckleberries? Because depending on where you live in the U.S., these items may actually be more local and seasonal than asparagus. The word “exotic” could be applied to a lot of different fruits and vegetables that Americans have grown unaccustomed to cooking or buying—celeriac and parsnips, for instance. But just because they’re unknown doesn’t mean they’re bad: indeed, that’s one of the reasons people like farmer’s markets. It offers them an opportunity to learn more about what produce is local, and—if they ask their farmer—to learn how to cook those items.
Also, a note about “heirloom” varieties: “heirloom” is defined as “denoting a traditional variety of plant or breed of animal that is not associated with large-scale commercial agriculture,” “something of special value handed on from one generation to another,” or “a horticultural variety that has survived for several generations usually due to the efforts of private individuals.” Heirloom tomatoes are perhaps the tastiest tomatoes you can eat. They’re colorful, distinct, and individual. I can’t understand why the makers of this study give this feature of FMs such a negative connotation—if anything, this is one of the markets’ greatest strengths: they keep the heirloom varieties alive, and thus prevent the further consolidation of various horticultural varieties into one giant monoculture.
“FMs were more expensive on average (p values <0.001 for pairwise comparisons to stores)—even for more-commonplace and ‘conventional’ produce—especially when discounts or sales prices were considered.”
This is a completely subjective distinction,and it’s worth noting that the study here is only measuring FMs in the Bronx. According to a study of Vermont farmer’s markets conducted in 2011, FMs’ conventional produce was on average the same price as grocery store produce, while their organic produce was actually cheaper. I’m pretty sure that the produce offered at the farmer’s market down the road from my house, in a low-to-middle income area of rural Idaho, was much cheaper than the produce you’d buy on Saturdays in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, in one of the nation’s “super zip” areas.
In an article about FMs for the Huffington Post, farmer and author Forrest Pritchard cites this 2013 study by The Project for Public Spaces, which states that “60 percent of farmers’ market shoppers in low-income areas of the country feel that their local markets offered better prices than supermarkets, and only 17 percent of shoppers cited ‘high prices’ as a deterrent to shopping locally.”
I emailed Pritchard, and asked for his input on the study. He agreed: “It’s the Bronx, and not Des Moines… or Old Town [Alexandria], and not Leesburg.” When it comes to FM pricing, place matters.
“Fully, 32.8% of what FMs offered was not fresh produce at all but refined or processed products (e.g., jams, pies, cakes, cookies, donuts, juice drinks).”
Farmer’s markets also often feature local carpenters, painters, florists, craftsmen, etc. Once again, much of this depends on the area where you’re shopping: that Idaho farmer’s market I mentioned rarely sold anything besides produce. But urban farmer’s markets are often selling a whole experience, and want to attract weekend shoppers with fresh muffins and hot coffee, as well as with tomatoes and peaches. Yet, proportionally speaking, 67.2 percent of the items offered at a Bronx FM are still fresh produce.
Here’s the thing. Farmer’s markets aren’t perfect. You may visit a market that seems overpriced. You may run into a few vendors that seem fishy—Pritchard notes in his HuffPo piece that “just because you shop at a farmers’ market, it doesn’t guarantee that the food is local, or raised organically. While many markets insist on ‘producer only’ policies (i.e., the food must be grown by the farmers themselves, with distance limits to market), this isn’t always the rule.” Which is why he tells people, “Get to know your farmers at the market, and ask lots of questions.” The FM requires buyers to be active and knowledgeable consumers—which is why some people love it, and why others (understandably) don’t think they have time for it.
There’s no reason the FM’s addition to a neighborhood should automatically equal a “net nutritional plus,” as the Pacific Standard puts it. It all depends on what you buy—just like shopping at any other grocery store, be it Whole Foods or Target. It all comes down to personal choices, and the decision to be a discerning, knowledgeable buyer. What the FM does offer that supermarkets cannot, is that direct farmer-to-consumer connection—the opportunity to establish both accountability and community at the very source.
Christine Lucaciu is co-founder of a farmer’s market meal-plan system called Huckle & Goose. She shared some additional thoughts via email, which I’m sharing below (with permission):
This article discusses the struggle of getting someone from the Bronx to eat healthfully—it requires changing their whole life. Generally, Bronx residents are more likely to eat unhealthy, even when they do use vegetables. One of the gripes is that fresh healthy produce is not available, but Jacobs’ article argues that when it is available, it doesn’t promote a healthy lifestyle (but how can this be proven from a Bronx case study, which is not a good indicator of markets as a whole?). Farmers need to bring the baked goods to meet the demand, make a living, and survive, while still trying to change eating habits and promote healthy lifestyles. It’s just human nature to go with what we know. And the root of the problem is not exotic produce, it’s simply the consumer not knowing what to do with it.
Farmers we work with tell us all the time how superior in flavor and quality heirloom varieties are. Just last week I bought a bunch of the most tasty greens I’ve ever had… claytonia. It was grown just 50 miles from DC and cost just about the same as a tasteless bag of mixed spring greens at the store… that were flown in from California. The farmers that try to fight our lacking demand, work really hard to bring the very best supply to markets but we, as shoppers, avoid eye contact or view that produce as elitist or exotic simply because it’s unfamiliar to us. We ask why unique and nutritious foods grown with care and close to home are so expensive instead of asking why something truly exotic—a tomato in the dead of winter or a pineapple from Hawaii, sitting in a New York grocery store—is so cheap.
To answer your other question too, we have found that even the Manhattan market is more expensive for Anca [Christine's sister-in-law] than the one I go to here in DC. I also think this is because of different customer bases and their expectations, but I believe it costs more to secure a stand in urban areas too.
Have you ever let your kids play in the yard unsupervised, or walk alone to a nearby park? Such activities may in fact be “unsubstantiated child neglect,” according to the Montgomery County Child Protective Services. For the past two months, CPS has been investigating a Maryland couple who decided to let their 10-year-old and six-year-old walk a mile from the local park to their home—unaccompanied. That’s when the police picked up their children. The Washington Post reports:
The Meitivs said they would not have allowed the one-mile outing from Woodside Park to their home if they did not feel their children were up to it. The siblings made it halfway before police stopped them. …
The Meitivs’ case has produced strong reactions about what constitutes responsible parenting, how safe children really are and whether the government overstepped its role.
The Meitivs, both scientists by training, embrace a “free-range” philosophy of parenting, believing that children learn self-reliance by being allowed to make choices, build independence and progressively experience the world on their own.
Lenore Skenazy, a New York journalist who wrote the article “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone,” told the Post, “The go-to narrative in the last 20 or 30 years for parents was, ‘Take your eyes off your kid for even a second and he’ll be snatched.’ What the Meitiv case did was pivot the story to: ‘Give your kid one second of freedom and the government will arrest you.’”
“The Meitivs, as it happens, are ‘free-range parents’ who have a very coherent philosophy about giving children more independence,” Hannah Rosin wrote yesterday for Slate. “They had let their children walk home alone that day only after practicing and felt the kids were ready. What they learned from the latest CPS decision, Danielle Meitiv wrote me, is that ‘teaching independence clearly IS a crime.’”
I don’t know if Meitiv is completely correct, however. Our culture champions individualism and independence. Perhaps the larger lesson here is that teaching trust is a crime.
First, there’s the Internet: for parents, it’s a giant WebMD of fearful kidnappings and potential mishaps. It doesn’t matter whether or not the kidnappings, disappearances, or assaults happened in our backyard—they happened. And they could happen to us.
Few parents are aware that, as the Meitivs themselves note, “Abductions are extremely rare” in America today. Violent crime has “fallen dramatically” since the 1990s, and is currently close to 1960s levels—a time when “children stayed out for hours, slept in backyard tents and wandered their neighborhoods,” the Post reports. “These are things we all did on our own, and now we don’t let our children do, and there is no real or rational reason except we’re fearful,” Skenazy says.
Part of this fear and distrust likely stems from the mobility that has broken down communal trust and rapport—we don’t know who lives next door, let alone two blocks away. Our communities are strange and unknown places.
There was a time when the free-range roaming of children was an assumed practice, and parents each took responsibility to patrol and protect their corner of the neighborhood. If they saw an unaccompanied child, they would keep an eye on them, to make sure they were safe. If they suspected inattentiveness on the parents’ part, they may reach out to the child’s parent(s) with their concerns.
But recent cases have demonstrated that, in today’s world, concerned parents jump first to the State to care for the situation, rather than exercising any sort of personal involvement. This further demonstrates the breakdown of modern American community: without a sense of communal closeness or responsibility, we act as bystanders rather than as stewards.
You see, this isn’t the first time the Meitiv family has been contacted by Maryland CPS. In late October, Danielle Meitiv “picked up her son and daughter from the bus stop after school and left her children playing in a small park a block away from the family’s home,” the Post reports. “She believes a neighbor reported seeing the children unsupervised. Several days later, she got a visit from Child Protective Services.”
Though that case was closed without any serious repercussions, it further demonstrates the fact that the Meitivs are outliers: parents willing to trust not only their children, but the goodwill of the people surrounding them.
It has put their family in a difficult spot. As Rosin notes, the family believes children should be free to roam and learn—”But they no doubt believe even more strongly that they don’t want to be at any risk of having their children taken away from them for a second charge of neglect. Why on earth should the state have any right to put them in that predicament?”
What happens when we enter a world of constant connection—a world in which technology infiltrates nearly every moment of our waking existence? “We all feel the porcupine quill of constant contact, the irritant of ever presence, and long to escape, if only for a moment,” Rabbi David Wolpe writes for TIME Magazine. But Wolpe also believes that, in a sense, this new form of constant connection is just an echo of past forms:
People tired of living in villages, where everyone knew everyone’s business and where there was no privacy or space. So, we built large, anonymous cities with ample rooms and deliberate neglect of others. Finding that such space parched our souls, we began to devise technological ways to bring us closer, from texting to tinder. Now, back in the virtual village, we are too close, and long for the space that we had just two decades ago.
Wolpe is right to note the role that urban disconnect and division has played in driving people apart, and the way in which it’s led to increased technology use. Many Americans live in an extremely atomistic space: whether we commute to jobs far from home, live far from family and friends, rent space in an apartment complex full of people we don’t know, or go to a mega-church filled with unfamiliar faces—many of us could report feelings of disconnected, loneliness, isolation.
But I think there’s a problem with comparing the closeness of the social media era with the community we might have seen in villages (or small-town communities) past.
First, one must note the obvious fact that real villages/towns are limited in time and space. They are necessarily small, while also being inescapably diverse: they hold people of different ages, interests, vocations, ideas, and values (while it is still worth noting that some communities are not diverse enough, and can fall into the sort of tribalism that is, in fact, deleterious to true community).
The “virtual village” that Wolpe describes, on the other hand, is a mass. It cannot be easily defined, and does not have limits. It is movement-driven and emotionally-oriented, a beast quick to react with passion instead of with reason—and thus, interestingly enough, prone to the same sort of tribalism that is so often condemned in real-world villages. On social media, you can choose and curate a “village” according to ideological or characteristic preference—by unfriending or following, you create the space and listen to the voices that you prefer, those that suit your own virtues and vices. This can lead members of the virtual village to become calloused or ignorant toward issues outside of their sphere of interest.
Second, while real villages/towns are often nosy and gossipy and contentious, the people within them live, work, worship, and rest together. Their lives are inexplicably intertwined, and cannot be turned off or logged off. Thus, people in a real village must learn to forgive, to work through differences, to heal hurts and find societal solutions to real-world dilemmas. The “virtual village,” on the other hand, gives us the opportunity to disconnect whenever we become offended or angry. It enables us to be as nasty, narcissistic, and demeaning as we please—with very few real-world consequences. And this creates a dangerous sort of atmosphere, one that is in fact poisonous to real community.
When we consider the amount of cynicism, anger, envy, and FOMO (fear of missing out) prevalent online, it is no wonder that our souls have become “parched,” as Wolpe puts it. But I don’t think it’s because we are too close—rather, I believe it is because we are slowly learning that communication cannot replace community.
We live in a world that runs on incessant communication. Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, chatting, FaceTime spill together an endless pooling of words, pictures, audio clips, videos. The Economist reported Thursday that people ages 16 to 24 use their smartphones for nearly four hours a day. But the incessant nature of our communication does not necessarily turn dialogue into community rapport. Something more is required to build a real community. Wendell Berry, in a recent interview, told me this:
… Community is not made just by communication. It is a practical circumstance. It is composed of people who have a place in common. But it is made by people’s willingness to be neighbors, good and faithful servants, to one another. It survives by its members’ recognition of their need for one another, if only to keep the small children from getting lost or run over, or to keep their trash out of the streams and roads. My guess is that a healthy community would be indivisible from its own, its local, economy.
You don’t have to agree with Berry wholeheartedly to appreciate his conception of community: it’s more holistic and service-oriented than the “virtual village” described by Wolpe. I think the Internet can complement community—Facebook and Twitter are useful tools in fostering the networking and gathering of individuals—but it cannot replace it. Service, proximity, need: these cannot be cultivated, long-term, over a long distance. Friendship must have limits, like a real town does.
Wolpe does not seem to consider that, while the virtual village does indeed leave us feeling “parched”—at once lonely and overwhelmed by clamor—the real village has a rhythm and cadence of community and rest. While every village is imperfect, it can preserve individual spheres and private spaces. It can complement the individual’s desire to come apart and be alone. The virtual village, on the other hand, will alway clamor for more status updates and pictures, for ever-greater involvement and immersion. It is, as Wolpe says, increasingly difficult to ignore that “tug”—to turn off one’s phone, or iPad, or laptop, and ignore the virtual “village.” It will not leave us alone.
Once again, the Internet isn’t evil. Social media isn’t useless. But if we view it as an end, rather than as a means, we can in fact lose our chance for real community. The presentation of village life that Wolpe presents—always prickly and discomforting, ever too little or too much—may point to the imperfection of our natures, our inability to ever perfectly satiate each other’s need for community. But it is in delving deeper, growing to know each other, and cultivating virtue that we slowly begin to build proper bonds—to understand each other’s needs, both for camaraderie and for privacy. Such knowledge can’t be fostered online: it requires time spent in each other’s company, frank acknowledgement and honest forgiveness. It requires the sort of living together, side-by-side, that a virtual village cannot provide.
Laura June wrote for The Awl Wednesday about the hesitation and fear she often feels when she brings her child out in public:
I once hated other people’s babies, and, truth be told, I can still get a little judgy at the sight of a particularly awful baby specimen. But, now that I’m a parent of an actual, tiny, barbaric human, I see that it’s my duty to take her out, daily, into society, in order to cull her of her worst impulses. To teach her that sometimes the people sitting just one airplane seat over don’t want to talk, or that the lady reading her New Yorker five feet away isn’t her best friend. This is the social contract: we must raise our young to be human people with manners and dignity. And you, the adult humans of the world, must tolerate us while we embark on our excursion.
Many of us have felt exasperated when sitting next to a screaming baby on an airplane, or encountering a toddler throwing a temper tantrum. It’s difficult to be gracious when you feel that your eardrums are about to explode. And it’s true that some parents don’t discipline their children appropriately. As one friend put it, an increasing amount of toddlers “are not closely attended or watched in public places, which creates a nuisance for those trying to shop for groceries or read quietly in a Starbucks. In some cases, it’s a cry (sometimes quite literally) for attention, and other times it’s just spoiled behavior that isn’t kept in check.”
But sometimes, babies are just tired, or hungry, or upset—and we have no right to be frustrated with the parent or the child over what’s an inevitable part of growing up. In these situations, we seem to have grown unaccustomed to the very frank, untidy, often loud realities of childhood. We’ve created for ourselves, within our commutes and careers, clubs and churches, a plethora of kid-free zones. And when a child enters that zone, we often are clueless as to how to cope with their presence.
This reminded me of an older article by Saman Sad for The Telegraph, describing ways in which London is turning into a kid-free city:
Most big cities seem to be gearing themselves towards being kid-free zones, or at least heavily segregated zones. As the old adage goes, children should be seen and not heard. These days, it seems we not only want children to not be heard, but also to remain unseen. If it’s not the café in Berlin barring strollers from its premises, it’s the restaurant in America, barring all patrons under the age of six. This policy is not only being taken up by cafes and restaurants, but by airlines, too: they are now setting up kid-free zones.
Do we as a society really hate kids so much that we want them erased from public life altogether?
Sad compares this attitude with the kid-inclusion common in Dubai:
Kids are very much a part of public life in Dubai – everywhere and at all hours. I was shocked to see children in restaurants well past 10pm. They were loud and noisy, and probably a bit tired, but they were there because in Dubai, especially for Arab families, there is no exclusion of children from social situations. If you’re going to dinner, so are they. If you’re going to the mall at 11pm, so are they. … When my friends turned up with their baby and toddler at a posh new restaurant, rather than being turned away, the staff offered them the chef’s table, so the children would be entertained.
… I wouldn’t necessarily encourage bringing babies to bars, but I am all for keeping an open mind to including all members of society – no matter how small – in social situations. Children bring life to a place like no adult can. Yes, they whinge and cry and can be a pain. But they have a verve for life, a curiosity about things, a knack for finding humour in the ordinary, all of which provide a breath of fresh air in the adult world.
It’s that latter dynamic that some Americans seem to have forgotten: in the midst of our annoyance over the bouts of crying, the short attention spans, and the extra baggage that comes with having babies, we’ve also forgotten the joy, sweetness, enthusiasm, and curiosity that they bring to life. We’ve forgotten that, as June puts it, “we were all babies once. I didn’t spring into life, fully grown, an Athena in our midst. I once was an awful member of society.”
Some places are worse/better than others in their baby tolerance levels: as a mother of four noted to me on Facebook, suburbs and cities are much more likely to abound in dirty looks than rural areas and small towns, while she’s found adults in the South to be much nicer than those in the mid- or north-Atlantic region. This all makes sense, when you consider the increasing lack of children in urban areas: Governing notes in an article on gentrification that, due to the change in apartment costs and urban amenities, “Americans, already used to segregation by income and race, are seeing another type of geographic separation, with people living apart according to their stages of life.”
However, many moms I talked to on Facebook—moms from various regions of the country, with babies of different ages—said they’ve also been surprised at how much nicer adults have been than they expected them to be. “I was afraid to go out too much when my kiddo was born because I was afraid I’d get those annoyed looks, and I didn’t want to be a public nuisance,” one mother told me. “I was surprised to find that people still smiled at me and treated me well. Old ladies hold doors for me when I’m carrying the car seat, men stocking groceries comment on how sweet the baby is, and in general everyone loves to peek in the car seat or stroller to talk to the baby.” Other moms noted that they take their babies to grocery stores, post offices, coffee shops, bookstores, airports, and restaurants without much difficulty. Indeed, people are much more likely to say hello, to share stories or advice.
Perhaps these anecdotes will encourage parents to take their young children out in public more. There’s a need for this sort of integration—and it may even afford young parents the exact sort of community rapport they may be lacking.
There are certain virtues that kids seem especially gifted to grow in us: patience and longsuffering are perhaps the first two that spring to mind (and they’re two virtues our society often sorely lacks), but there’s also generosity, gentleness, compassion, creativity, and many others. Of course we can learn many of these in the workplace, amongst family and friends—but children challenge and foster these virtues through their specific strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps the reason parents seem so timid around non-parents is because they know their child will be demanding these strangers to display their hidden, perhaps rusty virtues.
One mom told me, “I think I get more looks now that [my daughter] is three than I ever have. She’s loud and blunt and colorful… but how else will she learn?” And, indeed, one could add: how else will we?
It’s tough for many indie bookstores to make ends meet, competing as they are with the likes of Amazon and Barnes & Noble. But one bookstore, on the verge of closing, has made a last-ditch effort to save itself—and it appears they may succeed. How? The New Yorker reports:
[On Thursday], the Borderlands staff made its own announcement—in the form of a blog post on the store’s Web site. … “Starting immediately we will be offering paid sponsorships of the store,” the staff wrote. Each sponsorship—Beatts and his staff opted for that name in lieu of “membership”—would cost a hundred dollars annually and would include a number of perks that wouldn’t cost anything for Borderlands: the ability to rent, at cost, the Borderlands café; invitations to exclusive events; access to preview sales of rare and collectible books; and so on. … Within a couple of hours after the blog post went up Thursday evening, more than sixty memberships had been sold; when I spoke to Beatts on Saturday morning, he reported that the figure had passed two hundred and thirty, and seemed on track to clear the goal of three hundred.
In a sense, the model merely restores the notion of a store “patron” to something closer to the word’s original meaning. But it appears to be a relatively unusual approach for a retail store—essentially putting a price tag on Borderlands’s continued existence, and the cultural and social benefits that come with it, rather than tying memberships to some monetary benefit like book discounts. It could prove instructive, though, to other cultural and social enterprises that have enthusiastic fan bases but whose business models are facing rising costs or other pressures.
It’s an interesting idea, in part because this idea of patronage has usually been associated with different “high culture” endeavors: usually a “patron of the arts” will support a local theatre, ballet troupe, or symphony orchestra—but not a bookstore. What this new plan seems to illustrate is that indie bookstores are now treated similarly to those “high culture” interests—as a distinctive pastime that ought to be enjoyed and kept alive, but also as a niche interest that a larger populace may not appreciate.
There’s been a steady decline in America’s patron class, one that now puts arts funding in jeopardy throughout the nation. Bookstore “patron” systems could suffer from similar dilemmas, though on a smaller scale, if they adopt this model: what happens when the life circumstances of their subscribers change? How do they continue to attract newer, younger subscribers? Will this method detract or impede them from pursuing their real purpose: selling books? Perhaps local bookstore patrons could be an exception to the rule, but it seems a bit dangerous for bookstores to switch to a support model that is faltering throughout the nation.
It could be that, if a patronage system offers enough different and attractive perks, the store could continue to bring in subscriptions. The list provided by Beatts’ Borderlands Books doesn’t seem particularly appealing, at first glance: you would have to truly love the store, its model, and its ownership in order to sign up for a subscription. But perhaps subscriptions could involve special book discounts, coupons to an attached/nearby cafe, a free book at the beginning of each month, access to a special “reading room,” author meetings, or book club activities. It is difficult to tell how many potential subscribers would be interested in these opportunities, but local bibliophiles should show their support.
However, it still seems a better method would be to emulate Portland’s Powell’s, Paris’s iconic Shakespeare and Company (pictured above), or any of these thriving independent bookstores. The key is to show buyers why they want to shop here, instead of elsewhere, and to continue to stock books that are rare, distinctive, and attractive. Most people continue to frequent bookstores because they offer something enticing yet different: something that’s worth sacrificing convenience and efficiency in order to obtain. A subscription could help cultivate this sort of appeal, but—once again—it would have to be a pretty attractive subscription. And, by itself, such a sponsorship system can’t save the bookstore. It’s by 1) cultivating a unique yet pleasant ethos, and by 2) selling unique and appealing books, that bookstore owners can continue to attract a variety of patrons—patrons who actually buy books.
Debie Thomas tells the story in River Teeth of growing up in a conservative Indian family, one in which arranged marriages were a normal and accepted practice. She describes a discussion she had with her father at age 12 about “falling in love”:
I ask the next question fast, before my courage gives out. “Did you fall in love with her?” … I need Daddy to confess that he felt something for Mummy when he married her, and this is the only way I know to ask. But he doesn’t answer. He gives me a vocabulary lesson instead.
“Indians don’t ‘fall,’ Debie. We don’t marry by accident. We choose. Choose to marry, choose to love. We’re not powerless like Americans.”
The concept is incredibly difficult for Thomas to accept, growing up as she is in a culture saturated with more glamorous, soap-opera influenced conceptions of love. This is the love she wants as a teenager. But as she grows older, she begins to consider its pitfalls, too:
Maybe the mistake Americans make, I conclude, is that they confuse attraction for romance. They do fall, because all of us fall, but what they fall into isn’t love. … As a child, as a teenager, it doesn’t occur to me that on-screen romance is wholly filtered, polished, packaged. I don’t notice that American love stories generally end right where love—sustained love, the volitional kind—ought to begin—at the first kiss, on the wedding day, on the morning after the first heated night in bed. I never imagine Erika Kane minus her lipstick, or Victoria Newman ten years into a marriage.
The idea of attraction dissolving into marital disillusionment is nothing new: it’s a common theme, a story of discontent and temptation that threads its way through literature. It’s the downfall of Anna Karenina, the angst and unhappiness of Madame Bovary. As Bovary thinks to herself at a crucial point in the book,
Why was life so inadequate, why did the things she depended on turn immediately to dust? … Nothing, anyways, was worth looking for; everything was a lie. Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a malediction, every pleasure its own disgust, and the sweetest kisses left on your lips no more than a vain longing for a more sublime pleasure.
Madame Bovary is searching for perfection—and when she cannot find it, she succumbs to despair. It’s a rather common tale, though perhaps not so dramatic in everyday life as in Flaubert’s novel. We glamorize human connection to such a degree, we are horrified and shocked when we disappoint each other with our own fallibility. Living amongst flawed and sinful human beings, we respond with disillusionment, restlessness, dismay. Bovary seeks lover after lover, distraction after distraction. When we realize there is no perfect “soul mate,” life becomes a dreary dance of new entanglements, hopeful joys that fade fast.
Thomas is right: our society conveniently escapes these truths by cutting the ending short, by inserting the “happily ever after” where Tolstoy and Flaubert begin their novels, and where Thomas’ parents begin their love story.
But we don’t have to respond to our own flawed story lines with disillusionment. We can respond by choosing to love. As Thomas’s father puts it, we don’t have to be powerless.
This isn’t just true of romantic relationships: it is also true of everyday life in community. We can easily become irked and irritated by neighbors, town government, the flaws in our houses. No place is perfect. Like Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, we can begin to worry and wonder: what are we missing because we settled with this place? As Chris Whiley writes for Front Porch Republic,
There is a risk to staying put. We should acknowledge it. That seems odd—what could be more conservative than putting down roots? But it is wildly speculative. The risk goes by the name: “opportunity cost.” By staying put you limit yourself to what the land can yield, to what this particular place can yield. And if you’ve made Detroit your home, well, its fate is yours as well.
So why root yourself at all—in a marriage, or in a place? Why not mimic the lives of the soap opera stars, dabbling in different loves, moving from place to place, enjoying all the allure of a life without duty or responsibility?
Whiley answers this question well: “Every formula for freedom I’ve come across contains some form of dependency, usually hidden, like some secret ingredient.”
There is freedom in choice: in choosing to make permanent decisions, in choosing to bury your roots deep in a specific soil. There is freedom in choosing a life partner, someone to build an entire future with. Contrary to the narrative of society, it is after the vows, the wedding day, the house contract, the babies—when the “volitional kind” of love begins—that the real adventure can begin. Because knowing, and being known, offers us the freedom to be ourselves, to grow and change, without losing security and love. In marriage, we marry together freedom and security, forgiveness and truth. We commit to giving our partner grace, no matter the frustrating or fearsome challenges that may greet us. In committing to a place, we receive an assurance of community and rapport that will sustain us in the tribulations of life.
It isn’t perfect—but that’s not the point. It will never be perfect: but it will be good.
Sex trafficking in America is more prevalent than you think—and according to recent research conducted by NCMEC, 68 percent of “likely sex trafficking victims” were in the care of social services or foster care when they ran away. Lauren Kirchner wrote about the problem in Pacific Standard last week:
When the FBI rescued 168 children in a sex trafficking sting last year, it found that two-thirds of the victims had never been reported missing in the first place; the agency has also said that in all of its stings over the past few years, about 60 percent of the children rescued have had some experience in the foster care system or a group home …
The hard truth is that a lot of the risk factors for becoming victims of sex trafficking, or being recruited to transactional sex, overlap with the realities of life for many kids and teens in the foster care system: having teenage parents or parents struggling with substance abuse or mental illness; a history of sexual or physical abuse as children; and a lack of emotional, psychological, and financial support systems.
The story reminded me immediately of TAC’s new cover story (to be published online soon) for the March/April 2015 magazine, a story about the collapse of Britain’s working-class families. Schwarz outlines the enormous problem of sex trafficking in the U.K.—”the systematic sexual grooming, rape, and trafficking of more than 2,000 pre-teen and teenage girls, white and overwhelmingly working class”—and asks why this problem is so widespread. His answer? The breakdown of the working-class community: “Virtually all these girls had been left adrift—unmoored from and unprotected by the guidance, love, and authority of their families and community, which left them wholly exposed to predation at once brazen and methodical—[this] reveals a wrecked society that has failed in its most essential purpose.”
This is not just true of Britain. It is overwhelmingly true of our society, particularly of our foster care system. It’s a system that is meant to serve as a protection to needy children—but so often, the sheer size, lack of accountability, and lack of community involved in the process can lead to abuse or disarray. There are about 400,000 children in foster care, with 23,000 “aging out” each year. Some states lack the social workers necessary to truly know and care for each foster child. They cannot truly invest in each situation, or know for sure whether foster parents are doing a good job. Sadly, some foster parents are just in it for the money; others, while well-intentioned, are not prepared for the enormity of the job, and give up.
All of these things signal a breakdown of community, of a locally-focused care that would result in more dynamic and accountable placements and relationships. Foster kids don’t need a pipeline. They need a platoon. They need a steadfast, permanent community—a bastion of supporters and caregivers that will not constantly shift. The attitudes and mores necessary for proper care of the needy are rooted in the soil of community. Systems and pipelines, in their lack of place or permanence, relationship or roots, are sorely lacking. Local, relational platoons result in human flourishing and a sense of home—a place to return to, regardless of whether one “ages out” of the system.
Applying these principles to the system we currently have starts with the family: with the cultivation of strong, committed, loving foster care families, who are willing to love and tend to children, no matter how difficult, and who are willing to do whatever it takes to provide a lasting community for needy children.
There’s a small town in Belgium that has historically provided a home for the mentally ill. Mike Jay wrote about the community for Aeon Magazine last year: “When boarders meet their new families, they do so, as they always have, without a backstory or clinical diagnosis. … These are people who, whatever their diagnosis, have come here because they’re unable to cope on their own, and because they have no family or friends who can look after them.” Town inhabitants created a safe home of sorts, where “boarders” worked alongside and participated in family life.
But sadly, “Few families are now able or willing to take on a boarder,” writes Jay. “…Modern aspirations—the increasing desire for mobility and privacy, timeshifted work schedules, and the freedom to travel—disrupt the patterns on which daily care depends.” The virtues necessary for care of the needy often run counter to modern society’s “desire for mobility and privacy.” Opening our homes leaves us vulnerable. It means sacrificing our time, resources, and comfort.
I have known foster children who grew up feeling placeless, homeless, and unloved. But I’ve also met passionate, caring foster families, who opened their doors to needy or troubled children without hesitation. One such family welcomed in dozens of troubled youth over the years, and their son is now a social worker. Their actions planted seeds, and they began to grow a community. Such work is sorely needed—so that, regardless of the flaws of our foster care system, each child can someday know they have a place, a home, in the world.
Some conservatives love Wendell Berry; others are vehemently opposed to his thought and writings. A native Kentuckian, Berry is a farmer and philosopher, essayist and poet, environmental activist and localist. He has written over 40 works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, on topics ranging from sustainable farming to biographical novels to cultural commentary. Over the years, Berry has been the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, the National Humanities Medal, and the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award—given for works that “advance peace through literature.”
Berry doesn’t easily fit political boxes: though many of his views on community and culture are traditional, his views on the environment and pacifism are more often associated with the politics and policies of the left. He often angers people on both left and right with his stances. Yet despite this, there is a marked consistency to Berry’s thought. He is concerned, first and foremost, with representing and defending his home: Port Royal, Kentucky.
Indeed, Berry’s fictional works all center on the town of Port Royal—known as Port William in the books—chronicling its heritage through the lives of its townspeople. One of his most beloved novels, Jayber Crow, tells the story of the town’s fictional barber. After an early life of rootlessness, Jayber anchors himself in Port William, living a quiet life of service within its community. The novel demonstrates, in a very straightforward way, the importance of local rootedness and stewardship.
The entirety of Berry’s work, despite its breadth, is focused on the relationship men and women have to the earth and to their townships—to the communities that are integral to human flourishing. TAC senior editor Rod Dreher once wrote that Berry’s “unshakable devotion to the land, to localism, and to the dignity of traditional life makes him both a great American and, to the disgrace of our age, a prophet without honor in his native land.” Yet Berry’s fame is growing as more people come to appreciate the role he has played in our national conversation—not as a prophet of conservatism or of liberalism, but as a vital thinker for our culture and country as a whole.
Gracy Olmstead: Jayber Crow is deeply rooted in his community. He’s opposed to war and much of the so-called “progress” that goes on around him. Would you call Jayber Crow a conservative?
Wendell Berry: It never occurred to me to think of Jayber as a “conservative.” I don’t think that would have helped, though he is instinctively and in principle a conserver. His membership is not in a party or a public movement, but in Port William. He is a man of unsteady faith in love with a place, a perishing little town, a community, a woman—with all that is redemptive and good—struggling to be worthy. I didn’t (and don’t) think of him as a “liberal” either.
GO: What are your biggest objections to conservatism?
WB: Often, as with Jayber, a political labeling never occurs to me. But often too I am conscious of a need to avoid all the names of political sides.
“Liberal” now names a lot of people who thought the election of President Obama put an end to American racism, which was a kind of good-heartedness but also a kind of silliness. “Conservative” names at least a significant number of people who know that Obama’s election is the best thing that has happened to American racism since the “Southern strategy,” for it set up a man partly of African descent whom they could entirely hate and totally oppose while being politically correct.
But both of those political sides evidently accept war as a part of human normality. Both evidently suppose that the only effective limit of human conduct is technological capability: whatever is possible must be done. And both evidently assume that nature, the land communities, and the economies of land use can be safely exploited or ignored.
And so I prefer to get along without political labels. They don’t help thought, or my version of thought. Since I’m self-employed and not running for office, I’m free to notice that those political names don’t mean much of anything, and so am free to do without them. I’m free, in short, to be an amateur. Jayber to me is Jayber unclassified.
The same for Edmund Burke, whose writings and speeches I have read eagerly and at considerable length. As an amateur, I don’t need to be waylaid by wondering how he, a Whig, comes now to be counted a conservative, the sire of “Burkean conservatism,” not the least bit liberal. I can object to some things he said, but that is not remarkable, and it doesn’t matter much.
I don’t read him to be confirmed in a party allegiance. I read him for his steadfast affirmation of qualities I see as, in a high sense, human. I read him for his decency, the luster of his intelligence and character, his patience and endurance in thinking, his willingness to take a principled stand, the happiness of his prose.
He was a peacemaker, a lover of “order and beauty,” of “the amiable and conciliatory virtues of lenity, moderation, and tenderness.” As a man in politics should do, he preferred reason to the passions. He thought that “the separation of fame and virtue is an harsh divorce.” He said, “I do not like to see anything destroyed…” He said that a person “has a right to a fair portion of all which society, with all its combinations of skill and force, can do in his favor.” He said, “The poorest being that crawls on earth, contending to save itself from injustice and oppression, is an object respectable in the eyes of God and man.”
A useful exercise for an American is to ask which of our holders of office has ever spoken publicly in favor of beauty or the “virtue” of tenderness.
GO: You write a lot about the importance of conservation—which, really, conservatism is supposed to be about. How have conservatives lost an understanding of proper conservation?
WB: For those who enjoy absurdities—as I do, up to a point—“conservatives” opposed to conservation are vibrantly absurd and worth at least a grin. But such conservatives have achieved this amusing absurdity by a radical and dangerous narrowing of purpose. They apparently wish to conserve only the power and wealth of the most powerful and the most wealthy.
The conservation of wilderness and “the wild” seems now to be recognized as a project belonging exclusively to “liberals.” But that also is a dangerous narrowing of purpose. It is true that “liberal” conservationists also fairly dependably oppose the most excessive and sensational abuses of “the environment,” such as oil or slurry spills (in some places), surface mining (off and on, never enough), extreme pollution of air and water (mainly as it affects cities), and so on.
But in fact most politicians, “conservative” and “liberal,” are the pets or juvenile dependents of the industrial corporations. In Kentucky, for example, the Party of Coal has swallowed, digested, and shat nearly all politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike. Above all, it is still virtually impossible to interest any of the powers of politics in the economic landscapes of farming and forestry. In those landscapes the gravest and most extensive damages are being done: by soil erosion, by toxic pollution of soil and water, by impairment of the diversity and integrity of ecosystems, by drastic interruptions of the fertility cycle, by the devastation of rural communities and of our never adequately developed cultures of husbandry.
There are reasons to hope for and even to foresee the coming of more honesty and better purposes—the need for a sustainable economy, the increasingly obvious failures of industrialism and corporate rule—but no extensive improvements can come easily or soon.
GO: You once wrote of the Gulf War, “But we know that this was descended from a history of war and that it evokes the fear of other wars that may descend from it.” Is war with ISIS also part of this chain—descended from the Iraq War, in particular? How do we stop this cycle?
WB: It does seem that there are lineages of war and that wars are the causes of wars. And it seems unlikely that wars cause peace. Wars cause victory and defeat, equivocal terms because in wars both sides lose much that they would rather keep, and they cause exhaustion. But victory, defeat, loss, and exhaustion don’t define peace. It is certain that peace does not cause war. Wars, moreover, tend not to end. Damage from our Civil War continues today. We are still under the influence of World War II. We still suffer the effects of the succession of wars that have followed.
But I don’t believe we can hope to make sense of our modern wars until we have acknowledged that war is good for business. The industrialization of war has made it far worse than before. And weapons, ammunition, explosives, the vehicles of battle—like throwaway bottles, made to be destroyed and expensively replaced—are ideal products of industrialism. Wars favor “industrial development.” They are invariably the occasions and agents of “technological progress.” The greatest benefits by far of the Civil War went to the railroads and the mineral and timber industries.
And so the damages have continued and become worse. Young people in the “armed services” pay for war with their lives, and so do children and other innocents in foreign countries (so far), while even the wealthiest citizens, for whose freedom these deaths supposedly pay, oppose paying taxes. And who among the experts, scholars, and promoters of war has calculated its ecological damages? As mere citizens, people, suffering humans, we face two arresting questions about industrial war: How much longer can we stand it? And how much longer can we and our world afford it?
We threaten and make war, as a first choice or as a matter of course, because we conceive of violence as the normal answer to other people’s violence. As war becomes ever more industrial, more technological, more able to inflict its damage at a distance and by remote control, we seem to like it better. President Obama has become, as he was fated to be, the new head pioneer of remote control. There is no need to face your enemies or even know them, if you can push a button and kill them at a distance of thousands of miles without getting up from your chair. For this there are the urgent practical reasons that war invariably supplies.
But we also are susceptible to the technological charm of, for example, drones. In the very midst of war, these weapons of precision killing have become “consumer products,” and the most modern and up-to-date people are buying them as they bought cell phones. They fit with perfect logic the needs of the preservers of the “balance” of freedom-and-security, and by the same logic the needs of blackmailers and hit men. No doubt already there are drone billionaires.
Peace assuredly would pay even larger dividends, but to the wrong people. It is not at all clear how you could make a billion dollars by being peaceable. And so we don’t consider or study the means of peace, or make them available to our leaders. We speak well of peace, we say we want it, we have paid the lives of innumerable other people and unaccountable wealth supposedly to get it, but we seem not to mind, we seem not to notice, that all we have got for so much loss, for so long, is more war.
GO: Many U.S. Christians feel a burden to protect and help Iraqi Christians put in danger because of ISIS. What do you see as the balance here—between compassion for those who suffer persecution and focusing our attentions on the troubles in our own neighborhoods?
WB: Of course Christians want to kill the enemies of Christians. How could this not be so when Christians have so often and so happily killed other Christians? But it is remarkable and disturbing that Christians were pointedly instructed by Christ not to do this. In most of historical and institutional Christianity there appears to be a void where should have appeared Christ’s requirement that we should love, bless, do good to, and pray for our enemies, and forgive those who offend us. In order to end war, somebody, some nation, would have to stop fighting. In order to stop fighting there would need to be an alternative, something to do instead. After 2,000 years all Christian nations and most churches have found nothing preferable to war.
Only a few marginal Christians have dared to think that Christianity calls for the radical neighborhood, servanthood, love, and forgiveness that Christ taught. I agree with them, and much against my nature I have tried to make my thoughts consent. I do not say this with confidence.
GO: The localist movement seems to get a lot of bipartisan support, at least when it comes to supporting farmers’ markets and buying local. What do you think of the “locavore” movement? Do you think it could branch into a deeper philosophical, cultural, and economic conservatism?
WB: Though “local” and “movement” are almost a contradiction in terms, we do seem to have, in this country and in others, the substantial beginning of such a movement. As you suggest, it is so far limited to the promotion of local consumption of locally-grown food. Its founding premise, as I understand it, is that a local supply of food is (or, if fully developed, would be) more secure, more democratic in scale, cheaper, fresher, and healthier than food supplied by distant producers dependent upon long-distance transportation. A local food economy obviously also would strengthen the local economy as a whole and therefore the local community.
This possibility is extendable to local economies of energy, forest products, and to appropriately scaled industries adding value to the produce of the local countryside. As the local economy grew and diversified, the local people would become dependent on it, and would become, in effect, a lobby for the sustainable use of local sources.
It is important to understand, and to be grateful, that this movement is diametrically opposed to the “global economy” (much older than its present name) which exists for the purpose of extracting everything of value from every locality and gathering it into fewer and fewer hands.
I did once write an essay, “In Distrust of Movements,” and I will maintain my distrust, which is to say that I will attempt to weigh, as fairly as I can, any movement’s aims against its results.
GO: Partisanship is often, it seems, a national-level stance, whereas agreement seems easier to find on a local, particular level. Could localism serve as an antidote to partisanship and schismatic politics?
WB: I think so. People speaking in good faith of what they know and love, in the presence of those things, are likely to find that they have a common ground, literally and figuratively. This has happened in conversations between conservationists and ranchers.
GO: You’ve written, “Television has greatly accelerated the process, begun long ago, by which many communities have been atomized and congealed into one public.” How has the Internet exacerbated this dilemma? Is it possible to cultivate community through or despite technology, or do you think the two are antithetical?
WB: I don’t, on purpose, see much television, and my acquaintance with social media is at secondhand. What I know is that when neighbors replace local stories with stories from television, and when they sit in the house and watch television instead of talking on front porches, a profound disintegration has taken place. And I know it is impossible to talk to somebody who is “telecommunicating” with somebody who is absent.
The usefulness of electronic communication to cultivate community, I think, is tightly limited. It may be useful in emergencies, useful to people who are sick and shut in, etc. But community is not made just by communication. It is a practical circumstance. It is composed of people who have a place in common. But it is made by people’s willingness to be neighbors, good and faithful servants, to one another. It survives by its members’ recognition of their need for one another, if only to keep the small children from getting lost or run over, or to keep their trash out of the streams and roads. My guess is that a healthy community would be indivisible from its own, its local, economy.
GO: Many believe that marriage as an institution is no longer uniquely valuable in modern society. If a couple lives together, sharing a faithful commitment to each other, that is seen as enough. What would your response be to such a claim? What role can marriage play on a communal level?
WB: I don’t think modern society is a proper context for evaluating marriage. Modern society supplies the statistics of divorce and the attendant reasons and lamentations. Modern America knows that divorce is good for business, and a marriage that makes a reasonably productive and self-sufficient household economy is bad for business. At the least, marriage is made by vows and the implied effort may certainly make [a couple’s] marriage valuable to themselves. Its value may be extended, even increased, within the circumstances and influence of a family and a community, if the couple has a family and a community. But there is an aura of comedy hanging about Christian conservatives, who have stood silently by while corporate (Christian!) industrialism has broken the old coherences of family and community, and who now come out sweating and shouting in favor of “traditional marriage.”
GO: You have described yourself as a “forest Christian,” and as a “marginal Christian.” What are the primary reasons you have distanced yourself from a particular church or denomination? What are your biggest concerns with the modern Christian church?
WB: I’ve called myself a “forest Christian” because on Sunday mornings when the weather is favorable, my vocation (as it seems to me) has led me to the woods. I call myself a “marginal Christian” because I’m pretty much a literalist. I think, for example, that Jesus meant literally the imperatives I mentioned [above]. I don’t think their embarrassment can be lightened by interpretation. As a literalist, I can’t allay my unhappiness, for example, with Christ’s killing the barren fig tree (Matthew 21:19) or his condemnation of the wedding guest who showed up without a proper garment (Matthew 22:13). And I deplore entirely the racism and genocide in some passages of the Old Testament (Joshua 6:21, for example), and what I take to be their bad influence on American history.
Why have I distanced myself from any particular denomination? If I were to apply on the condition that I would attend only in bad weather, and that I have founded my faith on some passages of the Bible selected by me, I think I should be refused.
The core tenets [of Christianity], I think, are an undiscriminating neighborliness, help to “the least of these my brethren,” love in response to hate, mindfulness of the present rather than the future, peaceability, forgiveness, justice, and above justice mercy.
My concern about modern Christianity? I don’t know when, why, or how it happened, but at some time the mainstream denominations put themselves in charge of the Sunday job of accrediting people for admission to Heaven, turning the workdays, the human economy, and the material creation over to the materialists. And so it became possible for people to commit their souls to God while participating in an economy dedicated to the swiftest possible extraction and consumption of everything it values in God’s world, with unlimited collateral damage to all creatures, humans included, that it does not value.
Once this desecration of creation, of life itself, becomes conventional economic practice, then the submersion of the Gospel in nationalism and the waging of Christian warfare readily follows. Once war is accepted as the normal condition of human, including Christian, life, then spying upon citizens, imprisonment without indictment or trial, torture of prisoners, and all the malpractice of a tyrannical “security” evidently follow and are justified by leaders. If the life of the poorest being that crawls on the earth is not respected as a great and holy mystery, then it may be that humans go “free” of all limits, become disoriented, and are truly unable to find themselves.
GO: How do you think your work reflects deeper Christian principles?
WB: In my work I have tried to understand and defend the possibility of an enduring community, assuming that such a community could not be exclusive but would include all the local neighborhood of creatures—from the rocks, the water, and the air to the microorganisms in the soil to the plants and animals to the humans—within human respect and care. I know that my effort is far from clear enough or complete enough. Maybe it “reflects” Christian principles enough to be called Christian, but I can’t be judge of that.
GO: Which thinkers and writers have particularly inspired your political thought?
WB: Mere political thought has to do, I suppose, with how to get elected or how to get power. In a larger and better sense, political thought is a continuous asking how best to conduct oneself as a member of a community or a polity. We have a surplus of the smallest political thought and not nearly enough of the larger.
I don’t think I can isolate my political thought, imperfect and incomplete as I’m sure it is, from my thoughts that are not political. But I can list a number of writers or writings that have influenced my thoughts about public issues.
To begin with I have tried, especially in my essays, never to contradict the Gospels, the prologue of the Declaration of Independence, and the Bill of Rights. I may have strayed, but my intention has been to accept those writings as a sort of boundary.
Henry David Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience seems to me to give an essential definition of citizenship. Just as essential, I think, is Martin Luther King’s understanding that we have rights only insofar as we share them with all others.
I have relied always on Thomas Jefferson’s advocacy for “the small landholders.” But in that, Jefferson has confirmed for me both the outcrops of agrarianism in literature going back to ancient times and the more continuous culture of agrarianism that came to me chiefly from my father but also from many other farmers.
For 50 years I have turned again and again to the instructions of J. Russell Smith, Sir Albert Howard, Aldo Leopold, and their followers on the proper use and care of the land. My political and other thoughts are grounded both in their work and here in my own place. Land is a most urgent public issue, though not (yet?) a political one.
The most strictly political influence on my work and life is still the tobacco program that began operation under the New Deal in 1940. This program—locally the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association—combined price supports with production control, was confirmed many times by the votes of the growers, and was run at minimal and finally at no public cost. The crop, of course, has been impossible to defend for the last 50 years, but the program was an exemplary government service. It did for a large number of farm people what they had tried to do, and for substantive reasons could not do, for themselves. It preserved the small farmers of our area for 60 years. This program was unrelentingly hated and opposed and finally beaten by “conservatives,” who prefer to subsidize the overproduction of grain crops, the great surpluses of which are oppressive, when not lethal, to farmers but are the taxpayers’ gift to agribusiness corporations.
Maybe I’m a Jeffersonian liberal. Maybe I’m a Burkean conservative. But I read John Lukacs’s definition of a reactionary (in Confessions of an Original Sinner) with a sense of compatibility and much relief.
Gracy Olmstead is an associate editor of The American Conservative.