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Introducing “Taking the Mask Off”

It’s far past time for the COVID regime to end.

In March 2020, our public health officials embarked on a major public relations effort. The novel coronavirus had arrived in the U.S. from China, and a fearful American public scrambled to stock up for the apocalypse: toilet paper, canned goods, bottled water, and face masks.

So U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams took to the media to get an urgent message out. “Americans get scared when they feel like they’ve lost control,” Adams said then on Fox & Friends, “There are things people can do to stay safe… [but] one of the things they shouldn’t be doing, the general public, is going out and buying masks. It actually does not help, and it has not been proven to be effective in preventing the spread of coronavirus amongst the general public.”

Times have changed.

Now, almost 18 months later, these face coverings have become ubiquitous. After a temporary reprieve over the summer months, when vaccine optimism reigned, mask mandates are back across the country. Children are starting another school year with faces covered. Younger grades may not know a time when seeing classmates’ smiles was allowed. The mask has superseded its [dubious] medical benefits, and is now a potent symbol of right-thinking.

Our public health “experts” seem determined to extend their power to vaccine mandates as well. With the FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine, Big Business—and the government of at least one of our major cities—has moved quickly to force employees and patrons to get the jab. “My body, my choice,” was always a cynical platitude. They never meant it.

We must remember that this was all a choice. No, not the arrival of a deadly disease from China, but the concerted effort to radically alter daily life in response. It’s a choice driven by fear, by a failure to come to terms with our own mortality. And all the while, the goal posts shift, from “15 days to stop the spread,” to “flatten the curve,” to vaccines, COVID-zero, and on and on and on.

Enough. It’s far past time for this insanity to end.

So I’m proud to introduce “Taking the Mask Off,” a new series from The American Conservative. We will call out the hypocrisy of our public health regime. We will highlight the toll lockdown measures and mask mandates have taken on our families and communities. We will urge Americans not to accept a “new normal”. And we will actually “follow the science”, offering alternatives for what a balanced public health policy might look like.

We will, quite literally, take the mask off the COVID regime.

COVID-19 is here to stay, joining the countless other maladies that affect our fallen human condition. The loss of life at the hands of this deadly disease is tragic. Far more tragic would be a society in which living is lost, in which we are unable to pursue that which makes life worthwhile.

We at TAC hope to play a small part in preventing this greater tragedy.

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Caring About Home

The people of Galveston, Texas, know and love where they are from. The denizens of D.C.? Less so.

General Bernardo de Galvez, on Virginia Avenue, near the State Department (Wikimedia Commons)

When I first moved to Washington, D.C., I sought out a statue of the Spanish Revolutionary War general Bernardo de Galvez. He’s the namesake of my hometown: Galveston, Texas. I found it directly in front of the State Department, wholly engulfed by a homeless encampment. Drugs, trash, and strung-out users lay all over the lawn. I had come to send a picture of the general to my family, to show them our representation in the nation’s capital. I left without taking a photo at all. 

Galveston is a city constantly reminded of its mortality. In my short lifetime, it’s been hit by four major hurricanes and countless tropical storms. It’s the site of the deadliest natural disaster in American history: the 1900 Storm. Local businesses paint flood-level markers on their walls with the dates and names of major storms. Many of the markers stand several feet above my head. 

It has always been remarkable to me that a long-irrelevant cotton port constantly subjected to natural destruction has maintained such care for itself. Galveston is home to the oldest churches in Texas and many of the most beautiful. The Bishop’s Palace dominates its main thoroughfare, accompanied by the Moody Mansion and countless Victorian marvels that once belonged to cotton merchants and shipping tycoons. Even the average home in the city is a small Victorian, likely restored two or three times over after enduring a century of storms. 

People in Galveston don’t have a superb explanation or philosophy for their city. It’s just their home. It’s a beautiful place with a beautiful history. Statues still stand. The streets are largely clean; the police take care to contain crime to the smallest radius possible. They just want their kids to enjoy living there. They want their kids to know who came before them. They’re not going to let vandals take that away from them. 

That all is a clear contrast with Washington. Vandals are not only tolerated, but occupy the highest public offices. Washington is the most powerful city on earth and the wealthiest in America. Cleaning the city up would be easy, and it would pay dividends for America’s image around the world and help burnish perceptions of the political class. But instead, brutalist atrocities cruelly named after L’Enfant accompany homelessness, crime, trash, and drugs. Crumbling infrastructure and public parks unsafe for children sit just blocks from the Capitol and the White House. There’s no public policy benefit to this. There are no white papers that advocate filth. They can’t even blame hurricanes. 

The capital is a town filled with vandals—nihilists who hate their history, themselves, and the children they don’t and won’t have. Some live in cramped apartments, others in Kalorama mansions, and a few in the White House. They pretend to be an enlightened ruling class, but they can’t even pick up the trash on their own streets. 

The people in Galveston are ship crewmen, restaurant workers, fishermen, and roughnecks. Some are artists, surfers, and nurses. Most don’t have master’s degrees, fewer still have read Aristotle. But they maintain their community of souls, and they love their homes. It’s time for Washington, D.C., to dust off the statue of General Galvez and learn from the people it once represented. 

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The Other Exodus

Urban exodus is nothing compared with what's happening in American small towns.

Stuffed between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, in a fold of land that shares borders with both Missouri and Kentucky, is a town called Cairo, Illinois.

Alexander County, the county to which Cairo belongs, is losing people faster than any other county in the United States.

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday:

In a nation where more than half of all counties saw population declines during the past decade, nowhere fared worse than Alexander County in far southern Illinois.

Located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, the county lost 36.4% of its residents between 2010 and 2020, Census Bureau data released this month shows. No other county lost more than 30%.

The exodus amounted to roughly 3,000 people and lowered the county’s population to 5,240. The declining numbers are putting added pressure on already stressed local government finances and leaving the remaining residents questioning whether there’s any future here. A yearslong plan to revive Cairo’s port may be the area’s last hope.

Not too many centuries ago, this providentially-located town was prime estate for both agriculture and trade. Today, roughly 80 percent of all inland barge traffic in the U.S. passes Cairo, but barges aren’t sufficient to keep a town thriving in the 21st century. Significantly lower taxes in the town’s two neighboring states means there is no gas station in Cairo: The Illinois gas tax is more than double the rate in Kentucky and more than triple what’s charged in Missouri, the Journal reported.

The census data show that population growth—despite the much-hyped urban exodus caused by Covid-19 lockdowns, and a housing market that confirms a scramble for suburban life—is still plodding its usual path, with big counties growing and smaller ones shrinking. Or perhaps it’s too soon to tell of any lasting effects from 2020. In either case, it’s clear that most small towns, especially along the lower Mississippi River, are in worse condition than ever. This region has consistently higher unemployment and poverty rates, as well as lower life expectancy and steady population loss, as the Journal notes.

What’s happening to our towns is not news to most Americans, yet our ruling class seems incapable of offering real solutions. The rallying cry to “shop local” during the bleakest months of 2020 were touching, but hardly a concrete plan to save the brick and mortar of American Main Street. Places like Cairo need more than a stimulus check (in fact, there’s a good case to be made that such forms of government largesse are just digging such towns into an even deeper hole). What’s to be done?

Russia’s Main Street offers one possible solution. Cutting back unemployment is another first step. One thing is certain, that without a swift realignment, there will be little left, if anything, of the once-thriving heartland by the time we’re raising the next generation.

In describing the causes that led to the French Revolution in The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville points to metropolitan Paris, and its tendency to absorb more and more of the population, economy, and political attention of the entire country. He quotes Montesquieu: “In France, there is only Paris, together with the remote provinces, because Paris has not yet had time to devour them.” The result is a government with a bloated head, and no life left in its body, ripe for revolution.

Preserving our towns is a project for innovative minds and determined souls, and has as much to do with protecting the delicate balance of republican government as it does the very real problems of unemployment, overdoses, and suicides we see in such devoured towns. Most important, it’s a job for the urgent, as many, like Cairo, may already be beyond repair.

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Just One More Shot, Please

The corporate media is addicted to the pandemic.

I’m no expert, but I think I can tell an addict when I see one. By all the usual earmarks—erratic behavior, a different story every time you speak with them, and a trance-like fixation on the subject of their addiction—the corporate media is hooked on Covid-19.

Apparently, a double shot of the Covid-19 vaccine wasn’t enough to assuage their mania over a virus that is already an insignificant threat to most healthy people. When the Biden administration announced Wednesday it will roll out “booster shots” for the Covid vaccine in September, the media jumped to be the first in line for a fresh dose.

Don’t be confused. The original vaccine still works, says the New York Times. This supplementary injection is merely necessary to boost the good the first two shots are already doing. Of course, that’s just what an addict would say, isn’t it? The next fix is necessary. Vital. Non-negotiable.

The corporate media is a delicate creature. It gets a little cagey when you question it about its obsession—when you say things like, “I already have antibodies” or “why do I have to wear a mask if I’ve been vaccinated?” and “do I really need another shot?” It starts to sweat when it sees Covid-19 cases declining, is quick to insist this doesn’t mean the pandemic is over, and latches onto every viral variant the Greek alphabet has a letter for.

Experts have identified a phenomenon characteristic of an addict’s behavior: self-deception.

The American Addiction Centers writes:

Doublethink is a form of self-deception that involves the ability to believe and live contradictory beliefs. The term “doublethink” comes from George Orwell’s great novel, 1984. Simply put; doublethink is being able to tell deliberate lies while still believing them and forgetting any facts that are inconvenient. Doublethink isn’t just believing a contradiction (which never can be true) but having that contradiction drive actions and behavior. All of these tactics become necessary for living, according to Orwell.

How are these tactics necessary for living with an addiction? Firstly, they help to manufacture a reality in which one’s use is not disordered or addictive. Even if on some level a person believes she is becoming addicted, she can appeal to the always ready at hand belief that she is just fine.

We should pray for our brothers and sisters in their fight against this debilitating disease. They’ll be boosting the booster to their booster shot, with more stamps in their vaccine passports than their real ones, before they’ll accept the pandemic is done.

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Lone Star on Target

Republican governors should keep pushing back to prevent Lockdowns 2.0.

Somebody just remembered the Alamo.

On Monday, after a lower court struck down Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates, the Texas Supreme Court overturned the ruling in favor of Abbott, showing the more polite members of his party that you can indeed fight back against bureaucratic overreach, and win.

Abbott isn’t exactly a cowboy here; he’s following in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s boot-clad footsteps, the latter of whom recently banned vaccine mandates on cruise ships, with a flurry of lawsuits following 100 yards behind trying to catch up. Kristi Noem, South Dakota’s governor, banned vaccine passports in the state as early as April. With the trail to shut down Covid-19-related overreach now sufficiently blazed, it’s time for the rest of the red states’ governors to step up to the plate.

Even if only to prevent an eternal, Groundhog Day-esque repetition of 2020, states like Arizona, Georgia, and Tennessee should come out strong against the returning Covid-19 mania as more blue states eye the prospect of yet another lockdown.

The law isn’t the only thing on the side of keeping 2020-era policies in 2020; public opinion is, too. With vaccines now available to anyone over the age of 12, the majority of Republicans and independents oppose any further mandates. A recent Monmouth University poll showed that 73 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of independents opposed reinstating masking and social distancing guidelines—guidelines, to be clear, not even mandates. The same poll showed less than half of Americans are even concerned about contracting new coronavirus variants. And in California, only 49 percent of polled registered voters favor a return to mandating face coverings, down from 60 percent and higher last fall.

The science our technocrats so like to tout is also on the side of liberty. But, more importantly, the liberty we have inherited and claim to love requires some responsibilities of us. These responsibilities are personal and relational—in other words, I should decide to stay home from work if I’m carrying a contagious illness, not some bureaucrat.

The experimentation of science can only measure and mitigate physical risk. It is the job of government, and citizens, to determine which of several risks is of greatest concern: death from Covid-19, for example, or servile dependence on a bloated nanny-state. Protecting our country’s health and safety includes preserving republican liberty, not just managing viral diseases.

With the law, the people, and fresh momentum in favor of resisting future lockdowns, all that remains is for conservatives to follow up in a coordinated fashion. This is the part we are, historically, the worst at.

But as we surpass 18 months of this seemingly endless obsession with a low-risk virus, and the corporate media still pushes everything from double masks to endless booster shots, daily Covid tests, and vaccine passports, the only way to prevent Lockdowns 2.0 is to push back en masse and keep the momentum going. Our governors should lead the charge.

The beginning of the pandemic taught us a lesson we shouldn’t soon forget: Our state leaders are fully capable of taking swift, far-reaching action when it interests them. Texas may be the biggest star over the target with its mask pushback this week, but it shouldn’t be the only one. While 27 of the 50 United States are governed by a Republican, there’s no reason to allow public health bureaucrats to infringe on our civil liberties in these states again.

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At Last, a Presidential Case for Restraint

Joe Biden forcefully argues for ending the war in Afghanistan amid great pressure to do otherwise.

U.S. President Joe Biden gestures as he gives remarks on the worsening crisis in Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House August 16, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

I’m not naturally inclined to like anything Joe Biden says, but I can’t help but think that was a great speech last night. More than a presidential address, it was comprehensive attempt to make a case for foreign policy restraint (Trump did this on occasion too, though his arguments were more scattershot and undermined by the “let’s take their oil” stuff).

Amid howls from across the political spectrum and genuinely disturbing images out of Kabul, Biden didn’t back down. He decried nation building and placed it in opposition to America’s national interest. He stated unequivocally that it was wrong for American troops to do a job the Afghanis themselves wouldn’t do. He contrasted counterterrorism operations in places like Somalia with the all-out occupation of Afghanistan (a somewhat tenuous distinction but still indicative that he understands how extraordinary our presence in that latter country is).

He’s now taking fire from some who say he deflected blame for what happened in Kabul onto the agreement President Trump signed with the Taliban, acting like the deal tied his hands. But I’m not sure that’s true. Decide for yourself (emphasis added):

There would have been no ceasefire after May 1. There was no agreement protecting our forces after May 1. There was no status quo of stability without American casualties after May 1.

There was only the cold reality of either following through on the agreement to withdraw our forces or escalating the conflict and sending thousands more American troops back into combat in Afghanistan, lurching into the third decade of conflict. 

I stand squarely behind my decision. After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw U.S. forces.

That sounds more like an indictment of the occupation than a narrower attempt to fault Trump’s policy.

Still, the best bit had to be this:

American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves. We spent over a trillion dollars. We trained and equipped an Afghan military force of some 300,000 strong — incredibly well equipped — a force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies.

We gave them every tool they could need. We paid their salaries, provided for the maintenance of their air force — something the Taliban doesn’t have. Taliban does not have an air force. We provided close air support.

We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.

There’s some very brave and capable Afghan special forces units and soldiers, but if Afghanistan is unable to mount any real resistance to the Taliban now, there is no chance that 1 year — 1 more year, 5 more years, or 20 more years of U.S. military boots on the ground would’ve made any difference.

Cue the screeching about how Biden supposedly blamed the Afghan people for their predicament. Yet is there anything in there that isn’t true? The Afghan army did collapse like matchsticks. A lack of will does appear to be the reason. And there is nothing to indicate that a year or 20 from now the armed forces will be any less enfeebled, or the government any less corrupt, or the Taliban any less determined.

Credit Biden for saying so out loud. After decades of officials peddling notional victory scenarios like snake oil, it was refreshing to hear the truth stated so forthrightly. I also loved this line, which came after Biden discussed the visits he’d paid to Afghanistan over the years: “I came to understand firsthand what was and was not possible in Afghanistan.” What’s possible. Isn’t that just what’s been missing from our thinking all along? Isn’t that what’s still missing from those who maintain we can somehow take the Afghani narco-state and flip it into a functioning democracy?

Naturally the Wall Street Journal is aghast:

President Biden told the world on Monday that he doesn’t regret his decision to withdraw rapidly from Afghanistan, or even the chaotic, incompetent way the withdrawal has been executed. He is determined in retreat, defiant in surrender, and confident in the rightness of consigning the country to jihadist rule.

It’s as though Biden was supposed to have switched on his TV and promptly called the whole thing off. And here’s a bunch of stone-fisted circa-2001 rhetoric in case you dare to disagree. The presumptuousness of these people is breathtaking.

That Biden didn’t do that, that he made a case for restraint instead, is encouraging.

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A Letter to the Exiled

"Increase in number there; do not decrease."

The words of Jeremiah 29 struck me differently when I heard them proclaimed in church last Sunday.

Grace Olmstead must have been on the mind, and her August newsletter, which encouraged subscribers to “live like perennials”—to plant flowers, even if you know you won’t be there to see them blossom. In other words, bloom where you’re planted.

Jeremiah, it seemed, had Olmstead on the mind, too.

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

Over and over, the instructions all point to the same end: to the exiles in Babylon, live with permanence. Plant your perennials. Your prosperity is tied to your earthly city.

The message is as relevant to conservatives in the big blue cities as it was to the children of Israel in exile.

There is a tension between holy living and wholly living in a corrupting environment. As religious people in a secular world, sometimes it can feel like we’re living in exile, too. In our desire to preserve holiness, we retreat from the culture that pushes opposite our strongest convictions. Earlier generations escaped out west, and thousands of conservatives today are itching to do the same, if they haven’t already (#metoo). Every man has a point at which he’ll go Benedictine. Yet we find ourselves in places we didn’t expect, for longer than we want, and for reasons we can’t control.

To the conservatives in exile (I include myself in this list), a rallying cry: either plant some seeds, or hit the road.

It’s time to build that community we keep talking about. We can start by talking with people on the Metro instead of staring at our phones. We can continue by having dinner with people we disagree with. Maybe we can’t start a garden in our apartment complex, but we can find a local farmers’ market and get to know the man who sells us peaches—actually get to know him, beyond a simple greeting. We can build up our apartments as if they are real homes, places of hospitality and warmth, rather than just a place to crash at the end of a workday. Planting seeds of permanence means being uncomfortable, at first, spending time with different people in different places when it’d be easier to go home on the weekend.

Beneath our dreams of conservative enclaves in Idaho, or the desire to see the wild, untamed land that exists beyond the concrete casket of the American metropoles, is a desire to do something worthy—to change something—the same dream that keeps young blood returning to the dying carcasses. We come to cities with dreams of culture, but what we get more often is culture shock, and it’s tempting to retreat to the places we know.

But an attitude of permanence in a city of transience isn’t just rebellious and cool, it’s necessary.

Increase in number there; do not decrease.

If we’re not building culture, we’re ceding it, and we’re the ones who claim to care about that sort of thing, after all. It takes work to build something permanent, but the alternative is to leave the next generation a place even more hostile. We’d better be increasing in number, not diminishing.

Planting a garden in Sodom is not what most of us expected to be doing. But the one who sows sparingly reaps sparingly. So grab a shovel and start digging.

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Renaissance Options

As James Hankins reminds us, cultural rebirth requires long labors and deep investment.

Since at least Edmund Burke, conservatives have made it their conscious task to conserve what they consider to be the most important achievements of Western civilization, particularly in moments of crisis (Burke’s most widely read work was itself an occasional piece, written in response to the crisis caused by the French Revolution). The task of building civilization is, in a sense, a constant struggle against the forces that militate against humane order. But there are, from time to time, moments of acute disorder when it seems that all may be lost. At those moments, people of goodwill rightly ask: Can civilization be saved? Can civilization be reborn?

Over at Public Discourse, intellectual historian James Hankins recently offered some thoughts on how we might go about the task of building a renaissance (French: “rebirth”). He draws a striking comparison between our own time and the 14th century, when Francesco Petrarch initiated the initial movement that became known as the Renaissance:

Suppose you were living at a time when all around you, it seemed, civilization was   breaking down. Political institutions were so little respected that the only way they could compel obedience was by increasing surveillance, multiplying laws, and tightening enforcement. People did not trust their leaders and suspected that elites were only interested in themselves. Many leaders were tyrannous, ignoring constitutional norms. Religious leaders engaged in scandalous behavior, and religious faith was losing its hold over the educated classes. Standards of personal behavior had collapsed, and it seemed that most people had forgotten what even ordinary decency was. Examples of upright character were hard to find, heroism almost unknown. The young went to universities only to learn how to earn money and achieve status. Even the military had grown corrupt. A great pandemic had taken many lives and filled people with fear. No one believed any more that medical science was honest about its ability to cope with the disease.

Sound familiar?

To counter this state of affairs Petrarch took action, building out a both a program and a network of collaborators. But it wasn’t primarily a political program. Instead, Petrarch engaged in the slow, painstaking work of culture building. His program consisted, first and foremost, in developing “a new form of education whose principal purpose was to develop good moral character and practical wisdom” called the studia humanitatis, known to us as the “humanities.” These studies merged classical and Christian wisdom, and put both in the service of the cultivation of virtuous leaders and citizens.

What began as a project amongst a few friends in Italy gradually spread through Europe and

By the third quarter of the fifteenth century, almost all of the greatest princes, churchmen, and republican civic leaders of Italy were classically educated. By the end of the quattrocento, this form of education was spreading to Northern Europe as well. Great monarchs such as Philip II of Spain and Elizabeth I of England, were humanistically educated, boasting proudly of their mastery of classical languages.

What can modern conservatives learn from this model? Hankins offers several thoughts.

First, culture building is a long term project. Those engaged in the work—and those who fund the work—must realize that they will not see meaningful results immediately, and may not see them in their lifetime. “It may have to start in private homes and small colleges, but we cannot give up on the public square and the universities.” A long-term vision is key.

Second, cultural prestige is important: “We need to build alliances, form networks, and find patrons who share our vision. We do not have to be serious all the time—the humanists also recommended the study of the classics for sheer pleasure and spiritual delight—but a tone of high moral purpose needs to underlie all we do.” Combining delightful literature with serious moral purpose and instruction resonates deeply with human nature and fundamental human needs. If conservatives can offer a compelling moral vision that delights as it instructs, it will naturally be more attractive than the cynical power plays and sterile proceduralism that defines our current cultural discourse.

Finally, we need to “emphasize more strongly the role of the humanities in strengthening skills of communication and persuasion.” The abuse of language that is prevalent in American political discourse encourages denouncement rather than thoughtful engagement. One of the defining  aspects of the studia humanitatis was its recovery of the ancient art of rhetoric—that is, persuasion—after it was eclipsed by the scholastic emphasis on logic. While rhetoric tends to get a bad rap today (meaning something like “empty or inauthentic speech”), it is actually a crucial part of political life. Not only does it encourage a careful attention to language, it can help soften the often jagged edges of political power, drawing in political opponents as interlocutors to be persuaded rather than enemies to be crushed.

This is, of course, not to say that prudent and clear-eyed political action isn’t required. Too often conservatives have failed to understand the stakes, shying away from the messy and sometimes ugly work of political action, and have lost ground as a result. But neither is political maneuvering alone sufficient. Without investing in the rebirth of culture, conservatives may occasionally win some political battles, but they will be little more than pyrrhic, rear guard actions.

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Keep China Out of Our Fields

We’re profiting foreign nations at our own expense.

A Washington state representative recently began sounding the alarm about China’s increasing investments in U.S. farmland. Indeed, China’s growing presence in our fields is dangerous—not merely from a national security standpoint, but also as a threat to American farmers.

What does it say about our nation that 30 million acres of our farmland are foreign-owned? If we believe in sovereignty, we should protect it from the ground up—literally—by preserving the sanctity of American-owned soil.

A Republican member of the House Appropriations Committee, Washington’s Rep. Dan Newhouse recently led the passage of an amendment to the FDA appropriations bill to prohibit China from purchasing agricultural land and make current Chinese-owned land ineligible for farm subsidies, citing dangerous ties to the Chinese Communist Party. But China’s political ideology is only half the problem. A combination of foreign investors, foreign imports, and economies of scale are edging American farmers off the land, trading them for soil-ravaging cash crops to support the global export network.

As Austin Frerick described in The American Conservative back in June, American-owned farms are a fast-dying breed. Countless small town family farms are throwing in the towel as cheap foreign imports make competing with the market price on most products impossible. With so many small and mid-size farms getting priced out of the market, it’s no wonder China and other foreign investors are swooping in to devour the remains.

Frerick writes:

Since 1980, America has lost 50 percent of its cattle farms, 80 percent of its dairies, and 90 percent of its hog farms. As Benson and Butz threatened, farmers were forced to choose between getting big or getting out. The average size of a farm nearly doubled from 650 acres in 1987 to 1,201 acres in 2012. Many people are familiar with the infamous farm crisis of the 1980s, which pushed thousands of farmers into bankruptcy. But the reality is that America’s Heartland has been in a perpetual state of crisis for the past few decades.

Currently, China owns at least 200,000 acres of U.S. land and counting, dispersed among 81 investors, according to the USDA. Two hundred thousand acres may not seem like much land, but as Newhouse pointed out, that’s a tenfold increase from where China was less than a decade ago, and it’s trending upward.

China isn’t the half of it, however. As of 2019, 30 million acres of U.S. farmland were owned and operated by foreign countries, up from 10 million in 1998. Bill Gates, America’s largest private farmland owner, owns 242,000 acres by comparison.

Only six states currently ban foreign land purchase: Hawaii, Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Dakota, and Oklahoma. Though Missouri used to, it reversed course in 2013, and immediately sold Smithfield Foods, a pork producer, to a Chinese corporation, which acquired more than 140,000 acres in U.S. farmland in the deal. Even in those six states, however, foreign investors can circumvent restrictions on land ownership by buying large U.S. corporations that own agricultural land already.

In Willa Cather’s novel My Antonia, she describes the Nebraska plain as “nothing but land; not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” Today, Nebraska’s fields, like so many others in America, are instead a homogenous sea of the same handful of cash crops. A key byproduct of the globalizing food market, Frerick pointed out, is that American soil, which used to be used for a diversity of crops, now is ravaged by the routine reproduction of the same two things. “It’s just corn and soy as far as the eye can see,” he writes.

Unsurprisingly, China’s farmlands in the U.S. are used for more of the same grain and oilseeds that dominate our fields already, as Deborah Comstock, a farmer in rural Adrian, Michigan, described in an op-ed in her local newspaper:

The goal of China’s Communist Party authorities suggests specific strategies to invest in agriculture overseas and to gain greater control over oilseed and grain products, to create policies to support facilities, equipment and inputs for agricultural production, and to create large multinational grain-trading conglomerates. The revenues from these productions do not pass through the American commodities markets but, rather, flow through the foreign entities’ own distribution channels, directly to the home country.

Newhouse’s efforts are a step in the right direction, but we shouldn’t stop at China. If we want to save American farmers, and the health of our farmlands, we need to scale back foreign investments in farmland dramatically, before we have none of our own land to speak of.

This post has been updated.

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