Down on the Farm

The surprising prejudice against country people

| July/August 2002 Issue


On June 21, 2001, Richard Lewontin, a respected Harvard scientist, published an article in The New York Review of Books on the genetic engineering controversy. In it, Lewontin criticizes Vandana Shiva, the Indian scientist and defender of the traditional agriculture of the Third World, for her appeal to "religious morality" and calls her a "cheerleader." He speaks of some of her allies as "a bunch of Luddites," and he says that all such people are under the influence "of a false nostalgia for an idyllic life never experienced." He says that present efforts to save "the independent family farmer . . . are a hundred years too late, and GMOs [genetically modified organisms] are the wrong target." One would have thought, Lewontin says wearily, that "industrial capitalism . . . has become so much the basis of European and American life that any truly popular new romantic movement against it would be inconceivable."

Lewontin is a smart man, but I don’t think he understands how conventional, how utterly trite and thoughtless, is his reaction to Shiva and other advocates of agricultural practices that are biologically sound and economically just. Apologists for industrialism seldom feel any need to notice their agrarian critics, but when a little dog snaps at the heels of a big dog long enough, now and again the big dog will have to condescend. On such occasions, the big dog always says what Lewontin said: You are a bunch of Luddites; you are a bunch of romantics motivated by nostalgia for a past that never existed; it is too late; there is no escape. The best-loved proposition is the last: Whatever happens is inevitable; it all has been determined by economics and technology.

This is not scientific objectivity or science or scholarship. It is the luxury politics of an academic islander.

Lewontin’s condescension to country people and their problems is not an aberration in our society. Disparagement of farmers, of small towns, of anything identifiable as "provincial" can be found everywhere: in comic strips, TV shows, newspaper editorials, literary magazines, and so on. I believe it is a fact, proven by their rapidly diminishing numbers and economic power, that the world’s small farmers and other "provincial" people have about the same status now as enemy civilians in wartime. They are the objects of small, "humane" consideration, but if they are damaged or destroyed "collaterally," then "we very much regret it," but they were in the way—and, by implication, not quite as human as "we" are. The industrial and corporate powers, abetted and excused by their many dependents in government and the universities, are perpetrating a sort of economic genocide—less bloody than military genocide, to be sure, but just as arrogant, foolish, and ruthless, and perhaps more effective in ridding the world of a kind of human life.



Am I trying to argue that all small farmers are superior or that they are all good farmers or that they live the "idyllic life"? I certainly am not. And that is my point. The sentimental stereotype is just as damaging as the negative one. The image of the farmer as the salt of the earth, independent son of the soil, and child of nature is a sort of lantern slide projected over the image of the farmer as simpleton, hick, or redneck. Both images obliterate any concept of farming as an ancient, useful, honorable vocation, requiring admirable intelligence and skill, a complex local culture, great patience and endurance, and moral responsibilities of the gravest kind.

HAVING LIVED BOTH in great metropolitan centers and in a small farming community, I have seen few things dumber and tackier—or more provincial—than this half-scared urban contempt for "provinciality." The stereotype of the farmer as rustic simpleton or uncouth redneck is, like most stereotypes, easily refuted: All you have to do is compare it with a number of real people. But the stereotype of the small farmer as obsolete human clinging to an obsolete kind of life, though equally false, is harder to deal with because it comes from a more complicated prejudice, entrenched in superstition and a kind of insanity.