I stand firm with Ralph Waldo Emerson in what he said in “Self-Reliance” almost two hundred years ago: “Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other…. For everything that is given, something is taken…. No greater men are now than they ever were.”
Technological “progress,” for example? Take any so-called advance. Agribusiness. Pesticides. Chemotherapy. No downsides here? I remember one of the last things my mother said to me before she died eight years into cancer (a cancer that she was statistically cured of), that if she could do it over again, she wouldn’t have let the doctors touch her.
The losses, at least equal to the gains, are everywhere you look. A hundred years after the first dehumanizing assembly lines, the takeaways of the automobile are too numerous to mention. The takeaways of the Internet, after barely twenty years of active use, are now clearly coming into focus. The mobile phone, the smart phone? How much has been lost in the quality of human life because of the omnipresent phone? How much has been lost because of television? You have to be a person born in the 40’s to know what a world without the boob-tube was like.
And it was smarter in a lot of ways. As kids we were outdoors more, closer to nature, and, since we are nature, closer to ourselves. Indoors, without television, we looked at each other more, talked to each other more. Television and these later developments in screen life have drastically reduced our contact with nature and each other, and finally with our own souls — to the point that I see very little in the way of gains. On the balance sheet, far more losses.
. . .
I think my father laid in me the early groundwork for understanding Emerson, even though Dad did believe in progress. Several times in my youth, I remember him saying, “I have a little bit better life than my folks had, and you’ll have a little bit better life than I had, and your kids will have a little bit better life than you have.” But his was a positive vision born out of another world from where we live today. In that “little bit better” than his father’s life, Dad earned 20 dollars a week working “full-time” in the nearby natural gas fields. And he made maybe another 20 dollars on our 40 acre farm, selling milk (we had five Guernsey cows that we milked by hand), plus planting an acre of cucumbers, sometimes string beans (which my sisters and I picked), and various other small operations.
Even without Dad’s gas-field income, we would have been darn close to self-sufficient. More self-reliant, to be sure. We had to be. It was a pleasure to be. We cultivated a big garden, from which we ate in the summer and canned (later froze) our winter vegetables. We had a hen house from which we gathered our eggs and enjoyed a good many chicken dinners. Socks were darned. Holes in jeans were patched. Lights not being used were turned off. To be conservative was the most sensible thing in the world. A penny saved was a penny earned.
Our neighbors and townsfolk were the same way. Technology was moving very slowly. Comfortably slowly. We had a small Case tractor, but Phil Baker next farm south still worked his fields with horses. Television didn’t come into our house until I was eleven, and then a little 12 inch black and white screen and one channel that brought in decent reception. It was nice to have, but we barely watched it. The telephone came in a little earlier, but it was used to exchange information or call the doctor, things like that. We were on what was called a party line that we shared with five other farm households.
I mention these details to point out the slow growth and humble circumstances under which my father believed in progress. Believed in capitalism, you might say. Believed in America. It was the “little bit” that impresses me now as I look back — unthinkably modest and fair-minded, by today’s values. Often when we drove to town, Dad would point out a certain house and say, “Right there lives the richest man in Marion.” What he wanted my sisters and me to notice was how much the same as ours was the house of the richest man in our home town.
. . .
In the recent election, it wasn’t lost on me that it was heartland America, the Midwest where I grew up, that turned the election towards Trump. It was a surprising show of power for a population that had been so forgotten that the Democrats didn’t even bother to address its concerns, the number one of which was: “What’s all this Obama talk about recovery?”
After the election results were in and analyzed, political pundits largely agreed that it was old white men (and often their wives and children, since families tend to think alike) from the swing states of Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin that got Trump into the oval office. The rust belt states, they are called, because their cities were once manufacturing centers with good paying jobs. But it actually was the out-lying rural areas of the rust belt, that never had much going in the way of manufacturing, who voted for Trump en masse, county after county after county, and got him elected.
When I think of who these Midwestern old white men are, I think of my father. But that couldn’t be, since Dad, as well all of his friends, have been dead for at least a decade now. So the old white men were in fact the next generation (my childhood friends and I) remembering our fathers, mothers, grandparents and the simpler lives of our formative years.
Today those once thriving small farmer/merchant communities are at best a shadow of their former selves. Most were not sustained even into the next generation — our generation — after our parents. Marion is practically a ghost town now, like that depicted in “The Last Picture Show.” Main Street is on life support. The small outlying farms have all but disappeared. At school reunions, I note that almost everybody in my class — including me — lives elsewhere.
One of the core attractions of such reunions is to remember with each other our parents and grandparents. Last summer, I had a great talk with Roger Baker, a close friend in my childhood and the grandson of the aforementioned Phil Baker. I told him how just the mention of his grandparents’ names brought a smile to my parents’ faces. I remember Phil in his 80’s talking about building a new barn, and how Dad got a kick out of that. And Theresa, a master gardener, every Thursday night, summer/fall/winter/spring, would walk the quarter-mile of dirt road between our farms to watch “I Love Lucy” with my family. Mom and Theresa loved each other, and I would observe all that.
Roger’s and my eyes both welled up as I was recalling those memories. All of us there in the Methodist Church annex had known in our youths a simpler, slower way of life, with deeper community ties. Compared to now, there was, indeed, a humble kind of greatness in it. We were more intimate with our immediate social and natural environment. Then, not knowing any better, thinking it was progress we were making, we drifted into life’s faster and ever faster lanes, until there was no turning back.
And to think that it’s that memory of an honest-to-god greater America that the pussy-grabbing, money-grubbing, multibillionaire, “Make America Great Again” Donald Trump manipulated in us to get himself elected President.
Far fucking out. Looks like there still a whole lot more lost to get.