Wendell Berry’s Citizenship Papers piles up repetition of ideas, and it’s starting to wear on me. His ideals are noble: agrarianism. But, I must admit that the essays are repetitive, and before I long I will be asking someone else to join us at the table on Fridays. Our next book will be M. Volf, The End of Memory. But, Berry’s chapter “The Prejudice against Country People” struck me.
I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that Berry here appeals to political correctness in how we speak of and think about farmers, but he’s got a real point: the stereotype of farmers is demeaning.
Berry says that the world’s farmers and other “provinicial” people “have about the same status now as enemy civilians in wartime” (109) and there is an “economic suicide” underway. Most of us don’t know enough farmers to experience this. I grew up among farmers and do know that there are some major, major changes that threaten their livelihood. Many have been crushed by the incorporation of farming.
Even the sentimental stereotype is demeaning. They are involved in the “idyllic life” or as “salt of the earth” or the “independent son of the soil” or a “child of nature.” This leads them to being seen as rustic simpletons or uncouth rednecks. He suggests some of this comes from manual labor being perceived as bad and unworthy of the educated.
I remember when we had a new roof put on our home. The man we employed, a white man, along with ten or so Mexicans, showed up about 8am and by 2pm were gone — and the job was done. He told me that young American boys were unreliable. It made me wonder what will happen to “manual labor” jobs in the next generation — have desk jobs and technology jobs and the like completely replaced the agrarian and manual life for many?
Who will be our mechanics? our custodians? our furniture makers? (I could go on.)
Has a stereotype of the manual work life, the agrarian life, been established so deep into our minds that we are preparing the last generation that will have any connection to the soil? Is there something wrong with farming, landscaping, building furniture, etc?