Reimagining American Community

oldtruckI was moved by the Super Bowl advertisement for Ram Trucks featuring excerpts from Paul Harvey’s “So God Made a Farmer” speech at the 1978 Future Farmers of America Convention.  So were lots of other people. Part of it was hearing Harvey’s voice again and part of it was the evocative presentation of farm life. Of course, the mark of erudition and fashionable urbane cynicism is to critique such a blatantly home-spun ad: it was unrepresentative and profoundly bad theology. (In the Judeo-Christian understanding of Creation, God rests on the 8th day and establishes the Sabbath; having God working on Sunday is so American!)  And then there is using images of the “American farmer” to sell trucks not even made in America.

Those are, in large measure, fair points, but they do not explain the emotional pull of the spot itself.  What I find interesting is not that an advertisement gives us an inaccurate representation of real-life farm workers and farm owner-operators, but that the ad does anything other than repulse us: what is it about this fictional presentation of rural life that attracts us?

In contrast to the other Super Bowl ads, no exceptionally attractive models are depicted in this one – most of the characters look aged, faces lined, hands dirty and bodies worn.  It is notably devoid of success stories, but dwells on long hours, toil and crushing experiences of outright loss: God said, I need somebody willing to sit up all night with a newborn colt. And watch it die. Then dry his eyes and say, ‘Maybe next year.’  The spot ends with “To the farmer in all of us,” but who the heck would want to sign up for that?  Ram claims, “In our newest Ram brand commercial, we dedicate 2013 to celebrating the American farmer.”  This “celebration” could double as a funeral dirge, as one commentator noted, If we’re supposed to wax sentimental about people whom God supposedly chose to spend their lives performing the drudgery of farm work for the benefit of others at little reward to themselves, then let’s see a photo montage featuring slaves and sharecroppers.  “Ram trucks, for the inner slave in all of us!”

Part of the attraction is the inherent contrast of the iconic farm-family-on-the-land with the realities of modern work-life.  There is suffering in both; but the farmer’s suffering is chosen and meaningful while the frustrations of useless staff meetings, rush-hour, and bureaucratic paperwork are banal and alienating.  The whole concept of work – life balance implies that we are alive when not at work or need to fit our living into vacation and weekends.

There is a strange duality of life: we live in one place and work another; we love one set of people and spend our day with people we may or may not like.  This duality or split is more extreme for some occupations than others, but the lack of an integrated world of relationships and being is deeply stressful, even if we are mostly used to it.  There is something good and beautiful in living a unified life where the people you live with and call family are also the people with whom you spend most of your time. The family farmer doesn’t “do” work-life balance, or commuting, or useless paperwork, or time sheets, but lives who they are, where they are.

The average American spends more than 50 minutes a day just going from home to work. If you live in an urban area, commuting, particularly during “rush-hour” can be a hostile environment. I am not just talking about random acts of road rage, but the level of aggressive, competitive driving (and public transportation rudeness) we just take for granted.  Commuting by car is expensive and, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the “riskiest thing most people do every day.”  It also correlates with increased illness.

The family farmer is a throwback to the workshop system or domestic system of production, which was the normal experience for almost everyone who lived before 1900 and most people (even in industrialized nations) until very recently. In terms of economic production, the factory system now dominates, in both its blue-color and white-color forms. We don’t usually consider lawyers in 400 attorney firms as working in factories, but that is just to spare their delicate feelings. Plenty of them will admit it.  Medical doctors and university professors are not immune to the trend either, nor is any other field dominated by a desire for highly standardized, repetitive production, done with maximum efficiency.

The factory system of production is well known for its initial abuses, but was and is defended as essential to the modern economy and maintaining our accustomed affluence; after all, while the personal computer revolution started in a garage, no one can build a billion dollar semiconductor fabrication plant in their basement.  Even if we thought that the factory system is sustainable and makes us prosperous, that doesn’t mean it is conducive to human flourishing, or healthy family life, or the wellbeing of children or our mental and physical health.

The factory system centralizes the means of production within particular physical plants (schools, factories, offices, farms), with a high-density of specialized, but interchangeable, laborers (teachers, workers, professionals, laborers), and efficiently produces standardized products (education, merchandise, services, commodities) at the lowest cost. Labor and goods must commute to and from the place of concentrated production.  This system is the dominant fact shaping “modern” life and our government-funded public infrastructure exists in large part to facilitate it.  Does it make us happier or more fulfilled than the domestic system of production?

For most people, the answer is some form of, “Who cares, look at all the cool toys and manufactured food choices we have!”  For some of us, and perhaps most of us at Solidarity Hall, the Farmer commercial reminds us that there are other ways of living and flourishing. The attraction of the family farm, as an instance of the domestic system of production, is not based on naïve nostalgia, or because it looks easier, or will make us wealthier; or because it will require less suffering, blood, sweat and toil than the factory system. The attraction comes in realizing what we have lost in terms of human relationships, human-scale production and individual freedom.

[T]he test of a man’s freedom is his responsibility as a workman. Freedom is not incompatible with discipline, it is only incompatible with irresponsibility. He who is free is responsible for his work. He who is not responsible for his work is not free…. [T]he factory or servile system [is] certainly conductive to the comfort of the worker- slave and to his steady employment and security. There is not necessarily anything materially uncomfortable in a state of slavery and there is not necessarily anything materially comfortable in a state of freedom…. There is nothing to be said against slavery except that it is not the will of God. . . .  

The free man is responsible for what he does, but for the work of a slave another is responsible. That is the whole difference between the modern workman and his counterpart of past times. The modern workman is not responsible for doing anything but what he is told.

 Art Nonsense and Other Essays, Eric Gill, as cited.

About the Author
Nicholas C. Lund-Molfese, serves as the Director of the Office of Social Ministry, Evangelization and Formation of the Diocese of Springfield – Cape Girardeau (Missouri) and also as Director of Trinity Hills, a house and farm for Christian formation.