Cultural Leaders Are Responsible for the Collapse of Rural Culture

In 1923 Albert Schweitzer, in volume I of The Philosophy of Civilization, introduced his topic with a section on “How Philosophy is Responsible for the Collapse of Civilization.”[1] Schweitzer went on to write that, philosophy had evolved to the point where “the creative spirit had left her” and “the problems of life had no part in her activities.”[2]

Schweitzer’s predictions of decay proved prophetic as, within two decades, we witnessed a very real, very dramatic “collapse of civilization.” Echoing Schweitzer’s words, Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Nazi death camps later wrote that there is a “straight path” between reductionist views of humanity and “the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Maidenek.”[3]

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Here in Iowa in our time we can paraphrase Schweitzer and consider the role of our own cultural community in “the decay and restoration” of our Midwestern regional culture and the larger civilization in which we participate. I want to give special attention to the process of rural decay and to a lesser extent, the decay of our inner cities. I can illustrate our rural decay with reference to the latest and most dramatic expression of Iowa’s “problems of life:” the rapid takeover of hog farming by hog factories, in accordance with the North Carolina model of megatechnology and corporate welfare, and funded by outside investors such as North Carolina politician and billionaire, Wendell Murphy.[4]

Was it thirty years ago that the cartoon character Pogo, standing amidst environmental destruction, stated: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Well, let’s look carefully at the contrast between Iowa’s environmental awareness and our cultural awareness, as illustrated by the crisis in our livestock industry at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

While it is true that a hog factory in Iowa can legally pump as much raw sewage as a small town produces into an earthen sewage-lake, without being required to build a sewage treatment plant, still, since the very beginning, hog factory proponents have been forced to face the environmental question. They have been forced by Iowa’s environmental community to claim that what they are doing is good for the environment.[5] With the exception of a few kinks yet to be worked out by scientists at Iowa State University, they are not destroying Iowa’s ecosystem, they declare. Iowa’s environmental community, while losing over and over again at the state legislature, has at least forced advocates for industrial agriculture to claim they’re pro-environment. No longer can they get away with the position that being pro-environment is bad for business. Even Governor Branstad, year after year in his state of the state speech, claimed that Iowa has the toughest environmental laws in the nation, even though we now know that Iowa rivers are some of the dirtiest. So he spoke out in favor of the need for strong environmental laws, even if he didn’t support them.

Now, let’s take this same issue and turn it around and look at the cultural side of it. Here we find that the same people who have been forced to at least give lip service to the defense of Iowa’s natural ecosystem, still claim that the destruction of Iowa’s cultural ecosystem is beneficial for the state. We need a natural ecosystem to stay alive and to thrive biologically. They acknowledge this. What they do not see is that we also need a healthy culture, not merely to provide “exciting” attractions for tourists and our youth, but yes, we even need a sane culture to ensure our survival. In taking such a hostile attitude to our rural cultural heritage, these academic, business and political leaders dramatically illustrate the overwhelming failure of cultural education in the state of Iowa.

Now, let me explain more fully why I believe, with Schweitzer, that the cultural community, by grossly neglecting to apply their expertise to the very tangible “problems of life” of Iowa’s awesome agricultural/agribusiness drama, is “responsible for the collapse of civilization” here, and driving many our our best young people out of the state.

First, consider this: in his book On Thermonuclear War, Herman Kahn speculated about how many tens of millions dead in a nuclear holocaust would be “acceptable losses.”[6] Erich Fromm, writing about Kahn’s book, argued that “we are dealing here with one of the crucial problems of our age–the transformation of men into numbers on a balance sheet.”[7] Do you hear Schweitzer here? Do you see Frankl?

Now switch from Kahn’s military think tank in 1960 to the Committee for Economic Development in 1962, just two years later. In their report “An Adaptive Program for Agriculture,” the CED called for a program “. . . to induce excess resources (people primarily) to move rapidly out of agriculture,” one third of the farmers and farm workers “in a period of not more than five years,” by lowering price floors for corn and other feed grains.[8] “Excess resources.” Now there’s a term. How’s that for reductionism against Iowa’s rich heritage of rural culture.

Here in Iowa this same exact “balance sheet thinking” has been touted by Iowa State University for forty years. In 1962 Geoffrey Shepherd, in a report, “Appraisal of the Federal Feed-Grains Programs,” included a section called “Need Programs to Facilitate the Migration of Surplus Farmers Off Farms.”[9] Thirty-six years later (1998) Iowa State University Extension publications still carried a 1986 publication which opened with a statement about “a need to move excess resources out of agriculture . . . labor resources.”[10]

In these reports the deliberate destruction of rural culture, of Iowa’s living rural heritage is advocated without the slightest consideration of the civilizational value of this culture.

Another report coming out of Iowa State University and the Iowa Business Council in 1993 makes the cultural issue explicit. In this report they make it very clear. There are two sides, they point out: the reductionists who claim that “farming is a business” and nothing but a business, and the culturalists who insist that, in actual fact, farming is not just a business, its a way of life.[11] In this contrast they give virtually nothing to culture. No, the “way of life” people, they insist, are not fit to survive. The “way of life” people are backward, ignorant losers, they claim, closed off to the magnificent changes which the utopia of reductionism can bring to the state of Iowa.[12]

In contrast, the reductionists, the farming-is-nothing-but-a-business people will be Iowa’s agricultural leaders, they boldly prophecy.[13] They represent the wave of the future. And they’ve got a point there, for as I have suggested, our actual leaders, the dominant academic, economic and political leaders of Iowa fall mostly within the reductionist camp. Why wouldn’t others aspire to share their culturally illiterate views, when I have rarely seen a cultural leader speak out persistently against the onslaught of what Viktor Frankl might call pre-holocaust thinking. Where were they, for example, when, back in 1988, Iowa State University President Gordon Eaton proclaimed ignorantly that “farming is a business, not a way of life.” In my years of living in Springville, Cedar Rapids, Cedar Falls, Iowa City and Des Moines I have not seen where our cultural scholars have come forth to set the record straight.

Clearly, America didn’t listen to Schweitzer. We didn’t hear the fascist horsemen tromping toward us very well, even up to 1940. But Picasso did! He painted Guernica! Rollo May, an American psychologist well read in the humanities described his encounter with Guernica.

When this picture first came to this country, I went down to see it at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I walked into the room and there was this large picture, all in white and grey and black, a picture showing a bulls head cut off, babies impaled upon swords, torn women lying in the agony of the bomb. The impression on me was so powerful that I could not stand any more than two or three minutes. I had to run out again and walk up and down the street until I could come back and look at it again.[14]

America’s true cultural leaders saw the collapse coming, but knew that most Americans, in our isolation and comfort, were blind to the depth of danger surging up around us. For example, in 1939 Lewis Mumford wrote that,

Probably the most serious mistake a civilized man can now make is to assume that the fundamental values of life have not been altered in the fascist countries. Traveling through Germany or Italy, the naive observer sees lovers kissing, mothers nursing babies, honest peasants cleaving the soil with mattock or shovel: life looks ‘normal.’ . . . The fact that the entire country has become, quite literally, a concentration camp does not even occur to him: . . .

Large groups of people still somehow refuse to believe that nations which use the radio and the electric motor can, by a purely ideological transformation, become hostile to all those traditions that cement together the members of civil society.[15]

One year later he argued the case for the seeing with the eyes of the humanities. First he quoted Herman Melville: “. . . your arts advance in faith’s decay: you are but drilling the new Hun . . . .”[16] Then he warned:

One of the great difficulties in understanding what has taken place under our eyes, . . . is the fact that political and economic disturbances are usually the final symptoms of a collapsing civilization. These visible facts are preceded by a much longer period of inner decay, which only a few people–usually separated from their society by alien beliefs–recognize as the symptom of organic disease.[17]

In our day, family farmers, particularly those experiencing themselves within their own “way of life,” representing therefore, the spirit of an alternative cultural heritage to that of our dominant urban civilization, should be sought out on questions of this fundamental “organic disease” of reductionism. In particular, organic farmers, separated as they have been, laughed at by agricultural extension workers, ignored by agricultural leaders at Iowa State University,[18] cut out of the benefits of farm programs,[19] could, with cultural assistance and support, provide powerful cultural insight to our narrow minded leadership elites. Iowa would then see more clearly that farmers today are echoing Lewis Mumford’s 1940 warning:

Let us not be deceived by outward signs of activity and vitality. In the very generation that Rome finally fell into the hands of the barbarians, there were renewed expenditures, on a grand scale, for public works.[20]

Iowa’s corporate executives need to be more effectively exposed to the dramatic presence of these farmers, for as American poet Walt Whitman put it, “I and mine do not convince by arguments: we convince by our presence.”[21]

Charles Hampden-Turner, a consultant on corporate culture, noted that pesticide company executives for which he worked “shied away from the really ‘monstrous dilemmas.”[22] And no wonder, for as Iowa’s organic farmers have proved, we can produce plenty of food whithout them. In contrast to the Iowa Business Council, Hampden-Turner argued that “We need to create wealth more effectively but, more than that, we need leaders who can stare into the face of the absurd and find in it meaning that could save us all.”[23]

To me it is clear: Iowa needs to hear deeper cultural voices. That’s what I’m trying to do as a folk artist, as a writer and as a public intellectual. As a farmer I’m independent. I have no contracts. I own all of my livestock. I make my own management decisions. No North Carolina billionaire tells me what to do.

I’m also an artist. I’m an independent artist emerging from the private sector. I create folk art and no academic, corporate or political group tells me what I can or can’t do. What I do is place my self inside of rural Iowa’s awesome cultural drama. I stand there, in person, side by side with other advocates for culture and sustainability, head to head against Iowa’s reductionist, anti-culture academic, business and political leaders. Repeatedly we have taken on these leaders, calling them by name and challenging their cherished philosophical illusions. At times we can become overwhelmed by the drama of these encounters. For example, during the mid 1990’s I made a long series of phone calls to Iowa farmers for the Center for Rural Affairs. To me, encountering so many real people, immersed so deeply in pathos, people like my friends and neighbors, became unbearable. It was, I believe, like Rollo May’s encounter with Guernica.

For sustenance I turn first to my faith. I find, however, that immersion within the mythology of faith can make a person vulnerable to radical otherworldly illusions if not checked and balanced by humanism and the humanities. I find, in fact, that the persona of the artist, fortified by an excellent liberal arts education, can, in its turn, provide an awesome, mythically-enriched resource for integrating these deep encounters with the current realities of Iowa culture at the brink of the twenty-first century.

And so, my vision for 2010, (or 2017,) does not ask that Iowa’s business, academic, political and cultural leaders join together to create a “National Center for Rural Culture.” First, I don’t believe that these leaders are remotely capable of completing such a project with integrity. Second, we have almost no small scale models for bringing cultural education into Iowa’s real dramas of life: for bringing cultural literacy to our corporate leaders; enhancing the artistic skills of our farmers;[24] and enabling professional artists to encounter this awesome drama, first hand, at it’s points of depth and authenticity. We are clearly not ready, therefore, to build a National Center for Rural Culture.

What we need instead is something akin to the Highlander Folk Center in Tennessee. At Highlander they immersed themselves, in person, in two powerful dramas, first the labor movement and then the civil rights movement. They built upon the traditions of folk culture and made it accessible to people of pathos all across the South. It was there, for example, that Martin Luther King learned the song “We Shall Overcome.” Highlander accomplished this over and against the top academic, economic, political and cultural leaders of the South. Clearly, if these same leaders had dominated Highlander’s board it wouldn’t have happened.

In his later years the late Myles Horton, the founder and director of Highlander, stated that he hoped to be a part of a third major cultural drama before he died. Now, some years after his death that drama has arrived here in Iowa in what I call “the fight for beauty.” Here we fight on behalf of Iowa, the beautiful land of family farms, rural communities and regional cities. We fight for the natural beauty of Iowa’s savannas and savannah-like checkerboard farms. We fight too for the cultural beauty which is so essential to our quality of life.

For me then, as a farmer, culture is a tradition built into the private sector. It is part of the subsidy which my neighbors and I, (and others like us across the state,) offer to the larger culture as we do business. What we offer is not so much “values added” as “values reconciled.”[25] As a man educated in the humanities I constantly work to make reconciliations explicit. For example, when we sell our lamb, poultry and eggs at the farmer market, we promote our operation as “A Regeneration of Culture.” We call ourselves Fireweed farm, quoting Lewis Mumford’s prodigious work of cultural history: “Great cities might be leveled to the ground, their temples ransacked, their libraries and records burned: but the village at least would spring up again, like fireweed, in the ruins.”[26] We exhort our customers to buy our “fireweed food,” not just because of our “humane husbandry”and “sustainable technology,” but also for our “advocacy for beauty and justice” and our “family farm culture.”

In the concluding volume of his “Renewal of Life” series, Lewis Mumford cited Albert Schweitzer as “a classic example of renewal and integration.” Schweitzer work reached across the humanities and sciences to the very practical matters of survival in nonliterate regions of Africa. As Mumford stated:

In philosophy or theology, in medicine or in music, Schweitzer’s talents were sufficient to guarantee him a career of distinction: . . . But in order to remain a whole man, Schweitzer committed the typical act of sacrifice for the coming age: he deliberately reduced the intensive cultivation of any one field in order to expand the contents and the significance of his life as a whole.

So it is in his actual living, much more than in his words, that Schweitzer excelled, leading him, as it did, ultimately into a healing role within the larger drama of the primitive peoples of colonial Africa. Mumford concluded that,

if Western civilization escapes the evil fate that its over commitment to mechanism and automatism, its wholesale denial of humane values and purposes now threatens it with . . . then the form that life will take and the type of personality that will nurture it is the form and type that Albert Schweitzer has embodied. On such a basis the renewal of life is possible.

REFERENCES

[1] Albert Schweitzer, The Philosophy of Civilization: Part I: The Decay and Restoration of Civilization, (London: A & C Black Ltd., 1947), p. 1.

[2] Ibid. pp. 9, 10.

[3] Viktor Frankl, Psychotherapy and Existentialism, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), p. 123.

[4] See Pat Stith, Joby Warrick, Mealanie Sill, etc., “Boss Hog: North Carolina’s Hog Revolution,” (Originally a series in Raleigh, N.C.: The News and Observer, May 12- 1996).

[5] See, for example, Thomas Urban, et al.“The Food Production System in Iowa, Gaining World Market Share,” (Iowa Animal Agriculture Council in collaboration with the Iowa Business Council: January 1993). Note: first we are reassured that the environment will improve “as we would wish” if farmers have access to boh capital and new technology. (p. 4) But later we are cautioned about environmental concerns (pp. 15, 16) and told that “All must work diligently to remove any and all, impediments to the generation of technology and effective use of capital. . . .“ (p. 17)

[6] Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960).

[7] Erich Fromm, May Man Prevail: An Inquiry Into the Facts and Fictions of Foreign Policy, (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1961, 1964), p. 197.

[8] “An Adaptive Program for Agriculture,” (Committee for Economic Development, 1962), pp. 25, 42, 59.

[9] “Appraisal of the Federal Feed-Grains Programs,” Research Bulletin 501, (Agricultural and Home Economics Experiment Station, Iowa State University of Science and Technology: January 1962) p. 374.

[10] “Policies and Programs to Ease the Transition of Resources Out of Agriculture,” (Cooperative Extension Service, Iowa State University, May 1986).

[11] “The Food Production System in Iowa, op. cit., pp. 1, 2, 12.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Rollo May, “Creativity and Evil,” in Paul Woodruff & Harry Witmer, Facing Evil: Light at the Core of Darkness, (LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1988), p. 76.

[15] Lewis Mumford, Men Must Act, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1939), pp. 52-53.

[16] Lewis Mumford, Faith for Living, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1940), p.1.

[17] Ibid., p. 13.

[18] In 1990 organic farmers working with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement negotiated an agreement with administrators from Iowa State University for the provision of practical information on how to farm organically. That promise has never been met (as of 2001). When I visited ISU Extension publications in February of 2001, there was still not a single publication on how to farm organically.

[19] CCI research.

[20] Mumford, Faith for Living, op. cit., p. 17.

[21] For a fuller discussion related to Whitman’s concept of presence see Lewis Mumford, The Conduct of Life, volume IV of his Renewal of Life series, (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1951), pp. 100-107.

[22] Charles Hampden-Turner, Charting the Corporate Mind, (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1990), p. 134.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Robert Wolfe has enabled farmers to write folk literature. See Voices from the Land and similar books. Likewise, Tim Faye has introduced cultural people to the rural drama in his annual publication of The Wapsipinicon Almanac, for example, with a book review of Jim Schwab’s Raising Less Corn and More Hell: Midwestern farmers Speak Out.

[25] See Charles Hampden-Turner, op. cit., ch. 1, “How Value is Created.” Cf. Charles Hampden-Turner, Creating Corporate Culture, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1990).

[26] Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine: Technics & Human Development, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1967.

[27] Lewis Mumford, The Conduct of Life, New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1951.

FOR FURTHER READING

This paper, originally written some years ago, I now see as particularly relevant to the the rural Trump vote, which, in my view, is rooted in the drama of rural trauma.  See my other recent writing on this question, starting here.

Brad Wilson, “Election, Rural Vote, Donald Trump: Why and What We Need to Do,” Family Farm Justice, 11/12/16, https://familyfarmjustice.me/2016/11/12/election-rural-vote-donald-trump-why-and-what-we-need-to-do/ .

Brad Wilson, “Rural Trump Vote:  Who’s Behind the Trauma,” slide show (public), Brad Wilson on Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1149482581772830&set=a.1149482558439499.1073741841.100001332982534&type=3&theater .

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