Tractors Drive Themselves: One Man’s Return to the Farm
2012 Column Contest Winner
Matthew James called his bank the other day. A woman answered and said, “Well hi, Matt. How’s your mom been?” This is both comforting and disconcerting. That is his life now. After 15 years away, a writer returns to the corn farm where he grew up and the small-town life that most of America left behind. He might be the only person with tickets to see Louis C.K. in San Francisco who doesn’t know how he’s getting there. And by “there,” he means an airport.
Where I Left Conservatives.
I like conservatism. I especially like the idea of conservatism. I like the notion of a slimmed-down government that doesn’t need my money, yet still provides powerful Wi-Fi connections at conveniently placed rest stops on smooth interstate highways. I like the idea of endless freedoms but also safety from whatever fancy fireworks display North Korea is working on.
I like the conservative ideas of business. I like the image of mom-and-pop stores that survive because of personal service. I like the idea of giant, Don Corleone-sized corporations that hire Americans to build windshields for Chevy Malibus in Toledo, Ohio, and don’t slip garbage into rivers even though it would save them money. I like the idea that when left alone, when not strangled by taxes and regulation, these businesses would thrive and expand and give to charity and buy T-shirts for their company softball teams.
I like the idea that powerful change comes from small, local groups. Hell, go even smaller. I like that there is nothing more efficient than one motivated person. I like that churches are responsible for so much of this country’s charitable good. I like that you can wake up any day of your life and have a real impact on something. Mow a neighbor’s yard. Teach someone English. Visit a sick person. Buy food for a homeless shelter. Replace the torn net at the city park’s basketball court, and not just replace it, but spend the extra few bucks for the chain net that lasts longer and makes that awesome sound when you swish a shot.
This was the “conservative” I grew up around. At least that’s how it felt. Admittedly, I was young and religious and had experienced all the diversity of a Wyoming city council meeting. It was a gift-wrapped childhood. We lived on a farm. The closest I came to seeing a drug was the frying egg in that famous commercial. A hardship in our community was being a “latch-key kid.” Our house didn’t even have keys. Or if it did, we never used them. Not once. Not even when we loaded up the mini-van and drove to Disneyland, Clark Griswold style. It was that kind of childhood. It was Mayberry. This was my conservatism.
Now, allegedly, small-town America is an angry place. Ticked off. The “red” sections of the map are on fire. The “fly-over states” are tired of being called that and they’re not gonna take it anymore, though the only time I remember that phrase being used was in a country song actually celebrating middle America. Then again, I don’t watch cable news, which is a good way to dodge stereotyping and high blood pressure.
This is not breaking news, of course. The political climate is severe. Everyone knows. A country of 314 million—people of different colors and backgrounds and ideas—has been reduced to primary colors. Welcome to America, the home of two annoying teams, and we don’t mean the Yankees-Red Sox. How do we get that on a piece of currency?
But it’s hard to know sometimes what is reality and what is talk-show nonsense, ratings-driven hyperbole. When I moved back to Kansas last summer, I hadn’t spent any significant time in the Midwest for a decade. I was excited to experience it for myself. I was also nervous. I’d been a member of the dreaded media. I was, at the time, getting unemployment. I am a supporter of gay marriage. Generally speaking, these are not small-town Kansas ideals.
It’s been fine. I don’t know what I was even worried about. Through my years of college and journalism, I have lived in seven states and I am convinced that an overwhelming majority of all Americans in all parts of the country are kind, tolerant, rational people. I still believe that. But I’m also pretty convinced that, at least politically, conservative America truly is an angry, defensive place. Let’s take California. I am constantly asked about California. Whether it’s the liberal judges, or the tree-huggers, or Berkeley, or Hollywood, Midwesterners make comments about California all the time. California is the Death Star, this giant enemy trying to crush the innocent underdog—all that is good and righteous. (Hyperbole, I know. My apologies.)
And yet, while I lived there, Californians voted against legalizing marijuana and against gay marriage. One California state senator, a man named Roy, voted against gay rights legislation even though he is gay. Said he knew that’s what the people of his district wanted. I’m not making the argument that California is as conservative as Kansas, I’m saying that most people have the similar fears and struggles and hopes. Most of us aren’t that different. It bothers me that middle America seems to be in a very us-against-the-world place not necessarily based in reality.
Liberals can’t just have a different political philosophy, they’re out to destroy America. All of them. On purpose. They want to take over. You hear that sort of thing a lot and not just about Jane Fonda like in the old days. (And even then we still watched On Golden Pond because it was fantastic.) Maybe American politics has always been passionate and combative—let’s not forget Mr. Burr, the vice president of the country, once shot a man to death—but something is different now. I hear people call the First Lady fat. I’m not talking about the emotionally unstable or those who’ve made politics their only hobby, I mean people who I consider respectful, intelligent adults. People at the grocery store. Calling the president’s wife fat. Well, you should hear what the other side says. You should hear the hate that liberals spew. Maybe they do, but that’s the ‘he hit me first’ defense, which has been discouraged since any of us could talk. The conservatives I knew were above that.
Again, I’m not talking about the tiny percentage of crazies that often get labeled as mainstream. I’m talking about a shift of average people. For instance, crazy people think President Obama orchestrated the Sandy Hook school shooting so he could take all guns from Americans. I’m not sure what Obama’s next move is in the theory, but I’m sure it involves white people as slaves in Kenya. You may recall the conspiracy theory people from Bush and 9/11 or Clinton and the Oklahoma City bombing. It’s a fun crowd. No, I’m talking about the number of people who believe Obama is probably OK with Sandy Hook, or even glad it happened, because it serves his greater goal. I have no idea what those poll numbers would be, but I would be terrified to find out.
What’s also concerning is the number of young people posting unfortunate things on social media sites such as, “The least they could do is send me pictures of the ghetto family I’m supporting with my taxes.” Those are the sort of thoughts and ideas that are now being associated with conservatism. After Obama’s reelection, various web sites made note (and more importantly screen shots) of young people posting racist remarks on Twitter. The surprising part wasn’t that the remarks were made, but who was making them and the method by which the people were punished. Many were high school students who participated in extra curricular activities with codes of conduct. They weren’t juvenile delinquents or seasoned supremacists, they were athletes from middle class families, a lot of them far from the Deep South. For the most part, teenagers don’t have well-researched political opinions. They repeat what they’ve heard at home.
If it feels like I’m picking on one side, I am. This isn’t about liberals. I’m sure Jesse Jackson is doing something self-serving as we speak. No, I’m making a plea to a political movement that I once found appealing. Who could argue that our government’s spending is egregious? Who would not agree that the bigger any group is, whether an organization or charity or company, is more likely to have waste and fraud? A political party with smaller government as its main platform should be dominating elections right now. And yet it’s not. And the highlight of the Conservative Political Action Conference was Sarah Palin drinking a Big Gulp on stage. I know, I know, a massive conspiracy of the left wing media to minimize conservatives by showing a low-brow moment. Obviously outlets will use the highlight to increase ratings and web site hits, but the media didn’t put her on the platform. They weren’t the ones cheering as she mocked Mayor Bloomberg’s idea to limit the size of soft drink containers.
Those were conservatives, braced against all that would conspire against them, even if it meant standing with obesity and diabetes. I want my conservatism with at least a side of compassion. As a red state native, I know the answer to that. Liberal activism isn’t compassion. It’s fake. It’s a tool to gain power and reelection. I know that explanation, but to these untrained eyes it looked like you’re hammering a guy who saw a problem and had an idea. You cannot be anti-people-with-ideas, even if you disagree with those ideas, and wonder why a nation doesn’t rally behind you. I want a conservatism that believes in personal rights, but isn’t overwhelmed by the ‘my big gun and my big drink and my big country’ crowd. Conservatives have gotten really good at firing those people up while everyone else snuck out to find a quieter gathering.
Maybe it’s just the negativity. All the anger makes me uncomfortable. I’m a voter with a Sunday morning buffet of opinions, but I’d be willing to give you another shot. I really would. I’m a Kansan again. I’m on your turf.
On second thought, let’s wait and see if I’m still allowed in the state after this.
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