Like a lot of Texans, I’m never really quite sure whether to say I’m from the South. Houston is in the South, and Dallas is in the South, but El Paso is not in the South, and Amarillo is in its soul a suburb of Denver. Lubbock is a lot more like Kansas than it is like Alabama. But, arguendo, let’s say I come from the South.
One of the worst things about attitudes in, and about, the South is sentimentality, as I allude to today in my piece about Paul Theroux’s batty little screed bemoaning alleged Southern economic decline in the New York Times, in which he fusses over the situation of small family-owned farms (“black family farmers in the Delta,” because that’s more picturesque) and the disappearance of textile factories and the like. (I have not read his related book.) This is the flip-side of the same sentimentalism that informs Confederate flag veneration and the like. “Why can’t things be like they used to be?” Because they ain’t, Bubba. (And, if we’re telling the truth, because they weren’t.)
The only people who are sentimental about life down on the farm are people who’ve never lived life down on the farm, and the only people who are sentimental about sewing underwear in Arkansas factories are people who never had to live that way. The men of my father’s generation, those born in the 1930s and 1940s, more or less organized their lives around not ending up in small-scale farming or textile factories or cotton gins. I’ve never in my life met a Walmart manager or a grocer or a trucking agent or a laundry-detergent salesman from the South who said, “Yeah, I really wish I were working 18 hours a day to clear $14,000 a year on a 40-acre farm in Grayson County, Texas.” Not one.
We don’t have a lot of small family farms anymore for the same reason that we don’t have a lot of small family steel mills or utility companies: because it is a form of economic organization that doesn’t make a damned bit of sense. The next time I’m at some winger conference, Annette Kirk may very well punch me in the ear in memory of her late husband, but: Good riddance. Small-scale farming is the worst way of making a living known to mankind, and, given a choice, people will choose almost anything else. Do-gooders who can’t understand why people from rural India are lined up around the block for jobs in those purportedly horrible “sweat shops” and call centers and the like never ask themselves: What’s their next-best option? It’s hustling millet.
As a couple of readers have pointed out, I’m channeling the late Sam Kinison in his bit about African famine: If you live in the economic desert, move. Go. Leave. Get the hell out. Yes, there is something (something conservative) to be said for rootedness, for the particularities of place and community. Life is full of tradeoffs. As a great conservative philosopher once put it: Get a job. If that’s not happening in East Donkey, Arkansas, then maybe East Donkey isn’t the place to be. Our forefathers crossed the ocean in rickety little wooden boats to face cholera, starvation, and tomahawks. All you have to do is save up enough for a U-Haul rental and the deposit on a new apartment. Get going.