Super Bowl farmer ad sucks, and the idea behind it sucks, too

Well, the votes are in on the best ads from the Super Bowl, and everyone it seems, loves a schmaltzy ad sponsored by Dodge Ram which celebrates American farmers as true heroes, exemplars of all that is right and good with our country. To put this in terms a farmer would understand: Bullshit.

If this is the way we are defining heroes, we need to find a new word. A hero is supposed to be someone who does a heroic deed. A soldier who dashes out under fire to save a wounded comrade is a hero. A teacher who turns down a higher paying job to teach special ed is a hero. A young immigrant who works two jobs and goes to school nights to buy a house for her young family is a hero. People who get up every day and go to work are not heroes, especially when that work entails climbing into the air-conditioned cabs of their enormous tractors and driving down the road to the mailbox, where they collect their lavish checks from the U.S. government.

Look, I grew up on a farm. I’ve worked on a farm. I have a degree in agricultural engineering. I own a farm and live there. My neighbors are farmers, and I’ve spend more than one day helping them load pipe, corral wayward cattle, and string fence. I own a tractor. A real one. I get farming.

I don’t think many people do. They must not, or they wouldn’t make silly, pretentious, misleading ads like the one getting all the critic-love this morning.

Why are we suckers for ads like this? Perhaps it’s nostalgia for a Norman Rockwell-like America that probably never existed. Perhaps it’s survivor guilt. A century or two ago, 90% of us were farmers. Now it’s 1%. Our ancestors and we got as far away as we could  as fast as we could. Perhaps it’s the fact that they now live in fancy mansions no farmer could afford that lead Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp to host annual fundraisers for them. For whatever reason, as a country we have concocted and perpetuated a mythology around the noble small family farm. Even thoughtful and right-minded progressives get lumps in their throats and plaster the bumpers of their hybrid cars with stickers celebrating farmers. We’re not alone. France and Japan have similar blind spots. Still, it’s time to stop this nonsense.

It’s a myth that small farmers matter, at least in the sense that they provide the food on our table. The truth is that small farms make up 90% of farms, but only supply 27% of our food. Farming is like everything else these days, big rules. Yes, family-run diners are cute, but most people get their breakfast from McDonald’s. Small farms make for good commercials, but they are fast become irrelevant in terms of contribution to food supply. It’s the big, professional, commercial farms that feed us.

It’s a myth that we owe them our thanks for doing what they do. We don’t run commercials thanking accountants, or proctologists, or plumbers, or any of a host of people who do things that make our lives better. That’s because they get paid, for Chrissake. Farmers don’t get up every day to grow food because it’s a mission, they do it because it’s their job. As a rule, we don’t thank people profusely for doing their jobs. Okay, it’s polite to thank people, and I have no problem with us thanking farmers, but we don’t owe it to them.

It’s a myth that farmers are strong, self-sufficient, plucky little operations making their lonely way in a tough, cruel world. Farmers get roughly $100 billion a year from the federal government, roughly a quarter of a million dollars per year per farm. Some of that is in direct payments, some of it is in crop insurance, some of it is by guaranteeing markets and prices for whatever they produce. Farmers are some of the biggest deadbeats in America. They are entitlement artistes, managing to milk a perpetual handout from a John Steinbeck novel.

It’s a myth that they form some sort of bedrock for our society. Look at the last election map—the rural areas are all red. Virtually all the recidivist, reactionary, and incompetent idiots in government were elected in farm-heavy areas. Farmers are purely and simply an anchor on our society, holding us back economically, socially and intellectually. I have a lot of respect for the Founding Fathers, but the idea of giving disproportionate representation to rural areas made a lot more sense when a lot of people lived there. Now it has created a system of electoral blackmail, where small, farmer-heavy states can use their undeserved weight to stymie progress.

It’s a myth that these myths don’t hurt anything, that it’s just harmless romanticizing at worst. Because we sanctify farmers, we reflexively support farm bills to “help them out.” That aid hurts the environment by encouraging over-production. It creates famines in Africa because local farmers are put out of business by our heavily subsidized imports. It encourages obesity in the U.S. because it turns out the foods farmers most want to produce (because they’re easy) are also the ones that cause our health problems.

Look, farms do serve a purpose. In a sort of bizarre Keynesian way, as with all industries that use manual labor for part of their value added,  they provide employment for people who lack the intelligence and skills to do other things. It’s not quite the same as one group of men digging holes and another filling them in, but it’s pretty close.

So enough of this. If we’re going to praise someone for goodness sake, how about a commercial for the guy that fixed my DSL last week. Now that was heroic.

Venus’ surface temperature series updated

Venus terrain composite (NASA)

Venus terrain composite (NASA)

In early May, 2011 I posted a five-part series about the surface temperature of Venus. In it I demonstrated that the Venus’ surface temperature – hot enough to melt lead – was not a result of internal heating from Venus’ core. Instead, the greenhouse effect of Venus’ largely carbon dioxide atmosphere is the reason the surface is so much hotter than it would be without the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, I made a pretty significant error in my calculations and used the wrong value for a physical constant that made many of my calculations about 20% too high. While I acknowledged the error as soon as it was pointed out to me by an observant commenter, I had not taken the time to go back through all five posts and correct the calculations until last week. As I had pointed out as soon as my mistake was discovered, none of the conclusions changed as a result of the error, but I feel it’s important nonetheless to make admit mistakes and make corrections as required. I’m sorry it took so long to make the corrections.

Here are links to each of the Venus posts I made in one place. I hope you find them useful.

Venus’ climate I: How scientists know Venus’ surface is unusually hot (corrected)

Venus’ climate II: How scientists know Venus’ surface temperature isn’t from internal heating (Corrected)

Venus’ climate III: How scientists know Venus isn’t geologically young (Corrected)

Venus’ climate IV: How scientists know Venus’ surface temperature isn’t from a “recent” astronomical collision

Venus’ climate V: How scientists know Venus’ surface temperature is a result of greenhouse heating (corrected)

Messiahs and scapegoats and taboos, oh my…

I am behind on reporting on my reading list for 2013 – for that, I apologize, but what that does mean is that you’ll see at least two andprobably three new blog posts this week as I catch you up on my experience with the books on my list. First up is

the anthropologist Marvin Harris‘s classic explanation of our need for messiahs, scapegoats, sacred cows, and taboos, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches.

I was attracted to Harris for a couple of reasons. One is, as anthropologists go, he was something of a provocateur, and, since my own academic career has often veered in that direction, I get him personally. Second, like another favorite “public intellectual” whose work I admire (and who is a contemporary of Harris), Neil Postman, he writes wonderfully lucid, readable prose that one can read and comprehend readily without an advanced degree in his subject area. (This doesn’t lessen the insight and enjoyment of reading either of these thinkers and writers one bit. In fact, both provide the highly valuable service of opening doors into their respective fields – anthropology and communication studies – that may draw readers into more “scholarly” reading in these fields.)

But on to Harris’s book.

The thrust of Harris’s argument has to do with what we could call the “ecological” approach to anthropology: he attempts to explain human behavior in terms of social and economic needs of a given culture. The protection of cows in Hindu culture, for example, (they are, literally, sacred) can be explained quite satisfactorily once one understands the need for cow dung as fuel and the economic necessity of using land for grain rather than meat production. Similarly, Harris relates the abhorrence of pigs by Jews more to the ecological damage that would be done to Israel by widespread hog farming – a practice that would place pigs in direct competition with humans for scarce resources (food, water).

From these examples of how ecology and social practice intersect, Harris moves our attention to the South Pacific and the Pacific Northwest where he explains two practices that, when expanded in more advanced societies, turn on humanity in ugly ways: war and, for want of a better term, potlatch (the giving of gifts as a display of wealth and power). As practiced by South Pacific islanders called the Tsembaga Maring, war is a way of conserving resources and allows them to maintain a reasonable population for their environment. As practiced by tribes like the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island, Canada, one way a chief shows his worthiness to lead is through the ritual giving away of tribal wealth.

It should be obvious to anyone reading this that extrapolating from the practices of the Tsembaga and the Kwakiutl into more complex societies leads to all kinds of ugliness: empire building is only one of the outcomes that readers of this piece will surely recognize as the natural outcome of developing potlatch and war as economic practices.

But it’s in the areas of expecting others to save us from ourselves and finding others to blame for our misfortunes that Harris really enjoys himself the most. Let’s look at each separately.

The idea of the messiah – the anointed one who’ll save us from our bad choices – Harris defines as being an extension of what he calls “cargo cults“: the belief of undeveloped cultures that the goods brought by imperialist colonizers are a sort of “salvation.” The most  dedicated practitioners of messiah cultism were, of course, the Hebrew and Christian cultures of  the period of Roman occupation of Palestine. The interesting – for Harris, especially – and noteworthy characteristic of Jewish messianic belief is that their messiahs are military in nature – in other words, the traditional ecology of their homeland must be restored by war (see the Tsembaga mentioned above) – since Roman (and other, earlier, we should note) conquest has changed that ecology (and hence restored it from, for example, Egyptian or Babylonian conquest).  In fact, Harris argues that the rise of Jesus Christ as a “prince of peace” – a new kind of messiah – coincides with the destruction of Jerusalem and the final decimation of Jewish resistance to Roman domination.

In a similar way, Harris argues that the offering of scapegoats as focuses for cultural anger – and Harris offers the most well known example, the witch – by dominant cultural forces (since the rise of witch persecution came in the Middle Ages, these would be hereditary nobility and the now dominant and, in its own way, imperialistic Catholic Church) which allowed both of these ruling classes to escape punishment for their lack of concern for the plight of “those who work” (I use this term because of its suggestion of the “three orders” of society as discussed by Georges Duby, among others). If the problems and struggles of a culture where one group did all labor to support the other two groups could be explained away as the result of “bad magic” which could be fixed by burning alive or otherwise committing genocide on the old, the mentally disturbed, ethnic “outsiders,” or women, then everyone could live together happily – except for those murdered for the sake of defusing societal discontent, of course.

Harris ends his book (published in 1974) with a few choice barbs aimed at what was then known as the “counter-culture” (what we now think of most often as the New Age movement). His point that time spent rehabilitating witchcraft and/or expecting a “harmonic convergence” or some other sort of “cosmic salvation” could be better spent addressing world culture’s real economic and social inequities is well taken.  One wishes only that he’d updated his work to address issues such as fundamentalist religion’s rise and other – as Marshall McLuhan termed them – “rear view” cultural movements.