More A Decline of the Spirit?

 

There are lots of ways to lament America’s current financial and cultural dilemmas. We borrow to satisfy our entitlement appetites; we do not fully develop our natural riches, especially gas and oil on federal lands, as if regulating is more important than producing them; we do not honor the law, seeking either to overturn it through an activist judiciary or simply bypass it by executive orders (or ignore it out of politically-correct, ends-justify-the-means smugness). There is a general sense that there are no consequences to much of anything these days: radios blare ads about how to get out of mortgage debt, IRS debt, credit card debt (as if “they” put a gun to our heads to borrow); the farm bill provides for nearly 50 million on food stamps, many who by past standards would not qualify, and gives direct payments to agribusiness at a time of record-high commodity prices. One earns more disdain by trying to enforce immigration law than by breaking it.

Behind these symptoms are lots of larger pathologies. Postmodern relativism — itself a natural outgrowth of Marxism — has infected even the primary schools, as truth and right are not absolute but become fluid and depend on matters of race, class, and gender. High technology has given us all sorts of stuff that fooled us into thinking that our ability to text message or play video simulations means that somehow we are educated or exceptional when we are not. Enforced sameness is now the role of government run by technocrats who are exempt from their own equality-of-result ideas.

And yet we are still not quite at the root of our problem, since all of the above derives from an ungrounded citizen. Too many of us grow up without any need of physical labor, much less enduring the monotony of hard work, and so do not respect those who clean our toilets or produce our food or cut our timber—or think we should ever have to endure such an indignity ourselves. We know nothing of nature, and therefore romanticize it rather than develop a guarded respect for its fury and cruelty (I wish that smug San Franciscans really would vote to blow up Hetch Hetchy as some propose, and then learn what happens when 85 percent of their water supply vanishes, and with it much of their green energy — recycled water in Pacific Heights, lights out at 8 PM on Nob Hill?). And we do not develop the tragic view inherent in an active physical life, where all the technology in the world and good intentions and ‘right’ thoughts do not prevent a gas refinery from exploding, a grape crop from rotting a day before harvest, or a mine from collapsing without warning. Quite simply, there are no longer enough self-reliant, independent citizens left to remind the majority that our present complexity is neither assured nor our birthright. I wish we had just a few hundred thousand more small hardware owners and wheat farmers and a few less Facebook executives to question the trends and assumptions of the homogenized majority.

It’s hard to admit that in times of financial turmoil much of our sense of decline is not because there is an absence of fast food, too few flat-screen TVs, or the inability to buy sneakers, but rather because there is an inability to keep acquiring and enjoying these things at a geometric rate. We are borrowing trillions from the Chinese, 400 million of whom have never seen a Western doctor, as we create vast new entitlements like Obamacare.

The decline of the family farm and the family business explains much, as Jefferson warned us. Children of the elite not only do not feel they have to work at distasteful jobs, but have no idea how labor contributes to the viability of their own family. Something is wrong when agribusiness claims they need guest workers, but the unemployment rate among youth of all races often exceeds 20 percent. To drive through a rural central California community at 10 AM is to see hundreds of young males not at work—even as we are told there are scores of jobs that go unfilled.

I don’t think this is just an idle agrarian rant, because we see the symptoms of society’s sense of something missing almost everywhere: the fascination not just with the farmers’ markets, but with those who raise and sell produce at them; the desire of metrosexuals to outfit with pricey work clothes, heavy hiking boots, 4-wheel drive cars, snow tires, and rugged coats, as if the suburbanite is eagerly headed out to work on an oil rig, or climb on a John Deere; the growing dread that the present system cannot go on, which leads the homeowner to stock up on food and emergency staples; the explosion of gym and workout centers, not just to keep in shape, but to look as if one had the muscles of a railroad worker or lumberjack; the fear and respect for the shrinking muscular classes (as if the kitchen remodeler or Mercedes mechanic is doing something as esoteric as brain surgery and may charge too much out of spite at the more privileged clueless). The attraction to someone like Mitch Daniels or Chris Christie I think owes in part to the fact they do not look or talk like the usual blow-dryed, nasal-speaking bureaucrat. I suppose the end of the U.S. is when we all end up speaking and acting like a Jay Carney.

To sum up: Politics aside, I prefer the world of George Meany to Tim Geithner; or of Gary Cooper to Matt Damon. The former showed a little wear, the others none at all.

There are 37 comments.

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive
    @CrowsNest

    A melancholy reflection indeed, VDH.

    We have, in some ways, been victims of our own success as the beneficiaries of commerce, industry, and technology.

    Or, rather, because I don’t approve of “victimhood” mentalities, we have allowed our leadership class to be insufficiently attentive to the hazards that attend some of these benefits, and the ways that they can erode, rather than support, a free society. I wouldn’t blame that on the Founders of 1787, but I would say that the reworking of that founding that occurred in the midst of the industrial revolution was done in-part haphazardly and clumsily by blind and incompetent men who lacked understanding of the preconditions of a free society, and in part deliberately by some cunning men who rejected the idea outright.

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    @CrowsNest

    Astonishing isn’t wrong to note that public office holders (remembering, always, the etymology of the word “office”) have a role to play here.

    As many others have stated already, in our society and in many ways that role is negative—ensuring that government policy doesn’t undermine the virtue-inducing elements of a market economy and private, intermediary institutions that are better able to teach virtue in their own spheres than some Department of Virtuous Affairs in Washington.

    But, like Astonishing, I am not entirely unconvinced that they (office holders) do not, in their words and by their example, to say the very least, have a more “positive” role to play also. The corruption which has been inculcated in our citizenry—partially caused by a woefully unclear idea of how a person becomes a citizen of a free republic in the minds of several generations of office holders—cannot be cured easily (though, I maintain, it is not impossible).

    A start could be made toward re-learning liberty among our young through a re-turn in how we conceive of the purpose and direction of their education. To do so will require institutional reform and parental persuasion.

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    @CrowsNest

    But, I also hasten to say, I think there is also a danger here which we must be wary of.

    While having clarity about our problem is crucial, and that requires comparing our situation to others in the past, we oughtn’t come across as being so devoted to writing paeans to an agricultural idyll of that past that in the here-and-now we neglect the reality that modern technology is not going away (nor, in many fields, would that be desirable) and that we must adapt the principles we recognize as important to a free society to the situation on the ground now.

    Which means, we must direct our attention to our own communities and rebuild the institutions there that can do this work and reform those in government that stand in the way. We cannot cede the public square or the policy arena to the Left by failing to devote ourselves to the serious and hard work of governing in some fit of pastoral daydreaming.

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    @
    Mark Lewis

    The market teaches virtue as well as the farm. We do not need government to do so.

    If there is anything that globalization teaches us, it is that the market is like the soil: If you do not bring virtue/value to it, it will not bear fruit for you.  

    Hmmm. When I enlisted in the US Navy at 17 I did not swear an oath to defend and uphold the market. And the actual lesson globalism teaches Americans is that there are many careers and fields of study that will lead to poverty if pursued.

    You will have trouble convincing people to follow a regime that regards them as mere minions for the global market, required to compete in their own country for their livelihoods with citizens of every nation on the planet.

    Side note: I just looked up military pay scales. Pay has roughly tripled since I left. Pay for jobs I’ve had since certainly has not. Theory: the willingness of Americans to serve in the armed forces of such a regime has declined, and this is reflected in the pay. Market forces rule, right?  

    • #4
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    @MelFoil

    Gee, thanks for reminding me that we’re living in a new Jay-Carneyized America. It made me feel a little queasy. I think I might throw up. :)

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    @NickStuart
    Victor Davis Hanson

     Children of the elite not only do not feel they have to work at distasteful jobs, but have no idea how labor contributes to the viability of their own family.

    Having followed and participated in Ricochet since before it cost the price of a cup of coffee, I think it not unreasonable to observe that resembles an appreciable number of the regular contributor cadre.

    Myself, I enjoy my smart phone and the abundance of the supermarket knowing it’s not going to last much longer if we don’t get our fiscal and cultural house in order.

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    @Illiniguy

    It’s not just that technology and culture has taken us to a new place, it’s more than that. Ours is the first generation that’s been raised without a connection between what we have and where it comes from, and we’re not encouraged to have the curiosity to find out. In his wonderful bookThe Everlasting Stream“, Walt Harrington (former Washington Post writer) describes some friends’ reaction after learning that he had actually killed the meal on the table. Their revulsion was emblematic of our entire generation. My favorite line from the book is:

    “Unfortunately, in the relentless world beyond nostalgia, just remembering what we have lost doesn’t necessarily mean we can get it back again.”

    It may be that I’m now a grandparent, and I’m desperate to make sure my grandkids know that there’s a different life than that of the suburban jungle in which they’re living. When my 5 year old granddaughter learned this year that the steer which was in last year’s pasture is now in our freezer, she first registered shock, thought about it for a bit and then said she’d like a cheeseburger.

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    @DougKimball

    What a melancholy post, but true enough.  My youngest, 16, just got her first summer job slinging fast food at MD’s.  Yes, there are jobs for teens of the usual sort.  You just have to look.  I think we need a little more work and a lot less nanny state.  Work, any work, is worthwhile.   It’s time to call out the freeloaders for what they are!  There is no dignity on the dole.   Unwed motherhood is, dare I say, irresponsible and shameful.  There is a way to correct the culture.  Tough love, baby.  Tough love.

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    @

    continued…

    And people respond to incentives, even if perverse. The economic incentives put before the American people- coupled with the monstrous welfare state- has convinced too many that the return is just not there to remain in the workforce, and/or learn a trade.

    Thus many jobs remain unfilled. Potential job seekers won’t invest the effort or money to learn them because they assume they’ll be sent out of the country.

    I blame the political class. Bluntly, the US is ruled by people who just aren’t especially interested in this country or its inhabitants, considering themselves citizens of the world- and hence just aren’t that interested in fixing the economic or social problems of this country.

    Hey, that’s a problem.

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    @SouthernPessimist

    “Quite simply, there are no longer enough self-reliant, independent citizens left to remind the majority that our present complexity is neither assured nor our birthright.”

    When the higher education bubble bursts, and it will very soon, there will be a boom in self-reliant careers.

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    @Percival

    Illiniguy, my grandmother used to prepare Sunday chicken dinner from scratch.  As one of my older cousins observed, when you see Grandma catch, dispatch (by putting her foot on its head and giving the feet a good jerk), clean, cut up, and fry the main course, it gives you a definite appreciation for how the world really works.

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    @
    Percival: Illiniguy, my grandmother used to prepare Sunday chicken dinner from scratch.  As one of my older cousins observed, when you see Grandma catch, dispatch (by putting her foot on its head and giving the feet a good jerk), clean, cut up, and fry the main course, it gives you a definite appreciation for how the world really works. · 15 minutes ago

    Surely that would be a better skill to teach Grade 5 students rather than how to put a condom on cucumber, as is the curriculum here in Canada. My sons were told by their father they had to kill, field dress and cook a deer before they could leave home. They have done it. One piece of advice I got from a much older woman when my sons were small – let the boys learn about boy things, like hunting, etc. I was not keen at all on them even fishing. Many years on, I am very glad that they did the fishing, hunting, camping. Is it the female teachers stopping men from being men?

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    @EricVoegelin

    Well, I’m not really the guy to say this, having led a sheltered life, but the old Chinese curse about interesting times isn’t really a curse. I suspect Tom Paine had that in mind when he wrote about times that try men’s souls. It’s a good thing to have your soul tried. I know an MD who got fired for witnessing his Christian faith to his patients. They told him to stop and he went right on. I wonder how many ma and pa hotel owners have become McDonalds employees for refusing to serve homosexual couples? There are always opportunities to get money rich but it’s times like these that give you a smorgasbord of opportunities to get spirit rich.

    The really frustrating thing about this is that the pace of the decline is slow compared to the speed of information. Your piece tells us so much and yet it doesn’t bring the cliff any nearer than it would otherwise be. I see the cliff out there but maybe I won’t live to actually go over it. But it’s strange, I want the cliff. I think we need it.

    • #13
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    @NickStuart
    Eric Voegelin: I see the cliff out there but maybe I won’t live to actually go over it. This makes me a crank for the time being. · 0 minutes ago

    Your lips to God’s ear Eric. I hope you’re right but I see the edge as close as 11/7/12. Unless Romney loses there are going to be riots, the closer the election margin the more intense they will be. If there’s a reprise of 2000, there very well may be a civil war. Past that there will be a fiscal collapse of lesser or greater magnitude with the shocks starting in maybe 4 or 5 years as states like California and Illinois simply implode under the weight of their debt and unfunded commitments (again with the riots as the public sector unions realize the money to pay their pensions and benefits simply doesn’t exist).

    Cheers,

    • #14
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    @WhiskeySam

    We are indeed far removed from the Jeffersonian ideal of the man grounded in the soil.  One of the interesting things to me has been how instead of the great dawning Utopia of the Technological Age, there is instead a sense of uneasiness as technology has instead facilitated the ease of revealing the darkness in the heart of man.  The remove of man from physical labor has led to increasing time for idleness.  We strive to find ways to entertain (or distract?) ourselves, but entertainment does not bring lasting fulfillment. 

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    @Illiniguy
    Astonishing:  the founders, though they were brilliant,  aimed too much at creating wealth and liberty and not enough at instilling virtue and duty.

    The Founders didn’t consider it the job of government to instill virtue, they considered it a prerequisite to the existence and success of self-government. A people which lacks virtue lacks the ability to maintain our constitutional form of government.

    “[T]here is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness

    ; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained; and since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” – George WashingtonHow’s that working out for us today?

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    @DrewInWisconsin
    I suppose the end of the U.S. is when we all end up speaking and acting like a Jay Carney.

    Now that’s how you finish off a piece! With style!

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    @Astonishing

    Some people, me for example, might say that moral decline, and the material decline that necessarily follows from it,  might well be an inevitable evolution (the end stage) of a too-sucessful Western commercial republic, that widespread luxury softens the citizen spirit too much, that the founders, though they were brilliant,  aimed too much at creating wealth and liberty and not enough at instilling virtue and duty.

    Or if I were in a brusk mood when someone presented their sorrowful ponderings about the decline of Western Civilization, I might just say, “Blame it all on The Pill!”

    Or if I were in a more charitable mood, I might think, “It looks bad to me only because I’m just an old fogey. When anyone gets to my age, it always seems to him that everything is going to hades in a handcart.”

    Is it possible to make some curative adjustment in our polity at this late date? If so, what might it be?

    (Or, as my dear wise momma used to say, “Complaining is a luxury I can’t afford.”)

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    @SchrodingersCat
    plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose
    • #19
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    @Bulldawg

    Excellent essay, Mr. Hanson.  I am 41.  As a child, youth and young adult I mowed yards for work, split wood at our family farm for firewood, worked my grandfather’s beef cattle, planted pine trees by dibbling the trees, burned woods to clear undergrowth, picked up pecans, worked in vegetable gardens, etc. etc.  And I had it easy compared to my uncle.  Such an experience inculcated a strong work ethic, a direct connection between hard work and food or warmth and the knowledge that I’d rather use my head than my back to earn a living.  Hard work teaches virtue.

    • #20
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    @gnarlydad

    Victor Davis Hanson: An insightful and heartbreaking analysis of the current state of affairs.

    Astonishing: “…the founders, though they were brilliant,  aimed too much at creating wealth and liberty and not enough at instilling virtue and duty.”

    The founders rightly aprehended that the federal government had no business instilling virtue and duty in the souls of her citizenry, that this important task fell instead to the local churches, and the small, family-centered communities they served. What the founders created was a system of federalism of limited power that cleared the way for those who had the intestinal fortitude to grasp their chance and to build wealth for themselves and for the generations following. What we’ve done with that legacy, we’ve done to our shame, and they’ve little share in it.

    • #21
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    @Illiniguy
    Percival: Illiniguy, my grandmother used to prepare Sunday chicken dinner from scratch.  As one of my older cousins observed, when you see Grandma catch, dispatch (by putting her foot on its head and giving the feet a good jerk), clean, cut up, and fry the main course, it gives you a definite appreciation for how the world really works. · 3 hours ago

    Campsite.jpgI just got back from the Boundary Waters; I’d taken a client and his 12 year old son who’d never been camping. I taught them how to filet fish and to cook it over a fire. There are some thing that, if learned, are never forgotten.

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    @Astonishing
    gnarlydad:  . . .The founders rightly aprehended that the federal government had no business instilling virtue and duty in the souls of her citizenry, that this important task fell instead to the local churches, and the small, family-centered communities they served.  . . .

    If the founders thought the federal government had “no business instilling virtue,” then they should have done more to ensure that some other institution, such as the ones you mention, would survive to serve that necessary function.

    But the fact is, an assumption that the founders did not think their constitution should be concerned with virtue is quite wrong. As the great Harvey Mansfield has pointed out, James Madison in Federalist 57 wrote:

    the aim of every political constitution is first to get rulers who discern and have the “virtue to pursue” the common good, and second to make precautions for “keeping them virtuous.”

    A founder of a polity who fails to account for institutions to maintain the virtue of its citizens, especially its leading citizens, does poor work.

     Of course, libertarians will always object that government has “no business” caring about virtue, but unthinking adherence to that silly idea is a primary cause of our present mess.

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    @MarkLewis
    Xennady

    Mark Lewis

    The market teaches virtue as well as the farm. We do not need government to do so. 

    Hmmm. When I enlisted in the US Navy at 17 I did not swear an oath to defend and uphold the market. 

    Xennedy – “the market” is not a thing, it is an idea. Free markets are a way of describing the natural outcome of what happens when a government protects our life, liberty, property, and hence the freedom to pursue our happiness according to our conscience. When you protect and uphold the Constitution with basic originalism, you support a free-market.

    My point is that the natural incentives in a free-market promote the virtues that make America great: respect, self-reliance, freedom of choice, rationality, partnership, integrity, long-term thinking, etc.Most importantly, it encourages each person to use and develop their intelligence according to their ambition. When people know that they are responsible for themselves or the charity of people who will look them in the eye (the worthy poor, as they were once called), they are increasingly likely to  choose professions that afford them the lifestyle (time, $, friends, ease, intellectual stimulation) that serves them.
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    @MarkLewis
    Astonishing:  the founders, though they were brilliant,  aimed too much at creating wealth and liberty and not enough at instilling virtue and duty.

    The market teaches virtue as well as the farm. We do not need government to do so. We just need the government NOT to subsidize and promote vice.

    If there is anything that globalization teaches us, it is that the market is like the soil: If you do not bring virtue/value to it, it will not bear fruit for you. You must adapt yourself to it, and it demands virtue. You do not drown if you fall in a puddle. You only drown if you stay there. It is sub-optimal for youth to be shielded from the reality of hard work, the farming system, and where our water comes from and our sewage flows. However, if we do not subsidize them BY ENTITLEMENT when they leave the nest, reality will quickly and apologetically spur their ambition. They will be poor and learn, or go back home until their parents give them a good kick in the rear.Reality is the best teacher of virtue, not government. Reality will never lie to you for votes.
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    @MarkLewis
    Astonishing

    Of course, libertarians will always object that government has “no business” caring about virtue, but unthinking adherence to that silly idea is a primary cause of our present mess.

    They might. I would say that government has “no clue” about how to promote virtue, and that putting that in their hands is to ask for what we have currently.

    • #26
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    @Astonishing
    Illiniguy

    Astonishing:  the founders, though they were brilliant,  aimed too much at creating wealth and liberty and not enough at instilling virtue and duty.

    The Founders didn’t consider it the job of government to instill virtue, they considered it a prerequisite to the existence and success of self-government.  . . . 

    “[T]here is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness

    ;  . . . – George Washington 

    Washington’s First Inaugural, beautiful as it is, doesn’t particularly support the contention that government should not take care about virute, but can equally be read to support the opposite view. Indeed, in his Farewell Address, Washington suggests government should not be “indifferen[t],” but should “promote” the virtue of the people:

     [V]irtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.  . . . Who, that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?

    Promote, then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.

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    @ChrisCampion

    People fall down.  If there’s no cushion to fall back onto, it’ll hurt.  A lot.  If there’s a cushion, it hurts less.  The bigger the cushion, the bigger the….less hurtin’.  So to speak.

    Progressive thought wants to create wraparound cushions for the citizenry.  The bigger the cushion, the better the job they’re doing – in their minds.  They’re not interested in real freedom of thought, movement, decision-making – they want to wrap all of us in the same velvet coffin, purportedly for our own good.  What this really seems to do is appease either a larger sense of insecurity, or a desire to create conformity of thought, where ideas remain unchallenged.

    If you wrap enough people, especially children, in these cushions, they’ll get used to it.  They’ll expect it.  They will be less able to stand on their own two feet, which guarantees a job and a vote for a Democrat/Progressive somewhere in a Bureaucracy Near You.  There are now generations of Americans expecting the cushion, and you can bet they’ll vote for the guy who promises more of the same.  Count on it.  Every time.

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    @WillyPell

    I love VDH’s writing but his glorification of the American Farmer and denigration of the American Yuppie are misguided. I won’t begrudge a man for getting his rant on about the absurdities of the Bay Area. But let’s look at farming: It is the most subsidized, trade protected industry in the US. If you stand at one end of the Dept of Agriculture, the perspective lines meet before you see the other end of the hall. There is no equivalent building protecting software engineers. We could drop all the tariffs and subsidies for farmers, get all our food from third world countries, and we would be just as well fed. The force multipliers in wars; autonomous planes, cruise missiles and satellites are all the products of the intelligentsia. And yuppies go to the gym b/c they sit at desks all day. None of them are trying to emulate the rotund physiques of rural America. He likes farmers b/c they develop a visceral awareness of man’s limits and the world’s complexity. But the same goes for anyone who’s ever tried to build anything worthy. 

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    @

    Willy Pell,

    Seems like VDH hit a nerve, somewhat.

    Ironically one of most common plaints I see online is about H1B visas. So if software engineers aren’t protected they really really wanna be.

    Not only that but everything I’ve seen about the Dept. of Agriculture implies that it protects agribusiness and not farmers.

    Plus, I didn’t see VDH rail against the people who engineered cruise missiles, etc.

    So pardon me for thinking that your comment reflects your inflamed nerve and not what VDH actually wrote.

    Hey- I love your hat. What was it protecting you from?

    • #30

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