Letters from a Conservative Farmer: Negative Elements
This happened years ago when we lived in Cape Breton. A car drove in the lane and a young couple got out, Helga and David, who had read some of my essays in a country magazine, and wanted to meet me. I’m always pleased on such occasions, but I must admit they’re pretty rare. It was about lunchtime, so we invited them in.
While we were fixing lunch they told us they had moved from British Columbia to Halifax a few months ago to look into farming possibilities. They wanted to find out if it were feasible to live in the countryside and 1) avoid becoming “petty bourgeois,” and 2) “be socially active with other progressives.” I realized then that we were just another stop on their list of “progressive elements.” I was not as appalled as you might think. I had listened to plenty of nonsense like that back in the ’60s when I had been involved in lefty politics in Vermont — but this was the 1990s and Cape Breton, and it was so absurd that it was laughable. But Helga and David were not the kind of people to be jollied along. They were determined and serious, a grim, very grim pair.
They had been taking short courses (introductions to their subjects, not intended for regular students) at Nova Scotia Agricultural College, where one of our daughters graduated, so we were not surprised by his denunciation of the aimless life of the students there. I remarked that what they objected to was, in fact, the life of the rural working class. Given the situation in the poor and backward Maritime provinces, there was nothing surprising about it.
Helga jumped in, claiming that in British Columbia the local papers printed articles and letters protesting American foreign policy, promoting organic gardening and so on, while the Halifax papers were all about things like Billy Graham’s latest crusade. Yes, the Nova Scotia situation looked unpromising, but there were positive elements everywhere if you looked hard enough. I saw that it was useless arguing with them; they didn’t listen — these were obviously old pros.
Then David mentioned, as a positive element, the fisherman’s strike the previous year, and I remarked, with obvious disgust, that their union was led by a Communist. Now there were many things to say about that strike, but the leader’s politics was not the most important thing, and I realized as I said it, that I was testing David, but I did not ruffle his old pro feathers. “So what’s wrong with that?” he said.
Before I could answer, he went on to discuss a book about the strike, one of the worst books I have ever read about a labor struggle, the sort of account in which the workers are romantically sentimentalized, everyone else is villainously sentimentalized, and the whole point is the glorification of the author. Helga remarked, “Of course, the author is a bourgeois journalist, but in its sympathy for the workers it strikes a positive note.”
Sentimentality about the working class is a way of lying. It is practiced by those who regard workers as someone else, a group of people distant from themselves. The social realist shares with everyone the godhead of essential humanity. The sentimentalist denies change to those below him on the social ladder, hence must lie about them: to tell the truth about them and then to deny the chances of change would be too black indeed. The sentimentalist must have a pretty world around him in which to exercise his superiority. When the sentimentalist observes the working class (always from a distance), he comes away more convinced than ever, that “they” are fine where they are and he’s fine where he is, which is what really matters.
Beneath the sticky surface of every sentimentalist there is a hard-hearted mean-spirited son of a bitch.
I thought these things as David spoke, and when I glanced up he said, with a condescending smile, “Don’t internalize your feelings, articulate them.” I turned a thoughtful countenance upon him and said, “There’s nothing to say.” He was taken aback. I suppose he thought I would argue lefty politics with him.
They left soon afterwards, and Helga said bitterly as she passed me, “We thought you were progressives!” *