A Conservatism That Once Conserved


The rural, rocky chunk of Michigan that raised me rested on the backside of a hill, my father’s share of my great-grandfather’s farm. Local lore said this pitiful piece had remained in the family only because the hill hid it from view. That is, my grandfather only kept it because he needed a place where he could farm on Sunday out of sight of the neighbors.

As a boy growing up in the ’60s, I also remember being instructed in the operation of our Farmall H tractor, particularly to make straight furrows. I dared to question this requirement, wondering what difference "straight" made to the oats. I was not-so-gently instructed as to the degree of shame that crooked furrows would bring on the family.

My grandfather may not have been as churched as the neighbors, but he was every bit as conservative, and then some. Beyond conservative, he was obstreperous and tough. Nonetheless, he still cared what the neighbors thought of him. These are not separate matters. Respect for local opinion was what enforced rural America’s conservatism a generation ago.

Those of us who live in rural America today face one of two sets of conditions, both radically changed since my grandfather’s time. We either live in places that are rapidly depopulating or places that are rapidly populating with sprawl. My bit of rural Montana falls in the latter category. My gulch has suburbanized in about 10 years.

During that time, I’ve gotten to know a few of my neighbors. Just a few; that’s the way the world works now. Many of those encounters arose through heated conversations, all with the same theme. For example, once I politely complained to a man that his rotund and rottenly spoiled child was using his filthy, obnoxious dirt bike to cut furrows up the side of my land, and it was not their crookedness that upset me. The man said, "We moved out here so my boy could ride his dirt bike wherever he wanted."

The odd part is that this man and many of the rest of my neighbors call themselves conservative. I am not assuming; one only need read the stickers and flags covering their SUVs. Yet what is the foundation of this conservatism if it disregards what the neighbors might think, that is, ignores the community standard?

This is not a small matter. A misguided notion of freedom lies at the heart of the suburban cancer on the landscape. My neighbors will tell you they moved because in rural America you are free to do as you please. Where did they get this idea? Rural America, at least when there was a functioning rural America, never advertised any such freedom. Just the opposite.

All of this would be only so much personal vexation if they didn’t extend their disregard of community standards to the natural community. Miss the bluegrass lawn you had in New Jersey? No problem. Rip up that stand of Montana short grass prairie. No rain? Pump the aquifer dry to keep it green. Like horses? Go ahead. Fence that pasture big enough to feed 2.5 percent of one horse then put four in and graze it to rocks.

If you are oblivious to the natural community’s feedback, you can get away with these things for a while. You’ll not notice the elk disappear, the streams dry up, the noxious weeds creep up the dirt-bike trails. You’ll not hear these complaints if your relationship with community is fed through a satellite dish.

I can’t help but imagine my conservative grandfather would have been terribly appalled by all this. He thought that to let the land suffer was a truly sorrowful thing.

Actually, I don’t believe I have to imagine what my grandfather would have thought. A few weeks ago I met a man in his 90s who had cowboyed all his life in Montana. We happened to be driving past a typical suburban horse pasture, four forlorn horses standing in an acre of dust and rocks. I asked him what he thought of his neighbors. He shook his head, but he couldn’t speak. He was silent. It was simply unspeakable

RICHARD MANNING’s most recent book, "Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization," will be published in February. Manning lives in Lolo, Mont. He is a member of The Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.

October 08, 2015
Michael Horton
Why is the US Aiding and Enabling Saudi Arabia’s Genocidal War in Yemen?
Ben Debney
Guns, Trump and Mental Illness
Pepe Escobar
The NATO-Russia Face Off in Syria
Yoav Litvin
Israeli Occupation for Dummies
Lawrence Davidson
Deep Poverty in America: the On-Going Tradition of Not Caring
Thomas Knapp
War Party’s New Line: Vladimir Putin is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things
Brandon Jordan
Sowing the Seeds of War in Uruguay
Binoy Kampmark
Imperilled by Unfree Trade: the TPP on Environment and Labor
John McMurtry
The Canadian Elections: Cover-Up and Steal (Again)
Anthony Papa
Coming Home: an Open Letter to 6,000 Soon-to-be-Released Drug War Prisoners From an Ex-Con
Ramzy Baroud
Listen to Syrians: The Media Jackals and the People’s Narrative
Norman Pollack
Heart of Darkness: A Two-Way Street
Gilbert Mercier
Will Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite Militias Defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq?
John Stanton
Vietnam 2.0 and California Dreamin’ in Ukraine
William John Cox
The Pornography of Hatred
October 07, 2015
Nancy Scheper-Hughes
Witness to a Troubled Saint-Making: Junipero Serra and the Theology of Failure
Luciana Bohne
The Double-Speak of American Civilian Humanitarianism
Joyce Nelson
TPP: Big Pharma’s Big Deal
Jonathan Cook
Israel Lights the Touchpaper at Al-Aqsa Again
Joseph Natoli
The Wreckage in Sight We Fail To See
Piero Gleijeses
Cuba’s Jorge Risquet: the Brother I Never Had
Andrew Stewart
Do #BlackLivesMatter to Dunkin’ Donuts?
Rajesh Makwana
#GlobalGoals? The Truth About Poverty and How to Address It
Joan Berezin
Elections 2016: A New Opening or Business as Usual?
Dave Randle
The Man Who Sold Motown to the World
Adam Bartley
“Shameless”: Hillary Clinton, Human Rights and China
Binoy Kampmark
The Killings in Oregon: Business as Usual
Harvey Wasserman
Why Bernie and Hillary Must Address America’s Dying Nuke Reactors
Tom H. Hastings
Unarmed Cops and a Can-do Culture of Nonviolence
October 06, 2015
Vijay Prashad
Afghanistan, the Terrible War: Money for Nothing
Mike Whitney
How Putin will Win in Syria
Paul Street
Yes, There is an Imperialist Ruling Class
Paul Craig Roberts
American Vice
Kathy Kelly
Bombing Hospitals: 22 People Killed by US Airstrike on Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan
Ron Jacobs
Patti Smith and the Beauty of Memory
David Macaray
Coal Executive Finally Brought Up on Criminal Charges
Norman Pollack
Cold War Rhetoric: The Kept Intelligentsia
Cecil Brown
The Firing This Time: School Shootings and James Baldwin’s Final Message
Roger Annis
The Canadian Election and the Global Climate Crisis
W. T. Whitney
Why is the US Government Persecuting IFCO/Pastors for Peace Humanitarian Organization?
Jesse Jackson
Alabama’s New Jim Crow Far From Subtle
Joe Ramsey
After Umpqua: Does America Have a Gun Problem….or a Dying Capitalist Empire Problem?
Murray Dobbin
Rise Up, Precariat! Cheap Labour is Over
October 05, 2015
Michael Hudson
Parasites in the Body Economic: the Disasters of Neoliberalism
Patrick Cockburn
Why We Should Welcome Russia’s Entry Into Syrian War