Which Way the Wind Blows

If you have ever driven across western Oklahoma, you may have noticed a strangely disconcerting habit of the trees: they grow bent toward the east.  At first you may notice three or four trees, all bent in the same way, exciting the question of why a farmer would plant them and shape them that way; then begins to resolve into the recognition: all the trees are bent, single trees, sparse groups of trees around abandoned farm houses, shrubby wind-breaks around tenacious inhabited homesteads, all bend toward the east.

From the wind tunnel-tested quietness of an air-conditioned car zipping along I-40 at 70 miles per hour these trees are an enigma. If, however, you stop and get out of the insulated travel contrivance, the solution becomes clear.  The wind blows from the west constantly.  Not just a breeze, rather an almost constant strong wind; it is said to have driven people mad, and it does bend the trees, not just for the moment, but actually grows them to fit its unseen presence.

Billions of tons of air, moving relentlessly over the ground at 10 to 30 miles an hour (and at times gusting to higher speeds) shapes the new growth twigs, the twigs grow into limbs, the limbs become the secondary trunks and all bend to the direction of the wind.  Where does the wind come from – this universally shaping presence?

It must come from some place or process beyond our common understanding.  It is not random; it does not relax.  Some force creates and sustains it, but that force cannot be seen on the far horizon; from there, there is just more wind.  Travelling west into Texas, and then into New Mexico, there is only more wind.

Study will supply an answer; the shape of the ground and motion of the earth, the heating and cooling of land, water and atmosphere, the latitude in relation to the jet-stream – nothing that can be seen from living on the ground in western Oklahoma.  But, the effect is clear from the ground: a steady unrelenting force that chances the world by its constant shaping influences on everyday events.

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I think it no coincidence that the Koch family is from this part of the country.  Just as the wind shapes the trees, the visual and visceral metaphor of unrelenting pressure shaping life is as constant as the wind.  Add to this metaphor the power of wealth, wealth in such amounts that can it act like solar energy exciting the atmosphere, and the conditions are ripe for a political/economic wind bending the actions of politicians and the attitudes of the people.

Understand, the trees are growing in their normal response to gravity; they “think” (in the genetic ways that trees think!) that they are growing straight and tall.  They are only bent relative to an objective notion of vertical.  The constancy of the wind bends all of the trees and so they are all normal within their space.

For someone born in Sayre or Hobart, someone who has never left the place – like someone who has never had their views broadened by questions that challenge their parochial values and understandings – straight growing trees would be unusual and disconcerting.  How is one to understand that the winds may stop, may blow from the east or north or south.  How is one to understand that Christianity does not support Libertarianism, that wealth is not a measure of God’s favor, when that is how the wind blows from every radio every hour of every day. People bend to the wind too.

The wealth of the Koch family, and a few others, is so vast that it has become like the motion of the earth, like the jet stream, like the radiant heat of the sun and is driving the political and economic winds; bending all before it.  The bending has come to be accepted as normal; growing straight is becoming the unacceptably aberrant. Billions of dollars concentrated by the interests of small groups bend the headlines of news stories.  The editorial writers for newspapers bend in the wind.  Voters’ ballets are scattered by the wind in predictable directions.  School boards, city councils, state legislatures, Governors, national representatives, presidents all bend to the unrelenting movement of the money power blowing over and around them.

What is the substance and source of this “wind?” What gives it a consistent direction? And, what is its history as a force?  These are basically “meteorological” questions: such questions are answered by the accumulation of myriad details, organized into patterns of influence so that, we learn, a dropping barometric pressure presages a storm; changes in humidity and temperature, direction of wind, ocean surface temperature and a dozen other variables predict weather over the next few days – and, properly modeled and understood, predict climate over the next 10s and 100s of years.

The study of these economic and political winds is contained in our history; it is abundantly clear.  However, in a perversity common to many human behaviors, the prevailing forces actively bend these understandings to the benefit of narrow, but powerful, interests.  For example: the details of economic analysis make clear (clear as the fact that high humidity is a presage of rain) that, in the present western economic model, progressive taxation with a 50% or greater taxation rate for high incomes results in greater economic stability, reduced poverty and generally healthier society.  But this ‘obvious’ conclusion must be blown into a new shape, otherwise, the power of wind generation is reduced.  When taxation is less progressive, when rates are low for those who have found a way to accumulate abundance from the society’s economic activity, economic power is concentrated and winds blow hard with the constant bending of all the activities of society.

If all the activities of society are bent by the economic and political winds, seeing and understanding how the world might form without those forces becomes very difficult, and impossible for most people who must go out into those winds every day.  But, if it is realized that the force of these economic and political winds are coming from a condition over which the people have power, that collectively we can change the humidity of money power, change the barometric pressure of political interest, then the forces that bend our every experience of life can be reduced from hurricane and tornado levels, can allow more local, benign and comprehensible influences.

James Keye is a retired teacher and small businessman living in Santa Fe, NM. He writes the blogs Keye Commentary and The Metacognition Project; his email is jkeye1632 at gmail dot com.