The Curse of Memory: a Ruralist’s Lament

Abandoned dairy barn. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

This was the week of Maine’s annual Agricultural Trade Show; a week where in pre-plague times those with a “sense of humus” would journey to Augusta. We’d kick tires on manure spreaders, perhaps fondle the cables on logging winches, and attend programs focused on various farm/forest sectors. We’d confer about the latest invasive pest, get the latest bad news about the climate, our slog toward a New Eocine Epoch, and receive the latest snake-oil on the virtues of entrepreneurialism. Gotta luv it.

Sadly, due to our free-market healthcare “system,” our premodern 18th century governing structure, and our devotion to private profit over public good, Plague reigns and this year’s trade show was merely “virtual.” Alas. Those tires will not get kicked this year, nor could I stop by the dairy booths to get the most recent numbers on the steady decline in dairy farm operations. I’ve written regularly in the Courier, the late Journal Tribune, and elsewhere over the years about the catastrophic economics of farming, and no….. not much has changed. If the Covid death march is over by next January I’ll check again.

But this week also featured the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., perhaps the highest-profile campaigner for economic justice, a universal guaranteed annual income, and a sworn opponent of the barbaric war against the people of Vietnam. He consequently generated a huge FBI “subversive” file.

He left us a message: “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” (“Beyond Vietnam,” April, 1967) Exactly a year later he was assassinated.

About 3 decades later, President George H.W. Bush chose the anniversary of King’s birth to launch the “Gulf War” against the people of Iraq. In violation of international law the campaign laid waste to the country’s civilian infrastructure; its water treatment and sewage systems, its electrical generating system and grid, its roads and bridges. This in a country where over 90% of the population lived in cities. The “operation” concluded with a “Turkey Shoot” where retreating Iraqi conscripts were bombed, strafed, and incinerated on what was celebrated as a “highway of death.”

On March 1, 1991 a triumphant George Bush announced. “It’s a proud day for America. And by God we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” True enough. America’s political class now felt free to commit blood, treasure, and expeditionary forces against populations half a world away without fear of domestic political reprisal. Bush announced the principle: “What we say goes.”

That has proven to be a bipartisan sentiment over the years. I used to write about that as well, to no visible effect.

Another historic event worth reckoning this week was the inauguration of Joseph Biden as president. Against a backdrop of 200,000 flags and a prominent military “presence,” the new commander-in-chief called for “healing” and “unity” without suggesting policies that actually might lift up a decidedly downwardly mobile population. While he spoke, financial markets rose, having been assured that “nothing will fundamentally change” and continuing the 1 percent’s vast profit accumulation during the pandemic’s run.

The president vowed, “I will defend the Constitution….And together we shall write an American story of hope….. A story of decency and dignity, love and healing, greatness and goodness.”

James Madison bluntly explained in Federalist Paper Number 10 what the Constitution was designed to prevent: “A  rage for paper money,… the abolition of debts, …. an equal distribution of property, or …. any other improper or wicked project….” Madison and the rest greatly feared what they called “the majority faction” and set up a system where it would be “difficult” the majority to “discover their own strength and to act in unison with each other.”

Mission Accomplished. By God we’ve (apparently) kicked the majority-rule syndrome once and for all.

Or maybe not.  Is there another, more humane chapter in the “American story” yet to be written?

For those with a memory in this week-that-was, it’s hard to tell.

Richard Rhames is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine (just north of the Kennebunkport town line). He can be reached at: