A friend who attended school in the Mount Blue school district was assigned to write a paper about an occupation he admired or might want to pursue. He wrote about farmers and farming, wrote that without farmers most folks wouldn’t eat.
The teacher took a dim view of the paper, said the youngster was aiming too low, that farmers and farming were “beneath” the aspirations the teacher wanted to instill. That teacher had a stereotyped idea of farmers, probably underpinned by the teacher’s natural stress on the importance of education.
Similarly. A headline last week in a newspaper (not this one) betrayed how these stereotypes invade our thinking: “College grad discovers his calling on evolving farmland.” A headline’s job is to sell the story. To make the sale, the headline writer needs to demonstrate to the reader that the story is about something different or unusual.
So, this headline writer was telling us that it is unusual for college graduates to farm.
In holding these stereotypes of identity, the attitude of the teacher and the headline writer isn’t unique. Or even unusual. In 30 years of farming, I often ran into the notion that farmers are not bright or, at least, not educated. It boiled down to: “If you’re so smart, why do you farm?”
Yet, I may know more farmers who graduated college than didn’t. Plenty of farm employees with degrees, too. Look, for example, at our farm’s slaughter crew. Our farm manager and chief eviscerator earned a degree from UMF in family-life studies. The woman who put the turkeys through the scalding and feather-picking machines held a degree from the University of Texas in kinesiology. She also ran a farm in Bethel. One man taking necks and oil sacks from the turkeys held a dual-major degree from the University of Maine in computer science and mathematics.
Thanksgiving-only crew included degree holders from Brown University, the University of Vermont, UMF, Pacific University (Oregon) and Sarah Lawrence College. Four of those five worked on other farms, too. Oh, and the owner had a BA and an MA from the University of Missouri — Kansas City in political science.
Let me take it a bit farther. I know a man on Bailey Island in Harpswell — he says the next driveway after his is in Spain — who graduated from the University of Maine. He catches lobsters for a living. My dear wife graduated from UMKC with a degree in theater, worked most of her life in offices. My daughter-in-law graduated from UVM, works in an upscale kitchen store, and I met a woman with a degree in English literature who worked in another cookware store across the state. On the midway at the Fryeburg Fair, I knew several college grads who had food concessions but got their living as carnies. As well as the midway superintendent. Some held other jobs during the 50 weeks that Fryeburg didn’t absorb their attention. I knew a man with a PhD in classics who opened a car repair shop, still going after 35 years, in Waterville and know of another who traded a career as a naval officer to open a mechanic shop in Brunswick.
This notion of identity — in this case that certain kinds of people don’t do the work that other kind of people do — pervades our culture, especially politics. You have an identity, and that identity determines your attitudes and your thinking and can be used to predict your behavior. All too often in politics, both parties see their bases as one-dimensional and largely based on condition of birth. Democrats say if you’re black or Latino or female or Asian, you are one of us. Republicans say if you are white, especially white and male, you are one of us.
The Obama campaign famously identified its people and got them to the polls. The Trump campaign just as successfully used TV, on which their guy had made a reputation as a “firer,” to identify and reach its people.
If identity determines voting, then Republicans have the upper hand as white folks are the majority in 47 or 48 of the 50 states. (Hawaii, California and maybe Texas are the exceptions.) But in the not-so-distant future, white folks will be a minority nationally and will remain a majority only in a handful of small states, such as Maine and West Virginia.
Still, this majority-white country twice elected Bill Clinton and twice elected Barack Obama. And it gave its majority to Hillary Clinton, who was defeated by the arithmetic of the Electoral College. But a lot of white folks went against their supposed identity to vote for Clinton and Obama and then Clinton.
David Brooks wrote in The New York Times that each of us really has a variety of identities. But in the current climate, we tend to shuck our various identities down to a single identity and that it is usually and unfortunately the most negative one, the one in which we are able most easily to see ourselves as victims.
Brooks argues for redeveloping a sense of equipoise, of balancing all of our identities. For example, a person such as myself would balance: Missourian in Maine (surely one of only a few), farmer, editor, ex-Democrat, ex-Republican, widower, father, white, college grad, Congregationalist. Marilyn, my late wife, would balance: Oklahoman living in Maine (even fewer, I’m sure), records supervisor in home health, ex-Republican but a Democrat when she died, mother, white, college grad, Congregationalist.
Brooks is on to something. Do we pick and choose among our identities, using the one that fits a particular moment or need? Or do we try to meld our identities, not to confuse other people, but to become better rounded people? Brooks and I would probably try to meld our identities. And to persuade others that we are more than one dimension deep.
Bob Neal underscores that he has a number of identities. He has retired and lives next door to his former farm in New Sharon.