I took a lot of heat last night for being less than thrilled with the Dodge television commercial featuring excerpts from Paul Harvey’s 1978 “So, God Made A Farmer” speech, originally delivered to the Future Farmers Of America. My point was – and still is – with its over-the-top hagiography of rural folk, it came across as yet another version of Some Americans Are Better Than Others. In fact, it sounded eerily like Sarah Palin’s “real America” comment from the 2008 presidential election:
We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation. This is where we find the kindness and the goodness and the courage of everyday Americans. Those who are running our factories and teaching our kids and growing our food and are fighting our wars for us. Those who are protecting us in uniform. Those who are protecting the virtues of freedom.
It’s not that I disagree with the basic sentiment embodied in Paul Harvey’s idyllic tract – that farmers are extraordinarily hardworking people who are worthy of admiration. That’s certainly true. What I object to is Harvey’s, and by extension, the Dodge ad’s, formulation of that otherwise benign sentiment. Harvey’s words are so extreme, so laudatory, it’s hard not to think the real meaning is: Rural folks are better than the rest of us.
And some of it is so effusive, it’s downright bizarre:
God said, “I need somebody strong enough to clear trees and heave bales, yet gentle enough to yean lambs and wean pigs and tend the pink-comb pullets, who will stop his mower for an hour to splint the leg of a meadowlark.”
Really? This is something farmers do on a regular basis?
Yes, of course, it’s poetic license and all that; but this is a speech Harvey gave in 1978, not 1878. I spent a lot of time around farm kids when I was in college in downstate Illinois just a few years after Harvey delivered that speech. I recall a lot of stories about things like artificial insemination and the high-priced bull semen trade (yes, that’s a thing); but not a single one about splinting lame songbirds in the meadow.
But I digress.
What rankles me most about the Dodge ad featuring Harvey’s speech is that it comes at a time when the urban/rural divide is perhaps more pronounced that it’s ever been. It’s not just red states versus blue states anymore; it’s red counties versus blue counties. And conservatives exploit that divide for political gain. I have to listen to this every day: They vilify the city I was born in just because the country’s first African American president began his career here. They cheered when Chicago lost its bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. They trot out ghoulish statistics about our murder rate, not because they give a damn about the innocent African American and Latino children who’ve died here, but because it reminds their base exactly who lives here.
If you think I take this personally, let me tell you: you’re goddamn right I do. I love my city every bit as much as a farmer loves a plot of land that’s been in his or her family since before the Civil War. And it’s wrong – just plain wrong – to elevate the experiences of one group of Americans over the experiences of other groups of Americans, to say that the farmer’s experience is one iota better or more valuable than the factory worker’s, or the teacher’s, or the cop’s. It’s just plain wrong to say that the farmer’s struggle is better or harder or nobler than any of their struggles, or the struggles of immigrants who endured mind-boggling hardship to get here. It’s more obscene still to suggest the that the farmer’s struggle is better or harder or nobler than the struggles of Native Americans or the descendants of African slaves, many of whom live outside those parts of the country Sarah Palin called “real America.”
Make no mistake about it: When conservatives talk about “real America,” when they heap disproportionate praise on farmers and rural folk, and disproportionate scorn on Chicago and New York and Los Angeles, they’re speaking in code. They’re trying to divide us, and they think we’re too dumb to figure it out. We’re not, of course, and they’re pretty dumb to think so. To paraphrase former Arizona Cardinals football coach Dennis Green: They’re saying exactly what we thought they’d say.
By now you’re thinking, What does any of this have to do with Paul Harvey? He just gave a speech about the nobility of farmers, and a part of it was used in a TV commercial. What’s the big deal?
And you’re right. He just gave a speech about the nobility of farmers, and if that was all there was to it, I wouldn’t be wasting your time. But (and you may see where this is going) … here’s the rest of the story.
Paul Harvey was the original right-wing talk radio huckster. Silver-tongued though he may have been, the substance of his message could just as easily have come from the mouths of Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. On Harvey’s death in 2009, The New York Times observed:
He railed against welfare cheats and defended the death penalty. He worried about the national debt, big government, bureaucrats who lacked common sense, permissive parents, leftist radicals and America succumbing to moral decay. He championed rugged individualism, love of God and country, and the fundamental decency of ordinary people.
Indeed, it should come as no surprise that one of Harvey’s more famous jeremiads, his “If I Were The Devil” bit, made its way onto Herman Cain’s website just last year. Close your eyes and tell me you don’t hear Glenn Beck’s voice when you read these words:
If I were the devil I would encourage schools to refine young intellects, but neglect to discipline emotions — just let those run wild, until before you knew it, you’d have to have drug sniffing dogs and metal detectors at every schoolhouse door.
Within a decade I’d have prisons overflowing, I’d have judges promoting pornography — soon I could evict God from the courthouse, then from the schoolhouse, and then from the houses of Congress. And in His own churches I would substitute psychology for religion, and deify science.
Of course, the piece isn’t just propaganda. It’s a complete fraud. Evict God from the courthouse? If Harvey, a longtime resident of nearby River Forest, Illinois (one of Chicago’s richest suburbs) had ever set foot in a Cook County courtroom, he might have seen the words “In God We Trust” emblazoned on the wall. Like this, from the Circuit Court of Cook County website:
Evicted God from the schools? A damnable lie. All the courts have ever done is to prevent public school teachers and administrators – government employees – from forcing religion on their students. Again, if Paul Harvey knew anything about the public schools in his own town, he’d know that Illinois public school students are required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance – with the words, “One nation, under God” – every single day. See 105 ILCS 5/27-3.
But Paul Harvey never was the kind of pundit who let facts interfere with the narrative. Back in 1997, Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting documented his casual relationship with the truth, summarizing it this way:
If Harvey were just telling cutesy tall tales, his lackadaisical attitude toward fact might be more easily dismissed as harmless. But much of his news consists of stories re-cast into Harvey’s conservative mold, presenting a world under attack by welfare recipients, big government and labor.
And that’s what bothers me about the use of Harvey’s “So, God Made A Farmer” speech in a television commercial in these divisive times. It’s really not a paean to the salt of the earth; it’s just another chapter in Paul Harvey’s Masterworks Of Right-Wing Hackery.