Chrysler’s Super Bowl Ram Truck commercial praising the American farmer was an unexpected big hit and is still being replayed around the country on talk radio. Rich Lowry and Peggy Noonan both contrasted the authenticity of that commercial fantasy with the falsity of the real event.
And why not? Even if the clip was a bit corny and overdone, the late Paul Harvey was a masterful throaty narrator in the romantic age before the onset of America’s now ubiquitous metrosexual nasal intonation. Harvey just didn’t sound different from the present generation, but from what we suspect, he sounded different from most generations to come as well. One reason that our age cannot make a Shane, High Noon, or The Searchers is that most of our suburban Hollywood actors cannot even fake the accent of either the frontier or the tragic hero anymore. When Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall go, so goes too the last link to the cinema’s Westerner. There are no more voices like Slim Pickens or Ben Johnson. One of the successes of the commercial is that the photographed farmers did not speak, and left the impression of mute superiority.
It was not just Harvey’s mid-20th century voice that intrigued millions, but his unapologetic praise of the farmer’s work ethic, religiosity, and family values that he implied were at the core of American greatness, and were shared by all sorts of other American originals: the truck driver, the steel worker, or waitress whom we now all praise and yet prep our children not to be. We suspect that our kids would be better off at forty for spending a summer on a tractor at fifteen, but we just can’t seem to risk the loss of a season’s computer camp or eco-camp in the bargain.
The commercial’s platitudes were cleverly juxtaposed with grainy pictures of un-Botoxed people doing real physical work and in concert with each other, using big machines, and looking the worse for wear from it. True or not, we at least were to believe that no one in those still shots had hair plugs, bleached teeth, or faux tans in the manner of our vice president, who tries so hard to be an oh-so-authentic “Joey.” In that regard, Clint Eastwood’s resonance hinges in part on the fact that his lined and craggy face does not resemble what has happened to Sylvester Stallone’s, and he did not engage in the sort of embarrassing, obsequious fawning about George Bush that a Chris Rock or Jamie Foxx has monotonously done about Barack Obama. Americans still admire authenticity, and that too explains the later YouTube popularity of the commercial. When the Obama team released pictures of Obama “skeet shooting” or with a furrowed brow following in real time the ongoing shooting and killing in Benghazi, we knew it was all show, all Dukakis in a tank. The only thing worse than being cut off from the premodern world is faking participation in it.
I suppose the images resonated in 2013 in a way that they would have seemed passé in 1950, but not just because farmers then were about 15% of the population and now make up less than 1%, and so currently earn the added intrigue accorded to vanishing in the manner of the rhino or blue whale. The commercial instead was mostly a hit because of the sharp contrast, not just with the Petronian spectacle of today’s Super Bowl extravaganza, but also with the general tenor of the times of 2013 in particular.
The Super Bowl parades pretentious Roman numerals that almost none of the viewers can fathom but vaguely sense must lend a mock-heroic spin to the event. One of the apparent attractions of the current Spartacus cable TV serials — take away the frontal nudity and slo-mo lopped limbs, and we are back to Steve Reeves as Hercules — are the accurate portraits of the mobs in the arenas, gesticulating, screaming, and in general playing the role we get glimpses of in Roman literature and in the L.A. Coliseum. Our Super Bowl halftime show had such sophisticated electronics that it could not keep the power on to supply them — the modern version of the occasional Roman bleacher collapse. There were so many video gimmicks it was hard to know when the replay ended and the game resumed. So much pregame hype and so little postgame concern: I doubt in three years whether too many people will remember who won — or even played.
In contrast, even the still shots of the commercial’s farmers looked real. Beyoncé was a godsend to underline Chrysler’s messaging. Her halftime escapades were predicated on cheap sexual thrills and so-so talent. Cloak her performance in a business suit and no one would have noticed what came out of her mouth. That it was apparently a real real voice at the Super Bowl but was not when singing the National Anthem at the president’s inauguration only highlighted the warped values of the age. One must maintain one’s priorities.
After all, the commercial also dovetailed with the bizarre tale of Manti Te’o, the Notre Dame football star who falsely claimed his undying love was dying, and Oprah’s interview of Lance Armstrong — the gifted athlete who matter-of-factly confessed to lying for half his adult life, on the premise apparently that all athletes get rich and famous by both doping and lying about it. Like the Cretan liar who swore that all Cretans lie, so too by his own admissions we had no more reason to believe that Armstrong’s confessions were any more truthful than his original fabrications.
I knew a lot of farmers who lied — in braggadocio to each other about how many plums they harvested, in an unwise but desperate spin to bankers about how many tons of peaches their farms would likely produce next year on borrowed money, and in complete delusion to themselves about how well-off they would be after ten more years of the same sort of work, market, and prices. But they weren’t exactly liars; fabrications to them were incidental and rare, not essential to their characters and constant. I expect our hero Beyoncé to lip sync again, and our hero Lance Armstrong to kinda, sorta lie again — and to Oprah no less. When the president says, “Make no mistake,” I make a lot of mistakes about it. When he thunders, “Let me be perfectly clear,” I know that he is perfectly misleading. When he throws in those “in point of fact” and “I’m not making this up,” I know he means “in point of falsity” and “I’m not telling the truth.” (Could you imagine Mr. Obama saying: “We have a hell of a problem with spending what we don’t have and so better get to it”? Or, for you tax-raisers: “You all pay too much now in taxes, but we are going to have to pay even a little more”? Or for your entitlement lobbyists: “The money is about gone, so we all are going to have to tighten our belts”?)
Even if they wanted to lie, to whom exactly can farmers lie to most days, when they work alone in a mute world? Like Senator Menendez, are they going to swear that they don’t take shakedown money and don’t visit prostitutes? Swear that to what — a vine post, an almond tree, a crippled Queensland at their feet? That those faces in the commercial are more moral than the rest of us only because they have less occasion to be immoral nonetheless does not mean they are not more moral.
Farmers in the commercial also looked far poorer than their vast machinery and fields might have indicated. They often look worn and perpetually worried, given their paranoia that at any given moment a price crash, a sudden freeze, a bad case of pneumonia are not just bad tidings, but so bad that they can wipe out a year’s work. There is no such thing as PERS for those in the Super Bowl commercial, no concept of spiking your retirement package in the last two years on the job, no demonstration because you’re asked to chip in 10% of your health premium costs.
In the farmer’s twisted mind, $50 for new Levis is just the sort of splurge that marks the road to perdition of spending what you will soon not have. I’ll pass on their passing on the $200 eyeglasses and $300 sneakers that seem to be the favored target of the poor of flash mobs. (I was always amazed while at CSU that my students, deep in debt and working at minimum wage jobs, often had more expensive sneakers and shades than did I.) As a smart-alecky high school student body officer, forty-two years ago I used to have to go to the Selma school board meetings. Every time a teacher requested more money for a trip, a principle wanted a new project, or a committee demanded a conference outing, the five farmers on the dais — dressed in shabby jeans and scuffed boots — would drawl out “nope,” or better yet: “Show me where we get more money coming in, and I’ll let a little more go out.”
On Super Bowl Sunday, the sense of tragedy in rural faces apparently too hit a chord at a time when the wealthiest government in the history of civilization borrows 40 cents of every dollar it spends. Should we assume that Americans suffer from malnutrition rather than obesity, and that big-screen TVs and iPhones are as rare as shoes and staples? To listen to the president is to really believe that a third of the nation has no decent shelter, heating, air conditioning, TV, electronics, or cars — and all because the other two-thirds somehow gobbled them up. (One of the strangest disconnects of my schizophrenic world of Stanford and Selma is to see the mostly overweight poor at the Selma Wal-Mart, and the mostly wealthy anorexic-looking at Whole Earth in Palo Alto; the deprived in stucco newer 1800 sq. ft. tract houses, the privileged crowded into old clapboard, shabby Menlo Park cottages; hoi polloi in shiny late-model 4×4 Ford and Chevy trucks, hoi aristoi often crammed into tiny five-year-old CRVs. But all that matters is that the “poor” are supposedly deprived of symphony, quality museums, and access to summers in Tuscany.)
It is a human characteristic not just to identify vicariously with something we are not but might like to be, but even to bond with something that we know we admire in the abstract but we would not like to be in the concrete. Who would prefer to stay out in the country in a drafty house day after day in rote labor, rather than visit the mall each evening?
There is a reason, after all, why only a fraction of the population farms, and it is not just because of the growth of corporation agriculture, huge acreage, and multimillion-dollar harvesting machines making the old “family farmer” now obsolete. Farming — defined by the actual physical labor of agriculture, the responsibility to balance the farm books to ensure another year of operation, and the general isolation from suburban culture — is not easy. It is a sort of penance to try to convince yourself that the boredom of spending 10 hours pruning 200 vines is not wasted monotony, but a noble monotony given the fresh air, the mastery of an art, the harmony of the mind, body, and nature. The fraud is sometimes believable when it is 70 degrees on a late February California afternoon and you are working down a row side-by-side a brother, son, or friend, but not most often when alone amid the cold and fog. (In 1983, I once spent 40 days without going into town, just two miles away, and finally for a week straight drove in there every morning and drove right back to avoid going stir crazy.)
I felt happiest when farming full-time and the unhappiest when trying my best to escape it. In the former life, nothing is certain — given the hail that destroys the peach crop, the worker’s compensation premium hike that takes away the profit on an entire 10 acres, and the commodity price that stays the same one year, climbs ten percent the next, and then to ensure the end of all optimism, crashes 50 percent in the third. As a tenured professor — to go to the other extreme without stopping in between — everything is certain: pay, pension, benefits, and absence of danger at work. So certain is such modern life that the psychodrama of a rude look, a supposedly provocative stare, or an inadvertent unkindness consumes the workplace for weeks of acrimony and litigation in the manner a chopped off finger is an unheralded “stuff happens” on the farm for a day or two. How odd in the morning to hear that the ditch tender blew his brains out in the orchard, and in the afternoon hear a shouting match between faculty over who had to take the 8 a.m. teaching slots.
Farming is in a boom right now. For forty years my parents saved the land for the promise that “some day” prices would allow their offspring to live on the 140-acre farm while making a profit. That some day never came in their life, or for most of mine — until now. Maybe it is the new 400 million consumers of India and China who can afford Western produce; maybe it is the amazing ability of American agriculture to produce more per acre each year at less cost; maybe it is the shared psychology that the disastrous diversion of land to biofuels, ever more global consumers, ever more land lost to suburbanization, ever more social fragility have all in perfect0storm fashion created a farm boom — or at least the assumption of looming food shortages.
I am happy for farmers who have the acreage to capitalize on the prices. I rent my 45 acres out now, the last tiny bit of a larger family farm whose other fifth-generation stewards looked a lot like those in the Paul Harvey Super Bowl commercial and went broke or sold out or retired exhausted. I almost thought I recognized a lost-track-of sibling or cousin among the still shots.
Ave atque vale!
As my neighbor, the Bus Barzagus in my 1997 book Fields Without Dreams, reminded me once of family farming: “a family saves its farm by not farming it.” And as I replied in sad agreement, but just as honestly, “It was not the saving, but the farming that was everything.”
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