Monday, October 26, 2020

An Ode to a Tractor

Published in the Concord Monitor, 11/1/19
My son, Ian, and I riding on Tommy 36 years ago

The NYT recently reported on the new ‘Right to Repair’ movement, a coalition of both Democrats and Republicans, pushing for laws to make it easier to fix cell phones, cars, and the avalanche of other appliances and gadgets  that we mindlessly throw away when they break. Advocates say legislation is necessary because manufacturers are making it increasingly difficult “to repair things by limiting availability of parts or by putting prohibitions on who gets to tinker with them.”⁠1 

Massachusetts may soon be the first state to pass such legislation. Bills have even been introduced in N.H. but none yet has passed. I see it as a fight pitting regular folks against corporations. But beyond allowing people to fix their own things, it is part of a larger movement challenging our ‘throw-away’  society. 

Planned obsolescence wastes money, misuses scarce resources, and chokes landfills. Worse yet, it is an increasing trend, accelerating climate change. For instance, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, if Americans could extend the life of their cellphones for one year, it would be the climate-saving equivalent of taking 638,000 cars off the road.⁠2

Nevertheless, Apple is one of the companies prominently mentioned in the NYT article, because they curb consumers and independent contractors from repairing their iPhones. Another company cited is John Deere, who uses license agreements with farmers that forbid them from even looking at the software running their tractor. 


That tractor reference triggered a vivid personal memory of how much things have changed. When my dad came home from World War II in 1945, the first thing he did after having me was to purchase a brand-new Farmall Cub tractor, complete with every farm implement. After being on the high seas in the Navy for 4 years, he was striving to lay down roots and gain control of his destiny. With his new purchase, he was able to plow the driveway in the winter, cultivate the gardens in the summer, mow the fields, and bask in the pleasure of improving his property.

Unlike new, high-tech tractors, the Farmall Cub was a simple machine with no software except Dad’s brain. He took pride in his tractor because it was well built and easy to fix. I loved the tractor because he loved it and enjoyed, from the age of a toddler, helping him work on it. 

Early on, my parents read me an endearing storybook, ’Tommy Tractor,’  by G. E. McPherson. From that point on, the tractor was reborn as Tommy. After my father passed on, I inherited Tommy, who I continue to care for, while he does his part helping to maintain my 21 acres.

Tommy runs as good today as he did the day my father  first bought him, and my son, schooled in the Tommy tradition, loves him as much as I do and will proudly drive him into the future after I am gone.

For me, Tommy tractor is the perfect symbol of what we have lost in the last 70 years. I see ‘Right to repair’ legislation as part of a much larger movement back to the future: Back toward self-sufficiency and acting locally, as manifested in the explosion of small scale farms springing up in every community. And gardens sprouting up in more and more yards.

What is most significant to me, however, is Tommy Tractor’s wizardry, giving me that priceless gift of merging my thinking with doing in a way that that’s almost spiritual: I’m talking about how Tommy gets me out of my head – churning with its computer-dwelling cauldron of racing thoughts – through the physical act of working on him using my hands. 

I would like to return to that long-lost world, now inhabited only by children and indigenous people, who understand that even inanimate objects like rocks and tractors have personalities we can relate to and  love.




2 Ibid

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Who is the enemy?

Looking inward at Stonehouse Pond
CC Jean Stimmell

 Liberals, it’s time to stop gazing at our navels

In a few short weeks, the election will be over and, win or lose, we will have to pick up the pieces and move on. How is that possible with all the bad blood and name-calling between the left and the right? In a word, we must have empathy for the other side.

What I am going to say, I’ve felt for a long time, alluded to in my pieces, but now have the courage to say it flat-out, buttressing my case with a recent podcast and a book.

The podcast is an interview with Arlie Hochschild about her recent book, “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right⁠1.” In it, she accuses mainstream Democrats of living in a bubble: “There’s a rigid sort of inward-turning.” I agree: Rather than reaching out to the other side to look for common ground, we often resort to attacking our own side or debating minutia, like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

According to Hochschild, to understand the other side, we must have empathy for their story.  She says, the left and the right each have a deep story – very different from each other – for which we hold a strong emotional attachment; the stories are dream-like and told through metaphor. Because they feel right, we build our politics around them.

The deep-story for a Trump supporter “is that you’re waiting in line for the American dream that you feel you very much deserve. You’ve been waiting a long time, but the line has stopped moving. Then you see somebody cutting ahead of you.” Why are they getting special treatment?

Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign validated this working-class, deep story by appearing to spend much of her time advocating for minorities while ignoring white working Americans. She sealed her fate when she claimed: “half of Donald Trump’s supporters belong in a ‘basket of deplorables’”⁠2.

That quote struck a very raw nerve.

Continuing with Hochschild’s metaphor about the Trump supporters’ deep story: they felt betrayed and shamed by “someone highly educated, someone from that so-called elite…really close to the prize, or they have the prize. But they turn around and look at the others who are waiting in line and say, “Oh, you backward, Southern, ill-educated, racist, sexist, homophobic redneck…And then they felt like strangers in their own land.”

My other reference is Toure Reed’s book, “Toward Freedom”⁠3, which extends sympathy to white working-class Americans from a different perspective. Reed is a third-generation African-American humanity professor and a committed progressive in the FDR-Bernie Sanders mold. Along with other black intellectuals like Dr. Cornel West, Reed believes it is a polarizing dead-end to fixate solely on our nation’s history of racism and white supremacy.

While they absolutely accept the terrible reality of America’s racial history, they argue that the problems we face today – wealth inequality, police brutality, and mass incarceration – affect white Americans as well. 

As one of today’s best economists, Peter Temin, has written: we are a divided country with 20% at the top, while, on the other side “huddled together in increasing poverty in the low wage sector, burdened with debt, struggling to pay their home mortgage... For the majority, there is no future.”⁠4

For Reed and other black scholars in his camp, it is crystal clear that inequality has at least as much to do with class as it does with race. The way forward is to promote a broad working-class coalition that includes all workers. When such interracial solidarity is achieved, he says, as it was during the New Deal era, blacks make the most progress toward equality.

For that to happen, Reed says, we must institute a new New Deal, modeled after what President Roosevelt proposed during his final State of the Union speech in 1944, “which would establish the right to a job, a living wage, a decent home, and healthcare.⁠5” This sounds like Bernie Sander’s platform, who, by the way, was popular with white, working-class voters, who ended up voting for Trump. 

We each have our deep stories, the right and the left. Perhaps, if we can muster empathy and understanding for those on the other side, we can form that interracial working-class solidarity essential to racial equality and, in the process, resurrect the American Dream.





3 Reed, Touré F. . Toward Freedom Verso Books. Kindle Edition.


5 Reed, Touré F. . Toward Freedom (p. 3). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.