Of Goats and Politics

Over the weekend I attended an open house at an organic farm specializing in making goat cheese. Since I live on a large inactive farm I’m interested in learning about all aspects of small scale farming, and having grown up in the St. Louis suburbs there’s much to study. As I have learned more about growing things, I’ve come to appreciate organic methods that minimize or eliminate chemicals and work with the forces present in nature in order to grow food. Don’t get me wrong: Mother Nature will starve you to death and dine on your bones if you let her, but there are strategies such as avoiding monoculture plantings and pesticides that whack beneficial insects as well as pests that are worth pursuing for a hobby farmer such as myself. Additionally I’m becoming more aware of the sourcing of my food, recognizing that we have completely lost the ability to eat what’s in season when at the local supermarket we can buy strawberries in November and whole ear corn in January. I live among farmers, and I have seen the gradual creep of large agribusiness and the depopulation of rural America. Neither are good omens for our nation’s future, and though they may be inevitable, I’ll be damned if I contribute to the process. So I’m gradually buying more locally, and the trip to the farm open house was a way to get some ideas on my new lifestyle.

When we arrived the place was hopping, with young men directing people to park on a newly-mowed hay field. We parked, and as I walked past the cars I automatically scanned the bumper stickers, a bit of a habit of mine. The first one I saw as expected was an Obama ‘08 sticker, but the next one I saw surprised me: a Gadsden flag of the Tea Party along with a sticker that read “God Bless Our Military, Especially Our Snipers.” North Carolina is much bluer than I expected when I moved down here, and I’ve learned that while I might live in a predominantly conservative part of the state it is full to the brim with people of all political philosophies and walks of life.

All were represented at the organic farm. There were gay couples and old hippies, as well as clean-cut military men and their families, their kids petting goats and chasing free range chickens. A man dressed in a checked shirt beneath blue overalls stood alongside a young woman with more piercings than a rural stop sign, listening to one of the founders of the farm talk about its history and how it has grown over the years. Hispanics mingled with blacks who in turn stood in line with monied white suburbanites and their kids to take a turn at the pottery wheel and throw their own pot. Smiles were everywhere, and the place seemed as alive as the show hive of bees that stood on saw horses in the middle of a vegetable patch.

I was an odd child growing up. Some of my first memories are not of clowns or birthdays but of political events. I watched Nixon’s visit to Beijing broadcast on network TV in 1972. Two years later I rushed home from school and flipped on the Watergate hearings instead of game shows or cartoons. I grew up living and loving politics, and had I been born with a more gregarious personality I would have pursued a career in it. Instead I was socially inept, perhaps even autistic, so politics could never be more than a spectator sport for me, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying it.

But I’ve lost that joy. It has been years since I felt something other than doom and dread about politics, and the organic farm reminded me why.

We are divided, almost atomized these days. It has been years since we felt unity, the last time being the unity of grief by the 9-11 attacks. Since then our leaders have failed us. President Bush famously promised to be a “uniter not a divider”, but then went and did what he wanted to do in Iraq and in the biggest failure of his administration, presided over an explosion of government and spending. The Department of Homeland Security wasn’t a Clinton creation, it was a Bush one after all. While I agreed with his policies in Iraq at the time, Bush failed to support his actions at home against his critics. He just did what he wanted because he knew it was right, but didn’t even try to convince people otherwise.

Obama hasn’t even attempted to unite us. He took office reminding Republicans that he won and has governed accordingly, ramming through his signature health care legislation without a single Republican vote. A year later Americans clipped his power by taking away the House from the Democrats and ending their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, but Obama didn’t miss a beat. Instead of moving to the center and working with the opposition to get legislation passed, he went to the extreme, and decided to wait things out to the next election, blaming the GOP and his Republican predecessor for the fruits of his own failure to lead.

Leadership in a democracy requires skills in the art of compromise. It’s hard to imagine but Ronald Reagan whom even Obama himself has claimed for his own never had a friendly majority in the House during his 8 years yet managed to pass budgets and legislation with bipartisan support with no less a political mastermind like Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. We have yet to have a single budget from the president even during the 2 years his own party held both the House and Senate.

In fairness to Obama he never was much of a leader. His career reflects the Peter Principle more than the exercising of leadership skills to make it to the top, always having a mentor in higher position who can push him further up the political ladder. Unfortunately Obama now finds himself at the top with no mentor other than his usual billionaire friends like George Judenrat Soros and Warren Buffet. While these men may support him with their financial acumen and deep pockets, there is no one above Obama that can protect him anymore so he must rely on his skills. The problem is that the process that led to his ascension to the highest office in the land avoided cultivating those skills.

George W. Bush had a similar rise through the ranks, although based on his name rather than mentors. Samuel P. Bush, George W’s great-grandfather, built a successful career as an industrialist and dabbled in politics during World War I. His son Prescott continued the path of mixing success in business with politics that lead to George Bush’s ascendance to the presidency in 1988. While George W. Bush showed the ability of a leader to make difficult decisions such as to attack Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, an upbringing where his name alone opened doors and convinced people made it unlikely that he would develop other leadership skills such as the ability to convince others and charm one’s opponents.

The last president that had such leadership skills? Bill Clinton. Clinton is a self-made man and rose through the political ranks solely on his wit and charm. During his 8 years in office Clinton was able to pass budgets and bipartisan legislation with die-hard partisans such as Newt Gingrich. Clinton understood how to work with Congress, and his domestic policy record proves it (on the other hand his foreign policy record was in retrospect a disaster, consciously ignoring the threat posed by al Qaeda even though numerous terrorist attacks occurred on his watch.)

We have gone 11 years with weak leadership and our nation has suffered. You can’t compromise with someone you call a racist. You can’t cut deals with a party you demonize as misogynistic and homophobic. Leadership doesn’t pit one group of people against another; it fuses them together in a shared purpose.

A true leader does more than call his opponents names and make grand promises in eloquently delivered speeches from teleprompters. He inspires but also delivers on his promises. He doesn’t hold grudges but also makes it clear that he will not be played the fool. He understands the responsibility that comes with his position and serves all the people, not just those who voted for him. Most importantly he appreciates and respects the ideals that bind us together as a people and a nation, recognizing that while we might disagree vehemently on issues big and small, we are all bound by the love of freedom and hope for a better future for our children and our country.

While it is clear that leader is not Obama, neither is it clear that it is Romney. But I do wish that both men could have taken a moment from their politicking to talk to the farmer selling hand raised beef, watched the Montagnard women weaving brightly colored fabrics, and tasted the red pepper goat cheese. Perhaps they would have understood that if we could put aside our differences at a goat farm founded by a woman driving around with two goats in the front seat of her Toyota looking for a farm in North Carolina, we are a people ready to be led, and who deserve a good leader.

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