Like A [Yellow] [Mythological] Rolling Stone

Note: 850 words (including four footnotes to be read or not, as you like.)

Decided I'd better come out of hiding for this one. (*1)

The current issue of Rolling Stone magazine features a long story about animal rights activists working undercover at livestock confinement operations. It’s a classic, high-quality example of muckraking journalism. That, I hasten to add, is not a criticism. The piece should be taken for what it is: an effort to persuade readers to embrace a specific position on a contentious issue. 

The story, written by Paul Solotaroff, employs the usual tactics of muckraking story-making: loaded language, vague claims, twisted facts, and leaps of illogic. Again, this isn't criticism. There's a place for this kind of literature in our society and as I noted above, this is a fine example. (*2)

I'm not interested in refuting the story’s contents. Nor am I interested in defending the "other side." (*3)

Rather, my interest, as a historian and a citizen, is in the essay's function. Solotaroff’s story serves as an incendiary device in an ongoing, and important, cultural war: the battle over America's agrarian future. The debate about factory-like livestock production is less about specific evils than it is about the future of agriculture in American society and culture; about agriculture’s role in our national identity.


As many Americans know, the agrarian past looms large in both our national identity and mythology: The nation was founded by the sturdy yeoman, the rugged individual, etc. Those who work the land are the best among us, etc. Rural values are the bedrock of American society; threaten those and the republic itself is threatened, etc. (See, for example, Wendell Berry.)

This mythology is just that: mythology. Historically, first in the colonies and then in the new United States, American farmers were less interested in yeoman "independence" than in earning profits from a national and global market for food stuffs. (And make no mistake: American agriculture has served a global market since the 1600s.)

These days, only a few hundred thousand Americans work as “farmers.” But this powerful agrarian mythology endures. It remains part of who we Americans imagine ourselves to be. (*4)

Indeed, the critique of livestock production and "factory" farming is based on that myth. Ask a critic about the failings of current farming methods and she'll say something along the lines of "We'd be better off if we could return to the way things used to be. When farms were small and owned by families who relied on nature rather than chemicals and who grazed livestock on pasture instead of imprisoning them in confinement.” 

When critics imagine the future of American agriculture, they envision a return to (an imagined) past because that imagined past is central to what it means to be an American.

But that future isn’t only about “us.” For better or for worse, our modern livestock production system was designed to supply meat protein to the rest of the world. As we debate our agrarian future, we must weigh that future against the needs of people around the world (about whom most of us claim we care). A big decision, right?

Which is why Rolling Stone's article fails the magazine's readers; fails the citizenry it was presumably written to serve. If we're going to have a serious, substantive discussion about agriculture's future, we need more facts and less loaded, emotionally skewed coverage.

By all means: read the story in Rolling Stone. Just take it for what it is: an incendiary device rather than a substantive contribution to an important discussion.


*1: And I am in hiding of sorts. Here's a fact: having spent seven years ensconced in my brain writing a book, now that said book is finished the only place I want to be is in the 3-dimensional world. Translation: at the moment, I have little interest in writing, even something as short, easy as a blog entry. What can I say? I'm human. 

*2: Essays like this exist to do one thing: rally the troops. And, in this case, raise money for organizations devoted to whatever cause is at stake. In this case, it's a safe bet that the Humane Society of the United States, which is featured in the report, will enjoy an uptick in contributions.

*3: I'll just say this: Solotaroff's piece rests in large part on a grossly inaccurate telling of how and why factory farms came to be in this country; on the who/what/when/why behind factory farms. That's understandable: he's not a historian and can't be expected to know that history. But he's also not interested in accuracy because it works against his larger goal of rallying the troops. 

*4: As to that agrarian mythology. How “real,” I wonder, is that part of the American past to most Americans today? For immigrants from, say, Sudan or Bosnia or China or Mexico, surely that aspect of the “meaning” of America is irrelevant. Which makes the yearning to return to that imagined past even more impractical --- and, yes, irrelevant. All the more reason, then, for critics of contemporary agriculture to exercise more care with the solutions they propose to the problems they perceive.