'Self-made' myth divides us
Maybe it's because I live in the rat warren otherwise known as the big city. But there are few characters I find more perplexing than the...
Seattle Times staff columnist
Maybe it's because I live in the rat warren otherwise known as the big city. But there are few characters I find more perplexing than the rugged individualists of Eastern Washington.
We posed one of them on the front page last week. Clint Didier — farmer, footballer, tamer of sagebrush — told why he's running for U.S. Senate. In short, to preserve the America of "rugged individualism" from socialism's creep.
People can take care of their own, he explained. So the entire system of support we've constructed, from medical aid for the elderly to financial boosts for public schools, should be slashed. Not only to save money. But so we don't become a society of flabby collectivists jonesing for the next handout.
"We've got to get rid of this 'protecting the weak,' " Didier said. "If we keep the weak alive all the time, it eats up the strong."
Of all stories we tell ourselves, the one about how we're a merit-based nation of lone wolves has got to be the most enduring. The most intoxicating. And the most baloney.
Nowhere is the myth as confused with reality as in rock-ribbed Eastern Washington. The place depends utterly on the government and communal resources for its existence, from the New Deal irrigation system still being paid for by taxpayers elsewhere, to farming subsidies and crop price supports. Yet in their own minds, they are mavericks living off the land.
"We don't need the government to come in and try to prop things up," a Lincoln County grain buyer told me as the economy was collapsing in the fall of 2008. As if the local economy weren't already propped up.
Or take Didier. His personal story is impressive, winning a Super Bowl and returning to run the family farm. That's true merit there. At the same time, I'm having a hard time thinking of two more socialistic enterprises than pro football or farming.
The National Football League is famed for its anti-capitalistic, share-the-wealth approach, where unionized players are guaranteed to make minimum salaries and rich teams give money to poorer ones so they can compete. Plus, taxpayers pick up the tab for the stadiums.
Washington state's farmers, likewise, simply couldn't survive on their own. They've been paid nearly $4 billion in federal cash subsidies since 1995 (Didier's alfalfa farm got $273,000 of that). Taxpayers and electricity ratepayers also pay more than 90 percent of the yearly costs of the Columbia Basin Project, the nation's largest system of dams and irrigation canals.
Blaine Harden, who grew up in Moses Lake, wrote in his book "A River Lost: the Life and Death of the Columbia" that this clashing of lone-horseman myth with public-welfare reality is such a cognitive dissonance that it spawned its own belief system.
"These farmers have fashioned a religion unique to the arid American West," he wrote. "Its fundamental precept is that the only godly work a man can do is grow food. From that precept comes the corollary notion that the American taxpayer has an obligation — economic, patriotic and religious — to deliver cheap water to farmers so they can continue to do God's work."
The religion leads to delusions about who really makes the desert bloom. Didier says his farm is subsidizing electric ratepayers in Western Washington, for instance, when it's overwhelmingly the other way around.
OK, so what; we're all hypocrites about something. What bugs me is how we're missing our real story here. It's not just Didier — it's the flavor of the day in politics. This myth that we're all self-made men and women is paralyzing us.
The real story is that it took extraordinary acts of community-building, on a national and local level, to turn Eastern Washington into a fruit and vegetable basket to the world. (It had big environmental costs, but that's another part of the story.)
Same with the public school systems (which Didier attended). The safety net for the elderly. The national parks. The electric grid. The public-health system. All, like the Columbia Basin Project, are communal in spirit and dramatically raised the quality of life in America.
So why do we pretend we didn't do them?
Why do we persist in this phony yarn that everyone got where they did solely by hard work and self-reliance?
I'll admit the truth isn't as romantic. But it's not the limpest story in the world, either — that we did it together.
Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or email@example.com.
About Danny Westneat
Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
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