My Old Kentucky Conservatism
By MAURICE MANNING
Washington County, Ky.
CUTTING firewood on a recent afternoon in the woods at the back of our farm, it occurred to me that the term conservative has lost all connection to its original meaning.
The root of the word comes from the Latin verb “conservare,” which means “to keep and preserve.” It’s interesting that the origin is a verb and not a noun, a term that implies action and duty, rather than merely a stance. Other meanings suggested by conservative have to do with frugality, modesty and the preservation of tradition.
By these lights, I would qualify as a conservative. My goal in tending our 20 acres is to preserve the character and health of this land. I don’t pile chemicals on our soil; I plant our gardens on our few patches of level ground, and every fall I am careful to rebuild the soil with leaves and compost.
And I am pleased to preserve the traditional order of this land. If I leave a rut in a field, I repair it; if, in moving one of the many rocks that dot my property, I uncover a pair of salamanders, I put it back and leave the spotted creatures to their lives, as they have left me to mine. My most modern farm implement is a 1967 International Cub tractor, Old Yeller I call it, and it runs like a top.
I managed to pay off our $70,000 mortgage this spring after just nine years of indebtedness, which has required working two jobs at times, considerable frugality and considerable sweat. These are values I learned from my grandfather, who after buying a house following his service in World War II took on two jobs and paid off his home in seven years. It is the only home he ever owned.
My neighbors share this outlook. Two of them live on land that the family of one of them has owned since 1786: they live in a trailer; they raise cattle and are certified master gardeners.
During the extended drought this summer, I built a shed on the top of our hill to catch rainwater; we then used it to water our gardens with buckets and used hand tools to hoe and aerate the ground.
This is a practice borne of necessity that I inherited from my great-grandparents and my great-great Aunt Clara, who lived to be 108 years old. I plant a variety of bean she developed in Clay County, Ky., which, according to the last census, is among the poorest regions in the country.
My wife, Amanda, volunteers in our county with an organization called New Pioneers for a Sustainable Future, which promotes local agriculture. Its members include farmers and merchants; people who run vineyards, raise alpacas and sheep; nurses, insurance agents, potters and former school-bus drivers. The group believes that by buying locally raised food, we can keep more money in the county and in that way help to preserve our heritage, become healthier and enhance our shared prosperity. This is conservatism, as I understand it and value it.
This version of conservatism, however, runs counter to the model presented by the Republican establishment. The latest Republican administration got us enmeshed in two wars, neither of which is winnable, and both of which have cost us blood and treasure, as the old saying goes, that cannot be calculated. A small number of extremely elite “conservatives” has even profited from these ventures. Is that conservatism?
It was obvious from the beginning that our national economic woes come from Wall Street, not the government. Yet our “conservative” leaders think we should do away with oversight and regulation and give the financial world absolutely free rein. It is a freedom that has not been earned. And allowing our financiers to run unchecked is about as conservative as leaving the faucet running. Financial regulations discourage waste and fraud, two values that ought to be at the forefront of any conservative mind-set.
Here in Kentucky we have a number of so-called conservatives who advocate mountaintop removal, a destructive technique used by the coal industry. It is surely the most egregious and unnecessary form of coal extraction: thousands of acres of land are blown up and bulldozed away, as if the land itself is an unpleasant encumbrance without any value whatsoever.
Yet Jim Booth, a Kentucky politician and coal operator, was recently hailed here for sealing a deal to sell Kentucky coal to India, a deal that will make many millions for a few, but that, curiously, will export American energy resources in favor of mere monetary profit and at the expense of American energy independence.
Mitt Romney is keen to say he “is a friend of coal.” But I doubt Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan has ever looked out on the vast wasteland of a mountaintop removal site and pronounced it good.
They are also keen to build an oil pipeline from Alberta to Oklahoma, a project that would endanger water resources and threaten the vitality of huge sections of farmland. There is no way to describe such an outlook as conservative — shortsighted, opportunistic and wasteful, perhaps, but not conservative.
For that matter, I don’t see how a man who has multiple homes around the country, whose business has been to serve investors seeking purely monetary gains — that is, people with no interest in local preservation or local well-being, and those who do not live side by side the community into which they are invested — can be considered conservative.
That kind of extravagance has not been good for our country or anywhere else; it places making money ahead of making sense. If they represent anything, Mr. Romney and the policies he advocates represent a betrayal of conservatism, at least the kind of conservatism we practice here in Washington County.
Maurice Manning is a poet and the author, most recently, of the poetry collection “The Common Man.”