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The Founding Fathers' Agrarian Prejudice is Causing America's Decline


Our founding fathers hated cities. Many of them were slave-owners and felt that only people who had held this kind of responsibility should be allowed to vote. So they created -- through the Electoral College system and the Senate -- a semi-democracy that proportionally disenfranchises people who live in highly populated areas.

Cities are places where many different kinds of people encounter each other -- where people are exposed to different ways of thinking, to new ideas. Our Founding Fathers didn't like that. To them, an agrarian society, where nothing ever changed, was the ideal society.

So what are the characteristics of agrarian societies, historically, and around the world? First of all, they oppress women. There is a very high correlation between agrarianism and the low status -- often slave status -- of women. It is only when urbanization and industrialization occur that the position of women improves. We in America are justly horrified by conditions in the sweatshops of Asia where so many of our clothes and shoes are manufactured, yet women in the Third World often view these atrocious working conditions as liberation, compared with slaving for nothing on a farm, bearing a child every year, and being beaten. They earn their own money, and are therefore more independent, have more power, more status, and bear fewer children.

The second characteristic of agrarian societies is that they are highly authoritarian. Husbands dominate wives, landowners dominate peasants, big landowners dominate smaller ones, and political leaders dominate everyone. All relationships tend to be hierarchical.

The third characteristic of agrarian societies is that they are warlike. War as we know it, with standing armies, pitched battles, the taking of land by force, etc. was an invention of the agrarian era. Hunter-gatherers had occasional skirmishes, but land ownership was a meaningless concept to them, and without herds and crops there was no need for armies. As Robert O'Connell observes in his definitive book on war, we were free of war for most of our existence on this planet, and "its onset and continuation were dependent on levels of ecological adaptation that were inherently transitory". Today, when corporations are global, the economy is global, environmental issues are global, and all major problems faced by humans are global, when the nation-state is rapidly becoming obsolete, warfare between armies is increasingly meaningless. Terrorists are not national. They are not armies. They are utterly decentralized international networks of murderers. Europeans, who have lived with terrorism a long time, actually capture and arrest terrorists, through efficient intelligence and police work, while our clueless president -- still living in the past -- makes war on Iraq, creating a bloody catastrophe in the Middle East while destroying democracy at home.

The United States is the only non-agrarian nation -- the only nation outside of the Third World -- that regularly makes war on other nations. Except for Russia it could also lay claim today to being the most undemocratic industrialized democracy in the world.

We can certainly blame the Bush administration and the neo-cons for this blind retreat into the past, but a portion of the blame must be assigned to the lack of foresight of our Founding Fathers, who partially disenfranchised the most cosmopolitan and aware voters while giving undue weight to those whose knowledge and experience of the world is most limited. A large number of our elected representatives don't even have passports. They boast about never having left the country, as they make decisions about foreign policy.

While Washington is living in the past, Europe, and parts of Asia, are moving toward the future -- coping with global warming, investing in renewable energy, cooperating to catch terrorists. They have viable universal health care systems, they educate their children, they don't hand out assault weapons to every lunatic in the streets. They pay attention to what's going on in the world. They don't write blank checks for Big Brother.

Insularity is not a virtue. In today's world it's both criminal and suicidal.