Thinking through lineage, family and politics


Those glasses were boss. Big boss.

Today, fourteen years ago, Dad died. I’ve been thinking about him of late, though to be honest, the anniversary completely snuck up on me.

Rather, I’ve been considering my Indian immigrant father — and my lineage and family in general — because I mostly grew up in small towns in Central Illinois. These are places that voted earlier this month for Donald Trump to be president.

Though I was born in Decatur, a city of 74,000 people today give or take, we shifted before I have memories to Avon, population: less than 800. When I was 5, we spent a year in Quincy (41,000 people) but moved again to the country. Those earliest years are indistinct in my brain.

Beason, Illinois, in 1988, represents the real start of my remembered childhood. That’s where the above photo was taken. Beason is barely even a village, an unincorporated census place. Which is to say it had a Post Office and a single soda vending machine. As of the 2010 Census, 189 people lived there. Beason’s primary reason for existing was a grain elevator and a grade school. The latter has since been razed.

I spent ages 6 through 9 in Beason. My family wasn’t a farm family, but I certainly grew up in that circuit. Dad was the town preacher. So many friends and neighbors also attended our church. In the school, there were about 80 kids in grades K through 8. I was often babysat by one or more church families, often on their farms. I taught myself to ride a bike in a country gravel driveway. I played with my babysitter’s children (my friends and school mates) in hay lofts. I developed my still-existing fear of cows in barns and pastures, where I also learned to ride a horse.

In the Methodist tradition, preachers are itinerant. They typically relocate every several years. So after four years, we shifted to Henry, Illinois. Population: 2,600. This felt like a big city, compared to Beason. The town had industry (a fertilizer plant and a tire factory). There was a community swimming pool. A grade school AND a high school. Grocery stores (two, as I recall) and a Dollar General. County fairgrounds. Gas stations. The Internet showed up when I was 12.

But there were still farm (or country) families, whose kids were my friends. I learned to drive on country roads. My neighbor’s dad took me mushroom hunting. My first W2′d job involved detassling corn during a summer. My second legal employment: Stocking shelves for one of those grocers. We lived there six years, before shifting back to Decatur when Dad got transferred again.

These memories of childhood in conservative rural America — with my immigrant father as a figure in those communities — have been in my head for a week and a half, since it became clear that indeed Trump would be the next president of the United States.

Today, I sit in a beating heart of so-called liberal America, a PhD student at the University of California at Berkeley. My primary research focuses on capitalism, India, fishers and the oceans. In the last decade, I’ve spent as much time out of the country as in it. I read and generally agree with a fair bit of Marx. I embrace the majority of left, liberal, progressive causes. The Democratic Party is usually to my political right.

From the perspective of many places where I grew up, I’m a neo-hippie. Or a communist. Or out-of-touch coastal elite.

In my current circles, there’s a lot of head scratching at how an openly misogynist, racist, elitist, egotist, fascist like Trump could get himself elected. Why did so many of those folks in the “red” counties — places like where I grew up in — vote for Trump? Is that really the political fabric of a not-quite-majority of our nation? This concern among progressives is echoed hyperbolically in media and many late-night TV shows.

There are lots of assumptions embedded in things “liberals” say about conservatives, but many are grounded in real fear, justified by some of Trump’s outspoken and openly misogynist, racist, elitist, egotist, fascist voters. But this rendering of conservatives doesn’t fit neatly with my own upbringing.

To understand, look again at the family photo above. Dad was brown. My sister and I are mixed race. To be clear, we certainly met racism. My father especially. Family lore says he received death threats at different moments (though in Decatur, which is not actually the most rural of places). In Henry, I didn’t understand the term “sand nigger” the first time it was directed at me. I’m not denying that rural conservative America is not always welcoming of diversity.

But race hardly framed my upbringing in these communities. I’m sure my parents sheltered me somewhat (and my sister probably had a different experience), but discrimination wasn’t the overriding theme of my childhood. My family also knew kindness from at least some of the same people who probably also voted for Trump. In Henry, after the parish fundraised a few thousand dollars with a community shrimp boil, the church turned around and surprised our family by paying for a trip for Mom and Dad to go back to India so they could visit his parents. Dad performed baptisms and marriages and funerals for many people in these places. He counseled and prayed with and ministered to many people, some of whom today might be labeled as racist.

(There are also “blue” voters in majority “red” places. Thirty percent of Marshall County, where Henry sits, voted for Hillary Clinton.)

And in every church my father pastored, I had umpteen adoptive grandparents, who might have feared a person of color but nonetheless treated the preacher and his children like their own. I was given advantages in school — bumped up in math class, taken to state journalism conferences, pushed to be a good student. The local grocery store hired me before I was 16 (and did adhere to child labor laws); the owner hired my sister, too. Even an old man in the community, who I believe was probably a bigot, once paid me to teach him to use his computer.

The point of these anecdotes: The political, social, economic (and even ecological) reality in the rural America I knew was complex. I do not give racism, xenophobia and other bigotries a pass. But I also have sympathy for conservatives that is rooted in my own upbringing. I honestly do believe that progressives today engage in Othering conservative America as a place that is mysterious, irrational and sometimes — in a rather colonial logic — inferior.

I’m following political geographers here, who describe Othering as a process of distinguishing people and places hierarchically, of drawing boundaries between who/where/what is included in a collective identity and those people, places and things that are excluded as the Other. Think Edward Said’s history of denigration of Asia by European colonizers. More recent application of the process of Othering can be found in Derek Gregory’s analysis of the way Islamic people have been Othered as barbarians, particularly since the Bush years.

As a youngish geography scholar, I want to explore a deeper why behind the conservative vote, to overcome this process of Othering of conservatives by liberals. I’m now looking at voting patterns and economic data, for example, for Henry. The county last voted Democrat for president in 1992 and 1996. Before that? Johnson. Meanwhile, the county has also watched inflation-adjusted median income fall from 1990 to 2010 by 20 percent or so. Farm jobs are down. Population is flat. The tire factory? Carved up into units, one of which is owned by a global equity firm. The fertilizer plant? Now under control of the Koch bros.

These are material happenings that deserve consideration alongside socialpolitical reality. I suggest they need to be approached, perhaps by scholars with sympathy and method rooted in autobiography (even autoethnography), or at the very least transparent consideration of subject position. In this regard, I’m thinking of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas as well as Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land.

And today I’m remembering my father mostly because he lived as a brown man, raising family amid these places, and actively ministering to the emotional and spiritual needs of this Other. And I’d desperately like to talk to him about that.

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UPDATED: Eat your public domain broccoli. Or eat Monsanto’s. They might be nearly the same.

Every time I wade into thinking about corporate control of agriculture, it steals several hours of my life and I usually end up flustered and wrong. Alas, I’ve done it again.

UPDATE AT BOTTOM with a response from one of the scientists involved. As always, there is more to the story. The short of it: The major breakthrough, it seems, would be held in public trust. Corporations will pay licensing fees to use it in their adaptations. Not sure this will ultimately circumvent the market power and hegemony of players like Monsanto, but it’s a start.

Tom Philpott over at Mother Jones writes about the prospect of fresher summer broccoli east of the Rockies. A number of land grant university scientists are trying to make a heat-tolerant variety of broccoli, so we don’t have to always buy it from California. And they want their creation to be public domain.

Smaller seed companies like Johnny’s Selected Seeds are involved. But so are Monsanto and Syngenta. Errp.

The way it works, Bjorkman explained, is that the Eastern Broccoli Project itself owns the breakthrough seed stock; the private partners like Monsanto and Johnny’s license it and cross it with their own broccoli varieties to create proprietary hybrids. “Our goal is to get seeds of better-adapted broccoli varieties out to Eastern growers so that they can grow more local broccoli,” he told me. And working with private players with established distribution networks is the fastest way to do that, he added.

In addition to the partnerships with Monsanto and Johnny’s and the like, the group also plans to place open-pollinated versions of the new broccoli in the public domain—meaning that smaller seed purveyors will be able to develop and market their own strains. Monsanto and Syngenta are obviously participating because they hope to benefit from an emerging market in summer broccoli for Eastern growers, but Bjorkman convinced me that Eastern farmers who want access to the new summer-friendly broccoli traits will be able to get them without having to deal with a big biotech company if they’d prefer not to.

Monsanto and Syngenta are partners but they ostensibly have no control over the science. If the goal is public seeds, what’s their incentive?

Well, corporate seed developers can piggyback, right? Cross the public domain strain with a so-called proprietary variety, gain the breakthrough trait and then market the patented seeds (someday, RoundUp Ready broccoli, perhaps?) in competition with the public domain variety.

Philpott’s post has been lit up by the anti-GMO, anti-Monsanto crowd, somewhat unfairly. But I’ll hazard a guess that the legitimate backlash here exists — ideology and parroting not withstanding — because when you look into the future, this feels a lot like more of the same.

Maybe both varieties exist, but Monsanto and Syngenta also have the extraordinary market control and access to the levers of power that allow them to continue to profit further off what supposed to be a public good — in this case, a specific variety of broccoli that withstands heat.

So… perhaps East Coasters and Midwesterners eat more broccoli, most likely Monsanto and Syngenta continue to make money, maybe fledgling seed companies limp along and I guess that means all is right with the world? Of course, Monsanto and Syngenta also pump money back into rent-seeking, into further proprietary tweaking, into legal wrangling and into spin/manipulation. So we’re no more disentangled from a fundamentally inequitable and self-destructive agro-food system.

An analogy: Give a team of little league-ers and the Yankees the same balls, bats and diamond and tell them to square off in a month. Who do you think wins? Do we call that outcome fair, sporting or right because they had the same rules and the same playground? Is that what we wish to accept?

At a basic level, that scenario is not so far from giving the organic farm co-op (or even Johnny’s of Maine) the same publicly held seeds as Monsanto and telling them to compete on the market. Except that instead of the warm and fuzzies of kids in baseball jerseys, we have another corner of the food system at stake.

Understand, I’m not trying to simply poo-poo this because Monsanto or Syngenta is involved. I support public science. I support locally grown. A public domain heat-tolerant broccoli might be a good thing. But my core argument here, however, remains that this by itself does little to reform an industrial food system. If a corporation can effectively co-opt another public good — and they seem to be good at that — then we’re mostly left where we started.

Here’s a response from Thomas Björkman, a scientist at Cornell, who is part of the team behind this.

Your concern is one that we thought deeply about when developing the proposal for this project. The answer is a bit more complex than you lay out.

First, there will be many varieties developed out of this project. Just this year, before the companies began using any publicly developed germplasm, three companies released five new varieties that are better than what was on the market before. (Better, at least for specific markets and growing periods). When the public germplasm is used by the seed companies we will see further advances and many more varieties. It is not a scenario that makes market control easy. Farmers will buy the varieties that work for their location and market, so the breeders who deliver that will make the sales. Seed companies will all be in competition with each other for the eastern broccoli market.

The source of the really good eastern adaptation is not a public domain variety. That will be in germplasm (collections of different genotypes) developed by my colleagues at USDA, Cornell and Oregon State. Companies that want to use it will have to to license specific materials for use in their breeding programs. This structure also prevents control of essential traits by any one entity. In addition, the licensing fees allow public breeding for the public good to continue.

Also, our goal is the public good, not specifically public-domain seeds. There is one public domain population, developed by the Northern Organic
Vegetable Improvement Collaborative. We are mainly helping get it in
commercial distribution so that farmers can buy quality seed.These days, “public domain” and “public sector” are not the same.

Thomas Björkman, Cornell

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Illinois prairie of yesteryear

All but gone

My bike rides routinely take me to Meadowbrook Park in Urbana, home to a decent swatch of prairie restoration. It’s small lake of the tall grasses, flowers and red-wing blackbirds that once formed an ocean as far as the eye could see across this state.

Today, we have settled the land, replacing the prairie with corn and our homesteads with neatly packed towns. Our yards are short grasses that we try our damndest to keep short.

In the process we’ve compromised our ecosystems, forcing us to rely more on biotech farming and synthetic fertilizer. We’ve watched nutrients be leeched from the soil or washed into our rivers. We’ve taken too much, in our quest to feed our cattle and our cars.

I vote for more returning to native plants, for more prairie restoration, for more preserving land for all creatures; Aldo Leopold saw the problems decades ago when he wrote about riding a bus across Illinois.

And so have countless of other scientists, conservationists, nature lovers and people lucky enough to experience the beauty of Illinois prairie that is now mostly confined to parks and the occasional highway embankment.

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Country son, country sun

It feels absolutely fantastic to ride long miles through nothing but country. And with my new road bike, I’m thankful then to spend a few weeks here in Champaign-Urbana, where I’m no more than eight miles in any direction from wide open cornfields.

OK, so there are no grand mountains or sea views. But there’s still peace to be hand with sun shining through cotton-ball clouds and the wind in your face as the green of Illinois farmland flies by.

I grew up in small farm towns across central Illinois. In recent years, too many years now, I’ve lived in metropolises with populations ranging from three to 20 million people.

I belong out here, in the country.

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Misty morning sunrise


Dew and low fog hang over fields of mustard and channa in Rajasthan at sunrise.

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Rural village drive-by

Gaon ke log

Several weeks ago, we took a weekend out of town to stay at a fort hotel in Rajasthan. Along the way, we passed fields of sarson (mustard) and atta (wheat) and channa (chickpea). The five hour trip took us over back country roads through rural India.

Domestic scenes and courtyards like the one above (nothing spectacular — the taxi didn’t stop) were common.

It’s really beautiful out there. Simple and and poor and beautiful.

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Dung flats

Dirty work, but someone's got to do it

An overhead of the muddy yard of a poor farming family in Siliguri. Their primary occupation: collecting dung from their cattle.

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I love the smell of fish guts and fresh vegetables

Kenya’s major cities boast gleaming shopping centers and 24-hour big box marts (detailed previously).

Bush villages however rely on a more traditional option: sprawling open air markets.

I visited Ahero‘s weekly market last week to see and smell and taste. There, I met Tom Odero, a 56-year-old retired Army sergeant major, who is active in politics and now farms rice in his quiet days.

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Train to Kisumu offers brief glimpse of rural Kenya

After three days largely kicking back in Nairobi, I took the overnight train west to Kisumu, which is Kenya’s third largest city. It’s a clean, warm, charming city, with a decent expat community on the shores of Lake Victoria. But it’s hardly a tourist haven (I was one of only three foreigners on the 15-hour train ride.) and feels more laidback, authentic and safe than Nairobi.

I’ve come to Kisumu principally to meet up with Shannon, who has been here for several weeks working on public health projects. It was Shannon who convinced me to include a stop in Africa before heading to India.

The train is a throwback to transportation decades ago — old, worn compartments, vinyl seats, lights and fans that don’t work. Dinner was served on china and 15 minutes into the ride, an attendant came to neatly unfurl bedding and wool blankets in each berth.

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