I’m at the afternoon session of the National Farmers’ Union conference and struggling with sleepy eyelids in one of the rows near the back. The session is about farming cooperatives. It’s not scintillating, but it’s not bad either, and my drowsiness is mostly from my habitual after lunch lull. This lull is compounded by the hot, stuffy, faceless hotel meeting room we are in. These places are so depressing.
The session winds up, graciously just before I completely doze off. I’m checking my pockets for my phone and gathering up my papers when I get tapped on the shoulder. I turn around in my seat to come rudely up close to a wizened old farmer. I recognize him from a morning session: the old timer moderating the question period microphone. He sizes me up. I’m in my thirties and a novelty in a crowd with a mean age of 65.
Looking me in the eye he says, “This session was an utter waste of time,” in a manner that still somehow expects a response.
“Oh, well, it had some good information, too,” I offer back lamely. Reaching further to avoid silence I add, “Cooperatives are a fundamental way of organizing farmers.”
He sizes me up again. His eyes are suspicious and searching as if he’s trying to decide whether I’m genuinely worth his time, or a Nazi spy. His faces then breaks, somewhat, and he leans forward, motioning to me to do the same, deciding by his body language that I’ll be a confidante.
“The session was an utter waste of time,” he repeats, adding, “because it didn’t mention the biggest threat our cooperatives face: infiltration.” Despite what must be my blank, awed look, he continues as if I’ve understood. “Infiltration by stupid, ignorant middle-managers is what I’m talking about. They push farmers for more throughput, and the agro-companies capture the upside. It’s what keeps farmers into debt. It’s what ruins co-ops. It’s our biggest threat and it wasn’t even mentioned.”
Seeing someone else he needed to approach, the old farmer left me and hurried off towards the door. From his initial manner, I had expected him to slip me an envelope full of instructions and cash. Instead, he played the oracle, dispensing mysterious and cryptic warnings. I decided that if all National Farmers’ Union conferences were going to be as intriguing as this one, I’d be a regular attender.
Here’s the thing though. These old timers know something that our generation does not. Not that they have some hidden cache of secrets they’re unwilling to share with us, no. We are dumbfounded when they speak truth, the same way I was in front of this man, because we’re so astoundingly blank to what’s right in front of us. What’s right in front of us is this (credit Hugh MacLeod):
My first response to seeing this cartoon was laughter. Then I got real quiet. Then, angry. Mostly angry with myself, though a large portion was vented at former bosses. I can only guess that this is something of a common response: a sort of instinctive, flinching recoil to getting news like this, to hearing that those at the top are likely Sociopaths, that I may be a Loser who gives my company more than I get out, or that I am a member of the Clueless who are oblivious to being used by those above them for unscrupulous ends.
Reality, though, in whatever colour it comes in is still preferable to delusion. And this sociopath-clueless-loser one is one of the most pervasive delusions I’ve come across. It’s one that this wizened farmer knows about because he’s 92-years-old and he never forgot it after the first time he witnessed it and it’s become a lived experience for him.
Recognizing this delusion is like learning the secret to a magic trick: once you do, you never forget how it works, and it’s power to charm you is broken.
(NB: The blog Ribbonfarm has an in-depth exposition about all this under the title ‘The Gervais Principle’. It was where I first saw the comic above.)