The Reusables

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My state, California, recently enacted a Bag Law. Intended to reduce the mighty environmental danger of plastic bags, it forbids drug stores and groceries from giving them out for free; they have to charge at least ten cents. This nanny-state microaggression was approved at last November’s general election, by the same voters who gave Hillary Clinton a majority in this state.

I have only anecdotal and speculative evidence about the effects of this law. I assume that workers who make plastic bags have been hurt, and that retailers have not been hurt, because they get to keep the ten cents. A slim majority of voters waked up in time to keep the money from going to some phony environmental fund.

Is saving a dime worth all that effort? Would it be worth ten cents to keep other customers from hating you?

As for the customers, a remarkable number of them are doing what the law wants them to do — bringing their own “reusable” bags.

Of course, some of them did that before the law was passed. These were environmental zanies, and their post-election conduct was predictable. They look smug, make self-congratulatory observations to the clerk, bother their kids with information about the purpose of “daddy’s bag,” etc. Such people were always few, and their numbers have not increased.

But there has been a substantial increase in the number of people who seem sane in other respects but are now showing up with reusables. Nowadays, I rarely hit the checkout line without being preceded by someone who spends five minutes, in close collaboration with the clerk, packing and repacking his week’s supply of groceries in a container made to hold an avocado, a piece of kale, and three back issues of Prevention magazine. Is saving a dime worth all that effort? Would it be worth ten cents to keep other customers from hating you? Would it be worth a dime to spare yourself the scientifically documented risk of disease entailed by the reuse of bags in public and the difficulty of washing them? By the way, wouldn’t it be worth ten cents, just to save yourself the trouble of washing a stupid shopping bag? Not to mention all the precious energy consumed in the process.

No rational defense of reusables is possible.

Now, on to me. I may not like the Bag Law — in fact, I detest it — but when I’m paying $50.00 for groceries, an increase of ten cents (twenty for double bagging) is insignificant. Compared to the hassle of dragging reusables around, it’s microscopic. I don’t mind carrying a wine bottle out in my own bare hands; in fact, It makes me feel all manly and edgy and lumpen. But I mind even less spending ten cents for a bag that will hold the wine, the frozen dinners, the two avocadoes, the tortilla soup, and that weird cheese from New Zealand, without any need for forethought or planning — a bag that will then be available the next day, to line the garbage can.

Of course, this is not a principled stand, but neither is it a principled stand to torture yourself with reusables — if you’re a normal person, that is. So why do normal persons do it?

The answer, according to a conservative-libertarian friend who also detests the law but who reluctantly admits to using reusable bags instead of paying the damned ten cents, is the following:

"I hate to waste money."

I’m puzzled by his reasoning. So you’d be wasting ten cents on a plastic bag, but you’re not wasting more than that on a reusable?

This is not a principled stand, but neither is it a principled stand to torture yourself with reusables — if you’re a normal person, that is.

 

Thinking about what he said, I discovered numerous parallel puzzlements. For example:

I never spend a minute balancing my checkbook, but I’ll spend an hour calling to protest a three-dollar overcharge on my credit card.

I’ve caught myself putting up with terrible service in store A, simply because I don’t want to waste five extra minutes to travel to store B.

We all know people who are grossly inconvenienced — even threatened in their lives or livelihood — by the machinations of X political party, but who will never, never vote for Y political party, because some proponent of Y once made some offensive remark, or because their Ma and Pa always voted for X.

These are all instances of being penny wise and pound foolish, and some serious research needs to be done on them. It might explain a lot about life on earth.

But my friend pointed out something else. He lives in what, according to South Park, is the citadel of “Smug” — the San Francisco Bay area. There, he says, he has observed the three types of bagholder whom I have observed, here in Southern California: the people (e.g., me) who just go ahead and pay the ten cents for a plastic bag, the people who reluctantly but willingly tote a reusable (that’s him), and the people who gleefully advertise their allegiance to reusables.

But he says that he frequently encounters a fourth type, which is worse, even, than the third: people for whom reusables became a fact of nature as soon as the Bag Law was passed, people who see them not as a hardship or a puzzlement or a moral victory but as an expression of the way things ever were and ever ought to be. For them, there is no problem — because they are the problem.




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Turkish Savagery

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For centuries, Europeans viewed the Turk as the most feared, yet least familiar enemy. Twice, the Ottoman hordes threatened Vienna, practically next door to Paris. For hundreds of years French Mediterranean towns and monasteries fortified themselves against Turkish pirates (who mostly never showed up). Algerian pirates, who were thought of generically as “Turks,” occasionally plundered the Irish coast. Once, a bunch of them even raided Iceland! Following his naval debacle at the Bay of Abukir, Napoleon brought Mamelukes, Turkish mercenary troops from Egypt, back to Europe. He used them as a weapon of terror against the insurgent Spaniards, a fact memorialized by Goya in his Tres de Mayo. In this atrocity painting, only the Spanish victims, who seem to be appealing to the viewer, have human faces. The Mameluke execution squad is shown from the rear, like a many-backed beast.

Twenty years later, the European aristocracy reveled in taking the side of Greek independence fighters against Turkish tyranny. (Lord Byron, the celebrated English poet indirectly died of it.) Ottoman power responded to the Greek insurrection with several well-publicized massacres. The most famous, the Massacre at Chios, depicted by my namesake Delacroix (Eugene), remains one of the great masterpieces of war propaganda. The painting displays in one tight space mass slaughter, including that of babies; rape; rapine; and the haughty indifference of the cruel Turk. In a perverse turn of mind, the artist made the central figure, an Ottoman horseman with saber in hand, disturbingly handsome. (I have to resist the temptation to see the painting as an early instance of soft-core porn, catering to a sadistic streak.)

Naturally, until recently, I did not know much that was favorable about Turkish society, or Turks, except that they had kept a silent, humble, and effective guard on the soft southern flank of Europe during the long years of the Cold War. Now, a disclaimer: in this story, I deliberately avoid any mention of the two massacres of Armenians, in the late 1800s, and an even worse one, in 1915–1916, because I am convinced that ordinary contemporary Turks know nothing of these events, or don’t quite grasp them. Similarly, I circumvent the on-going Kurdish rebellion in eastern Turkey and its often severe repression, because I wish to write only about the things I have seen, heard, or touched myself. My circumspection in these matters does not imply denial or affirmation.

The European aristocracy reveled in taking the side of Greek independence fighters against Turkish tyranny. Lord Byron indirectly died of it.

In the early 2000s, my wife and I took the night ferry across the Aegean from Piraeus, Greece, to Turkey. My first sighting of the blood-red Turkish national flag in the early morning somehow gave me a surge of adrenalin, a pleasant one. After the persnicketiness, the somberness, and the surliness we had experienced for two days in Athens, the Turks’ smiling warmth was more than welcome. (Why do I think Greeks hold the world’s per capita record, ahead of Argentina, for burning American flags?) But in spite of these good feelings, I was on my guard. I was born and reared in Europe. After all, I did not know how many of my great-aunts and great-grand-aunts their great-grandfathers had kidnapped to serve the obscene pleasures of the Turks’ harems.

We traveled along the Mediterranean coast in comfortable air-conditioned buses, stopping where fancy dictated, armed with our American Express card, like a new breed of aging but prosperous hippies. At every stop, as I stepped off the bus, older men, fellow-passengers, would compete for the privilege of lighting my cigarette with their invariably gold-plated lighters. Many smiles were exchanged, but conversations remained rudimentary, because the brevity of the stops made it difficult to overcome the fact that we did not have even half a language in common.

One morning stop seemed to last abnormally long, much beyond the necessities of bodily evacuation and two cups of strong muddy coffee, with cigarettes, for the driver. Previously, I had exchanged a few sentences with a 20-year-old girl who seemed eager to practice her English. She was a slight, skinny young woman with a pretty face. She wore a light cotton dress of sober color. Soon she became highly agitated, making loud and shrill pronouncements in Turkish that I did not understand, of course. I did not think she was exactly crazy, since we had had a placid and courteous conversation moments before, while the bus was still running. Nevertheless, she acted like a mad person. The other passengers were smiling patiently, while the driver seemed to be taking half a catnap.

In a perverse turn of mind, the artist made the central figure, an Ottoman horseman with saber in hand, disturbingly handsome.

Suddenly, the thin girl stepped forward and shoved the burly, middle-aged driver out of his seat. She met with no resistance and no protest. She sat in his place and pounded the loud road-horn as hard as she could. Presently we all saw, across the parking lot, a tall young man scurrying toward our bus. He was clutching a small plastic shopping bag to his chest. The girl leaped out the door like a mountain goat and ran toward the young man. She grabbed him brutally and frog-marched him to the bus on the double. When they were both inside, she managed to close the bus door by herself. I was alarmed, but the other passengers and the driver were still smiling.

The young man was athletic-looking and two heads taller than the girl. He looked to me like a deeply embarrassed 18-year-old. Shouting at the top of her lungs, the girl began to strike him across the face with all her strength. Back and forth she went, bitch-slapping him in front of everyone. Although I am a burly, strong man with a fondness for blood sports, the sound of her hand on his face made me wince. Had I been at home, I would have surely intervened to protect the boy against her fury. But the other passengers were still smiling, although by now a little fixedly.

She pummeled him for half an eternity, all the while ranting and raging as loudly as I have ever heard a woman scream. (And believe me, without boasting, I have a lot of experience with angry women.) The victim made no move to defend, or even to protect, himself. After a little while, as she was still beating him, her voice began to change; it became less loud and her tone turned softer. (Remember that I understood not a word of what she was shouting.) Soon, she was whimpering on his chest and stroking the cheeks she had been battering seconds before. She pulled him down into their seats and cradled his head in her arms while whispering what were obviously sweet nothings into his ear. The engine started, the bus rolled out of the parking lot, the passengers resumed their conversations. The two young people were soon napping cheek to cheek.

 Suddenly, the thin girl stepped forward and shoved the burly, middle-aged driver out of his seat.

Later, she apologized to us in English for her outburst, and she explained: the tall young man was her adored little brother. They were traveling together from an inland city to their uncle’s home in a pretty coastal town (where my wife and I were heading, ourselves). The brother had asked her for permission to go buy a bathing suit in a shop adjoining the bus stop. He took too long because he could not find his size, so he wandered away, with all their money. She had panicked, fearful that the bus would abandon him in the unknown town. Hence her delayed wrath when she became sure that the worst was not going to happen.

The most striking part of the episode was the seemingly perfect equanimity of the other passengers. It told me of their tolerance for lateness and of their confidence that the matter would have a happy denouement. The young woman chatted some more with my wife and me. She was trustful, insatiably curious, and charming as a songbird. We would have adopted her on the spot if it had been possible.

Soon, we reached our destination, a perfectly lovable sea town, like St. Tropez must have been 50 years ago. The blue Aegean was dotted with gaily painted little boats, as in the postcards; fresh fish were frying in all the restaurants, and not a luxury store anywhere. You could not even have bought a latte for its weight in gold, thank God!

The next day was market day. If you are a serious traveler, you never miss open-air markets. They are invariably pleasurable as well as educational. All the women there, in that Turkish market, were from the interior of the country, and all were wearing broad, long, flowing, so-called “harem pants.” An older lady crossed our path wearing such pants, silky ones, with a black on gray subtle motif my wife immediately liked. You know what to do, I told my wife. (A long time earlier, I had demonstrated to her that it was possible to buy a woman’s clothes from her ten minutes after meeting her.) But at first, she demurred.

Older Turkish men are terrific liars. Men obviously in their early sixties would announce on their fingers: I am 83. I am 86. I will be 92 next year.

I saluted the gray-haired lady and expressed to her with gestures that my wife admired her pants. She took us to a stall that sold an inferior version of the same item. No, I insisted with a smile, she wants yours. To tell all, I was a little concerned that she might misunderstand me to be proposing to her that the three of us perform exotic acts together. But what we wanted soon seemed to dawn on her. I guessed she was a bit shocked but also intrigued. Soon, several other market women joined us, and a little girl who had a bit of school English. When the female passel disappeared behind a truck, I discreetly stepped away.

I walked around; to waste time, I bought a brass pepper grinder. I guessed that my wife understood men well enough to find me, eventually. I made my way to the tea stall in the middle of the market. Soon, several wide-eyed boys surrounded me. Then, one at a time, older men joined me on the benches that were set out in the open. Each one of them offered me a cigarette, and each tried to buy me a glass of tea. Seeing no toilet anywhere, I declined the tea each time with a big smile and a hand on my heart.

Are you married? One asked. How many children? Do you have pictures? Here are mine. And, finally: how old are you? I told the truth, as usual. One by one, they felt my biceps, then my thighs. I asked each politely, one by one, how old he was. As it happens, older Turkish men are terrific liars. Men obviously in their early sixties would announce on their fingers: I am 83. I am 86. I will be 92 next year. Then they took turns blustering about how good they looked for their age. It took all my willpower to refrain from challenging each and every one of the old bastards to an arm-wrestling match, just to teach them a little humility.

Subsequently, every mature Turkish man I met who was not trying to sell me a rug displayed precisely the same kind of loud vanity. I am guessing it keeps them young. It certainly beats the despicable Western custom of old geezers casually competing with one another about who has the worse health problems. Give me a braggart every time over a whiner!

No American visitors in Turkey this summer, they said. Tell the Americans to come back. We love them. Not like the fucking Europeans.

At that point, we got into the meat of things: American, yes? Yes, I confirmed. Bush? The oldest man asked with a raised eyebrow. I lifted my conservative thumb. He replied immediately: Bush, good! Saddam . . . He drew his hand across his throat. Exactly! I confirmed eagerly. (The American intervention in Iraq was about three months old then. Hussein was hiding in a dirt hole.) There were smiles all around. The fact is that I was sitting in the middle of a cluster of Muslims while my liberal academic colleagues were prudently visiting Paris, or Florence, or London. That is, the ones who had the gonads to travel overseas at all, that warlike summer.

Then, a young man who knew some English was drafted by one of the old guys. He told me the men wanted to know my opinion of the probability that Turkey would eventually be admitted into the European Union. Turkey, I answered sincerely, might just as well apply right away to the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA). They were interested. One thing led to another. After a while, finding me so well informed, they somehow made the assumption that I must be a man of some influence in the US. No American visitors in Turkey this summer, they said. Tell the Americans to come back. We love them. Not like the fucking Europeans: they come here with one hundred euros and they think they are kings. (Don’t ask me how I know they used the expletive. I just know. It sounds the same in every tongue, anyway.)

An hour had passed and I was vaguely and only very slightly worried about my wife. I did not think there was any danger, but it was not like her to stay away, because she is the kind of person who gets lost between our house, where we have lived for ten years, and the corner grocery store. I called over a couple of 12-year-olds (who may have been 25, according to Turkish males’ general apprehension of reality), and I borrowed a gold-plated fountain pen from one of the old men. On a paper bag, I drew a chesty female silhouette and pounded my own (flat) chest. Wife of mine, I said. My wife is from India. Hindi! I added. Everyone commented favorably on my artistic talent (I guessed).

One of many wonders of globalization is that all around the less-developed world many people know and love Bollywood movies. “Hindi” struck a chord. I gave the boys one million liras each and sent them searching, paper bag drawing in hand. (What with inflation, a million liras does not buy nearly as much as it used to!) I wished them well in my heart, hoping they would not get into trouble inspecting too closely the bosoms of all and every woman at the market.

I located my wife, eventually. She had traded the old lady’s beautiful used harem pants against two new ones, plus one for each of three other women present at the negotiation, plus a whole outfit for the little girl who had acted as an interpreter. But the pants she had acquired were truly magnificent! (My wife has many wonderful qualities and enormous talent, but a wily bargainer, she is not.)

One of many wonders of globalization is that all around the less-developed world many people know and love Bollywood movies.

The transaction completed at last, she had failed to find me, she said. This, although I was in the middle of the market, surrounded by a small but noisy crowd. Instead, guided by some obscure female atavism, against all precedents, she had decided to walk back to the hotel by herself. She was in her fifties at the time. Tall and thin, but curvy, with the gray and black, silky harem pants streaming around her long legs and her narrow hips, she must have cut a striking figure in the eyes of dozens of appreciative Turkish male spectators on the way. If this was her last huzzah, she could not have chosen a better venue; bless her heart!

Later that evening, we walked the promenade on the seafront. We bumped into the young woman from the bus and her tall little brother. She embraced my wife and kissed her on both cheeks. Then she did the same with me. She pushed her brother forward and he kissed both of us too. We invited them for ice-cream. They sat with us but would not let us pay, because the sweets kiosk belonged to their uncle who would never, not ever, forgive them if we touched the check.

I don’t mean to deny centuries of European perception, or any part of history. Yet, I have to report my own experience. This, then, was my own personal encounter with Turkish savagery.




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A Stinking Rose Is Just as Sweet

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Families and communities have certain rituals that they enjoy year after year. For my family, the again-upcoming Minnesota Garlic Festival (this year it’s Saturday, August 13, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) has become Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, and Independence Day, all rolled into one.

For me, as our clan’s cranky libertarian, last year’s fifth annual festival took on new meaning, as I began to understand what it’s all about. It’s a gathering of loved ones, for sure — a chance to reconnect with relatives I’ve loved since the ’60s (some of whom seem almost unchanged since then). But it’s also a symbol of hope: hope not only that my family will go on despite the deaths of our elders and the march of time, but that the America we know and love will do likewise.

My last visit to the Garlic Festival reminded by that, while free enterprise may not be alive in a corporate system propped up by big government, it is thriving in Hutchinson, Minnesota, home of the festival.

Deep in farm country, 57 miles west of Minneapolis-St. Paul, “Hutch,” as it is affectionately known to the locals, is the county seat of McLeod County. It was chosen to host the festival because it is near Howard Lake, where garlic farmers Jerry Ford and Marienne Kreitlow live. They founded the festival. Marienne is my cousin. Jerry is her husband. This was ample reason for me to turn up at the festival this summer. But before talking about that, I want to say a few good words about garlic.

Garlic is grown underground, like potatoes. It grows in bulbs, each of which can produce up to 20 cloves. Each clove also functions as a seed, so a new crop is planted by burying some of the cloves. The U.S. is now the sixth-largest producer of garlic (China is first). We contribute only 1.4% of the global output, but garlic is now a cash crop in every state except Alaska.

For over 4,000 years, people have prized garlic for its supposedly near-miraculous powers. Besides warding off vampires, it has been regarded as everything from an aphrodisiac to a cure for plague. While the claims of medical science are more modest, it now recognizes this pungent herb as a natural antibiotic, as well as a remedy for acne and an aid in the management of high cholesterol. Some people also consider it an effective mosquito repellent.

Whatever the health benefits, I looked forward to last year’s festival more than any thus far — not only for the chance to reconnect with people I love, but also to rejuvenate my hope.

A few days before Christmas, 2008, I was brutally downsized out of my last corporate job, in the annuities department of a life insurance company. No warning was given, and the two versions I was given of the reason I’d been dumped didn’t even match, much less add up to a single plausible explanation. I was probably let go because our department needed no more than three employees, and I had been the fourth one hired.

While free enterprise may not be alive in a corporate system propped up by big government, it is thriving in Hutchinson, Minnesota, home of the Garlic Festival.

I have had enough of the big-corporate rollercoaster. I was laid off by four of the past five companies I worked for, and I resigned from the other because I was certain it was about to lay a bunch of us off (which turned out to be true). You can walk into a solid brick wall only so many times before picking yourself up and heading in a different direction. Taking the last debacle as a sign that better opportunity must await me elsewhere, I am now striking out as a freelance writer. But all I hear from the media is doom and despair — and right now, I need no more tales of woe. That’s how I felt when I came to last year’s Garlic Festival, on the second Saturday in August.

I was at the McLeod County Fairgrounds from ten in the morning to six at night. There was a booth selling garlic ice cream (“The best stinkin’ ice cream in town”). There were pony and wagon rides. There were vendors of squeaky-fresh organic produce, kettle corn, barbecued ribs, handcrafted soaps, lotions, jewelry and clothing, artisan cheeses, a surprisingly large selection of Minnesota wines, and of course garlic of every conceivable form and description.

But those were just the goods and products. There were also people — adults in Mardi Gras masks and costumes, kids making and flying kites, folksingers, Japanese taiko drummers, a bagpiper, belly dancers, beauty queens and magicians. At The Great Scape Café, local chefs served their delicacies to overflowing lines of hungry festival-goers.

I met more kind and friendly people, that one day, than I probably do anywhere else the rest of the year. Several folks remarked to me on the spirit of the event. Like me, they found it personable, hopeful, human in the best sense of the word. It was a jubilant recharging of the batteries, a reinforcement of my faith in the health of the American spirit. Same-sex couples strolled about, mingling with octogenarian farmers and small-town matrons with absolute ease. We were at home in our own skins, proud to call ourselves Americans and grateful to be living in the best country in the world.

As happens every year, I was reminded about how glad I am to have the relatives God gave me. My cousins came from far and wide. My Uncle Willard, the patriarch of our clan, is still as warm and generous as ever in his 88th year. We accept each other unconditionally, and cherish one another even when we disagree. This lesbian libertarian, as always, found no closed minds — only open hearts.

My libertarianism did make some of them nervous, as it seemed to me. They have largely unfavorable ideas about what we believe. Though they are not socialists, by any means, they tend to view capitalism specifically, and free enterprise, in general, with the sort of suspicion earlier generations reserved for the Big Bad Wolf. But I am unable to ignore them, or to see much fun in making fun of them. Even I, until the cataclysms of Bush and Obama, was a very left-of-center progressive, myself.

And that summer, they were all refreshingly nice; that’s simply their nature. But when I began asking them about their participation in the freewheeling free enterprise of the festival, or mentioned I was writing about it all for a libertarian magazine, they looked a tad uncomfortable. They seemed to wonder how a nice gal like me had gotten hooked up with anything so crazy. And at least a few didn’t seem sure they wanted to be thought of as participating in anything as sordid as free enterprise. That’s for wealthy money barons and big business. It is not, to any great degree, what they think of themselves as doing.

But why has free enterprise gotten such poor PR, anyway? Is it the result of a plot laid by communists in some dark and smoke-filled room? Some conservatives are quick to think so. I’m not so sure.

After the recent business bailouts by the taxpayers, and the constant spectacle of high-priced lobbyists courting big-shot politicians, willing to work backstage but never to come out in front of the curtain and defend the capitalist system to the folks in the crowd, it’s not surprising that a good many among the public believe big business deserves its bad reputation. Though welfare-queen corporations are only a small percentage of the total, the baddest of the big boys have often hidden behind the label of “free enterprise” so effectively that, to many Americans, they represent it. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but some roses . . . just aren’t.

A couple of the people I talked with brightened visibly when I told them I was writing an essay to offer readers hope. They, too, had heard so much despair of late that they’d almost forgotten what hope felt like. “Yes, do that,” one festival-goer urged me. “I want to read it, too.” Several other visitors and vendors shared similar sentiments.

So let’s talk about some more of the people I met.

Joe and his wife Mary, who sell handcrafted wooden items, fermented foods, and preserves, certainly seemed the hopeful sort. (With names like Joseph and Mary, one would think so.) I asked Joe whether what went on at the Garlic Festival represented real free enterprise, and he readily answered Yes. “One of the reasons we started doing this sort of festival,” he said, “was out of hope.” When I asked if he was hopeful about the future, again he said yes.

I met more kind and friendly people, that one day, than I probably do anywhere else the rest of the year.

But government regulation is a burden that smaller companies feel more painfully than their bigger rivals do. While Joe, who also does landscape maintenance, doesn’t feel overburdened in that end of his business, he noted that “in the food-vending and selling, I feel there’s a little more inappropriate regulation.” A lot of it, he feels, is “based on food fear in America.” The fear is “irrational, but easily manipulated.” To Joe, it makes perfect sense that the “consumer gets mixed up because the [big] corporations and regulations seem to ease their fear.”

Big companies, he appears to suggest, often support the fearmongering that leads to stricter and more stifling laws. I think he regards big corporations as so crafty and powerful that they can simultaneously create a problem and at least appear to solve it. He did not elaborate on how this happens. The festival folks in general appear to regard big business as crafty and dangerous, much as they might an invisible but highly poisonous gas. But government regulation is a burden that smaller companies feel more painfully than their bigger rivals do. A lot of those at the festival hoped to break the corporations' awesome and superhuman power using a means other than big government.

John and Stephanie, beekeepers and sellers of gourmet honey, seemed upbeat. John said that the festival was “a good place for us to feel better about ourselves as humans.” He observed that friendly trade relations build mutual respect — which is precisely what libertarians have been telling state department diplomats for years. When we trade with each other, we find that we need each other in ways we might not have realized.

John remarks that face-to-face connections between buyers and sellers are attracting a growing number of people. They’re a big part of the appeal of festivals, farmers’ markets, and community fairs.

Is this the attraction? Is this why people drive hundreds of miles to an event like the Garlic Festival, even during a severe recession? Perhaps the attraction is quality — not just in products (although they get that, too) but also in the experience of being involved in free enterprise.

This is a consumer desire every bit as legitimate as the desire for convenience or disposability, and arguably more common than any demand for impersonality. It’s a desire that is satisfied by resourceful, hard-working, innovative tradespeople. America is still America, after all — even, or perhaps especially, in “flyover” places.

The people at the Garlic Festival are examples of the larger meanings of free enterprise, and they are helping to change it, visibly and enjoyably, back into what it should be.

“You can tell how successful a festival is by whether the other vendors come by to buy T-shirts,” said Mary Beth Heine, another of my cousins and a festival stalwart since the beginning. Her small but growing company sells antiques and apparel, including hand-knitted items, online and at venues like the Garlic Festival. Each year she sells the event’s official T-shirts, and this summer, the summer of recessions for all and depression for many, everybody seemed to want a souvenir of the happy occasion. Last year, she reports, very few of her fellow vendors had been in the happy-souvenir-buying mood. Now, apparently, they’re reviving. They’ve got their hope back, because they make their hope themselves.

Should libertarians laugh at lefties coming full circle to meet the capitalists? Should we ask them, “What took you so long?” and twist their arms till we get them to admit that they do believe in free enterprise, after all?

I don’t care about making them say “uncle.” If they prefer to call what they’re doing “reconnecting with the community,” “reviving small independents,” or “regaining local control over commerce,” instead of helping free enterprise continue to evolve, then I say more power to them. Again, a rose is a rose. One may smell sweet, another pungent and savory — like garlic.

The people at the Garlic Festival enjoy making money. They also enjoy doing creative, healthful things, things of their own choosing. And who wouldn’t? They are examples of the larger meanings of free enterprise, and they are helping to change it, visibly and enjoyably, back into what it should be.

They are not asking for a handout from anybody. They are not asking for any help from government. They are only asking it to stay out of their way and let them enjoy the fruits of their labors. They’re always brimming with new ideas — things that the big boys would never think of trying, but that, if they prove successful, will someday be imitated. They’ve found some needs, and they are meeting them brilliantly. If that’s not capitalism at its best, then I don’t know what is.

If we are to save business in this country, these are exactly the sort of people who must be persuaded that free enterprise is a noble thing. But we aren’t persuading them; they’re persuading themselves. We don’t all want the same things out of life (and one of the great things about the real America is that we don’t have to), but as long as enough of us want the liberty to pursue our varied visions — to savor our rose, or our garlic clove, if we prefer — then this grand festival we call America will live on and on.




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