Potatoes for thought

I was recently invited to participate in a popular TV show that was going to discuss the video of the potato-grower that has been going viral on Facebook. I was asked to speak on the subject from “a philosophical perspective”. At first I couldn’t quite figure out why this virtual phenomenon merited a programme on television, let alone what could possibly be philosophised about it. I declined the invitation due to other appointments: I was unwilling to change plans simply to take part in a TV show. But I kept thinking and mulling over it and the next morning I woke up feeling bad about not having gone to ‘defend’ that young farmer, who had suddenly been made out to be a sort of village idiot – in a country where some idiots are often raised on pedestals and God forbid anyone should make fun of them.

I’m not really sure whether I’m writing to put my conscience at rest or just to make the point that there is nothing funny about this phenomenon, which was described as “humorous” (!) in at least one news bulletin. I think that it actually says much more about those having a field day mocking this farmer.

Let me first say something about the language issue. In a country that imagines itself as being bilingual – but in which only a very small percentage of the population is capable of expressing itself equally well and clearly in both English and Maltese – many people found the farmer’s use of English funny. Quite frankly, I think that apart from a couple of obvious mistakes, his sentence construction was quite good and his level of articulacy was not far off from that of some students I’ve taught. Some people found his accent funny. I wonder whether they’ve ever listened to a German, a Frenchman or an Arab speaking English, each with their own accent and intonation. As if all other Maltese who aren’t farmers, some of them with half the alphabet tailing their names, speak Oxford English! Incidentally, I noticed that the subtitles in the video – which, I’m assuming, were added by the Dutch producers – contained more errors than there were in what the farmer actually said.

This farmer brought a smile to face. Not because he was funny, but because he managed to explain his bond with his work so simply, and because so many other people are incapable of speaking about their work as passionately as he did. Then I saw the many “loooll”s to phrases such as “my life is potatoes”, “at night I dream of potatoes” and “potatoes are in my veins”. So let’s philosophise a bit – we might find something really worth laughing at.

I’m quite sure that most of the farmer’s detractors – boasting such a high level of cultural appreciation and sophistication – are familiar with the works of John Locke, the British philosopher who laid many of the foundations for what later developed as the basic principles of modern democracy. Locke was neither a farmer nor an idiot, so perhaps he can be taken seriously. He thought that human beings enjoyed three ‘natural rights’: the right to life, the right to liberty and the right to property; in that order. He saw property as the extension of liberty, for if one ‘owns himself’ (rather than being owned by others) he also owns what is his, what he would have worked for, bought, bartered or received as a gift or donation. In one of his treatises, Locke gives an interesting example related to work: when one ploughs a field, his work “mixes” with the earth and therefore the worker has a rightful claim to part of that land or of the profits made from the sale of its crops.

This idea of work mixing with the earth came to my mind as I watched parts of the video in which the farmers were picking a potato after another, with their hands becoming one with the soil. The phrases used by the farmer to explain his relationship with his work, which is mixed everyday with that land that yields the products he even dreams about, sounded almost poetic. They show how his life depends on his work. His life mixes with the earth, which gives him his daily bread.

This explanation, which many found funny, as a simple yet effective explanation of ideas put forward by wise men such as Locke. When he says that he feels that potatoes are in his veins, he is using a beautiful naturalistic metaphor evoking passion. When he says that he sees the sea, the sun and the church in his potatoes, he is saying that the broader context of his life – that which makes him who he is – finds itself in the fruits of his labour. In his work there is his life. His life mixes with his work without placing him in a bubble. This is the dignity of work. How many of us can speak of their work in this manner? No title or degree, jacket and tie, bank account or car result automatically in such dignity. 

The farmer has a lot to do and lot on his mind, yet he is not stressed out. Sometimes I get the impression that it’s how stressed out you are, rather than how busy you are, that has come to define how important your work is. And all sense of simplicity is lost. That’s why we laugh at the farmer – because, poor thing, he is simple. And we are complex and stressed out – believing ourselves to be happy.

I’m not saying that the world would be a better place if everyone had to become a farmer growing potatoes. But it would be a much better place if everyone would live his working life in the manner he does: this includes a dose of simplicity and authenticity which even the most important and prestigious of jobs could benefit from. In other words, it’s not what you do, but how you do it and how it affects your life.

If it were up to me, I would nominate this young farmer for the Worker of the Year award – because how he lives his work and the passion with which he speaks about it deserve recognition rather than mockery …


This article is adapted from a ‘Note’ that first appeared, in Maltese and under a different title, on Facebook on 4 May 2013. 

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