I recently joined facebook, caving under the information that some of my old girlfriends from college had recently been rediscovered by another friend (with whom I am still in touch). I still feel wary of it's addictive capacity, and also it's seeming inherent superficiality, and hope to only be on it for a few months while I hunt down and get addresses for some old friends.
Rod Dreher: Wendell Berry's time is now
05:04 AM CDT on Sunday, October 26, 2008
Could any man be less relevant to the politics and culture of our time than an old Kentucky poet-farmer who is so out of step with the times that he refuses to use a computer and still tills his earth using draft horses? And yet, given the converging crises of this extraordinary moment in American history, it just might be that in the winter of a long and honorable career, Wendell Berry's moment has arrived.
Why? Because in his numerous essays, poems and novels, the traditionalist agrarian writer, now 74, has stood steadfastly for fidelity to family and community, self-sufficiency, localism, conservation and, above all, learning to get by decently within natural limits. Our nation and our world have reached a crucible of near-cataclysm in our economy and – with climate change – in the environment, chiefly because we have refused to live within our means.
If Mr. Berry's politics can be summed up in a single word, it would bestewardship.Admittedly, it's not a sexy concept. You will not hear Keith Olbermann or Sean Hannity rallying partisans around the idea of dutifully taking care of business. But, really, is there a more urgent calling? People are feeling it. Anne Clurman, a consumer behavior expert, tells Salon.com that the economic crisis is midwifing what people in her industry call "the new responsibility marketplace."
"It's coming, and slowly but surely we're going to see this rolling out," she says. "People are realizing on some level that it's time to pay their proverbial piper."
Mr. Berry, who as a young man left a promising East Coast academic career to return to ancestral land to farm, write and raise a family, has long been both behind and ahead of his times.
Though to all appearances an old-time Democrat, his faithfulness to his iconoclastic vision makes him an uncomfortable presence among the mainstream left and has won him new admirers on the dissident right. He is a moralist hostile both to big government and big business. He is a Christian who can't be understood apart from his deep religious conviction that humankind is under divine command to be good caretakers of creation – the land, its creatures and each other.
If you build your politics on this foundation, you will find yourself standing outside the camps of our parties. Most Republicans don't care for him because he is a harsh critic of industrialism, consumerism and the unfettered free market as a destroyer of land, community and healthy traditions. Most Democrats regard him as out of touch because he is a religious man who holds autonomous individualism, especially the sexual freedom it licenses, to be similarly destructive of families, communities and the sacredness of love.
In short, the Kentucky gentleman is an ardent and prolific foe of liberty without responsibility. In that, he embodies Southern writer Flannery O'Connor's charge to "push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you."
The relevance of agrarianism
Faithful stewardship is the philosophical core of agrarianism, a way of understanding the world based in the traditions of farming and rural life. To say that agrarianism has nothing to offer modern society, where only a tiny remnant lives on farms, is to misunderstand the concept.
Mr. Berry is no agrarian ideologue and does not propose that everyone must farm or leave the city for the country. Rather, he argues that "everybody has agrarian responsibilities" – meaning that wherever one lives, one is obliged to do so according to an ethic that places paramount importance on the cultivation of love and care for one's particular place, its people and its traditions – and to resist all things that separate one from that responsibility, which is not chosen, yet required of all.
People today, he says, are involved "in a kind of lostness," in which we destroy the sources of our own lives without knowing what we're doing. "At the same time, many of the same people fear and mourn the destruction, which they can't stop because they have no practical understanding of its causes."
He explains the problem as a clash of irreconcilable visions: the Industrial vs. the Agrarian. The Industrial is utilitarian, seeing the world as material to be manipulated according to the wishes and desires of individuals, limited only by the laws of physics and efficiency. The Agrarian, by contrast, sees the world as a mystery to be embraced, with human conduct proscribed by limits intrinsic to our nature.
In Mr. Berry's construction, the Industrial is rational, the Agrarian is sympathetic. As he wrote in a 2002 essay, "Two Minds":
The Sympathetic Mind leaves the world whole, or it attempts always to do so. It looks upon people and other creatures as whole beings. It does not parcel them out into functions and uses. The Rational Mind, by contrast, has rested its work for a long time on the proposition that all creatures are machines. This works as a sort of strainer to eliminate impurities such as affection, familiarity and loyalty from the pursuit of knowledge, power and profit.
Interesting, perhaps – but what does that have to do with our current challenges? And how could Mr. Berry's agrarianism improve our lot? Here's a short list:
By now, it hardly needs elaboration that the vast computer-driven world of high finance has brought the global economy to the brink of catastrophe. That an entire nation – Iceland – would be bankrupted virtually overnight because of toxic overseas investments by its private banks, and that four Norwegian towns could go belly up because of bad mortgages in Southern California – this is what you get when the economic destinies of communities fall into the hands of financiers and money men who have no connection to local folks and are not sharers in their fate.
Moreover, the multitrillion-dollar market in derivatives and credit-default swaps central to the widespread collapse originated in the minds of mathematical geniuses, who put us all in the position of trusting their algorithms and computers. As novelist Richard Dooling recently put it: "Wall Street titans loved swaps and derivatives because they were totally unregulated by humans. That left nobody but the machines in charge."
These machines created an unimaginably large economy built on nothing but the moving around of numbers. It wasn't real. But the suffering caused by its abrupt disappearance is all too real. We should reject the abstractions of globalism, says Mr. Berry, in favor of building local economies that are as self-sufficient as possible.
And: "The first thing we must begin to teach our children (and learn ourselves) is that we cannot spend and consume endlessly. We have got to learn to save and conserve." Since he wrote those lines in 2001, the personal savings rate in the U.S. has fallen into negative territory for the first time since the Great Depression. The idea that we can be free while leveraged to our eyeballs is a fantasy.
The severe recession breaking upon us will occasion a great relearning of agrarian wisdom. It will be skeptical of abstract systems and the benefits of technology and supportive of personal thrift and self-discipline as the road to freedom from the servility imposed by insatiable consumer appetites.
Wise stewardship of our economic resources requires responsible husbandry of our natural resources, Mr. Berry contends. He is best known for his passionate advocacy of environmental conservation, which he holds inseparable from our economic habits. We are commanded to love, respect and care for the natural world, a duty we abdicate when we treat the land and its resources as mere objects to be exploited.
Our present energy and agricultural policies, for example, amount to "use all that we have," he says, with no thought for future generations. Given the cataclysmic disruptions forecast from climate change, in which humankind's carbon emissions play a role, and considering the informed forecasts of diminishing world oil supply, to continue to live this way amounts to "national insanity."
Unlike mainstream environmentalists, Mr. Berry won't separate "the environment" from humanity. He once told me that he will not sign on to the environmentalist cause until activists recognize that ordinary people and their needs are part of the natural world, too.
Influential food journalist Michael Pollan recently penned a lengthy "letter to the next president" in which he observed that "the health of a nation's food system is a critical issue of national security."
Mr. Berry has for decades warned about damage to cropland and the danger to food security from industrial-scale farming and food distribution. It's far more prudent to develop strong local food economies and distribution systems, he argues, for the sake of self-sufficiency.
Happily, this is a case in which the culture, with the explosive growth of farmers markets and a revival in backyard gardening, is catching up to Mr. Berry. As he cheerfully wrote: "I know from my friends and neighbors and from my own family that it is now possible for farmers to sell at a premium to local customers such products as organic vegetables, organic beef and lamb, and pasture-raised chickens. This is the pattern of an economic revolt that is not only possible, but is happening."
American foreign policy
Many admirers of Mr. Berry generally part company with him on his pacifism. But his implacable belief that the U.S. has no business emptying its treasury and sending its young people abroad to wage war unless absolutely necessary is gaining traction, even on the right, in the wake of the Iraq debacle.
In his recent book, The Limits of Power, conservative soldier-scholar Andrew Bacevich contends that Americans believe blindly in the ability of our military to project our national will anywhere, an illusion that, among other deleterious effects, corrupts the American spirit.
The old Kentucky farmer has been saying something similar for years, arguing that war enlarges the power and reach of big government, tears up families and communities, and stains our own souls. "Militarization in defense of freedom reduces the freedom of the defenders," he writes of the loss of civil liberties in wartime. "There is a fundamental inconsistency between war and freedom." Furthermore, he believes that there is no national cause, save the defense of the homeland, worth the sacrifice of our children, and others' children, in war.
That is a position with which many Americans would take issue. But taken in light of Iraq, as we enter an era of starkly drawn limits, surely his pessimism about the efficaciousness of the military "solution" to conflict is worth examination.
A sense of place
Mr. Berry's argument with the U.S. foreign policy establishment, the industrial leadership class and, indeed, with most of his countrymen, depends on his most radical critique of modern American life: its rootlessness.
We find it all too easy to misuse and abuse our own places, and the places of others abroad, because so few Americans in our highly mobile society come from any place anymore. He writes bitterly:
"In order to be able to desecrate, endanger or destroy a place, after all, one must be able to leave it and to forget it. One must never think of any place as one's home; one must never think of any place as anyone else's home."
Fidelity to one's place and the people in it, not to upwardly mobile careerism, is a fundamental moral principle of Mr. Berry's thought. In a commencement speech last year to college students, he wondered aloud why we support an education system devoted to preparing young people to leave their homes. Ours would be a far better country, he believes, if folks would learn to love their own little piece of ground and be loyal to it. As he concludes his poem, "Stay Home":
I am at home. Don't come with me.
You stay home too.
A philosopher for an age of humility
The root of our collective crisis is as old as humanity itself: We've been overcome by a colossal sense of pride, which entails the Luciferian belief that we can be as gods. "The problem with us is not only prodigal extravagance," he writes. "but also an assumed limitlessness. We have obscured the issue by refusing to see that limitlessness is a godly trait."
In the months and years to come, we all will have to learn the meaning of limits. Wendell Berry is no dour scold who preaches a joyless austerity. To the contrary, he tells us that what we truly seek in life is not comfort, but meaning – and that you don't have to live a life of rigorous asceticism to find it. Rather, we only need to order our lives around the ancient idea that happiness depends on virtue – virtue lived in community. We can only be fulfilled by living within the bounds prescribed by our nature, and in fidelity not to our selfish desires but to the greater good of our families, friends and communities.
This year's balloting is supposed to be a "change" election, as well it should be. But if people believe significant change will come from Washington, they're mistaken. "Why should anybody wait to do what is right until everybody does it?" Mr. Berry has written. "It is not 'significant' to love your own children or eat your own dinner, either. But normal humans will not wait to love or eat until it is mandated by an act of Congress."
Now, with the nation potentially ready to embrace the "new responsibility," Kentucky's wizened farmer-patriot should find the audience he has long deserved.
Rod Dreher is a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.