The Crunchy-Con Menace

[Rescuing America from the idiocy of rural life.]

I hardly agree with agrarian poet & essayist Wendell Berry on every question.  For example, he espouses pacifism—a creed I regard as indirectly contributing to America’s irresponsible imperialism rather than as a potential solution.  A somewhat idiosyncratic Protestant, Mr. Berry seems dubious at times of what he calls “organized Christianity”, whereas I am a dogmatic if somewhat ecumenical Catholic.  Nor do I go so far as Mr. Berry in his skepticism regarding material progress and technological innovation.  To my mind the inventive impulse is, like art, an expression of Man’s status as an image and likeness of his Creator.

All that said, I find worthwhile food for thought in Berry’s writing even on those points where I part company with him.  His critiques of our bloated military-industrial apparatus do not in the end rest upon dovish platitudes but upon common sense.  His concerns about pious-but-gnosticized Creationists treating Creation with contempt are especially timely, given the rise of “prosperity theology”.  And his warnings against the thoroughly thoughtless embrace of dehumanizing technologies exposes the folly of the mainstream mantra Technology is morally neutral.  (I would go further, and say that in the abstract “technology” is a positive good.  Fatuous cliches about “moral neutrality”, however, ignore that we never encounter “technology” but only particular technologies—each and every adoption of a particular new technology being an action which gives rise to some cultural, psychological, and spiritual reaction.)

In short, it would be one giant leap for sanity if more Americans picked up Berry’s challenging gauntlet:  What Are People For?

Unfortunately, considered engagement of Berry’s thought does not seem to be on the rise, at least if David Gordon’s recent article, “We Will Berry You!  The Flaky Socialism of the Crunchy-Cons” is any indication.  Given the title, one wonders how Gordon expects anyone to believe he has given Berry anything approaching a respectful hearing.

Gordon’s conclusion lives down to his opening headline, taking a jab at the presence of the demon-weed tobacco on Berry’s farm: “In view of Berry’s plangent complaints that market capitalism destroys human beings, it is more than a little ironic that Berry is himself a tobacco farmer.”

This would be ironic, that is, if we adhere to hygenic-morality, and if we assume that the self-righteous straw-prig whom Gordon seeks to refute is Wendell Berry.  But the central point of Berry’s environmental writing is that health issues stemming from pollution and soil erosion are merely symptoms of deeper, more general existential evils—such as the ongoing community-dissolution and rootlessness found in an economic system wherein independent farmers find it increasingly difficult to stay afloat.  Of course from the perspective of some this is a win-win situation:  Anyone who is too rigidly wholesome in their efforts to hold on to their way of life will sooner or later fail and wind up in the city.  Once rescued from “the idiocy of rural life” (as Marx put it) they will no longer annoy us with their agrarian whining.  If, on the other hand, they stay afloat, then they will inevitably get their own hands dirty—in which case, per Gordon, they have no business voicing anything except hosannas to the New York Stock Exchange.  Since I am a sinner, presumably it is “more than a little ironic” for me to observe that pornography is sinful.

In any event, Berry is less interested in casting stones than some seem to think.   For example, while arguing that it might be better for women to seek fulfillment through housewifery than through the workforce, Berry notes that

in many marriages both husband and wife are now finding it necessary to work away from home…it is true that a family living that not so long ago was ordinarily supported by one job now routinely requires two or more.

My interest is not to quarrel with individuals, men or women, who work away from home, but rather to ask why we should consider this general working away from home to be a desirable state of things, either for people or for marriage, for our society or for our country.

There are many possible intelligent answers to this; some of the intelligent answers might challenge Berry.  But “Shut up, you tobacco-growing pinko—you have no moral credibility,” is not one of them.

This brings up the tactic of hinting slyly that Berry is but a step away from being a Communist.  Perhaps I am overreacting to what is merely a jest—but then I don’t think one can “merely” imply that a man resembles a Soviet socialist any more than one can “merely” imply a man’s resemblance to a white supremacist, a terrorist, or Morris Dees.  Does Gordon really think it clever to compare a pacifist farmer who writes poetry to Nikita “We Will Bury You!” Krushchev?  To “the Butcher of the Ukraine”?  In a situation like this either the comparison is apt and the play-on-words has hit home… or the comparison is a smear—a false, obnoxious, phony, and stupid one—and a sincere apology to the entire Berry family is in order.

In order to discern which is the case, it is worth pointing out that Krushchev pushed land-collectivation, promoted “progressive” industrial agriculture methods, deployed nuclear weapons to Cuba, and approved construction of the Berlin Wall.  I can hardly speak for Mr. Berry, but I very strongly suspect he would frown on these things.  (Then again, if burley is one of the crops a farmer cultivates on his family farm, perhaps any “plangent complaints” he might make regarding the policies of the Soviet Empire would be hypocritical.)

Also peculiar is Gordon’s ultimate dismissal of Berry and his admirers as “statists of a familiar sort”.  As evidence, he cites Berry’s horrifying endorsement of things such as “laws against trusts and monopolies” and “the principle of collective bargaining”.  Apparently the government’s iron hand should provide some select individuals with legal shielding against debt and tort liability which plague personally-owned businesses—while simultaneously policing other individuals to ensure they daren’t get uppity by forming one of those corporate bodies known as a union.  Statists, indeed.

In any event, we’re not just talking about any statists, mind you—but the worst variety, statists “of a familiar sort”.  One wonders what “familiar sort” are we talking about— perhaps, oh, say, former US Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz?  So far as I can tell, Communist functionaries do have a bit in common with Butz, whose policies followed from convictions that “food is a weapon” of the US government, and that American farmers would have to “adapt or die”.  (Previous USDA Secretary Ezra Benson had more mildly contented himself with directing farmers to “get big or get out.”)

But no … it is Berry‘s enthusiasm for centralized-planning that we have to watch out for.  Yes, we freedom-lovers must keep an eye on this dangerous man, who gives away his liberty-stifling agenda with collectivist rhetoric like:

For most of the history of this country our motto, implied or spoken, has been Think Big.  I have come to believe that a better motto, and an essential one now, is Think Little.  That implies the necessary change of thinking and feeling, and suggests the necessary work.

Thinking Big has led us to the two biggest and cheapest political dodges of our time:  plan-making and law-making.  The lotus-eaters of this era are in Washington, D.C., Thinking Big.  Somebody comes up with a problem, and somebody in the government comes up with a plan or a law.  The result, mostly, has been the persistence of the problem, and the enlargement and enrichment of the government.

Holy propagandistic socialist boilerplate.  But wait—it gets worse:

While the government is “Studying” and funding and organizing its Big Thought, nothing is being done.  But the citizen who is willing to Think Little, and, accepting the discipline of that, to go ahead on his own, is already solving the problem.  A man who is trying to live as a neighbor to his neighbors will have a lively and practical understanding of the work of peace and brotherhood, and let there be no mistake about it—he is doing that work.

A couple who make a good marriage, and raise healthy, morally competent children, are serving the world’s future more directly and surely than any political leader, though they never utter a public word.

Where’s Joe McCarthy when we need him?

Baffling, too, is Gordon’s broad-brushing of Berry as the “principal ideologue” of “the crunchy-con movement”, accompanied by an effort to debunk Berry through surrogate-target Rod Dreher (author of the neologism “crunchy-con” via his book of that title).  Berry has never identified himself with any conservative movement, “crunchy” or otherwise.  He has, in fact, written an entire essay entitled, “In Distrust of Movements.”  It is quite possible Berry would not even recognize the term “crunchy-con”, even less likely that he would relish it.  Given that he does not own a computer, it is less likely still that he spends any time rallying and catechizing his followers on Dreher’s “Crunchy-Cons” blog.

I might point out that I have never had the urge to read Dreher’s book and have no strong feelings about him either way.  I am not interested in bashing the original Crunchy-Con; what I would like to make clear is that trying to “get” Berry via a critique of Dreher makes probably less sense than, say, claiming to have discredited Russell Kirk via a scathing deconstruction of William F. Buckley.  It is also a bit thick that Gordon—a senior fellow at a think-tank which is devoted to promoting a single, exceedingly specific school of economic thought—has the gall to label a farmer an ideologue.

But Gordon does kindly acknowledge Berry’s other achievements, observing that Berry’s work “repays careful study” on those rare occasions when Berry “sticks to what he knows,” such as “the meaning of death in King Lear.”  Sighs Gordon: “Regrettably, [Berry] has much to say about economics as well.”

This meddling is naturally a grave problem, since Berry is distinguished by his “ignorance of economics,” and “shows not the slightest acquaintance” with “the relevant works of Mises and Hayek.”  The irresistible you-haven’t-read-the-appropriate-books argument rears its head again.  Clearly Berry has no more competence to note symptomatic problems with the socioeconomic order in which he lives than would an unlettered kulak in objecting to the rather assertive measures of Bolshevism.

True, Mr. Berry has probably never read Hayek’s The Road To Serfdom (though perhaps that’s not a good example, Serfdom not being a book one can recommend, since it contains blatantly statist shibboleths such as “It is important not to confuse opposition to [socialist] planning with a dogmatic laissez faire attitude.”)  But I would guess Berry has at least as much practical experience of markets and of how to run a tangible economy as Mr. Gordon does. Then again, by another analogy, whose opinion would we value more regarding the situation in Iraq—a disgruntled Army master-sergeant who has been on the pointy end of American Middle East policy, or armchair-Ares Max Boot?  A no-brainer:  Has the master-sergeant read “the relevant works” of foreign affairs, military history, and international law?  I think not.

Of course such an analogy would be distressing to Mr. Gordon, given that he takes great pains to discredit Berry’s comparison of modern capitalism to warfare.  Gordon complains that “Berry has confused two very different things,” because, as we all know, “in a war, each combatant aims to destroy the other.”

Admittedly some readers may have heard an alternative, lunatic-fringe hypothesis about warfare, that its telos is not destruction per se but rather power—power as manifested in material wealth and ideological dominion.  Rumors abound among radical-leftist circles, claiming in effect that offensive wars are initiated by aggressors to acquire more power, and that defensive wars are fought by defenders seeking to preserve power and thus retain independence.  All such theories are, of course, statist nonsense of a familiar sort.

And they certainly have nothing to do with what Gordon describes as capitalism’s wonderful, sublime “form of social cooperation”, which exists as an implicit understanding between the victor and the vanquished.  Woops—er, I mean between agribusiness, and former-farmers liberated into enjoyment of beef-fed beef at low, low prices.  Having plain-old-tomatoes with plain-old-tomato genes become an exotic “organic” luxury item is certainly a price well worth paying in exchange for affordably-cloned uber-produce.  Everybody wins.

Of course everybody wins, according to Gordon, since (as we have just seen) “economic competition is not a war”, and Berry “hasn’t shown that there are losers in a free market”.   Had Berry studied economics, you see, he would have realized how dangerous it is to wildly assume, a priori, that the word competition necessarily entails categories like winners and losers.  If your business fails you can always win as a janitor.

Returning to things which are “more than a little ironic,” it is singularly astonishing that Gordon patronizes Berry’s studies of “the meaning of death in King Lear,” in light of Berry’s explanation for the origins of his book Life Is A Miracle: “Lately my thoughts about the inevitably commercial genetic manipulations already in effect or contemplated have sent me back to King Lear again.”  A serious penalty flag must be thrown if Gordon is under the impression that Berry’s work dealing with Lear is mostly-harmless, with no import on commercial activity.

You see, Berry is of that aggravating (but happily dwindling) group of cranks who regard the study of literature not as a high-culture consumer entertainment but a serious mode of understanding reality, a mode of understanding which conveys insights applicable to community issues.  Berry’s central interest is not the esoteric meaning of death “in King Lear” but rather in what Shakespeare can tell us about the meaning of life in the real world.  Berry seems to think this meaning has implications that go beyond lit-crit conferences:

‘Thy life’s a miracle.  Speak yet again.’  This is the line that calls Gloucester back—out of hubris, and out of the damage and despair that inevitably follow—into the properly subordinated human life of grief and joy, where change and redemption are possible.

The power of that line read in the welter of innovation and speculation of bioengineers will no doubt be obvious.  One immediately recognizes that suicide is not the only way to give up on life.  We know that creatures and kinds of creatures can be killed, deliberately or inadvertently.  And most farmers know that any creature that is sold has been in a sense given up on; there is a big difference between selling this year’s lamb crop, which is, as such, all that it can be, and selling the breeding flock or the farm, which hold the immanence of a limitless promise.

This preeminent product of Berry’s Lear studies is in large part an effort by Berry to refute those scientists who would tolerate the chirping of the occasional theologian or poet, so long as the latter “sticks to what he knows” and does not interfere with technocratic efforts to define the purpose, form, and operation of society.  Such condescending tolerance is akin to how we all might feel about an amusing but useless black-sheep relation, who though an irresponsible idiot does at least possess a knack for making the finest origami pterodactyls.  He’s OK and we’re glad to have him around, so long as he sticks to what he knows.

Undoubtedly Mr. Berry knows nothing of formal economic science; yet Mr. Gordon is by his own admission “in no position to judge” Berry’s thoughts on Lear.  If we must play the credentials game, then perhaps being in a “position to judge” thoughts on Shakespeare should be prerequisite for a man speaking on any important issue dealing with community, economy, society—in short, life—here in what’s left of Shakespeare’s civilization.  If Shakespeare has anything of any real importance to say then his corpus cannot be segregated from political issues, nor confined to a realm of irrelevant, specialized scholarship.

I do not dismiss Mr. Gordon’s own substantive and serious scholarship, nor do I seek to marginalize it; rather I would prefer he take greater care in speaking about people he has never met, whether Berry or family-farmers in general.  Cracks such as “farmers are not being forced to leave agriculture at gunpoint,” reveal an embarrassing juxtaposition of insensitivity and ignorance.  Certainly the former denizens of Kentucky’s Land Between the Lakes would find Gordon’s pithy quip bitterly amusing, given that Tennessee Valley Authority henchmen spent the 1960’s and 70’s busily evicting some 900 farming families from their private property.  (In some cases, yes, at gunpoint.)  Not because this now-vanished, self-sufficient and debt-free community couldn’t cut it in the marketplace but simply because government functionaries desired their land for a park, in order to create jobs and foster tourism in the surrounding areas.

I am not interested in condemning the principles of libertarianism, many of which I can agree with.  Yet laissez-faire libertarians worrying about the potential subversion of our economy by centralized-planners perplex me, given the centralized-state foundation upon which our corporate system has been built.  I’m not especially hostile toward libertarians, I like and respect not a few of them.  But it is like Ron Paul warning that the Constitution is in peril of being treated like toilet paper, like Chuck Baldwin warning that our culture is in danger of losing touch with its Christian roots, like a monarchist fretting that the influence of the British Crown may be on the wane.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news but I think the frogs in all those particular slow-cooking pots have long since been boiled.   Perhaps I am revealing my own “ignorance of economics”, but it escapes me how anything remotely resembling our current corporate landscape could survive without massive invasive government measures.  Where does the Beltway end and the gargantuan defense and aerospace industries begin?  Who says all of those coerced tax-dollars should be spent on an interstate highway system? (They could, for example, just as easily go toward perfecting and streamlining local transportation systems, to favor small farmers vice agribusiness—though I hardly advocate this either.)  How many coerced tax-dollars go toward “higher education,” a farce mostly designed to turn kids into technician-drones at best or pompous half-wits at worst, a farce which Berry has described as “a subsidy granted to the corporations, which in a system of free enterprise might reasonably be expected to do their own job training”?   (Those tax-dollars could, after all, just as easily go toward classical education—though, once again, the federal government getting its tentacles into classical education is about the last thing I would desire.)

In any event, to reiterate—I am not interested in treating Mr. Gordon in the way he attempts to treat Berry.  Mr. Gordon has, in fact, produced serious writing on topics ranging from Murray Rothbard’s view of Strauss to Elizabeth Anscombe’s masterful condemnation of the atomic bomb—all writing which is of more than mere academic significance, I might add.  I only wish Gordon had treated the honorable gentleman from Henry County, Kentucky, with the same diligence he applies to Rothbard, the same fair-mindedness he applies even to Strauss.  Had he done so Gordon would probably still disagree with Mr. Berry on a great many important issues.  He would, however, recognize that Berry is not a trendy policy-lobbyist trying to get subsidies for organic farmers’ markets but a good man who is trying to convince people to give more care to their heritage, to their families, and to the little corner of the Earth upon which they live.

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