This slim book packs quite a punch. Its author requires that, in order to read him, we cast off the distorted language and prepackaged thought we absorb from the hum of the media. Indeed, he wants us to awaken from the slumber which that drone is designed to deepen.
You might say that Mr. Berry is interested in words. “Environment,” for instance, he sees as an inadequate usage and as a denial of “Creation” and “world.” By the time he gets started on “globalization,” “free trade,” and the “New World Order,” he is both illuminating and funny. What Berry says about the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade I have seen nowhere else and is only another reminder that most American citizens don’t know what their government does, or care. And when Wendell Berry mentions “the community,” he does not refer to the cronies of the Reverend Al Sharpton, or to “the gay and lesbian community,” or to any other such real or imagined self-selected assembly of the like-minded. No, he means “community”—you know, the people who live nearby and have an interest and a say; neighbors and cousins, those with whom you sense “an understood mutuality of interest” (excluding the police, the BATE, the IRS).
Mr. Berry’s thoughts are bracing and wholesome. His discourse puts me in mind of George Orwell in its insistence on truth and integrity of expression and, in its adherence to simplicity and independence, of Henry David Thoreau. Berry’s “Sales Resistance” rejects the cheery idiocy of commercialized niceness and mass merchandizing by virtue of which the human being becomes a robotic consumer as well as a productive automaton. But don’t assume Berry purveys sermons—quite the contrary. He can and docs express himself with Swiftian indignation, economy, and dark humor. The few simple “truths” we have to master to understand the new commercial education, for example, can be highly amusing when they are not terrifying:
The main thing is, don’t let education get in the way of being nice to children. Children are our Future. Spend plenty of money on them but don’t stay home with them and get in their way. Don’t give them work to do; they are smart and can think up things to do on their own. Don’t teach them any of that awful, stultifying, repressive, old-fashioned morality. Provide plenty of TV, microwave dinners, day care, computers, computer games, cars. For all this, they will love and respect us and be glad to grow up and pay our debts.
In a similar vein, he lists some expensive political packages, such as:
Tolerance and Multiculturalism. Quit talking bad about women, homosexuals, and preferred social minorities, and you can say anything you want about people who haven’t been to college, manual workers, country people, peasants, religious people, unmodern people, old people, and so on. Tolerant and multicultural persons hyphenate their land of origin and their nationality. I, for example, am a Kentuckian-American.
Right. But Mr. Berry is no entertainer, though he can be very entertaining. He is a moralist and, in the best sense of the word, an economist. His observations on what we usually call politics are striking in that they elude the eroded categories of left and right. Berry’s essay “Peaceableness Toward Enemies” is a unique and valuable comment on the Gulf War, which in its rebuke to gigantism, abstraction, and arrogance deserves a wide readership.
Wendell Berry’s daring, in trying to imagine how a Christian nation should or might conduct foreign policy, is both morally bracing and politically challenging. His analysis of Christianity itself, however, though highly creditable, is in my view flawed by its scanting of Original Sin. If we have a Redeemer, then surely there must have been much to be redeemed from—and there still is. In Milton’s more comprehensive vision, as with the Bible’s, the Earth fell along with Adam and Eve—or was that Adam and Steve? However that may be, Berry’s righteous love of the Creation may lead him to forget that the Kingdom of Heaven is, after all, not of this world, and that William Blake, who declared that everything that lives is holy, was not always the most reliable of prophets—or at least never anticipated the Clinton administration. A sterner sense of sin might show Mr. Berry just why he has so much to contend with from all those holy sweethearts, his fellow human beings.
Nevertheless, Berry’s sense of our place as stewards is right and needful in many ways. Some of his points and specifically his citation of Ananda Coomaraswamy are highly reminiscent of the work of Andrew Lytle in particular and of the Vanderbilt Agrarians in general. Since Berry does acknowledge Thoreau, I wish that he had also mentioned the principles, at least, of those Southern precursors who (like Berry himself) refused to subordinate the vital needs of humans to the unending demands of business.
Berry’s sense of legitimate community interests that supersede both private claims and public requirements leads him to insights that today are almost unheard of:
The conventional public opposition of “liberal” and “conservative” is, here as elsewhere, perfectly useless. The “conservatives” promote the family as a sort of public icon, but they will not promote the economic integrity of the household or the community, which are the mainstays of family life. Under the sponsorship of “conservative” presidencies, the economy of the modern household, which once required the father to work away from home, now requires the mother to work away from home, as well. And this development has the wholehearted endorsement of “liberals,” who see the mother thus forced to spend her days away from her home and children as “liberated”—though nobody has yet seen the fathers thus forced away as “liberated.” Some feminists are thus in the curious position of opposing the mistreatment of women and yet advocating their participation in an economy in which everyone is mistreated.
For passages like that, and for other reasons as well, Wendell Berry has earned a special place as a sage. Better than any one of his contemporaries, he has identified what is wrong with the way we live and pointed to ways to make it right.
[Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays, by Wendell Berry (New York: Pantheon Books) 179 pp., $20.00]