Thursday, November 6, 2014

review of "The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry"

I've read snippets of Wendell Berry here and there. But I haven't really read his work enough to say anything useful. Now, I've read a good chunk *about* him-- through a volume edited by Mark Mitchell and Nathan Schlueter. And I now feel modestly equipped to engage Berry-- at least indirectly-- through the eyes of others who care about him and respect his approach. (For the record, I would not feel comfortable if it was critics writing about him!) 

In addition to being a strong thinker, Berry is an effective and well-respected writer-- and in a number of mediums: poetry (see: Luke Schlueter's ch. 15), non-fiction, essay, short story, and novel. I'm still not sure how much I'll read him, but I'm more impressed after reading the Mitchell/Schlueter volume and now more likely to pick up one of Berry's novels.

An overview
I've been impressed by Berry from afar-- given what other respectable people have said about him. It seems clear that he's a thinker on topics that are important to me: from politics to society, economy to environment, religion to business. His approach is impressive: holistic in his interests and generally strong in terms of his analysis-- a broad and thorough sense of (more subtle) costs and benefits. He avoids reductionism of complex personal choices and social phenomena. He avoids univariate analysis and lame statistics.

And to his immense credit, Berry has lived out what he professes, including a number of what outsiders might easily see as (net) sacrifices. Berry left a nice job as a professor to operate a farm, live in a small community, and focus on his writing. (In this, I'm reminded of Ron Sider who wrote a popular but incoherent book on Christianity and economics, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. Later editions of the book were improved, as Sider read and listened to those who knew more about economics and the Bible. Sider should be commended for his biblical focus on justice and wanting to find what God says about defining and dealing with injustice. Perhaps most important, Sider descended from the ivory tower of academe to live among those he wants to help.)

There is much in Berry which is difficult to define, to put in a box. In that, I feel a kinship with him. I'd imagine that we share the same freedom in avoiding boxes-- and not feeling a need to defend so many worldly institutions. But I'd guess we share the same frustration at others (often fundamentalists) who insist on seeing the world in rigid boxes and then putting us (incorrectly) into boxes.

The editors open: "Although Berry is often associated with the political Left, it is our conviction that his work is profoundly conservative", given his avid support for "decentralization, a robust civil society, respect for tradition, hostility to the welfare state, and opposition to abortion, promiscuity and divorce." (p. x; see also: D.G. Hart's ch. 10) In Wallace Stegner's public letter to Berry (used as a prologue in this volume), he notes that Berry's "books seem conservative [but] they are actually profoundly revolutionary." (4)

"Berry, however, is more than the sum of his positions on the issues." (p. x.) He cannot be claimed by any one camp and is often insistent on avoiding labels. "The work of Wendell Berry resists any system that might be imposed upon it." (92) He "stands against all isms that would reduce the whole to one of its parts or dissolve all of the parts into one universal whole. He is for piety against pietism, intellect against intellectualism, individuality against individualism, community against communitarianism, liberty against libertarianism." (xiii)

Berry "has a public record of cooperating with those who fight for causes he himself fights for..." (50) But "distrustful of movements and organizations, Berry has tended to go his own way..." (50) In particular, he's avoided the environmentalist camp (see: chapter 6, esp. p. 50-54), even criticizing it-- as focusing on effects rather than causes (51), using misleading terms (e.g., "environment"-- as if it can be separated from us; or "conservation" for its unanswered question-begging about what is to be conserved), and relying on arguments that are reductionist, materialist, and dualist.

Each of the authors in the edited volume discuss a particular theme in Berry's writings. Much of the book is devoted to themes connected to economics, politics, and political economy. But again, Berry's larger social concerns are within and surrounding those discussions. 

Berry on Government, Governance, and Politics
His general approach to politics (Patrick Deneen and Rod Dreher in chs. 7, 17) is the same: he is critical of "the partisan alignment of contemporary politics" and "eschews inevitably narrowing involvement in specific movements" (73). He is "mistrustful of narrowly conceived political 'solutions' to problems that he understands to transcend the normal approaches of politics." (74) 

Most of his vision of government is negative; he presents "no positive vision of formal mediating institutions" (228), including government. In Port William, his most prominent fictional setting, there is no local government-- and outside government serves only to disrupt or destroy some aspect of the common good (228). 

With the (surprising) absence of other mediating institutions (e.g., the church), Nathan Schlueter (ch. 14) describes Berry's vision as "rational anarchy" where culture and community are "established and preserved purely on the basis of cooperation and consent" without (formal) political or religious institutions. (228)

Schlueter observes that this seems to fly in the face of Berry's usual critique of romanticism. But Schlueter concludes that Berry is describing an Edenic/ideal state rather than an idyllic/realistic state. "The idyllic imagination is based upon a false understanding of human nature itself; it is not only impossible, it is unimaginable" for those with a more realistic understanding of human nature (229). In contrast, Berry's Edenic vision hearkens to "our deeper, our truer selves" (229). "Eden therefore provides the imaginative ground for making sense of man's fallen, historical state. More important, it keeps alive in the midst of history what is truest about human beings and their relationship to nature and to God." Moreover, Port William is not even remotely Edenic as Berry depicts work, marriage and family (231).

Similarly, Berry sounds downright libertarian and Pauline/evangelical when talking about the importance of self-governance: "Free men are not set free by their government; they have set their government free of themselves...It is a matter of discipline. A person can free himself of bondage that has been imposed on him only by accepting another bondage that he has chosen. A man who would not be the slave of other men must be the master of himself-- that is the real meaning of self government. If we all behaved as honorably and honestly and industriously as we expect our representatives to behave, we would soon put the government out of work. A person dependent on somebody else for everything from potatoes to opinions may declare that he is a free man, and his government may issue a certificate granting him his freedom, but he will not be free...Men are free precisely to the extent that they are equal to their own needs. The most able are the most free." (88)

He takes a similar angle with pacifism (see: Michael Stevens' ch. 9), describing a protest that is more private than public-- to "live in protest" (113). This reminds me of counter-culturalism in general and Christian variants in particular. To abstain from "worldly" practices-- whether biblical-morality examples such as divorce or sex outside of marriage or biblical-practical, context-specific examples such as alcohol, home-schooling, one-income married households, and consumerism-- is to live in quiet but presumably effective protest against the World system.

Another angle on these "private" decisions: without enough of them, markets and governance become intractable. For example, if people want to live dishonestly, then all of the legal and market constraints in the world will not be effective. If people want pursue unhealthy lifestyles, neither the current dog's breakfast of government regulations and subsidies-- nor various efforts at reform (whether more or less government)-- will be effective. But the converse also holds: if men are angels, then much of both the need for governance and concerns about governance become superfluous.

Marriage, Family and Education
Anne Burleigh discusses marriage (ch. 2). Berry does not see marriage as (purely) "private" given its immense connections to the well-being of children, witnessed by and responsible to a community, crucial to a country and civilization. Berry also talks about the importance of fidelity in marriage-- and of course, fidelity in one area of life will be related to fidelity in other areas of life.

Allan Carlson has a related chapter (3) on a Berry essay called "Rugged Individualism"-- which takes to task both the Right and the Left on the rugged individualism of their views on property and the human body (20). As Carlson notes, "the comedy begins when these extreme forms of individualism meet." The Right celebrates family values but ignores advertising, materialism and ungainly profit. The Left sees sin as a private matter and defends the environment-- while focusing on material needs and ignoring human communities and broken families (21). On abortion, Berry notes that "If you can control your own body only by destroying another person's body, then control has come much too late." (24) And he sees it as "the most primitive form of warfare" (117). He is also critical of the (now-largely-archaic) idea of "over-population", asking "who are the surplus?" (26)

Richard Gamble (ch. 4) discusses Berry on education. Not surprisingly, Berry is highly critical of busing, given what it does to neighborhood and community. "There can be no greater blow to the integrity of a community than the loss of its school or loss of control of its school-- which always means loss of control of its children." (34) Of course, there are strong arguments against busing-- from a negative view (what are the ethics and practical results?) and from an individual basis (harm done to individual families/children, including those it purports to help-- as in Louisville with the case eventually overturned by the Supreme Court). But Berry's arguments are strictly communal and quite compelling. (Berry is also critical of higher ed, saying that the only serious "major" in college is "upward mobility" [37].)

Food and the Environment
Matt Bonzo discusses food-- and indirectly, the environment-- in chapter 5. He notes Berry's full-blooded sense of Genesis 2's call to "dominion": "The land has a story...And when the soil does give forth...the appropriate response is to give thanks because you have not so much manipulated or controlled the land for your purposes as learned to cooperate with the land." (42)

Moreover, this extends to consumers who should "eat responsibly", realizing that we play an integral "role in the economy of food": "Parallel to the farmer's intellectual work is the partaker's work of selecting, cooking, and eating her food." (43). Instead, often, "we treat farm animals as future processed meat products" (46). (See: Killheffer in First Things for an excellent essay on a Christian approach to animals rights.) 

The broader context: "If nature is viewed as indifferent or even hostile to human flourishing, one will approach it as an adversary to overcome...conquering nature for the relief of man's estate and the consumerist economy will closely follow. If, on the other hand, human beings are part of a nature that has an intrinsic value, then human beings much learn to live humbly and even joyfully within these limits." (224)

Jason Peters discusses the environment more directly in chapter 6. Here, we see Berry criticizing the environmental movement for its materialism, consumerism, and for ignoring constraints as if we can have "everything we want and a clean environment" (55). He blasts their frequent hypocrisy: they "want governments and other people to do something...[but have] no real interest in getting serious about their economic lives or reducing their standards of living." (55) He ridicules the "hybrid-driving environmentalist"; he wonders about environmentalists who don't at least garden; and he trashes the corn-for-ethanol-versus-food policy (58). With these critiques, it all seems a bit much; one wonders if Berry is himself aware of the constraints and trade-offs that individuals face. But surely he is right in noting the irony that those on the Left often want to externalize costs onto others, rather than internalizing them.

In chapter 8, Caleb Stegall discusses technology and the frequent drive for efficiency and profit maximization. His fictional contrast of corporate farmer Bill Meikelberger and an Amishman is powerful (90-91). Berry doesn't trash technology, per se, but instead notes that "utility, freedom and membership" can all be diminished or enhanced by our tools (94). As such, he asks "whether any particular tool making and using represents a dismemberment or...a profound amplification of what it means to be human." (93)

In this, Berry is on solid ground, by asking provocative and important questions whether then providing sure, dogmatic, legalistic answers. (As I've often said, asking the right questions is more than half of "the right answer". And Berry seems more focused on questions than "answers".) He believes that a pencil is better than a word processor (95) and, more compelling, that a scythe is better for small-scale lawn-keeping than the far-more-popular alternatives, given its quietness (97). He eschews horsepower for horse, but is not a "pure" Luddite (whatever that would be), seeing the farm horse "as a conduit for magnifying what is human" (98).

I really enjoyed Stegall's next-to-last paragraph (105): "Man was made for tools. Man was made to magnify himself and his maker in his maker's gift to this world. But man was not made to be a tool; neither to make of himself a tool for his own greed and pleasure, nor for him to be made a tool by others for their greed and pleasure. Berry says, walk with me and I'll teach you the difference. The difference between a Weedwacker and a scythe; between a pixel of light and a stick of lead; between horsepower and a horse; between a hook and a hand [from his fiction]; between a living death and the death that is life."

Economics and the Market
In Chapter 11, Mark Shiffman provides an intro to economics as oikonomia-- decisions within a household, a term first used by Plato and Zenophon and defined precisely by Aristotle (148). The concept of the household supersedes the idea of purely individualistic decision-making; all decisions have public (and often, extended-private) implications. Likewise, economics is a "social science"-- with all this entails. Christian thinkers would later contribute the similar ideas of "sphere sovereignty" (Kuyper / Protestant) and "subsidiarity" (Catholic)-- in a word, the idea of different levels of responsibility and (ideal) autonomy, starting with the household.

Shiffman also notes that the first English use of the word "economy" comes from Hobbes in Leviathan, turning it into a non-household concept and envisioning the household and the family as an artificial construct (152-153)! (As an aside, Shiffman narrows the field of economics to money terms and then complains about his own reductionism. "Economics claims to be a neutral player in human moral life and in our human self-understanding, default has to measure and compare in terms of value, which ultimately means by the medium of money." [155] Huh?) 

In chapter 12, Mark Mitchell lays out what he sees as Berry's defense of "a truly free market"-- within Berry's critique of "market ideology", a corporate (often crony) capitalism, and a "modern industrial economy [that] is anti-human, anti-community, and unsustainable." (167) 

Given his concerns, Berry says we should not "delegate responsibility to organizations about which we know very little" (168). As a consumer, this is difficult and personally costly-- and if lived out consistently within an economy, has its own social costs in the [localized] monopoly power that would often obtain. 

As an investor, Berry is critical of portfolio diversification (e.g., mutual funds) that removes us from understanding the entities in which we invest (170). "The very scale and remoteness of the enterprise makes careful monitoring difficult" (170-171). This is a valid concern, but such a limited investment strategy would dry up opportunities for even local businesses. 

Still, he is right to be concerned about market transactions where "the personal connection is gone" and "our relationship is stripped down merely to market forces" (169) "We have become, by and large, a nation of wage earners and the owners of mutual funds." (181)

In terms of public policy, Berry critiques government regulation for its usual favoritism toward large-scale vs. small-scale enterprise-- sometimes implicit but other times through cynical lobbying that restricts competition (171). As a result, "economic centralization and political centralization feed off one another. Far from being antagonistic, they are natural allies." (174)

Berry critiques "the universalization of competition" since it "divides rather than unites" (186). But this ignores the cooperation inherent in economic markets. Ironically, producers compete with other producers-- for the opportunity to cooperate with consumers. Moreover, the extreme opposite of competition is monopoly-- which presents a false unity. Perhaps we should invoke Babel here as a critique of Berry's view: the odd thing is that the messiness of competitive markets is preferable-- philosophically and practically-- to the alternative of significant monopoly power for producers.

Berry worries that competition "creates nomadic wage seekers" and "destroys community" (186). But there is no necessary relationship between competition, markets, and such outcomes. To the extent that such results obtain, it is a function of the underlying preferences of individuals whose values are somewhere between out-of-whack and what Berry envisions. 

Likewise, Mitchell quotes Berry on "the ideal of unlimited competition" as "proposes an unlimited concentration of economic power" (186-187). This misunderstands competition and relies on an incoherent definition of "power". Further, it ignores the alternative-- "limited" competition, typically through government policies that benefit interest groups at the expense of society. 

Still, Berry has a point: markets differ when they operate "within a broader framework of social, moral, and religious commitments where the virtues are inculcated and practiced." (187-188) Mitchell cites Wilhelm Roepke (174, 187), who is very helpful on these questions. (For my review of Roepke's A Humane Economy, see: p. 13-14 of this link).

Local vs. Global, and Mutually Beneficial Trade
A clearer problem: Berry and other localists can be downright silly on "local trade". Ironically, at least for Berry, the analysis is typically reductionistic. And its application is typically incoherent: how local can one buy and sell products and services? Why should "local" producers purchase inputs from outside the locality? Berry does ask, reasonably, whether there "should be other considerations in addition to price", asking "Is there a price to focusing only upon price" (186). But how does one apply the principle, consistently or at least, well?

Berry saw "global free trade" as more troubling than terrorism post-9/11 (116). Pre-9/11, he said that "what we call 'the economy' or 'the free market' is less and distinguishable from warfare" (117). (Perhaps he meant crony capitalism, but it seems doubtful.) Berry imagines that "family-owned concerns" are "forced to shut their doors" (185). 

William Fahey's ch. 13 extends the point further in drawing connections to the "distributionists" (including most prominently, G.K. Chesterton, and the C-J's London correspondent, Herbert Agar [194]). Fahey (209): "The localism of the distributists and Wendell Berry is not separation; it is rather a traditional framing of the social life of man.". I think I understand what he means, but how far does this extend? When does localism become provincialism? 

Fahey frames his essay with a fascinating example of a local apple festival in New Hampshire using "non-local" apples from New York. What is a local apple festival intended to celebrate? To what extent should the apples and the relevant labor come from X miles away? To what extent would local consumers have been willing to pay higher prices (or accept lower quality) from more-local apples?

Economists find all of this a bit odd, at least in our politically correct times. Our first model for these sorts of decisions is discrimination-- when people use criteria other than "productivity" to make decisions. Here, localists would ask consumers to discriminate against non-locals and exhibit favoritism for locals. One can certainly make a case for such behavior, but it's an odd calling in a time when we are generally encouraged to avoid such approaches to decision-making.

Haley is correct in citing Chesterton on the potential for reductionism within market activity-- that "a system based entirely on the division of labor is in one sense literally half-witted. That is, each performer of half an operation does really only use half of his wits." In contrast, the self-sufficient peasant (such as he really is) lives "not merely a simple life, but a complete life." (205) Then again, this too is oversold. One imagines that the husband/wife peasant pairs-- and others within the community-- engage in their own forms of specialization in comparative advantages, engaging in trade. 

An "Integral Imagination"
In chapter 14, Nathan Schlueter describes Berry's "integral imagination"-- an integrated, holistic approach to thinking through worldview and everyday life. If God, life, society, etc. are complex matters, then why would one imagine that reductionism is a sane outlook. Reductionism certainly has its place in understanding life-- for example, through models and statistics-- but the reductions should never be conflated or confused with the whole. Schlueter cites Machiavelli's criticism of imagination, but the fundamental issue is whether one's imagination is real or unreal-- or the extent to which it is true to "reality". 

Adding to the confusion, we moderns imagine that imagination has been relegated to a back seat by our modern ways and our modern ways of thinking. Instead, "imagination plays a more powerful role in our lives than ever before, yet we are largely unaware of this fact. Modern science thus conceals its own poetic ground." (214) One sees this in those who imagine that evolution provides a comprehensive explanation for the development of life as we see it today. But the extent of the "explanation" is exceedingly modest, infinitesimal compared to what would be required to "explain" the infinite number of steps from A to Z. Instead, these harder-core evolutionists have embraced a scientifically-flavored story, a scientific skin stuffed with a narrative. 

Related to this, Mitchell (177) points to an "optimistic view of the future that marks the modern mind". As a result, "such a person is alienated from the present as well as the past. The past was, after all, a backward place inhabited by benighted, miserable wretches. What could they teach us?" 

Schlueter observes: "The result is a culture deeply divided between science without poetry (i.e., scientism) and poetry without intellect (e.g., romanticism)." (214) In this, we have returned to the ever-seductive dualism of mind and body, as we try to separate the head and heart and end up with an unhealthy combination of dreamers and fundamentalists-- both of many and varied stripes. "Romanticism and modern science share a preoccupation with the new, and hostility for the old and for tradition." (216) Meanwhile, religious fundamentalists embrace tradition without poetry. Neither position is impressive. 

On the limits of politics
In chapter 17, Rod Dreher depicts Berry as a "latter-day" St. Benedict and compares him at length to Alasdair MacIntyre. Dreher quotes the final paragraph of MacIntyre's After Virtue, referring to it as "the Benedict Option" (283). MacIntyre praises the decision to quit "shoring up the Roman imperium" and identifying "the continuation of civility and moral community with" its maintenance. Instead, the Benedictines focused on "the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained...[to] survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness." MacIntyre calls for the same thing today-- and is echoed in this by Berry and Dreher. 

Dreher notes that "the Benedictine order more or less saved European civilization in the Dark Ages." Dreher points to their stability, laying down roots in community, as the key: "Peasants knew that the monks were not going to abandon their posts, or them, come what may. So they settled near the monasteries and learned from the monks. Over many generations, those monasteries became towns and great cities...the monks stayed and bore witness. In so doing, they showed a lost and scattered people how to be more fully human. In a time of great chaos, their decision to remain fixed points converted and saved an entire culture. Such is the power of a creative minority." (286)

A negative assessment of contemporary culture and politics leads to the same prescription-- that culture is struggling and both major political parties are somewhere between unimpressive and eminently self-serving. On economic policy, at least at the federal level, crony capitalism is common and the most impressive part of our approach to such things. Meanwhile, key issues are ignored and social policy is mostly for scoring cheap rhetorical points. Berry says they are "helplessly subservient to each other's rhetoric" and "have now become so self-righteous and self-defensive as to have no social use" (275). And that was back in 1970! 

MacIntyre advises the rejection of politics "not primarily because they give us the wrong answers, but because they answer the wrong questions" (281). From Dreher: "Conventional politics is a weak bet for the kind of cultural reformation adequate to the crisis." (281) In other words, politics is not adequate to the task. Or from Berry, both culture and politics are jacked-up and politics is limited in its effectiveness; his "critical insight [is] that we have disordered politics because we have disordered souls." (284) 

On humility...
One closing thought: Over time, our amazing ignorance has become an increasingly important theme to me. It's a key within economics-- undergirding the existence of entrepreneurs, the cause of significant problems in some markets, and pointing to the limits of public policy. It's also a key to a variety of other issues-- e.g., our faith-filled interpretations of historical events and the staggering gap between what we have in hand and what we need for anything approaching a comprehensive explanation for the development of life. (Many people want/need/imagine that Evolution of this larger sort has moved much beyond pure narrative.) 

Berry notes that our ignorance should lead to humility. People should "learn to act with respect for what they do not know." Berry calls this recognition "the way of ignorance" and says it is "born of wonder, expressed in reverence, and rooted in faith." (xii) and is based on an "awareness of our limits" (218). May we follow in his path-- worried more about asking good questions than finding airtight answers; looking at life holistically rather than reductionistically; seeking to partner with Creation and others to make the world a better place and to walk humbly with our God.  


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