Wendell Berry is Insane

Dear Mr. Mitchell,

I read your article “Wendell Berry and the New Urbanism: Agrarian Remedies, Urban Prospects” with great interest and as a lover of cities I thought I would write with a few thoughts. The first is that I’m not sure what Wendell Berry has to do with New Urbanism or why you didn’t title your article “Learning from the Wisdom of Jane Jacobs”. Obviously, you wanted to highlight some of Berry’s ideas, especially his notion that “the disease of the modern character is specialization” and that this “problem of specialization manifests itself in the way we have envisioned our communities.” You go on to quote him suggesting that if “we do not live where we work, and when we work, we are wasting our lives, and our work too.” Now this is all very strange, because the rest of your excellent essay goes on to basically ignore Berry’s advice and implicitly argue he is the sort of utopian thinker whose ideas have no place in the real world – the practical lived reality of most Americans (and I would argue all modern, industrial societies) and therefore we are better off learning from that great critic of mid-20th century urban planning, Jane Jacobs, whose seminal work The Death and Life of the Great American Cities you cite approvingly.

Indeed, before I move on to the second, better half of your essay, let me pause and just note that Berry’s criticism of specialization is not just a criticism of cities and place – he is really criticizing capitalism and the very basic human effort to help fill honorable human needs. Anyone who can haughtily denounce “medical doctors skilled at expensive cures for diseases that they have no skill, and no interest, in preventing” (how is he such an expert, writing from his farm, on the American medical system?) or the modern home’s “conveniences”, including “an automated kitchen”, “a gleaming, odorless bathroom” and “year-round air-conditioning” does not deserve to be taken seriously. Why yes, Mr. Berry, I’m quite sure there was something noble and virtuous about those old-fashioned bathrooms with odors, but at the moment nothing comes to mind.

Why bother with Berry in the first place if you yourself concede his vision is “radical” (i.e. not conservative) and could only be implemented by uprooting millions and destroying our entire modern capitalist economy? The much more interesting author for your purposes is Jane Jacobs, whose thoughts on how healthy cities thrive you want to consider a model for suburban living. Indeed, I too admire Jacobs and her famous vision for “healthy cities”, which you correctly note “are characterized by districts and neighborhoods that exhibit a diversity of uses that makes for vibrant and safe streets and the possibility of satisfying many of one’s daily tasks in a single place.” It is this vision that you thoughtfully wonder whether or not should be applied more rigorously to the suburbs and you extol the efforts of the New Urbanists who you rightly note are trying to apply the design principals of Jacobs to suburban settings.

I’ll come back to the New Urbanists (but not the odious James Howard Kunstler, who needs to have his mouth washed with soap before he sits down at a keyboard again and who also needs to learn basic economic theory – but I digress) later, but for now I want to quote a long passage from your essay criticizing the suburbs, as I don’t think you are quite fair to suburban reality:

The mixed-use neighborhoods extolled by Jacobs are typically replaced by isolated single-use pods of homes connected to the rest of the world by feeder roads. Shopping, schools, employment of any kind are absent, generally rendered illegal by zoning laws and home-owner associations that operate under the assumption that the best neighborhoods are those uncontaminated by non-residential buildings and uses. The automobile makes such an arrangement possible, but there are consequences. For instance, suburbs create a situation in which access to a car is necessary to participate in the wide variety of human activities not included or allowed in the suburban development. In such a context, those without access to cars, namely children and the elderly, find themselves virtual prisoners in a residential bubble devoid of many facets of human life.

The separation is a result of the underlying specialization—not of people but of places—for what could be more specialized than designing a town according to discrete zones designated by use? Of course, single use areas are simple to comprehend, and they look good on paper, for they are clean and unambiguous and easy to grasp. But such an approach often fails in practice, for it does not reflect the complexity of the human creature. Fragmentation becomes a necessity, for generally one cannot live and work in a suburban neighborhood. One cannot shop or worship or recreate. One can, we are assured live, but when these vital activities are removed, one is left wondering what, exactly, constitutes living.

This radically specialized and individualized conception of life turns the focus of citizens inward to themselves and their own private concerns. This translates into a diminished public realm as investment of time and money is directed primarily to private homes and often only on the interior of those structures. But such an inward orientation divests the public realm of the attention that it requires. Indeed, the public realm comes to be seen as little more than the space in which we move from one private space to another.

The italics are mine. So is it really true that “shopping, schools, employment” of any kind are absent in suburban neighborhoods? I suppose it depends on how you define a neighborhood, but in Glenview, IL, where I grew up, the elementary school was down the block and there were a few shops (admittedly not many), including a Baskin Robbins I frequented regularly as a kid, just a short bike ride away. I suspect my experience in the north suburbs of Chicago isn’t that unusual – the schools and shops have to go somewhere. Now I agree that it is often the case that larger stores, especially grocery stores and now big box retail as well as office parks will be found in their own separate areas, apart from homes and will require a car. But back in the day, in the crowded cities that Jane Jacobs and I love, my grandparents rode the bus or drove to work and while they did shop at many local stores, they also went downtown on the weekends to shop at bigger stores that required a car trip – Sears or Wards or maybe a downtown excursion to Marshall Field’s or Carson Pirie Scott & Company.

Meanwhile, back in Glenview, there were plenty of churches that were within walking distance or a short bike ride, although Our Lady of Perpetual Help, where I was baptized and confirmed, was in downtown Glenview and we usually took the car there. Glenview also had plenty of excellent parks, good schools, and decent public services. In fact many suburban communities, especially communities with resources, spend plenty of money on their schools and parks – why you think that you find a “diminished public realm” in the suburbs is beyond me (you want a diminished public realm, take a trip to Detroit). If anything, some of these communities spend too much of their taxpayers money on lavish schools and parks which has led to high property taxes that help make these places unaffordable for young families who in turn must go seek cheaper housing in even newer suburbs that are even further out from the central cities (i.e. the exurb phenomenon).

I’ll conclude my letter on a mild note of agreement – after all, I fell in love with the hustle and bustle of the city at an early age and I never looked back. Certainly, surveys have shown that people do express a preference for neighborhoods that have a diversity of uses and more and more people like the idea of being able to walk to shop, to take the kids to school, to go to church, etc. In fact, in Glenview itself, which was once host to a large Naval Air Base (where as kids we would watch naval air planes take off and land in awe), the Base was decommissioned and turned into an award-winning New Urbanist community called The Glen that has attracted many new families and pumped new life into Glenview. So I agree that it might make sense to encourage suburban communities to think about development in the way Jacobs encouraged city planners to think about what makes city neighborhoods successful.

Ultimately, I just wonder if our personal preferences should be heralded as some sort of solution to a “problem” that may or may not exist in the suburbs and whether or not people who live in suburban communities are suffering in unhealthy communities in the first place.

Advertisements

About Fake Herzog

See the about page on the blog.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

47 Responses to Wendell Berry is Insane

  1. steve burton says:

    Totally agreed that Wendell Berry seems to be a hopeless crank – making sweeping pronouncements about what sort of life is worth living based on the *oddest* criteria.

    When Socrates says that the unexamined life is not worth living, I scratch my head and wonder if he’s got a point. But when WB insists that we have to live where & when we work, my inclination is to start backing away slowly.

  2. Lydia says:

    How can someone read anyone who scorns odorless bathrooms and not immediately perceive that such a person is a nut?

    If I or any other critic of [fill in school of thought here–environmentalism, for example, or agrarianism] ventures to suggest in a moment of exasperation that such people have a hang-up about the flush toilet, we’re excoriated for straw-manning. But now we actually have real environmentalists agitating for composting toilets and Wendell Berry sneering at gleaming, odorless bathrooms. They’re their own satire.

  3. Rob G says:

    How much of Berry have you guys actually read? Not much, it seems. I had a similar encounter with a neo-con on another site, a guy who writes on foreign policy and military issues for the Weekly Standard, going back and forth about the Southern Agrarians. Turned out, he’d never read them (it took three direct queries to this effect before he admitted it); he just had a vague idea of what he thought they were about from reading other stuff, most of it critical.

    As someone who’s read all of Berry’s fiction (some of it twice) and eight or so books of his essays (again, some twice), I’d recommend you educate yourselves a bit more before being so cavalier and dismissive. It is not becoming.

    • Fake Herzog says:

      Rob G,

      Thanks for stopping by my new blog! I’m happy to admit I haven’t read any of Berry’s stuff, but I was reacting to the quotes in Professor Mitchell’s essay. Those were direct quotes from Berry — did Mitchell take Berry out of context? Here is the full quote concerning kitchens and bathrooms:

      Nowhere is the destructive influence of the modern home so great as in its remoteness from work. When people do not live where they work, they do not feel the effects of what they do. The people who make wars do not fight them. The people responsible for strip-mining, clear cutting of forests, and other ruinations do not live where their senses will be offended or their homes or livelihoods or lives immediately threatened by the consequences. The people responsible for the various depredations of ‘agribusiness’ do not live on farms. They—like many others of less wealth and power—live in ghettos of their own kind in homes full of ‘conveniences’ which signify that all is well. In an automated kitchen, in a gleaming, odorless bathroom, in year-round air-conditioning, in color TV, in an easy chair, the world is redeemed.

      I suppose you could argue that Berry is really going after the owners of agribusiness in that quote, but if that is true, why mention “the modern home” at the beginning of the paragraph and then add the phrase “like many others of less wealth and power” later on — he seems to want to indict all of the bounty of modern capitalism in that paragraph, not just agribusiness. In short, it is a quote with radical implications that if taken to heart would undermine social goods and human flourishing — why should conservatives get behind such nonsense?

      • Bill Paradis says:

        so yours was an uninformed piece of writing, from the start. Anyone who has read Mr. Berry closely knows that he is not opposed to urbanism, or technology, but to ignorance, and profligacy, and selfishness. In your uninformed denunciation, you serve to prove his point.

  4. Rob G says:

    What Berry is assailing there is the separation of life from work. The modern home is in many cases evidence of a perpetual striving for ever more comfort and convenience and avoidance of work as somehow an inherently bad thing. Kitchens come to look like either factories or museums, and bathrooms come to look like kitchens. Really, does a bathroom need to be so spotless, odorless and antiseptic-looking that one could cook in it, or perform surgery? And furthermore, does not this sanitization tend to dupe us into thinking, as Berry says, that “all is well” when it most decidedly is not?

    Sure, the divorce rate is high, we have thousands of abortions a day, an epidemic of unmarried pregnancies, kids graduating who can’t read, porn, pollution, environmental degradation and litter everywhere, but hey, our bathrooms sure are nice!

    • Fake Herzog says:

      Rob,

      Please forgive me, but your comment makes no sense. Even the most modern kitchen, filled with all the latest appliances, is designed to make cooking and cleaning easier — not to eliminate such work from a family’s life. The mother who can prepare and cook a meal in one hour thanks to all those conveniences and then clean up in 15 minutes whereas in the past it might have taken three hours to do all of that; well, that mother now has more time to spend with her kids and husband or maybe even more time relaxing. This is bad how?

      I guess you (and Berry) want to argue somehow that this modern kitchen is the cause of all the social problems we see around us, but if ever there was a case of “correlation does not equal causation” this is that case. I mean really, what is the process in which an individual goes from looking at their clean and sanitary bathroom to deciding it is O.K. to have a child out of wedlock?

      Don’t you see how absurd your argument is? Or better yet, don’t you understand that there is no argument — there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a beautiful and clean bathroom and in fact, there are instrinsic goods associated with a beautiful and clean bathroom (we should treasure beauty and clean bathrooms help us all stay healthy and free from disease).

  5. Rob G says:

    “that mother now has more time to spend with her kids and husband or maybe even more time relaxing. This is bad how?”

    It wouldn’t be bad if it were true. But it isn’t. Doesn’t it seem that the more “labor saving” things we come up with, the more pushed around we are by schedules? Ever hear of “the tyranny of the urgent”? We’ve completely lost the concept of leisure, and what leisure we have now is as frantic as our work. Do you not see something wrong there?

    “I guess you (and Berry) want to argue somehow that this modern kitchen is the cause of all the social problems we see around us”

    Most assuredly not. It’s a manifestation of the emptiness that we try in vain to fill with “stuff.” We’re like little kids who aren’t satisfied with one Christmas a year — every day has to be Christmas. Why do you there are idiots who wait outside overnight in sub-freezing weather just to get some new gizmo?

    • Fake Herzog says:

      “But it isn’t.” Well, this is a strong empirical claim and I doubt you are correct if we look at the broad sweep of history — I’m really, really skeptical that the typical housewife of 1955 had more leisure time than the typical housewife of 2010. But we’d both need data to back up our respective claims.

      Meanwhile, I think we are finally in agreement (and in disagreement with Berry) — modern kitchens and bathrooms are not the problem with modern man. Rather, some of us have a spiritual emptiness that we “try in vain to fill with ‘stuff'”. I couldn’t agree more, but capitalism and industrialization, I submit, have nothing to do with the spiritual emptiness — instead we need to ask why people turned away from God in the first place. The answer is complicated and doesn’t belong here in the combox.

  6. Tim H says:

    Don’t know how old you are, but Wendell Berry is now 76—an older gentleman who has devoted his life and labor to making sure your children and grandchildren have food to eat. If you can’t manage any gratitude for that, as one who claims the mantle “conservative”, you might at least be polite and respectful. Unfortunately, we’ve all learned to expect the opposite of conservative behavior—and instincts of preservation and perpetuation of civilization—from those who now presume the label.

    • Fake Herzog says:

      Tim H,

      I’m 42 — I meant no disrespect but was responding, as I said to Rob G., directly to the quotes from Mr. Berry as cited in the essay by Professor Mitchell. I am grateful for the entire heritage of Western Civilization — that includes our scientific heritage, our industrial heritage, our medical heritage, etc. In short, I would celebrate our odorless bathrooms and modern kitchens while Mr. Berry, again based on the quotes I read, seems to denigrate Western Civilization and exhibit an attitude of contempt for his heritage.

      • Tim H says:

        You say, “I meant no disrespect.” Really? Well, maybe you should have titled your piece, “I’ve Never Read Him, But with All Due Respect, Wendell Berry Is Insane.”

        And I disagree that western civilization begins with toilet cleanser. I think agriculture predates it significantly. In any case, civilization isn’t unmitigated progress. Manners, for instance…

    • Rob G says:

      From the ISI page on Mitchell’s book:

      ~~”Isn’t Berry a liberal? How is it that conservatives have come to take an interest in him?”

      It is often assumed that if one cares about nature, extols community, expresses concerns about technology, or questions capitalism, then one must be a liberal. Yet all of these themes are recognizable in the writings of the leading members of the conservative movement, such as Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, and Leo Strauss. To these similarities between Berry and conservatism we might add the following: His defense of decentralization and the relative autonomy of local communities; his healthy suspicion of government power and his support for individual liberty and a robust civil society; his hostility to the welfare state and defense of private property; his opposition to abortion, promiscuity and divorce; his respect for tradition and distrust of leveling abstractions such as scientism.”~~

  7. Rob G says:

    “I’m really, really skeptical that the typical housewife of 1955 had more leisure time than the typical housewife of 2010.”

    The question isn’t about the quantity of the time, but how the time is used and what its intent is. See Pieper’s “Leisure: The Basis of Culture” on this.

    “Meanwhile, I think we are finally in agreement (and in disagreement with Berry) — modern kitchens and bathrooms are not the problem with modern man.

    As I’ve explained, that’s not what he said, as is evident from the context. I’m with him — I see them as evidence of a problem, you see them as no problem at all.

    “capitalism and industrialization, I submit, have nothing to do with the spiritual emptiness”

    Not fundamentally, no — that is a human problem. But capitalism and industrialism (read avarice and consumerism) serve to mask the true problem by selling us the lie that everything is fine. We build ever bigger barns, forgetting that our soul is required of us.

    In any case, this is rather fruitless — debating an author that one of us hasn’t read.

  8. Lydia says:

    “But capitalism and industrialism (read avarice and consumerism) serve to mask the true problem by selling us the lie that everything is fine.”

    My impression is that Rob G. would rather that we were all poorer and more miserable, because that would serve as a memento mori. I’m actually not just making a joke here. Notice what this amounts to: Rob G. admits that spiritual emptiness is the lot of man. So far we agree. So what, exactly, is wrong with industrialism? Well, let’s leave out the part where he simply _defines_ capitalism as “avarice” and industrialism as “consumerism” (though I’m not sure what the latter means anyway). That’s obviously an attempt to beg the question, so charity requires us to ignore is as much as possible. So what’s the argument? Quite simply, that by making man’s material situation better, industrialism and capitalism “mask” our spiritual problem. That deserves some thought. Making people healthier, lengthening their lifespans, bringing them greater cleanliness and freedom from disease are to be deplored _because_ they do all these things for mankind, and _by_ doing these things they make man, who is now physically better off, think that “all is fine.” Presumably, if we were still being ravaged by the bubonic plague as in 14th century Europe, the human race would be forced to admit our spiritual need and emptiness, would be driven to call upon God, and hence would be spiritually better off, _therefore_…modern life which lowers the odds of an outbreak of plague is bad, because it is spiritually detrimental.

    I’d like to think that when this kind of weird religious Malthusianism is actually spelled out starkly, those who advocate it and are seduced by it would see it for what it is–cruelty and anti-humanism in the name of Christianity.

    Probably, though, that won’t work.

    • Fake Herzog says:

      Brilliant Lydia. I would just add it makes you wonder why the Church, and here I’m thinking both of the Holy Roman Catholic Church but also all my low church Protestant brothers and sisters, who have done so much to better human lives via mission and monastary work — whether they were establishing hospitals, teaching the poor, tending to the sick, researching genetics, feeding the hungry, etc., etc. — these deeply religious people throughout the ages must have been just as warped as “capitalism and industrialism” as defined by Rob G. because they were improving man’s material condition.

  9. Lydia says:

    Tim H. says, “Don’t know how old you are, but Wendell Berry is now 76—an older gentleman who has devoted his life and labor to making sure your children and grandchildren have food to eat.”

    Huh? Wendell Berry has devoted his life and labor to make sure that our host’s children and grandchildren have food to eat? Really? How does that work, again?

    • Tim H says:

      I didn’t expect visitors here would be so literal as you are.

      • Rob G says:

        “St. Francis was welcome to be St. Francis, but I don’t imagine, Rob G., that you yourself think that every gosh-darned thing you have, own, or enjoy that is more than what St. Francis had is to be deplored as taking your soul away from God.”

        Perhaps not, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that I do have quite a lot of dispensable stuff, and I’ve tried to adjust my lifestyle accordingly by living simpler.

        ~~If everything that isn’t Lady Poverty is “unnecessary surfeit” and to be deplored, then I’m sorry, but you really do have a problem with modern healthcare, modern hygiene, and all manner of other things that really do better man’s material condition in ways that have saved countless lives.~~

        C’mon, Lydia. That’s as big a false dichotomy as I’ve ever seen coming down the pike. You’re a philosopher and ought to know better.

      • Rob G says:

        Sorry — posted the above response under the wrong comment.

  10. Lydia says:

    Sorry for the third comment in a row. I was thinking about all this stuff about gleaming bathrooms that fool us into believing that all is well, which apparently Rob G. thinks makes sense.

    I’ve decided that this is the literary approach to economics and politics. In a well-done work of fiction, there could be a character who had committed some terrible crime–perhaps murder–and who then comes back to his beautiful home with, perhaps, a gleaming kitchen and bathroom and in that atmosphere suppresses his conscience and convinces himself that all is well. This is the image that Berry invokes, except his “terrible criminals” are people who are supposedly not concerned enough about the environment in their businesses or something like that. Berry writes about them in a somewhat literary style just as if they were Pilate washing their hands–in a gleaming bathroom. See? By invoking an image that _would_ work as a purely literary matter, Berry simultaneously makes his readers feel that he’s actually shown us that the businesses in question are morally very bad and also that gleaming bathrooms are something to be despised.

    But this is silly. By the same token, a well-written work of fiction might have a character who commits a terrible crime and then listens to the work of Mozart to soothe his conscience. This wouldn’t mean that in real life we could indict either the music of Mozart or other people who listen to it for pleasure and to wind down. Nor would it tell us something about the economic system that makes Mozart’s music widely available to the masses. In a work of fiction, a messy house might be a symbol of a disordered life, but that doesn’t mean that anybody who lives in a messy house has a messed-up life. And so forth.

    Politics and economics by literary-style association of ideas: Not recommended.

  11. Rob G says:

    ~~Quite simply, that by making man’s material situation better, industrialism and capitalism “mask” our spiritual problem.~~

    No, what masks our spiritual problem is, among other things, our affluence and surfeit of “stuff,” much of it unnecessary. There is a reason why Christ said it’s difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom. Riches are a distraction. Market idolaters will always attempt to explain that away, or finesse their way around it. But sorry, it won’t go away. If you can’t tell the difference between “improving man’s material condition” and promoting ridiculous and unnecessary luxury, then you’ve most assuredly swallowed the marketeers’ kool-aid. Not comfortable with St. Francis, you ignore him and replace him with Milton Friedman.

    • Lydia says:

      So now we’re defining “gleaming bathrooms” as “unnecessary luxury” and “surfeit” which is making it hard for us to enter the kingdom of heaven?

      Y’know, I’ve never been able to feel very friendly about attempts to define what is and isn’t necessary. St. Francis was welcome to be St. Francis, but I don’t imagine, Rob G., that you yourself think that every gosh-darned thing you have, own, or enjoy that is more than what St. Francis had is to be deplored as taking your soul away from God. If you do, maybe you should give it all away and go begging on the streets. St. Francis married Lady Poverty. If everything that isn’t Lady Poverty is “unnecessary surfeit” and to be deplored, then I’m sorry, but you really do have a problem with modern healthcare, modern hygiene, and all manner of other things that really do better man’s material condition in ways that have saved countless lives. You just prefer not to recognize that when it’s put in terms you don’t like. But when sneers at clean bathrooms start coming up, the truth comes out.

      • Rob G says:

        “Opulence is always the result of theft, if not committed by the actual possessor, then by his predecessor.” – St. Jerome

        Sorry, but if I have to choose between St. Jerome and the Robb Report, you know which way I’m going. You act like Berry’s the only person ever to posit the deleterious effects of our affluence. I suggest you go back and reread some Solzhenitsyn, maybe starting with the Harvard address. (Here’s hoping you and Jeff aren’t as dismissive of him as a nutball and a crank as you are of Berry.)

  12. Rob G says:

    “I’m thinking both of the Holy Roman Catholic Church but also all my low church Protestant brothers and sisters, who have done so much to better human lives via mission and monastary work…”

    By spreading capitalism, American-style? Who knew?!!!

    • Lydia says:

      I hate to break it to you, but capitalism has supported a heck of a lot of missionaries’ work, not to mention providing the economic engine that made possible a great deal of the medical progress (inventions, discoveries, medicines, etc.) brought to the third world by medical missionaries.

      • Rob G says:

        While at the same time it undermines the social, moral, and religious foundations of the very way of life it seeks to promulgate.

  13. Teacher X says:

    My, the majority of the comments in this thread are remarkably overwrought and mean-spirited. It is telling how frantically Mr. Berry’s critics react to a small comment of his on odorless bathrooms. By focusing on a small point as if it represents the main thrust of his work, they conveniently excuse themselves from addressing the hard questions. Lydia is especially bad about this “How can someone read anyone who scorns odorless bathrooms and not immediately perceive that such a person is a nut?” Someone can do this by practicing some restraint and detachment and thinking things over. Someone can refrain from knee-jerk name-calling, unless of course that is her preferred method of avoidance.

    The original poster admits that he hasn’t even read any of Wendell Berry’s work, yet feels qualified to call him “insane.” He responds to this very telling criticism with a rattled, defensive challenge: “Those were direct quotes from Berry — did Mitchell take Berry out of context?” Yes, of course he did. That is what anyone does when they present a few paragraphs from of a long essay. The question is, were the quotes representative and the answer is no, they were a minor point that you have all seized upon to discredit Mr. Berry.

    Wendell Berry addressed all of this long ago in response to his article on why he wasn’t going to buy a computer. He noted the frantic over-reaction to his mild protest and concluded that he had scratched the surface of a technological fundamentalism that can’t abide dissent. All Lydia and Fake Herzog have done here with their bluff and bluster is to add credibility to Wendell Berry’s points. If there is nothing to what he is saying, why so upset? They are so upset because the larger thrust of Mr. Berry’s thoughts strikes close to home. They sense this even in their apparently total ignorance of his work.

    Contemporary conservatives are so predictable, albeit with some notable exceptions. They claim to have a monopoly on old-fashioned virtue, yet they can’t manage to practice the most basic civility. They claim to respect knowledge and argument, but they can’t be bothered to do the required work. That is why, no matter how dissatisfied I get with liberalism, I will never embrace conservatism.

    • Rob G says:

      “It is telling how frantically Mr. Berry’s critics react to a small comment of his on odorless bathrooms. By focusing on a small point as if it represents the main thrust of his work, they conveniently excuse themselves from addressing the hard questions.”

      This is what happens when one tries to criticize an author one hasn’t read.

      For the record, Teacher X, I happen to be a conservative myself. I’m just consistent, in that I’m an opponent of accumulation of power by both the state and the corporations.

  14. Lydia says:

    “C’mon, Lydia. That’s as big a false dichotomy as I’ve ever seen coming down the pike. You’re a philosopher and ought to know better.”

    Rob, you brought up St. Francis, I didn’t.

    • Rob G says:

      Yes, but I’m not the one who’s being overly literalistic and prosaic here. You should be able to recognize rhetorical hyperbole for what it is. I sense no such rhetoric in your response.

  15. Lydia says:

    To be more specific: St. Francis was dedicated to poverty. You, Rob, are implying that not merely those specifically called but all of us should be somehow challenged by St. Francis to reject capitalism _because_ it brings what you call “opulence,” which is contrary to the message of St. Francis. You evidently take the message of St. Francis to be that everybody should be poor. You’re probably now going to deny this. You’re going to say that, no, the message of St. Francis is just that we shouldn’t have “too much,” where presumably you get to tell all the rest of us what is “too much.” And somehow “too much” has something to do with Berry’s original negative comments about gleaming bathrooms and kitchens.

    This is either a wimpy notion of what St. Francis stood for–downplaying the fact that St. Francis was all about _poverty_, not simply getting rid of one’s Blackberry–or else it is misleading. After all, _you’re_ the one who brought up St. Francis (who stood for poverty) in the context of defending a sneering comment of Berry’s about cleanliness.

    It seems to me you want to have it both ways. You want to bring up people like St. Francis in order to sound profound, you want to apply the ostensible message of those people to all of us, but you don’t _really_ want (when it comes down to it) to say that cholera and typhoid are spiritual blessings of smelly bathrooms. You just want to look down on people who have the things that _you_ consider to be “too much,” and you want to make sweeping denunciations of what you call “consumerism.”

    But as I say, when it comes to lauding smelly bathrooms, the truth comes out. Because those aren’t small things. People who live in Haiti know better.

    The truth comes out here, too. I said,

    “I hate to break it to you, but capitalism has supported a heck of a lot of missionaries’ work, not to mention providing the economic engine that made possible a great deal of the medical progress (inventions, discoveries, medicines, etc.) brought to the third world by medical missionaries.”

    You replied,

    “While at the same time it undermines the social, moral, and religious foundations of the very way of life it seeks to promulgate.”

    If you think about it, that’s pretty darned stark, pretty darned clear. You’d rather that people all over the world had fewer life-saving surgeries and medicines, less modern hygiene, and even that fewer of them were reached with the Gospel so long as the world in general were not polluted by the evil of capitalism, which provided the money for all of these good things. You thus treat capitalism as being morally tantamount to prostitution or some other intrinsically wrong act. Your reaction is as if I had said that some woman sold her body for a fabulous sum and gave it to found a medical establishment that saved many lives. Which is ridiculous and, as I said above, a cruel pseudo-Christian Malthusianism–let them all die in dirt, poverty, and ignorance so long as they are not corrupted by capitalism.

    • Rob G says:

      So if you find capitalism wanting you’re a Malthusian? Frankly, that’s ridiculous. I think I’ll stop here so as to avoid having more words put in my mouth. As a former neo-con, I’m familiar with the capitalist arguments. But seeing as you equate unflinching support for capitalism with conservatism, you may want to familiarize yourself with some of the conservative critics of capitalism, of whom you don’t seem to be aware.

      • Lydia says:

        Rob G., you could have made a stab at retaining your moderate credentials if you’d admitted in the first place that Berry is over the top in the section quoted. You could also have made such a stab if, in response to what I said about capitalism providing the money for missions work and medical advances, you had said something like, “I want to propose a situation in which we regulate some specific things that I think should be regulated while at the same time keeping running the engine of capitalism for producing prosperity and all the genuinely good things that come from it.” But you haven’t been willing to say any of that. Very much to the contrary. You have made it quite clear that you are happy to see Berry’s use of the gleaming bathroom as a symbol and microcosm of something that is _wrong_, of “opulence,” of having too much. You have equated capitalism with what you call “consumerism” and have even quoted a bizarre and Marxist-sounding comment from Jerome to the effect that “opulence” (presumably as defined by Rob G.) is always a result of theft. You have responded to references to the life-saving, pro-human benefits of material progress powered by the free market by implying that the evils outweigh the benefits and that the benefits aren’t worth it.

        I’m sorry, but if you want us to accept you as some sort of moderate who just wants to tweak the goose that lays the golden egg (where the “golden egg” includes cleanliness, medical progress, and many other good and important things) rather than killing her, you need to distance yourself from some of this stuff instead of identifying yourself with it.

  16. Lydia says:

    From the fact that men are more likely to seek God when they are poor and desperate than when they are prosperous, it does not follow that Christians should favor economic policies that penalize prosperity while producing poverty and desperation.

    • Rob G says:

      “Rob G., you could have made a stab at retaining your moderate credentials if you’d admitted in the first place that Berry is over the top in the section quoted.”

      Why would I admit something I don’t believe?

      “You have responded to references to the life-saving, pro-human benefits of material progress powered by the free market by implying that the evils outweigh the benefits and that the benefits aren’t worth it.”

      What?!!! You admit that there ARE evils that arise from the free market? I can see I’ve made some progress! That is my point, by the way, and always has been: that the good things provided by capitalism often come with a price tag, and that that fact bears some consideration. You seem not only to want to ignore the price tags but to deny their existence altogether.

      “if you want us to accept you as some sort of moderate who just wants to tweak the goose that lays the golden egg (where the “golden egg” includes cleanliness, medical progress, and many other good and important things) rather than killing her, you need to distance yourself from some of this stuff instead of identifying yourself with it.”

      I’m no moderate. I’m a conservative who has traditional conservative objections to industrial a/k/a corporate a/k/a finance capitalism, and I will not distance myself from valid critiques of same. If you read him you’d know that Berry’s critique is often on-target, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many conservatives who find him helpful.

      “From the fact that men are more likely to seek God when they are poor and desperate than when they are prosperous, it does not follow that Christians should favor economic policies that penalize prosperity while producing poverty and desperation.”

      And from the fact that men are less likely to seek God when they are greedy, affluent and comfortable it does not follow that Christians should wink at greed, affluence and the resultant comfort simply because they may result in many material benefits.

  17. Lydia says:

    My reference to “moderate credentials” had to do with your claim to having had words put into your mouth, your implication that some of what you said or quoted was hyperbole, your apparent assent to X’s reference to Berry’s “mild protest,” and the like. In other words, no, oh, no, we are all extremists if we take your joining Berry in sneering at gleaming bathrooms, your quotations of Jerome to the effect that having [what I think is] too much is theft, etc., to mean that you actually _prefer_ poverty, stench, and squalor to material prosperity. That would be putting words in your mouth.

    Well, nonsense. Because that’s exactly what you sound like.

    Golly, what do you know: I _do_ “wink at comfort.” Was I supposed to thunder denunciations at anyone who is not physically uncomfortable? According to you, apparently so. Let’s be sure to make people as uncomfortable as possible, because that will bring them to God. See, Rob, the thing is, you’re almost caricaturing yourself, yet you can’t even see it.

    I think perhaps you’re too used to throwing Berry-esque talk about the supposed “evils” of “comfort” (which _automatically_, nay, _necessarily_ is associated with “greed” in your lexicon) with people who agree with you. Confronted with those who think this sounds, to borrow a word from our host, insane, you have nothing to do but to tell them that they are shallow neo-cons.

    • Rob G says:

      And I think that you are so trapped in your pro-market ideology that you cannot or will not see the problems and contradictions inherent in it, problems that American conservatives of a decentralist and anti-corporate stripe have been commenting on since at least the 1920’s.

      “you actually _prefer_ poverty, stench, and squalor to material prosperity.”

      No, what I prefer is satisfaction with moderation, rather then ever-increasing fury for bigger, better, faster, richer. Your overstatement of my views on these things is laughable.

      Instead of wasting time criticizing ideas you don’t know about, why don’t you try flippin’ READING some Berry, eh?

  18. Rob G says:

    Lydia, please forgive the brusque tone of my 5:55 post. I’m going to bow out of this conversation now, as it’s producing more heat than light in me, I’m afraid. Cheers.

  19. Teacher X says:

    Rob G., I appreciate your position. I am willing to listen to conservatives who see the dangers of corporate power. Many seem blind to it. I also appreciate your willingness to address this rather mindless attack on a decent man. It turns out that deep engagement with such arguments is pointless, but a brief rebuttal is worth the effort. I would simply say that to use such language as “insane” to refer to an author whose work you have never read is far out of the bounds of civil discourse. To my mind, Wendell Berry is one of the sanest men currently alive. His work is of immense value and I would recommend it to anyone.

    Well, I need to go clean my bathroom. I do that once or twice a week. It won’t be spotless, and until I tear the floor up and do some repair work, there is faint smell of mildew. I’ll live.

    • Fake Herzog says:

      Teacher X,

      Again, since you and Rob G. and even Tim H. (whose frame store seems like the kind of place I love) endlessly criticize me for not reading Wendell Berry’s work: I was reacting to a number of differenct arguments that a self-described Berry fan had made in the context of how Berry’s ideas could be applied in an urban setting. What is remarkable about Berry’s quotes, whether taken out of context or not, is that Professor Mitchell himself, after going through all the trouble of explaining some of these ideas to his readers, rejects Berry’s ideas as impractical (and I would add more dramatically that if implemented, Berry’s ideas would upend Western Civilization as we know it today).

      So even Berry’s defender (Professor Mitchell) can’t defend the man’s ideas. And to call my post “mindless” is to apparently stoop to my own “out of the bounds of civil discourse” level, is it not? I won’t take it personally as I’ve been around the internet long enough not to get emotionally involved in these debates, but I will say this: I’m beginning to get worn down, especially by Rob G. and the other night I was reviewing the Berry titles available at the Chicago Public Library for check-out. My next post on Berry will be a proper review of his work, I promise.

      P.S. I too worry about the “dangers of corporate power” — which is why I tend to support free-market policies. Being in favor of market freedoms is often being opposed to big corporations who want to use the government to enforce their monopoly power or regulatory advantage or keep subsidies flowing.

      • Rob G says:

        ~~I too worry about the “dangers of corporate power” — which is why I tend to support free-market policies. Being in favor of market freedoms is often being opposed to big corporations who want to use the government to enforce their monopoly power or regulatory advantage or keep subsidies flowing~~

        Thing is, Jeff, there’s no mechanism inherent the market itself to prevent these abuses from occurring. Big business and big government are handmaidens, and have been in the U.S. since at least the time of the Civil War. The GOP has been a corporate party since its inception, being largely funded by railroad and other industrial money, and the Democrats developed into a corporate party of sorts during the Wilson and Roosevelt eras. Who was it but big business who bankrolled progressivist movements in the early 20th century?

        The genie is of course long out of the bottle and at this point getting it back in there is probably impossible. The only hope is for some sort of middle-class resistance, as it is the middle-class that continually gets hosed under modern American democratic capitalism. The Tea Party movement has some good instincts here, I’d say, but their “populism” is undermined by the pro-corporate stance they often take, and its concurrent passive acceptance of market-oriented individualism (it does no good to reject culturally liberal individualism while maintaining faith in economically liberal individualism — it’s certainly right to reject Hefner, but it’s equally important to dump anything smacking of Rand).

        The point is not that big business is as big a threat as big government, but that the real threat is that big business/big government hybrid which continues to grow and to intrude in all areas of our life. The problem is that many on the Right will not or do not see that this threat has a capitalist component.

    • Rob G says:

      “To my mind, Wendell Berry is one of the sanest men currently alive. His work is of immense value and I would recommend it to anyone.”

      I’m currently reading Eric Miller’s biography of Christopher Lasch, which is outstanding. I think that what Miller says about Lasch could be equally applied to Berry: “For those who are devoted to the dream of progress, [his] voice may sound like a nag. But for those whose eyes take in a less cheery scene, it is a voice of sanity. And hope.”

      For someone who’s never read him, I can’t do better than to recommend the first book of his I read some 15 years ago, “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community,” after stumbling across an excerpt from it in the the now-defunct Eastern Orthodox quarterly ‘Epiphany Journal.’

      • Teacher X says:

        Rob,

        That is interesting. I first learned of Wendell Berry in Lasch’s book, “The Revolt of the Elites.” I’ll have to try to find some time this summer to read Miller’s book. In the last few years I have read much more of Berry’s work, but Lasch still looms large in my thinking. Writers such as Berry and Lasch who are able to transcend right and left seem to me the most useful of all. All my criticisms aside, I really appreciate being able to come here and see what people are thinking. I don’t know too many people these days who are interested discussing ideas. I will check back and see what “Fake Herzog” has to say after reading some more of Wendell Berry. And, no, I don’t necessarily expect a turn around. Rob, if you or anyone else here is interested in discussing the work of Wendell Berry or Christopher Lasch, you can reach me at neoreadteach@yahoo.com.

        RF

  20. Teacher X says:

    Fair enough. If you are going to read his work, we’ve gotten somewhere. I will point out that one man’s success or failure in defending Wendell Berry is not a sound measure. Read some for yourself with an open mind and see what you think. I will comment that most people aren’t able to live the sort of life that Mr. Berry advocates. I can’t, as much as I’d like to. He repeatedly makes the point that we are all implicated in a destructive economy and none of us currently knows how to break free of it. Solutions will require a great deal of time and effort, perhaps more than any individual can muster. If you don’t see the need, fine. But you needn’t mock and insult those who do. I chose the word “mindless” carefully. I didn’t mean it as a personal insult, but rather as a description of someone who would use an extreme word, “insane,” to describe work he is unfamiliar with. My apologies; I can see that I could have gotten my point across without using that word. Happy reading. I am intrigued by the number of those on the right who read and admire Wendell Berry’s work. I’ve seen a lot of comments on the Front Porch Republic. It seems there is a strain of conservative thought that is more reasonable than I have been willing to admit.

  21. Patrick says:

    This argument is fantastic. I especially love the two parts where Rob G says he’s done and then keeps going (trust me – I can relate). Go paleocons!

  22. Pingback: Wendell Berry is Still Insane | ImNotHerzog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s