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Wendell Berry: Leftist or Old-Fashioned Conservative?
by George Shadroui
6 December 2003

Some have labeled this novelist and poet a leftist because of his criticisms of the excesses of modern America, but he is really more of a traditionalist or Jeffersonian.

Somewhere in the hills of Kentucky, on a few acres of bottomland, an old farmer scratches out books and articles by hand, in the quiet, reflective serenity of the place he calls home.

His name is Wendell Berry. And for almost 30 years, he has been writing essays, novels, short stories and poetry in a determined effort to temper the excesses of modern America. He has embraced Jefferson in seeking to demonstrate the value of our land. He has joined Henry Adams in questioning our modern romance with the machine. He has echoed Mark Twain in challenging some of our adventures abroad.

He has discouraged thoughtless consumption, has lamented the decline in the quality of our food, and openly opined that we trample carelessly on the graveyards of our past. It is no accident, he contends, that in embracing convenience at any cost, we often sacrifice what we should most cherish – communities, spouses, elders, land, even our children. He has dared to ask if profit is the true measure of human value and worth. He has tried to reconnect the human soul to our daily lives.

For his efforts, some have called him a leftist. That is a stretch. Berry is not easily pigeon-holed. He defies easy caricature. On some issues, he can sound like a 1960s holdover from the left, particularly when commenting on American foreign policy. He is not an isolationist, I dare say, but he doubts the efficacy of traditional approaches to resolving global conflict. The problems that are manifested on a global scale inevitably grow out of wrong-headed assumptions, he argues, but he can sound starry-eyed in the context of real-world enemies whose higher angels have gone missing.

Nonetheless, Berry advocates a spiritual and self-reliant worldview that places him squarely in American traditionalism. He rejects the excesses of capitalism but also the modern ideologies that have shaped leftist thought from Marxism to post-modernism. He is not a modern at all, but a Jeffersonian who values local community and the self reliant men and women who root themselves in land, community and family. They defer neither to the centralized state nor the corporation, but they are humble in the shadow of their creator, deeply knowledgeable about their own limitations and the fleeting, sometimes harsh nature of life.

To label such people leftists is to surrender too much to ideologues right and left. A worldview that rejects material excess, that does not reduce all of life to political or economic calculation, that refuses to surrender the human heart to science, and dares to treat with civility and respect even those we do not understand, that is the stuff of conservatism, properly understood. It is also the foundation for the good life, properly understood. This seems to me an unarguable position. And in fairness to Berry, I think it is important to make distinctions in his thought. For the purposes of this essay, I shall focus first on his domestic agenda, and then his agenda abroad, in the hope that we might salvage what is so vital in his work without necessarily accepting all of his conclusions.

At Home

As I mentioned, Berry is a novelist and a poet, but his collections of essays are what have enabled him to sustain a cultural discourse over some 30 years. Though he is not new to the scene, he also is not nearly as well known as his body of work justifies. Indeed, in a life-time of reading editorial pages and opinion magazines, I had never stumbled across him until Wallace Stegner, in one of his books, cited Berry as arguably the most important essayist of our age.

How is it that Berry has labored in relative obscurity? Simply put, he has not been able to overcome the built-in biases on both sides of the political aisle against his position. He is neither a big government liberal nor a conservative of the corporate stripe, and this means he lacks a mass constituency of the sort that mobilizes the two major political parties. He is a fiercely independent thinker on most issues, which makes him a lonely man, ideologically speaking. He wins his converts a few people at a time, I suppose, and is resigned to being on the losing side of history.

Even so, he dares to imagine what a community of modern-day Jeffersonians might be. They would be proudly and defiantly associated with the land. They might work the land themselves or might support local farmers or craftsmen who have not surrendered their independence to the corporate or government money machines. It would be a community of people intimately familiar with the places where they live. They would be proud of the work they do – so proud, in fact, that they routinely choose quality over quantity, and healthy labor over easy fixes. They would be men and women capable of raising their own barns or feeding themselves from their own livestock or gardens. They would not be much interested in popular culture, but they would be interested in what their neighbors had to say. They would entertain themselves by reading good books, perhaps bought in used bookstores. They would know the history of their community and would glean understanding from the memory of ancestors, mindful not only of their failings, but of their great contributions.

If this sounds idealistic, so be it. There was a time, not so long ago, when most Americans lived this way. Their lives did not revolve around the television set or a huge grocery store. They worked their own land, raised at least some of their own food, and found a healthy balance between convenience and self reliance. As we have distanced ourselves from such a lifestyle, the costs have become disturbingly clear. We are trapped in a world of our own making, a world in which our choices, as consumers, voters and citizens, have had devastating effects. On the one hand, we are dominated by the power of government. That power is exercised in a variety of ways. In some cases, we are taxed into dependency. In others, we are raised to be dependent. In the meantime, the corporation has emerged as the dominant feature of our cultural and commercial life, to the point that local governments and institutions – not to mention the individual -- are losing the ability to manage local land and health issues.

Berry began his dissection of what ails America in the 1970s. A native of Kentucky, he was educated on the East Coast but returned to his family farm where he has lived and worked for decades. When he addresses issues of agrarian reform, farming methodology and community culture, it is an empirical exercise. He lives in the shade of his own trees, along the brooks and streams on his own land, and he has asked fundamental questions about the direction our nation is taking in agriculture, business, education and health care. Slowly, but with discipline and hope, to borrow the title of one of his most important essays, he has tried to lead Americans back to their roots, their communities and their neighbors.

His first major work was the Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. Published in the mid 1970s, it was a sustained attempt to document the destruction of traditional agriculture and agricultural communities. We develop land, destroy top soil, plug into international and multi-national food systems. The age of specialization has further fragmented our landscape and our communities. In an essay, “A Continuous Harmony,” Berry argues that specialization creates a false security. We turn human beings into commodities and build a dependency on programs or specialists. This alienates us from our own lives all the more and, as Berry observes, poses a threat to a free society.

"Free men are not set free by their government. Free men have set their government free of themselves; they have made it unnecessary. Freedom is not accomplished by a declaration. A declaration of freedom is either a futile and empty gesture, or it is the statement of a finished act."

Self reliance is the real root of all human freedom. If we cannot do something as basic as grow a few vegetables in our own backyard, or fix our own fence, or patch our own roof, have we not surrendered an important piece of freedom? Anyone who has waited for a plumber or roofer to show up for a job can immediately identify with the sense of helplessness thus engendered. If we cannot nurture our own homes and land, how can we dare presume to solve the great issues of war and peace, poverty and ignorance?

We begin to change the world only by changing our own attitudes and behavior. The most dangerous person in the past century was the ideological man. The ideologue had no trouble grinding his neighbor under the boots of his convictions, whether that conviction be that all power resides in the state, or in profit. After all, such people do not have neighbors – they have customers, stockholders, comrades, or messianic leaders. They have no loyalty to place or people but only to revolution, the state, the newest money-making idea.

Berry knows that what he recommends is not easy. It takes discipline and determination to free oneself of the powerful economic forces that seem to conspire to deny us of independence and meaning. We are surrounded by spiritual and physical waste, which cannot help but devalue our respect for the sources of our existence. Berry writes:

"Our waste problem is not the fault only of producers. It is the fault of an economy that is wasteful from top to bottom – a symbiosis of an unlimited greed at the top and a lazy, passive and self indulgent consumptiveness at the bottom – and all of us are involved in it."

Tough words, but he isn’t done.

"The mess that surrounds us, then, must be understood not just as a problem in itself, but as a symptom of a greater and graver problem: the centralization of our economy, the gathering of the productive property and power into fewer and fewer hands, and the consequent destruction, everywhere of the local economies of household, neighborhood, and community."

For every miracle that science makes possible, there is a cost of which we are not always mindful. As an example, Berry and those who share his view point to manufactured strains of agricultural products that, if exposed to disease, could put our food supply in jeopardy. We have bred out of crops a diversity that once provided security because there were always disease resistant strains that could survive catastrophe. Our meat industry is a national scandal – the cruelty to which so many animals are subjected on a daily basis, the hormones and chemicals used to maximize production, and the health issues related to consumption of such products.

The free choices we make in the marketplace, because they have placed convenience as a higher value than quality, have collectively demeaned our experience. We eat faster, but not better; one street of fast food restaurants looks pretty much like another; and we know more about the fabricated celebrities on television than we do about neighbors who could help us protect our property and our children. This, ladies and gentlemen, must be called what it is – a collective form of madness. And only by rethinking those choices and re-equipping ourselves as real people who care about the real places in which we live can we hope to salvage our future.

"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. He is that variety of specialist known as a consumer, which means that he is the abject dependent of producers. How can he be free who can do nothing for himself?"

Those of us raised in urban environments, forced to relocate multiple times, and fully integrated into the corporate landscape, must confess that there are inherent difficulties in meeting the challenges Berry presents. Many of us lack, for starters, the tools of the self-reliant. One does not acquire a life-time of knowledge and know-how just by wishing it were so. I am vulnerable on this point, as are many other Americans who find growing a good tomato just a tad easier than trying to fix our own plumbing. But my ignorance also allows me to bear witness to the gloom that descends upon me as I spend, seemingly, half my life on the phone trying to find a carpenter. You see, there is a problem with a virtual world – you can’t really live in it. When the electricity goes out, so do all your fantasies of self reliance, unless, of course, you truly are self-reliant.


Berry tries to take the principles of his domestic critique and apply them to the complex issues we face internationally, i.e.: the dysfunctions in the international system are a manifestation of wrong-headed assumptions. His point is at least partially right. If Arabs and Israelis both need water, why can they not cooperate to produce that water? This is not a hypothetical issue. Both in Lebanon and in other parts of the region, water is a crucial issue, but one that is held hostage to wider political tensions. The Gulf States, with all their huge resources, could build desalinization plants that might produce enough water to ease the stress and liberate the productivity of the region, including Israel, but ideological obsessions rather than pragmatism dictate national and international priorities.

America’s well-intended efforts to help many poorer nations are also well documented. We export machines and American know-how, but we often fail to take into account the local wisdom and knowledge that is better suited to address some of the issues confronting these societies. Sustainable economies should not be sacrificed for the benefit of a huge corporation and a handful of surrogates who exploit the land and the human resources. This will lead, sooner or later, to human and political disaster.

Unfortunately, Berry also misreads the realities of a troubled world, at least when it comes to national security. I will take only one essay that he wrote on the eve of the Iraq war to illustrate the point. The essay, published on Orion online, is entitled: “A Citizen’s Response to the National Security Strategy of the United States of America.”

Here, I labor to follow Berry’s reasoning. He begins by quoting a statement issued by the White House in September 2002: “While the United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self defense by acting preemptively against such terrorists.”

This is the doctrine of preemption that caused such an uproar in some quarters. Berry asks who is meant by the term "we." It is a semantic point, and one I think he bobbles. Berry writes: “the idea of a government acting alone in preemptive war is inherently undemocratic, for it does not require or even permit the president to obtain the consent of the governed.”

In short, Berry defines “we” not as the people of the United States, as represented by the President and the Congress, which is clearly how the administration meant it, but a “royal `we.’ “A head of state, preparing to act alone in starting a preemptive war will need to justify his intention by secret information and will need to plan in secret and execute his plan without forewarning.”

Well, let us observe a real-life example to ascertain whether Berry’s fears were realized. With respect to the war in Iraq, the president not only consulted with Congress continuously, and gained approval to act in defense of the nation, he also consulted with the international community. He announced his intentions to the entire world, and shared “secret information.” The American people supported him, not because he misled them, but because they believed that Iraq’s lawless regime posed a continuing threat to international security. In short, it is one thing to argue that Bush made a mistake going into Iraq, which is arguable, but it is another to suggest he did something unconstitutional or anti-democratic in doing so. The facts simply do not bear out that claim and Berry overestimates the power of a president to lead a nation into endless conflicts. Indeed, I dare suggest that Bush would be hard-pressed to entangle us in another arena without overwhelming justification and cause. He simply won’t be reelected if he squanders human and material capital.

Berry observes that war inevitably perpetrates violence on innocents. This is a tragic truth, but is it helpful to blur the distinction between unintentional casualties and casualties intentionally inflicted on non-combatants? This is a long-standing point of international law and to not make relevant legal distinctions is to do a disservice to those who fight a just war and to psychologically empower terrorists, who seek to exploit precisely such muddled thinking for their own propaganda purposes. To be unable to distinguish acts of aggression from acts of legitimate self-defense is to lose ourselves in the murky fields of relativism that corrupt public discourse.

Berry suggests we must determine what causes terrorism in the first place if we are to eradicate it at the roots. Perhaps. But just as we would still arrest and prosecute a murderer, irrespective of his motivation, so we must prosecute the war against terrorists, irrespective of motivations, or else we surrender the right to defend ourselves indefinitely for the sake of ascertaining the sociological reasons for terrorist activities. That violent people claim a just reason for their actions does not make it so, as any one who witnessed the violence of Nazis or the Klan surely appreciates.

Berry objects to Bush’s use of the term evil to describe our enemies in the war on terror. Why? Is not a system that empowers individuals and protects them against indiscriminate oppression superior to one that puts all power in the hands of a tyrant? Were Hitler and Stalin evil men? Are not those who reject terrorism morally superior to those who embrace it? Every culture has strengths and defects, but that does not render us incapable of making relevant distinctions or tough judgments when the times require it.

That does not mean “evil” does not exist in the United States. Slavery was an evil. What was done against native Americans was, in many instances, evil. Why not call it that? Rape is evil. Murder is evil. Child molestation is evil. These are not victimless crimes, but acts of terror that deserve unequivocal condemnation. Terrorism falls in that same category, as does the regime of Saddam Hussein, which practiced such behavior with near impunity for decades.

One almost fears that Berry is suggesting that because we purchase oil, run businesses, buy products, and, yes, even waste, we are responsible for world cataclysms of all kinds, including unleashing the forces that acted on 9/11. I do not mean to be naïve about the uses of American military and economic power. Having lived overseas, I am mindful both of the benefits and negative consequences of our tremendous might. Consumption, particularly wasteful consumption, is a form of destruction. But it is a human problem not confined to the United States.

Why does Berry always see the glass half empty when it comes to his own country and its contributions to world peace and prosperity? Ours is an imperfect nation trying to function in an imperfect world, and our mistakes should be judged and questioned. That conceded, it is hard to follow a logic that insists on tracing every evil back to the United States, as Berry does when he writes: “We continued to punish the defeated people of Iraq and their children….”

This is a failure of logic or knowledge that is befuddling coming from a man of Berry’s gifts. The sanctions put in place at the end of the war were intended to weaken the regime in Iraq, in the hope that Saddam would be brought down or forced to behave in more responsible ways. By the mid 1990s all sorts of allowances were made for the importation of medicines and foods. This help failed to reach the children of Iraq, however, because Saddam and his network of criminals horded it for sale on the black market, and used national revenues to build palaces and to hide huge stockpiles of weapons. This is common knowledge, the evidence of which was there for all to see when American troops began uncovering stockpiles of humanitarian supplies that were systematically denied the people who most needed them. Is Berry unaware of these facts or is he intentionally slanting the argument to the detriment of his own homeland?

In conclusion

Wendell Berry has challenged us to rethink lazy and destruction assumptions that contribute to the failures of modernity. A world that valued tradition, community, land, wildlife and the individual soul in ways Berry advocates would be not only a kinder, gentler place, but one that would offer a richer, better life. That there is sadness all around us is part of the human condition, but there are also tragedies that all of us, were we more mindful, might help mitigate and temper. Conservative or anti-liberal thinkers have shared these concerns for generations -- from T.S. Eliot and G. K. Chesterton to the Agrarians of Nashville and traditionalists like Russell Kirk. All the more reason for Berry to avoid letting his voice get lost in the anti-American cacophony that passes for leftist thought these days. He is too important a cultural critic and to profound a thinker to slide into the mold of Gore Vidal.

George Shadroui has been published in more than two dozen newspapers and magazines, including National Review and Frontpagemag.com.

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