October 18, 2017

Wendell Berry on Being Caught in the Middle

CF River 5

This week, what we are doing (instead of listening to me) is hearing and discussing quotes from Wendell Berry’s 2015 book, Our Only World: Ten Essays.

Today, Wendell Berry expresses a frustration many of us feel. We are comfortable with neither the left nor the right, today’s conservatism or progressivism (especially as practiced by the current political parties). Both sides have contributed to the degradation of individual, family, and local community governance, because both are beholden to corporate interests. The result, Berry laments, is a “politics of mutual estrangement” that just keeps spinning its wheels in the mud, splattering anyone and everyone around.

• • •

In the present political atmosphere it is assumed that everybody must be on one of only two sides, liberal or conservative. It doesn’t matter that neither of these labels signifies much in the way of intellectual responsibility or that both are paralyzed in the face of the overpowering issue of our time: the destruction of land and people, of life itself, by means either economic or military. What does matter is that a person should choose one side or the other, accept the “thinking” and the “positions” of that side and its institutions and be so identified forevermore. How you vote is who you are.

We appear thus to have evolved into a sort of teenage culture of wishful thinking, of contending “positions,” oversimplified and absolute, requiring no knowledge and no thought, no loss, no tragedy, no strenuous effort, no bewilderment, no hard choices.

…To believe, as I do, that families and communities are necessary despite their present decrepitude is to be in the middle and to be most uncomfortable there. My stand nevertheless is practical. I do not think a government should be asked or expected to do what a government cannot do. A government cannot effectively exercise familial authority, nor can it effectively enforce communal or personal standards of moral conduct.

The collapse of families and communities— so far, more or less disguisable as “mobility” or “growth” or “progress” or “liberation”— comes from or with the collapse of personal character and is a social catastrophe. It leaves individuals subject to no requirements or restraints except those imposed by government. The liberal individual desires freedom from restraints upon personal choices and acts, which often has extended to freedom from familial and communal responsibilities. The conservative individual desires freedom from restraints upon economic choices and acts, which often extends to freedom from social, ecological and even economic responsibilities. Preoccupied with these degraded freedoms, both sides have refused to look straight at the dangers and the failures of government-by-corporations.

The Christian or social conservatives who wish for government protection of their version of family values have been seduced by the conservatives of corporate finance who wish for government protection of their semireligion of personal wealth earned in contempt for families. The liberals, calling for too few restraints upon incorporated wealth, wish for government enlargement of their semireligion of personal rights and liberties. One side espouses family values pertaining to temporary homes that are empty all day, every day. The other promotes liberation that vouchsafes little actual freedom and no particular responsibility. And so we are talking about a populace in which nearly everybody is needy, greedy, envious, angry, and alone. We are talking therefore about a politics of mutual estrangement, in which the two sides go at each other with the fervor of extreme righteousness in defense of rickety absolutes that are indefensible and therefore cannot be compromised.

From “Caught in the Middle” (2013)
In Our Only World: Ten Essays

Comments

  1. Christiane says:

    “A government cannot effectively exercise familial authority, nor can it effectively enforce communal or personal standards of moral conduct.”

    sounds like Wendell Berry is thinking about the social principle of ‘subsidiarity’ here.

    This principle celebrates the primacy of the dignity of the human PERSON, and of the essential core cell of society as the FAMILY.
    “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them”
    http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/justpeace/documents/rc_pc_justpeace_doc_20060526_compendio-dott-soc_en.html#Origin%20and%20meanin

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      Subsidiarity is also a Political Principle – “the principle that political power should be exercised by the smallest or least central unit of government” [aka “Devolution”]. Sort of the same, but different – it is worth asking when someone uses the word which they mean. The political principle of Subsidiarity is appealed to, at least in name, by a *huge* spectrum of people: Social Libertarians, Social Democrats, Traditional Republicans, Urbanists, Marxists, etc…

      Much like the Vatican’s “Subsidiarity”, the principle can run in a myriad of incompatible directions.

  2. “The liberal individual desires freedom from restraints upon personal choices and acts, which often has extended to freedom from familial and communal responsibilities. The conservative individual desires freedom from restraints upon economic choices and acts, which often extends to freedom from social, ecological and even economic responsibilities.”

    But humans are wired so that we cannot totally accept total freedom of restraint in any category, so liberalism and conservatism have their sanctioned “Shalt Nots” – “Thou Shalt Not Smoke”, “Thou Shalt Not Be A Bigot”… “Thou Shalt Not Have An Abortion”, “Thou Shalt Not Deny Your Biological Gender”

    ==================

    The supreme irony in all this is that we should be discussing this very false dichotomy in the election season where two of the three major contenders were themselves completely blasting this paradigm to atoms, to the applause and adoration of their supporters, while the “mainstream liberal” and “mainstream conservative” candidates have seemingly stood by in stunned disbelief.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > blasting this paradigm to atoms

      You’d think that would be noticed. 🙂 Yet the Liberal-vs-Conservative faux debate continues apace. Actual Politics has left the Talking Heads eating dust, and it seems almost nobody has noticed.

      • Burro [Mule] says:

        In Berry’s defense, the article was written in 2013, before the Nationalist/Globalist schism replaced the libertine vs. greedy paradigm he describes.

  3. You can scoff at Berry’s utopian agrarianism all you want, but boy howdy does he hit the nail on the head here. I am reminded of the C.S. Lewis quote from “That Hideous Strength”:

    “Don’t you understand anything? Isn’t it absolutely essential to keep a fierce Left and a fierce Right, both on their toes and each terrified of the other? That’s how we get things done. Any opposition to the N.I.C.E. is represented as a Left racket in the Right papers and a Right racket in the Left papers. If it’s properly done, you get each side outbidding the other in support of us–to refute the enemy slanders. Of course we’re non-political. The real power always is.” -Miss Hardcastle.

    C.S. Lewis, Source: That Hideous Strength (Space Trilogy, Book 3)

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > scoff at Berry’s utopian agrarianism all you want,

      I think his comments on community and the human’s relation to place are spot on – while at the same time I think his pastoral Jeffersonian agrarianism is hopelessly obsolete.

      > is but boy howdy does he hit the nail on the head here.

      I take it entirely the other way, and possibly this is because of the first point. What HE describes here is crudely un-nuanced, it describes neither the “Liberal” or “Conservative” friends, or what they believe/value. It reads like the interpretation of someone standing at a morally-superior arms length, with upturned nose, unwilling to participate in the actual processes which govern the world he cherishes. So of course this is what he sees, from his little monastery.

      Wendell here lowers himself to drawing others in caricature.

      • Robert F says:

        I agree with your criticism of both Berry and Lewis. They are dealing in caricatures.

        • Adam and Robert: go to RightWingnews.com and then go to Daily Kos. Are they not caricatures? Are they not talking past one another. I do agree with you both on one thing about this politcal season: the Repubs have descended to madness, the Dems not so much. Not equivalent this time, and I have been a long time Republican as I say this. And I do think there are “principalities and powers” at work.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says:

            > go to RightWingnews.com and then go to Daily Kos

            I have been to both before.

            > Are they not caricatures?

            They are both in the business of caricature; so Wendell, or anyone should be the same? How does one go from thoughtful consideration of People and their ideal place in the world, to once you enter the field of Politics, engaging in the same game of caricature? To me, this is a common stumbling block, where all the careful Intellectualism gets set aside.

            Of course there is caricature and empty rhetoric. Mr. Wendell adding to that seems very un-Wendel.

            On the ground, at the level of actual People, living in their places, these caricatures are false. These caricatures, IMNSHO, are mostly the visions of the placeless people Wendel almost talks about; or those who hold themselves at a remove out of a sense of disdain [moral superiority?]

            > the Repubs have descended to madness

            This is indeed sad. The quotes of Avik Roy at Vox are heart-breaking – http://www.vox.com/2016/7/25/12256510/republican-party-trump-avik-roy Nobody would describe Mr. Roy as anything less than respectable. A lot of good people are caught up in this conflagration. My prayer is that a more self-aware “conservatism” may be born from the ashes; one much more reflective in the large of the noble “conservatives” I know.

          • Klasie Kraalogies says:

            I strongly agree with Adam here. Wendell is part of the problem hebidentifies: He is guilty of not knowing enough people of either tribe it seems, and therefore packs them in neat boxes and then pontificates over them.

            CS Lewis, much as I like him, tends to the same crime. As does that other brilliant Englishman, Chesterton.

          • I’m a bigger fan of http://www.rightwingwatch.org/

          • Robert F says:

            Adam, Regarding the linked article you provide: Does Mr. Roy’s prediction about the collapse of the Republican Party, and a long-term dominance by the Democratic Party on the basis of that loss, still hold if Trump wins the election? I know demographics say this is an overwhelmingly Blue country, and that Trump and the working-class whites he is appealing to are not large enough in numbers to prevail in the general election against that Blue demographic. But he has been gaining ground in the popular polls, not losing it. In my state of PA, there is expectation that for the first time in twenty years, the largely Democratic white working-class populace may vote for Republican Trump instead of Democratic Clinton in the election. Things are close in the other swing states, and in the rust-belt. Is it possible that demographics have it wrong, and that the white working-class, or that numbers of people who identify with its self-perceived interests even though they may not be categorized demographically as white working-class, is actually bigger than has been believed? Is it possible that the demographic data is seriously deficient?

          • I’m with Berry, as someone who spends a bit too much time reading political blogs of varying views. It seems like many people who get heavily involved in politics end up thinking very tribally and it’s not being morally superior to notice this. I have my own tribal tendencies and while I do have definite views on various things, it doesn’t justify the self righteousness I tend to fall into. I take Berry and Lewis to be warning us against this. Don’t equate your Christianity with your politics.

            Go to the comments thread of almost any political blog and you will usually find a group of people who see themselves as obviously correct. That happens on the right, the center ( to the extent there is one), the center left, and the far left.

            And people who are Christian and political often find, amazingly enough, that what God wants on all the different issues from war and peace trough tax policy, abortion, gay rights, environmental issues, welfare, etc– well, God thinks like they do on all those issues.

            That picture is changing this year because Trump and Sanders ( not saying they are the same at all) have shaken up their respective parties. On the Republican side, the artificial combination of policy positions that really have nothing to do with each other are falling apart, to the horror of mainstream low taxes Republicans who needed the votes of the religious right.

    • Robert F says:

      I’m not sure what you mean, Mike. Are you saying there’s a vast spiritual conspiracy behind the appearances of a dichotomous left and right? Given the quote from Lewis, you seem to be saying that demonic powers have the human race hoodwinked into believing that our political divisions are real and substantive, when in fact they are just a diversionary tactic.

      Personally, I’m skeptical of vast conspiracy theories, even when they’re limited to the human realm; adding a supernatural dimension to them makes them all that much more incredible to me. It’s not that I don’t believe that supernatural beings and powers exist; I do. It’s that I don’t believe they are responsible for manipulating us into divisions we wouldn’t already have. Human beings are political animals, through and through; I imagine that all sentient creatures are, including Miss Hardcastle, and the devils themselves. Hell must be political to its very bowels.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says:

        > Human beings are political animals, through and through;

        +1, Watch a group of children argue, lie, form alliances…

        > Hell must be political to its very bowels.

        Oy. What a disturbing thought.

      • That’s *exactly* the picture Lewis painted in the background of “Screwtape Letters”…

        “We must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment… Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern… an official society held together entirely by fear and greed. On the surface, manners are normally suave. Rudeness to one’s superiors would obviously be suicidal; rudeness to one’s equals might put them on their guard before you were ready to spring your mine. For of course ‘Dog eat dog’ is the principle of the whole organisation. Everyone wishes everyone else’s discrediting, demotion, and ruin; everyone is an expert in the confidential report, the pretended alliance, the stab in the back. Over all this their good manners, their expressions of grave respect, their “tributes” to one another’s invaluable services form a thin crust. Every now and then it gets punctured, and the scalding lava of their hatred spurts out.”

        • Adam Tauno Williams says:

          It is troubling that this seems to describe the vision of This World held by many Christians. And so Charity, Mercy, Kindness, or even Friendship must somehow be shoe-horned In.

          In a worldview where the default status of every Stranger is that of Danger – Love is awkward.

          • Danielle says:

            “And so Charity, Mercy, Kindness, or even Friendship must somehow be shoe-horned In.”

            Yep. An old and favorite game — “But I practice charity and kindness with the fellows in my faction…!”

            “Who is my neighbor?”

          • Danielle says:

            ^ Which is always safe, btw, since anyone you don’t like can always be excluded by means of additional factionalism.

          • Robert F says:

            The thing is, the word political is not just a term of opprobrium, though we often use it that way. When I say that hell must be political to its very bowels, I don’t mean to indict all politics, only demonic politics; there is also a politics of the Kingdom of God, as Stanley Hauerwas has said, which is a politics involving the practices of love, forgiveness and reconciliation; and there is theological politics in the relations of the Trinity, which is not one of domination and manipulation, but mutuality and self-giving. Politics in its good sense is the way we build an orderly common life together.

      • Suzanne says:

        ” It’s not that I don’t believe that supernatural beings and powers exist; I do. It’s that I don’t believe they are responsible for manipulating us…” Yes, this. Blaming demons, Satan, who or whatever is really just a way of deflecting responsibility, as in Flip Wilson’s (for those of us of a certain age) comedy routine when he said, “The Devil made me do it!”.

        Ugly mobs begin when people stop thinking for themselves.

        “The query: “At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?” And the answer: “Where was man?” — William Styron in Sophie’s Choice

        • Klasie Kraalogies says:

          A Good time to be reminded of that Auschwitz quote.

        • Christiane says:

          “The query: “At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?” And the answer: “Where was man?” — William Styron in Sophie’s Choice”

          reminds me of the opening of Francis’s words at the great memorial Yad Vashem:

          ““Adam, where are you?” (cf. Gen 3:9). Where are you, o man? What have you come to? In this place, this memorial of the Shoah, we hear God’s question echo once more: “Adam, where are you?” This question is charged with all the sorrow of a Father who has lost his child. The Father knew the risk of freedom; he knew that his children could be lost… yet perhaps not even the Father could imagine so great a fall, so profound an abyss! Here, before the boundless tragedy of the Holocaust, That cry – “Where are you?” – echoes like a faint voice in an unfathomable abyss… Adam, who are you? I no longer recognize you. Who are you, o man? What have you become? Of what horror have you been capable? What made you fall to such depths? Certainly it is not the dust of the earth from which you were made. The dust of the earth is something good, the work of my hands. Certainly it is not the breath of life which I breathed into you. That breath comes from me, and it is something good (cf. Gen 2:7). No, this abyss is not merely the work of your own hands, your own heart… Who corrupted you? Who disfigured you? Who led you to presume that you are the master of good and evil? Who convinced you that you were god? Not only did you torture and kill your brothers and sisters, but you sacrificed them to yourself, because you made yourself a god. Today, in this place, we hear once more the voice of God: “Adam, where are you?” From the ground there rises up a soft cry: “Have mercy on us, O Lord!” To you, O Lord our God, belongs righteousness; but to us confusion of face and shame (cf. Bar 1:15). A great evil has befallen us, such as never happened under the heavens (cf. Bar 2:2). Now, Lord, hear our prayer, hear our plea, save us in your mercy. Save us from this horror. Almighty Lord, a soul in anguish cries out to you. Hear, Lord, and have mercy! We have sinned against you. You reign for ever (cf. Bar 3:1-2). Remember us in your mercy. Grant us the grace to be ashamed of what we men have done, to be ashamed of this massive idolatry, of having despised and destroyed our own flesh which you formed from the earth, to which you gave life with your own breath of life. Never again, Lord, never again! “Adam, where are you?” Here we are, Lord, shamed by what man, created in your own image and likeness, was capable of doing. Remember us in your mercy. “

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Personally, I’m skeptical of vast conspiracy theories, even when they’re limited to the human realm; adding a supernatural dimension to them makes them all that much more incredible to me.

        Wasn’t the Witch Panic of the Burning Times (and its more recent twin, the Satanic Panic) a vast supernatural conspiracy theory?

        A Mass Movement does not need a God, but must have a Devil.
        And more important the Devil’s spawn, WITCHES hiding among us to be smelled out and burned.

      • Rick Ro. says:

        > Hell must be political to its very bowels.

        Okay, I’m going to say the sinner’s prayer again, just so I avoid a place loaded with Trumps and Clintons and etc. etc.

        • Robert F says:

          But I would add that the Kingdom of God is political in its very heart: it is a realm in which the practices of love, forgiveness, reconciliation and new life are how we, with God’s help, order our life together.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      I agree with you, Mike.

    • Just finished Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. On to That Hideous Strength!

  4. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    “”””the face of the overpowering issue of our time: the destruction of land and people, of life itself, by means either economic or military”””

    I have a hard time unpacking what he means here.

    This “overpowering issue” reads to me as a great umbrella that encompass… pretty much every lower-case “I” issue. It encompasses all the issues people *are* talking about and working to address; but to *do* anything one has to be *far* more granular [especially if one believes in either kind of Subsidiarity].

  5. Stephen says:

    But in the end doesn’t the “middle” turn into a bit of a cop out too? So easy to sit on the fence “above the fray” and sneer at the folks in the game getting their hands dirty. I agree that the “left/right/liberal/conservative” dichotomy is simple minded but “a plague on both your houses” is the cheapest form of criticism there is.

    • The way I heard it said once was, “While it is preferable to light a candle over-against just cursing the darkness, if we lack candles then we should at least curse the darkness, if only to remind ourselves we should not become at home in it.”

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      Exacrly

    • It probably would be helpful for everyone to read the whole chapter and see how he works this “being in the middle” out, with respect to issues like abortion and gay marriage.

    • The “middle” can be a cop-out if it means checking out completely or attempting to aim for the center on every issue. But it can be a positive if it means engagement without reflexive allegiance to one side or the other.

      • Rick Ro. says:

        Yes! One must approach the middle if one wants to understand the other side.

        Heck, maybe Jesus intends for us to be even MORE bold! He ate with sinners and tax collectors, after all. Maybe we’re not just supposed to go to the middle, maybe we’re supposed to sit down and EAT with those we don’t agree with!

      • Yes!
        Both left and right have become ideological feeding troughs where you’re expected to eat whatever’s thrown in without complaint. Start picking through the slop to see what’s edible and what’s not, and you’ll get yelled at for holding up the line. Just choke it down so we can all move forward on the same page and provide a unified front against the enemy.
        But this time around — as witnessed by some pretty noticeable divisions on both sides — more people than usual are voicing objections to some of the crap they’re being fed. I take that as a hopeful sign.

  6. Ronald Avra says:

    I enjoy Wendell Berry’s perspectives a great deal. They are always worth the reading.

  7. Klasie Kraalogies says:

    The main thing that Berry misses is that instead of philosophocal or intellectual differences, what has developed in the past few decades is the existence of 2 tribes. And the tribal nature of the divide, especially in the US, has been emphasised by the chosen candidates in this election cycle, especially on the right.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      “The main thing that Berry misses is that…what has developed in the past few decades is the existence of 2 tribes.”

      Huh…what???? Did you even read the article???

      –> “In the present political atmosphere it is assumed that everybody must be on one of only two sides, liberal or conservative.”

      “And the tribal nature of the divide, especially in the US, has been emphasised by the chosen candidates in this election cycle, especially on the right.”

      Huh…what??? I beg to differ. The left is just as tribal!!!

      • Klasie Kraalogies says:

        I did. While Berry did say that people choose positions without thought, he still assumes they choose positions, which is an intellectual exercise of sorts. I contend they by-and-large don’t choose positions – they choose or adhere to tribes. Because a lot of people will not be able to classify statements or policy positions of given those by themselves, without context.

        My comment about the right refers to the fact thatbthe right elected a leader which is very far removed from typical conservative values. Hillary falls on the very right side of the “liberal spectrum”. Trump falls nowhere on the conservative spectrum as traditionally understood. Both sides are tribal. The right, by their current choice, have expressed their tribalism more this cycle. You follow?

        • Rick Ro. says:

          –> “Trump falls nowhere on the conservative spectrum as traditionally understood. Both sides are tribal. The right, by their current choice, have expressed their tribalism more this cycle. You follow?”

          Okay, yes… from that standpoint, I see what you’re saying. I guess I see the “Feel the Bern” people as somewhat being tribal by choice, too, but maybe die-hard Bern fans who vote for Hillary aren’t quite in the same category as Trump in the GOP.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

            Story was that the DNC was hiring actors on Craigslist to fill the empty seats in the Convention Center left by the Sanders walkouts.

            Hero Medal to the Party Commissar of Spontaneous People’s Demonstrations.

        • This time around the Republicans are like a weakened Rome declaring a Gothic war chief as Caesar — basically because they think he has a better chance of defeating the Huns than one of their Roman born generals. How well they’ll like their new emperor if he wins remains to be seen. Will Trump take on Rome’s nature or will he remake Rome in his image?
          The Democrats right now are something of a tribe within a tribe with the Sanders people proving to be a mob of their own with an agenda somewhat distinct from that of the larger party. It’ll be interesting to see how well Hillary keeps the whole thing together. The Bernie tribe might very well become the T-Party of the left.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      The main thing that Berry misses is that instead of philosophocal or intellectual differences, what has developed in the past few decades is the existence of 2 tribes.

      Two Tribes?
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OHC77Vdjoc

  8. Rick Ro. says:

    I don’t get the criticism of Berry in this particular instance at all. I interact with the exact people he’s talking about, from BOTH tribes (conservative AND liberal). My Facebook feed is LOADED with what he’s talking about, people completely and utterly unable to think outside their own box. The fact that people who HATED Trump initially and HATED Hillary initially are now going to vote for Trump or Hillary is exactly what he’s talking about. People are too focused on their own camps/tribes to see that other tribes exist and that tough choices – and yes, maybe SACRIFICES – must be made to subsist together.

    –> “We appear thus to have evolved into a sort of teenage culture of wishful thinking, of contending ‘positions,’ oversimplified and absolute, requiring no knowledge and no thought, no loss, no tragedy, no strenuous effort, no bewilderment, no hard choices.”

    This! Exactly! Part of this is the basis of Peter Enns’ fine book, “The Sin of Certainty.” God doesn’t care about our “correct beliefs.” Pursuing too fanatically and holding on too tightly to “correct beliefs” is detrimental to society in the long run. Again, my FB feed shows this to be true quite vividly!

    • Exactly. I am a member of a political tribe myself– basically far left on most issues– but all tribes ( there are more than 2 ) are, well, very tribal and self righteous in their attitudes. I see this in myself in my more honest moments. But it’s everywhere online.