Monday, September 29, 2014

My Clash with Wendell Berry

DISCLAIMER: The contents of this post are, frankly, beneath my standards.
I wanted to dissect this conflict of ideas and attitudes, but I just...

I don't know. My natural disgust and annoyance managed to overpower me.

Unfortunately, this post does not describe an actual confrontation — verbal, physical, or otherwise — between Wendell Berry and myself. I wish that it did. Berry is an interesting thinker, and I would love to engage him on a more immediate level than I can presently.

But that is neither here nor now. 
I don't mean to sound crass, but Berry will likely die before he reads these words.

Instead, I'm going to discuss my disagreement with Wendell Berry as represented by his published writings. I have not read all of his work, but I have read enough to know where he stands in relation to contemporary America. I know of his farmer's lifestyle, his conservation efforts, and his ongoing battle with Kentucky's destructive coal industry. 

That should be enough to engage him in preliminary discourse, no?

"God favors my side, ye heathens. Tremble in the wake of
your imminent damnation. Deus vult." -- (Not) Wendell Berry

As the above non-quotation would suggest, my chief objection to Wendell Berry is not with his actual beliefs, but the way in which he presents them. 

Berry is a "hardcore" conservationist; he uses only the purest methods of farming, lives without Kentucky's coal-powered electricity, and devotes every stroke of his typewriter to the preservation of the planet. Though that lifestyle holds no appeal for me, I can appreciate its merits. How can I not appreciate a person's passionate devotion to an ideal — especially one so pure in principle?

What I don't appreciate is Berry's utter scorn for those who don't align with him. 
I have yet to read a single nonfiction piece by Wendell Berry which does not take a position of unassailable superiority. He's pessimistic, disdainful, dismissive, and sour. After reading his work, you feel like a loathsome pile of waste. According to him, everyone who partakes in the fruits of industry is complicit in large-scale industrial crimes. Is that the mentality of the conservation movement at large?

Perhaps years of fighting the frightful monster of KENTUCKY COAL have made him combative; I can't say, and I don't presume to speculate about that. I can, however, say that I've never encountered a more absolutist-minded writer than Berry — excepting, say, Kim Il-Sung. Is that how conservationists wish to be perceived?

I don't know. Already this post has become a jumbled mess, nothing like the "discourse" I was hoping to have....

My point, I suppose, is that conservationists like Wendell Berry — or, for that matter, people like Wendell Berry — prevent people like me from participating wholeheartedly in the conservationist movement. I'm not a relativist; I believe that objective rights and wrongs do exist. I'm also perfectly willing to admit the shortcomings of my own lifestyle; I will listen to critics. But when judgmental finger-wagging turns to wrathful fist-shaking, I don't feel that fist-shaker and his beliefs are worthy of my respect.

I admit that I've curbed my desire to partake in local conservation efforts, if only to avoid association with people who think like Wendell Berry. I can oppose an institution or a certain culture, but I will not bring myself to despise people by virtue of their native culture, as Berry seems to do.

How many allies has the conservationist movement lost by virtue of one sour apple?


Today's reading is not a short story at all, but an essay by yours truly. 
Yes, it's in poor taste to recommend your own school papers — but I really do have more to say about Wendell Berry, and this piece presents those ideas in a neat, structured way. It's a response to Berry's short essay, "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer."

Ignore the stilted style; pay attention to the reasoning. Stick through it to the end.
Response to Wendell Berry 

1 comment:

  1. I never considered Wendell Berry's approach to be overtly negative. Combative, perhaps. But I think he speaks fervently and passionately, to people who speak fervently and passionately about profit margins.

    I know, the computer essay. I look forward to reading your response to it, which I will do once I've finished reading blogs for the week!

    Good thoughts, Joey, I look forward to your next post!