(Remember Your Servants, O Lord)
Monday, July 30, 2012
The Chicken Farmer
"I must admit this genuinely shocks me," Rod Dreher wrote when he found out that one of his heroes, Wendell Berry, supports gay marriage. He found out about it because John J. Miller went to the old man's farm in Kentucky to interview him. On a Sunday. That's when Mr. Berry receives visitors. The interview is now online at NR. "A Jeremiah for Everyone," it's called - appending 'prophet' to his philosophical credentials - with an original subtitle that cooed "Why left and right like Wendell Berry."
I've never read the man, so I wouldn't have known whether to like him or not. As soon you tell me he favors gay marriage, I get this feeling that things just aren't going to work out between us. Miller tells us that "He does support Obama’s embrace of gay marriage."
"I’m in favor of it, too," he says. "It’s really only because they’re being denied the benefits of inheritance and so on — otherwise I don’t think it ought to be the government’s business." He regards the entire debate as a distraction: "I really don’t understand how you can single out homosexuality for opprobrium and wink at fornication and adultery, which the Bible has a lot more to say about. The churches are not going to come out against fornication and adultery because there are too damn many fornicators and adulterers in their congregations."Did I just hear him say that two wrongs make a right? And is there any tireder accusation than the one about all those Christian churches bursting at the seams with hypocrites? I've gotten more rigorous arguments on this issue from some of my duller students. And what kind of church does he go to, anyway? The one I go to is locked in a battle with the government to stave off being forced to pay for other people's sexual indiscipline via the contraceptive mandate. It's true I never heard much about contraception from the pulpit until the issue was forced upon us, but neither did I hear much about homosexuality. Most Christian churches are likely equal opportunity winkers. Mr. Berry needs to get out more on Sunday.
Dreher directs us to an essay by Allan Carlson from 2007 in which he (Carlson) appreciates rather than criticizes something Berry wrote for Playboy (wink) called "Rugged Individualism" and another entitled "Letter to Daniel Kemmis," not for Playboy. He starts off sounding sensible (in Mr. Carlson's telling):
Mr. Berry concludes that the Democrats have been “further weakened by mishandling the issue of homosexuality.” He blasts the knee-jerk liberalism that gives “categorical approval” to any group which once faced broad disapproval. “[T]his is nonsense,” he declares, for some people in minority groups—just as some people in majority groups—behave in ways that should always face disapproval.Hear, hear. But then
Regarding cries for same-sex marriage, he becomes something of a libertarian, arguing that state “approval of anybody’s sexual behavior is as inappropriate and as offensive to freedom as governmental disapproval.”So when the state grants approval to marriage between man and woman and the sexual activity between them that will likely result in children, this is offensive? When it denies it to people of the same sex who engage in perversions of what is appropriate to marriage, and which will not result in children, this is also offensive? Or does it not matter, Mr. Berry? The government's withholding its approval of "anybody's sexual behavior" is tantamount to granting its approval to everyone's.
Not only are Mr. Berry and President Barry "in favor of it, too," but Mr. Berry voted for the other Barry in 2008. And he's going to vote for him again in 2012 because, well, that's just what we would expect from someone who, says Dreher, "is America’s leading agrarian philosopher," and someone who, according to Miller, "seems both puzzled and amused that his work would find favor with conservatives." And why is he amused? Because he's a lifelong Democrat, "a child of the New Deal."
And what about that other really important issue to conservatives who love Mr. Berry so much? From Carlson's essay:
Mr. Berry is forthright in asserting
"[t]he crucial question raised by this practice is: What is killed? The answer can only be: A human being."So it's okay to kill one human being to save another human being? I already said that, didn't I?
He wrestles with the language of a "woman’s right to choose," and concludes that if this is a right, it is a very problematic and peculiar one. In contrast, Mr. Berry finds the "right to life" embedded in the U.S. Declaration of Independence and in "a ‘reverence for life’ to which we are called by much instruction." This means that his opposition to abortion is parallel to, or consistent with, his opposition to capital punishment and to war, "especially the killing of innocent women, children, and old people."So murdering an innocent child by abortion is just like executing a criminal who murdered an innocent child? From Miller's essay:
"I’m pro-life, in lower-case letters," says Berry, meaning that although he shares many principles with the pro-life movement, he won’t join it. (He once wrote an essay called "In Distrust of Movements," in which he argued that political causes are often too narrowly specialized.) "Abortion for birth control is wrong," he says. "That’s as far as I’m going to go. In some circumstances, I would justify it, as I would justify divorce in some circumstances, as the best of two unhappy choices."Sounds like he's evolved while his conservative admirers weren't looking.
I've known some people in the pro-life "Movement." They are really good people as far as I can tell, and really very "narrowly specialized." They don't mind getting their hands dirty, and their specialty is saving babies' lives. Some of them conduct prayer vigils outside the baby-killing clinics. Some of them try to counsel the patrons of such clinics by providing accurate information about what those patrons are planning to have killed. They are the kind of people who saved the life of a little girl named Sky. I was wondering what Mr. Berry thinks of those people. Does he distrust them? Because in their narrow specialization they sometimes persuade people to let - in Mr. Berry's phrasing - "a human being" live? Mr. Berry may call his discomfort 'distrust' if he wishes, of course. I call it cowardice.
Mr. Berry also has some kind of environmentalist bug in his britches. Miller says that he once wrote an essay called "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer" and, to give the man credit, he never has.
Berry explained that he writes on paper with a pen or pencil and then gives the pages to his wife, who pecks out a typewritten document. He offered reasons for refusing to keep up with the times: He doubted that a newfangled machine would improve his writing, preferred to save his money, and so on. Yet he also believed that he was taking a stand: "I would hate to think that my work as a writer could not be done without direct dependence on strip-mined coal. How could I write conscientiously against the rape of nature if I were, in the act of writing, implicated in the rape?" He added that he writes during the day so he doesn’t have to use electric light.A newfangled (old-fangled by now) machine might not improve his writing, but a word processor would sure as hell make his wife's typing and revising chores a lot easier. If I were her, I'd go on strike.
Mr. Berry does, however, use electricity at least to some extent. Says Miller, "Last year, he started using three large solar panels, which he volunteers are worth about $80,000. 'These things don’t pollute,' he says, with obvious pride."
Well, yeah. I'd be proud too if I could afford 80,000 dollars worth of anything (I'd probably opt for a lifetime's supply of European beer, British ale, and gift cards to Home Depot). As to the pollution, here's how it probably works. You, his army of conservative admirers, probably don't live on farms and can't afford 80,000 dollars worth of green pride. He can afford to live on a farm and buy 80,000 dollars worth of stuff because you, his army of admirers, buy his books and attend lectures for which he is paid handsomely. His books are probably printed on recycled paper. You can recycle the stuff until it has the texture of toilet paper, but some trees are still going to die, especially if you buy enough of his books, which you must have done to get those solar panels on his roof. Meanwhile, you - his admirers - read by lamplight supplied by coal, oil or nuclear power; drive gas-powered cars made from more of that oil sucked from Mother Earth's bowels; buy engagement rings for your women made from diamonds gouged from Momma Earth's veins; run your central air-conditioning in summer, your central heat in winter, cook on the grill over - you guessed it - charcoal; stare at your computer half the day so that you can find articles about Wendell Berry; send and receive emails the other half; buy clothes that were made in sweatshops in China rather than from the wool of sheep on Mr. Berry's farm...In other words, you admirers make Mr. Berry's pastoral life (when he isn't stopping by Washington, D.C. or some other polluted metropolis with no sense of community to pick up an award or a speaking fee) possible because you are engaged in raping the earth.
Mr. Dreher reasserts his reverence for the man, and still insists on taking "everything he says seriously, even if I don’t agree with it." But in fact he asks questions he'd like answers to, which he will probably never get, the questions pretty much nailing Mr. Berry into a corner from which he cannot escape:
How is it that a man who has pondered natural traditions as deeply as Berry has can offer an opinion on this issue without reckoning with the fact that no culture has ever had same-sex marriage?...Berry has written beautifully on marriage, and the discipline it imposes on individuals, couples, and communities. It is not a private thing, and cannot be a private thing; marriage is first and foremost a communal act. I believe there is a strong case to be made that popular support for SSM has risen as a consequence of the privatization of sexual desire, and in turn marriage. Berry has long decried this, so I am puzzled as to why he doesn’t trouble to explain why this isn’t the case, in his view, regarding accommodating SSM.Maybe it is for the reason that Mr. Dreher has core principles which he will not abandon, and Mr. Berry does not.
John Miller says that back in 1978, Russell Kirk wrote that "Berry is possessed of an intellect at once philosophic and poetic, and he writes most movingly. Humane culture has no better friend today than he."
Wanna bet, Mr. Kirk?
Back in May, Matthew Franck at First Things had a few things to say about Mr. Berry's Jefferson Lecture, "the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual and public achievement in the humanities."
Wow, this is all so good that I'm mostly just going to bask in it rather than adding any comment of my own.
Abortion seems to me one of those issues in regards to which holding yourself above the fray is to render yourself of no use to anyone, especially the victims of this ultimate injustice.
Bill, as sympathetic as I am to W.B. and appreciative of his writing, you gave me a good laugh. Thanks. The man's lack of depth when it comes to the salient issues of our time is absurd. I certainly agree with Lydia that W.B.'s priorities are inverted.
I'm trying to imagine a specific example that would make your last two sentences concrete, but nothing's coming to me. All I know is that if I need me an agrarian philosopher, I'm picking Culbreath over Berry in a heartbeat.
Fine post there. Chuckled at the part about how Mr. Berry's wife ought sue him. Also chuckled at your comment to Jeff about how if you need an agrarian philosopher (and really, who doesn't?) then you'll come to Jeff.
Is Berry Catholic? Or supposed to be?
He's a Baptist I believe, which means you don't have the guardrails of the Magisterium guiding you, theoretically anyway give how few Catholics let it get in the way of their personal views.
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Sorry, I don't take anonymous potshots.
"Back in May, Matthew Franck at First Things had a few things to say about Mr. Berry's Jefferson Lecture"
So, you've bid farewell to W4 and decided to stop by here on your way down the road.
"I didn't judge Berry based upon that lecture, of which I've read only snippets. I judged him based upon what he said to Miller, and what Dreher and Carlson wrote about him."
You can't seem to focus on what my complaint actually is: A man who claims that unborn children are human beings, but that it's all right to kill some of them; who lauds the beauty of marriage but then approves the homosexual parody. That man has nothing to say to me.
"You can't seem to focus on what my complaint actually is: A man who claims that unborn children are human beings, but that it's all right to kill some of them; who lauds the beauty of marriage but then approves the homosexual parody. That man has nothing to say to me."
You can't tell the difference between a caricature and a fact made manifest by words from the man's own mouth.
I am not insistent that anyone read him. I merely make the (apparently earth-shattering) suggestion that those who choose to criticize or dismiss him at least familiarize themselves with his work first. Not sure when this became such a controversial idea. I know that we conservatives scream when libs do it to us.
I criticized him based on things that actually came out of his mouth. I don't need to familiarize myself with his work to discover how utterly wrong he is about those things. You can't stop, can you? You keep saying the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.