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
that "I am opposed to abortion except as a last resort to save a pregnant woman’s life."

He thinks it's okay to kill an innocent person to save another innocent person? Well, it gets better:

"[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."


Lydia McGrew said...

Wow, this is all so good that I'm mostly just going to bask in it rather than adding any comment of my own.

What I see here, as I've guessed previously about Berry, is that he has an inverted set of priorities. Notice the extremely strong language about environmental issues--the rape of the earth--and the extent to which that influences his life. His passion for those issues, I have read in googled articles, has also led to his being arrested outside of nuclear power plants. (I wonder if he'll wear a hair shirt if he later decides, along with some other environmentalist-friendly types, that nuclear power has a lot to be said for it environmentally. But I digress.)

In contrast to that, he's totally dispassionate and indeed intentionally disengaged on the issue of murdering unborn babies. It's not _just_ that he doesn't get arrested outside abortion clinics. I don't get arrested outside of abortion clinics either (though I have picketed them). It's that he so clearly holds that issue at arm's length. He seems to pride himself on not being very much engaged with the life issue and, in contrast, being very deeply engaged with the environmental issue. It's almost like the "rape of Gaia" is more real to his gut than the daily slaughter of the unborn. In fact, it's exactly like that.

Now that I see his bafflement at his being liked by conservatives and his self-identification of himself as a lifelong Democrat, etc., I understand this better. He doesn't want to get passionate about the murder of the unborn because it's been identified as a conservative issue. He's much more comfortable talking about the rape of the earth.

What's funny is that anyone calling himself a conservative would not be, shall we say, uncomfortable giving high admiration to someone about whom all of that is true.

William Luse said...

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.

Jeff Culbreath said...

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.

But therein lies his value: his inverted priorities can bring things to attention that need attending to, even if they don't rise to the level of priority he gives them. I don't subscribe to the notion that nothing can be learned from people who are wrong about important things. Sometimes those very people are right in ways that better people are not.

William Luse said...

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.

I have known people who were wrong about important things, usually naively so (certain students come to mind), but possessed qualities of character - such as a kindly way of treating people - that I could only envy. But there's nothing naive about Mr. Berry, no innocence to fall back on.

I'm glad you got a laugh, though. I used to be able to accomplish that more often, but the touch is waning.

TS said...

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.

Anyway nice takedown. There's a bit too much reverence around Berry and it might've gone to Berry's head. Methinks the emperor has fewer clothes than many imagine. I also think there are perils associated with eschewing the Magisterium, as Berrry has.

William Luse said...

Is Berry Catholic? Or supposed to be?

TS said...

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.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
William Luse said...

Sorry, I don't take anonymous potshots.

Nice Marmot said...

"Back in May, Matthew Franck at First Things had a few things to say about Mr. Berry's Jefferson Lecture"

Yes, and also in First Things, Nathan Schlueter had a few things to say in response:

William Luse said...

So, you've bid farewell to W4 and decided to stop by here on your way down the road.
Okay, I read Schlueter's thing and a sentence jumps out: "In the end, I would strongly encourage people not to judge Berry based upon this one lecture." Which means Schlueter wasn't too happy with it either. So 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. A man so concerned with what constitutes a healthy society, but who won't take a stand on the things most fundamental to that health - the humanity of human children in the womb, the necessity of male and female to any sane concept of marriage - is, to quote a genuinely good writer, a man 'full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.'
You might also note that Schlueter's column is dated May 3rd. This is well before Miller's interview came out. You should ask Schlueter to read it and then to write a follow-up.

Nice Marmot said...

"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."

Here's what Schlueter says after his recommendation about the lecture:

"He fully deserved the honor of the lecture. His body of work in fiction, poetry, and essays constitutes the most impressive effort in our time to protect, preserve, and deepen the knowledge of the human person that lies at the heart of Western civilization, and to oppose the corrosive influences (utilitarianism, individualism, scientism, industrialism, etc.) that threaten to destroy that knowledge. His life itself is a testament of fidelity to that knowledge, worthy of acknowledgment, recognition, and celebration."

The Miller interview does not change this perception. I can't quite fathom this conservative hesistancy about reading the man himself.

William Luse said...

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.

I've discouraged no one from reading him, although that might be implicit from the nature of the post. But in the end I speak only for myself. I would never, by the way, claim that a writer whose ideas are defective in some way can write nothing of any worth. I am not about to throw out the works of Hemingway and Larkin because they were nihilists. Such men might deal honestly in their works with difficult questions to which they have no answer, although a reader will likely leave those works with a certain emptiness, even despair, at the apparent hopelessness of it all. But these are not men I will look to for guidance along the path to truth. Unlike Larkin, who never pretended to be what he wasn't, Berry is a poseur. You might keep in mind that he considers your admiration a source of amusement. He laughs at you.

When Schlueter says that Berry's "... is the most impressive effort in our time to protect, preserve, and deepen the knowledge of the human person that lies at the heart of Western civilization," you ought to take pause since Berry doesn't even know which of those persons are eligible for murder, or what kinds of persons are essential to a Christian marriage. Or maybe you don't care about those things in the same way that I do.

Nice Marmot said...

"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."

Well, frankly that's a caricature, and if you read WB you'd know that. Seriously, do you think someone as solid as Esolen, who undoubtedly has major issues with WB's views on marriage and abortion, would consider him worthwhile otherwise if he wasn't? Or the seriously conservative Catholic guys at Front Porch Republic like James Matthew Wilson and Jeff Polet?

William Luse said...

You can't tell the difference between a caricature and a fact made manifest by words from the man's own mouth.

Esolen, who happens to be a friend, can speak for himself. I've seen nothing from him on this since the Miller essay appeared. I will always read Esolen on these issues, but never Berry, and your insistence that people must read Berry and take him seriously is beginning to look petulant to the point of neurotic. You are welcome to your enthusiasms; just don't expect everyone to share them. This thread is over. Come back on a different one.

N M said...

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.

William Luse said...

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.