Blair: Modern Malaise

by Peter Blair | 5/8/12 10:00pm

On the whole, if we know what a person thinks about any one given political issue, we can usually guess where he or she stands on most other issues. The range of possible political positions in our culture is, by itself, already narrow. But this range is narrowed even further by the fact that only certain contingent combinations of these positions seem to be culturally permissible. Thus, we meet very few pro-life socialists in America both because there are very few socialists in America, period, and because the socialists that do exist are very unlikely to be pro-life.

This is why I was delighted to see that Wendell Berry had been chosen to give the 2012 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities last month in Washington, D.C. The National Endowment for the Humanities describes the Jefferson Lecture as "the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual and public achievement in the humanities." Berry is a man who stands in stark contrast to our cramped and rigid public intellectual culture. Spotlighting him with this lecture allowed the American public to see that there is intellectual life beyond simplistic left-right dichotomies.

After receiving a bachelor's and master's in English from the University of Kentucky, Berry taught first at New York University and then at the University of Kentucky. He left academia in 1977 to live as a farmer and a writer. Since then, he has produced a large amount of poetry, novels and non-fiction essays. His corpus is remarkable for its tendency to undermine all established categories.

Berry has become perhaps the main public intellectual of the environmental movement, castigating corporate pollution and highly destructive environmental practices like mountaintop removal and nutrient-stripping monocultures. He rails against our food culture, in which fast food and scarily over-processed food harm our health, the health of animals and the health of the environment.

So far, nothing surprising. Yet Berry is also as critical of the centralized federal government as he is of centralized economic power indeed, he realizes that many of our environmental problems came from collusion between big government and big business.

Even more extraordinarily, Berry spends much of his time on concerns not typically owned by the environmental community. He writes often about marriage in a general sense, and has written more than once on the moral wrongness of abortion. Finally, Berry is a man motivated by deep spiritual convictions that he self-locates, broadly, in the Christian tradition.

This year's Jefferson Lecture was not Berry at his strongest, as the pundits especially conservative ones have been eager to point out. Berry often rightly praises the particularly over-generalizing abstractions, but he himself sometimes makes blanket statements about, for example, "corporations." His a priori bias against industrialism and economic centralization an exceedingly good bias, as far as biases go can nonetheless cause him to import that bias into particular cases whose individual complexities do not fully answer to his simplified view. The Jefferson Lecture displayed this tendency.

Nevertheless, Berry is a great man and a great writer, and we should be deeply grateful for his Jefferson Lecture, even with its manifest flaws. We should be grateful to Berry for challenging, even exploding, the drive toward narrow partisanship and party loyalty in America today.

I am not suggesting that everyone ought to embrace Berry's entire political and cultural program although I personally think that he is more or less right about most things. Rather, I am suggesting that we ought to let his example inspire us to broaden the intellectual horizons of American public discourse. Too long have we let a two-party system and a highly polarized and partisan culture control our sense of the available intellectual possibilities.