What's Preposterous Now?
The election of 2016 is less than two weeks old and I fear we will be talking about it two, twelve and twenty years from now as the proverbial wrong turn tragically taken. The moment is disorienting partially due to the appearance of a new question for many Americans like me: what are we supposed to do in this unfamiliar and ugly time?
Like so many of us, I zombied around for a few days after the election, rubbing my eyes trying to make out the country I thought I knew. It was cold comfort reading brilliant essays and thoughtful tracts on how we lost our way, lost an election, lost a party (or two), maybe even lost our democracy or lost our collective mind. I agreed with so much of it and as usual, felt not the least compelled to add to it. What I wanted was to write a letter to my three boys, and I started two or three versions. One of them sits unfinished in my gmail outbox. None of them are sent, nor are they much good. I found I didn't have the right words or frankly, the right ideas, to share with a still-young generation about what just happened and what should be done about it.
It's always been difficult for me to commit my political opinions to the page or even to the conversation. (You have no idea how strange it feels to be writing this, my first ever blog post). I have an opinion about opinions in general, and it is of the very low variety. Political opinions are simply of two types and neither are very useful. There are those you disagree with and discount, and those you agree with and count. We all do this. We are sorting machines in this way, and we've become so proficient at this toggling function that we've now sorted ourselves into perfect binary camps. We have digitized our political mind so to speak. Is it any wonder that our body politic has been hewn as well? Anyhow, I tend to stay away from political opinions, or try to, and my habit has been to hunker more stolidly in my silence as the opinion-making around me becomes more strident. If you grew up in my family, you'd understand.
But November 8, 2016 changed many things in this country, including, I suppose, some long held habits in individual members of our very large country. You can count me among those. I am no scholar, but I do have enough historical awareness to understand that at times like these, there is power in speech - or rather that power is speech, and speech power. This realization, along with a few others, put the crutches under me that were necessary to begin this blog.
Here was the next: there is no "center" for our country to return to. The divisions the Great Reveal of 2016 are racial and economic to be sure, but above all, they are geographic. The maps tell all. Large urban centers have become concentrated islands of opportunity, wealth and multiculturalism. There are not so many of these, but their populations are massive. Also massive is the expanse of lands between these places, which are essentially a photo negative of our cities - derelict in opportunity, diversity and opportunity. Thus must we face the reality of the one grand division that contains all others: whatever we do now must not exacerbate the urban/rural divide nor sacrifice red places for blue ones (although that has been our public policy for the last 100 years), nor large places for small ones, nor open minds and borders for closed. I struggle to think of a historical model for what this might look like. But what does come to my mind, as usual, is the voice and admonishment of Wendell Berry.
I've been reading Wendell Berry for my entire adult life. I count my stumbling upon The Unsettling of America shortly after graduating from college as one of those lucky strikes that happen in a person's lifetime. I have returned to his writing at times of career inflections, personal hardships, and national sorrow. I have read him for the sheer thrill of keeping company with his mind and his language. I have read him, read about him, basked in his collection of letters to Gary Snyder, and have even written to him. I make no bones about my affection for Mr. Berry. I have called him the Greatest Living American and I have said it with a straight face. What I certainly haven't done, even remotely, is live up to his example - nor have I tried to extend his ideas or share them with anyone. My boys know his name and have seen his books on the bookshelf, but they couldn't tell you anything about who he is or what he believes. It has plagued me just slightly to be nothing more than a reader of his work. Stepping into his point of view and embodying it or even sharing it has been, for me, a formidable challenge. Mr. Berry has spent an entire lifetime reading scripture, literature and history while working famously, in place - writing, farming and teaching. I am sure he is an exceptional farmer. We know him to be a refined thinker and writer, as well as an eloquent speaker and cheerful family man. With regard to his ideas, I find little to argue with. You'll have to pardon me for remaining dumb on the subject of Wendell Berry all these years.
But also, and as much - my quietitude was a reaction to his heterodoxy. I think it is fair to call Wendell Berry an anti-capitalist. Moreover, he is a technology skeptic. He is a self-avowed agrarian, and a proud inheritor of (some) southern agricultural traditions. Has there ever been a man more athwart his time?
His critics scoff at his economic worldview, arguing as it does in favor of the slow, the small, and the local. I myself have felt stymied by their point of attack. I truly have no idea how everyone would eat, work and live together respectfully in place without doing violence to each other or to the ecosphere. What he has described has seemed nothing short of preposterous.
And there came my other realization: what's preposterous now? The preposterous has befallen us and I suspect that we are soon going to double down on the unfathomable. If it's true that Mr. Berry's worldview requires a fairly clean turn away from how we do business today, it's also true that we've already jerked the car off the asphalt and are now bumping our way crazily through some awful off-road terrain. The election and its aftermath are showing me that the impossible is possible. But the impossible that we need, that I have always wanted but have been too timid to say, is Mr. Berry's impossible. Why? Because Wendell Berry has been telling us for decades that our economy and our policies have been neglecting small places and people who live in them to the peril of us all. And although he seems quick to shirk any suggestion that his views are prophetic - well, I'm sorry but here we are.
And so it is that Walking With Wendell comes to be. In my next post, I'll explain what I hope to accomplish in this endeavor. Thank you for making it all the way through.