Clarity Not Victory (Part 1)
No one can say what, exactly, is cracking up these days, though the possibilities astonish. The word that I keep coming back to is “convulsive.” Systems do belch from time to time, be they geological or gastrointestinal. Our political system is heaving now and time will tell if the two parties, the Electoral College, or our republican democracy itself will be eructed into history.
The right versus left arrangement of modern political thought and theater is another cornerstone that suddenly appears to have precious little mortar holding it in place. One (more) explanation for Donald Trump’s rise is his exploitation of the cavernous space that liberals and conservatives conceded in moving so ludicrously far away from one another over the past four decades. It was Christopher Alexander who taught that though people hold 95 percent of opinion in common, we somehow prefer to dwell on the five percent difference. Through their long joined and entrenched defense of defining causes, liberals and conservatives alike now find themselves suffering the same fate as all specialists: they are marginalized. This is what happens to any species that congregates at the margin – the vast ground is left for others (i.e. not friends) to colonize.
If we could finally be rid of the patently stupid left/right absurdities that effectively strangled our pre-Trumpian political process, there is plenty to be hopeful about. Trumpism is but one way out, and it must be the least adaptive. Trumpism is the homeopathic remedy – the cure to the disease that is made of the disease. Hence an unscrupulous businessman is elected to drain an unscrupulous political swamp; an extravagantly wealthy one percenter is elected to fix an extravagantly unequal economic system; a jet-setting corporate globalist is elected on the promise of restoring American cities and towns; a longtime television producer is cheered for his hatred of the mainstream media; an abuser and aggressor toward women and others is handed the most powerful means for war-making ever assembled.
There must be numerous ways out of our quandary and the homeopathic approach may be the best we can do. Perhaps only a full scale attack will shock the system into a new equilibrium. If true, then fine, but I’m not sure if I’m on the right metaphor here or if I haven’t just described the same process that's also known as Death. My prescription is Wendell Berry’s, of course, and one way to understand it would be to follow the lead he offers in the essay Caught in the Middle from Our Only World.
I read Caught in the Middle a second time this morning with a new purpose. The essay is about Mr. Berry’s positions on abortion and homosexual marriage, which have brought him, as a widely respected Christian, a dab of criticism. But I went back to the piece to see how his intellectual working-through of these tough issues might serve to illustrate the point he made in “Less Energy, More Life” that we need to give up the mechanical way of thought that has increasingly dominated for the past 200 years. That directive has been lodged in my mind since reading it.
By Walking With Wendell, I’m beginning to understand the significance that “mind” – his and ours – has in his writing and thinking (apologies for the fractal here, but I am trying to write about how he thinks about thought in his writing!) The critical idea is that like the sparrow and the fern, our minds are as much the handiwork of nature as anything else on the planet, and they are either fit or unfit to their place and work. As much as anything, “right-mindedness” can be said to summarize how Wendell sees our calling. By his standard, which is Mother Nature’s, we are nearly all of us out of our minds thanks to what we’ve been doing and thinking the past couple hundred years.
How do we get in our right mind? I like the question – it’s why I read Wendell -- not to learn how to save the environment, but to learn how to think and how to live. We are the environment, after all. We are not machines. Saving our world is just a project to save ourselves, and how else would we do it but by changing the way we think? We need to find our nature-mind – the mind that knows it is at home in this world even if cannot form a single sentence to describe any of it.
Mechanical thought, if I may attempt a definition, might mean automatic reasoning, slavish logic, or perhaps thought that has no ability to reverse itself, consider anything beyond a given domain set, or insert moral drives into a sequence at the right time and for the right reason. As usual I feel out of my depth here, poised as we are on the cusp of a brave new world of machine learning and artificial intelligence. Others can say far more expertly what mechanical thought actually is, but I’ll take the risk in assuming that Wendell just means rutted thinking that is insufficient to the problem being thought about.
In my next post, I’ll try to describe how Wendell avoids that kind of thought and comes to find positions of personal clarity and rest in the contemporary war zone that is sexual politics. What we want – what he achieves– is to take the advice of a theologian quoted in this essay who replied to a question about how people could avoid the wrangling that breeds hostility in religious organizations. The religious man's answer was simple and elegant: seek clarity, not victory.
So much of our trouble, including today's variety, spins out from getting that backwards.