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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

Fear and Violence, New and Old

I am departing from my planned Part II post on Local Economies to Save the Land and People to get something down on paper that keeps rolling around in my gut. I need to write about my fear. I will come back to Mr. Berry's 12 suggestions for saving ourselves and our places shortly.

The sinister effect of Mr. Trump's triumph is like the cinematic dark fog that forebodes, disorients and isolates all at once. It is not only frightening that a person of Mr. Trump's temperament received a vote of confidence from 62 million fellow Americans and that he will soon be installed in the most dangerous job in the world, it is also dreadful to experience all of this idiosyncratically.

In the dark fog of the last four weeks, I've been reading voraciously to help me comprehend your fear. And you? Let's be honest: we aren't talking about it, at least not publicly. It's easy to find critical analyses about what happened and what may be coming, but "This Is Frightening" stories are hardest to come by. In my immediate circle of family and friends, we aren't totally avoiding the topic, but the dark stuff remains mostly unsaid, Voldemort-like. That's what's sinister to me. Already I feel distances between us that weren't there before. I am afraid this effect was intentional, that it will worsen, and that we will fail to rise up together when togetherness is all that's left to protect us.

Like a blithering toddler who just pried the back off an old radio, the President-Elect continues to yank and rip at the social wiring of this country. He seems intent on damage. On substance, he leaves us with nothing. On style he leaves nothing to the imagination. It's conflict and confrontation at every chance. How does this not end badly? People are saying that we'll need to be vigilant. Have we not been vigilantly watching this narcissist for almost two years now? I don't fear that we are going to fail in our vigilance. I worry that our vigilance is going to fail in our defense. If there's anything to take away from the election result, it's to not mistake vigilance for deterrence. The more we watched and wrote, the stronger he became. Only Keith Olbermann has had the temerity to say that the President-elect must be stopped. Not carefully watched, but stopped. He alone is in the fog screaming "Monster! Monster! Monster!"

Why aren't more of us talking about terrible scenarios? Maybe because doing so seems hysterical, partisan, foolish, awkward or childish. Take your pick. It's risky because we can't see very well. Are we having a really bad headache or a brain aneurysm? I have my opinion, but it's foggy and we've lost our bearings. I wonder, are you with me in this? Are you feeling safe? Are you even anywhere near me? We now know that Americans are less tethered than we previously understood ourselves to be. But we've also been picked off, quite deliberately. We should not misapprehend the "personal" nature of this campaign and election. It wasn't personal because of the ad hominen insults and outrageously fabricated accusations. It's personal because it -- because he -- violated our common human decency and our country's founding principles. Mine and yours and theirs. Violated. Violation. Violence.

Casual observers would say that Wendell Berry writes about agriculture, ecology and food production. More committed readers would point out his long running commentary on the economy. Those of us who have a made a close study of his work would also note a running narrative in his work on violence. We have a hard time talking seriously about violence in this country - the kind of violence that doesn't have a modifier in front of it like "gun-," "black-," "domestic-." (And it's not as though we're very good at talking about these either). I wonder if violence, like disease, is something that we take seriously only after it's taken something from us. The violence that Wendell has been writing about all these years has stolen an incalculable amount from a great many people. But if it hasn't ripped something away from you personally, you're to be forgiven for not giving it too much thought. This is how we are.

Wendell Berry is no different. His lifelong treatise on the mistake of our violent ways began with the personal horror of witnessing his fellow rural Kentuckians people and their home places violated. I was lucky enough to hear Mr. Berry speak online at Johns Hopkins this week, where he described what it was like for him to see, with his own unaccustomed eyes, a mining company's all-out obliteration of a mountaintop, trees, birds, plants, streams and soil. To see a man so gifted with language struggle to find the words, told all. He could not believe it, no less describe it.

His continuous reminder that we and our land are inextricably conjoined is both inarguable and vexing. If we accept as he does that all life, and not just human life, is sacred, then we must acknowledge that we are steeped in, blind to and profiting from a war that's 250-year's on and expanding all the time. We condone violence by treating the land and its people violently. Violence enacted on the latter redounds to the former.

And what of the menace of an authoritarian madman, or the terrorism that seems to have taken up permanent residence in our world? Are we having just another headache, or is this finally the brain aneurysm?

The Commerce of Violence is the second essay in my current Wendell book, Our Only World. In this short piece, he is reacting to the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013, and news of a detainee at Guantanamo who had been held uncharged and untried for eleven years. These two items appeared in the newspaper on the same day. The events are connected, he writes, by the devaluing of human life "and of earthly life of which human life is a dependent part. " "This cheapening of life, and the violence that inevitably accompanies it, is surely the dominant theme of our time. The ease and quickness with which we resort to violence would be astounding were it not conventional." He points to two basic problems. One is that we reduce the value of life where and when it suits us, but expect others, like our enemies, to not make the same reduction. The second is that there has always been immense wealth to be made by damaging the world and its inhabitants. Nothing has changed. Earthly life is not precious to us. Plunder still brings profit.

Because he is Wendell Berry, he is not without hope, despite the nearly unimaginable reversal that these double standards demand. And so we are back to imagination, once again. Can we imagine our way out of this fog? Closing your eyes is, in fact, one way out. Mr. Berry concludes the essay with a beautiful vision and a claim on what it means to be human, which feels like a critically necessary reclamation. He writes: "To learn to meet our needs without continuous violence against one another and our only world would require an immense intellectual and practical effort, requiring the help of every human perhaps to the end of human time. This would be worthy of the name 'human.' It would be fascinating and lovely."

I am afraid of what's to come. I feel like something that belonged to me has been violently taken from me. I am terrified that violence will continue to be rewarded. And I am grateful to those in the fog who are calling out landmarks and dangers and reminders and reassurances. We do need to be vigilant, of course. But when you're scared and lost, it sometimes helps to close your eyes, if only to see the world you want. There's no shame in that whatsoever. It might even show the way out.


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