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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

Thomas Paine Stuff

In a week when it became clear that Donald J. Trump's election to the American presidency was aided by cyber-hacking conducted by Russian operatives on his behalf, it was soothing to dip back into Wendell Berry and rediscover his admonishment that the ultimate reality is not political. It reminded me of the letter that Adam Gopnik published shortly after the election, in which he said politics have never been the province of progress, not even in the golden age of the Enlightenment, itself a philosophical, social, scientific, and even poetic project that only later became a political one. Our great accomplishments, according to Gopnik, are owed to social and cultural movements made from a zillion private acts. The big public rotations of lawmaking and elections reflect our world and values but can never create them.

Gopnik is clinging to hope here, and he admits it. Wendell too admitted in his Johns Hopkins appearance last week that he was going to be on the losing side no matter the election outcome. Resignedly, he told his audience he wouldn't walk a day on this earth on the winning side. I am struggling myself, not so much to accept that my most ardent desires for humanity, my children and the planet will never come to be, but with the taking of sides at all. It offends the Taoist in me, who intuits the oneness and wholeness of everything and the concomitant futility of arguing about anything.

Nonetheless, I am trying to summon the same courage that has allowed Mr. Berry to assiduously hurl his contrarian views (but never his spirit) into the maw of the modernity machine. Ironically enough, given that the still-contested results from last month's election are serving daily reminders on the undeniable impact of winning and losing, we must not think in terms of victories and defeats. Such thinking is general, lazy and trained on the wrong question. Gopnik and Berry take issue with events, clearly, but not, I think, with the intent of undoing them. They do not write to prevail because, I'm guessing, they are both far too wise and too humble to fixate upon winning as a serious goal. To walk with Wendell means that we too must concede victory without ever accepting defeat -- for me, a peculiar and unnatural posture to be sure.

I've now read Wendell's 12 suggestions from Local Economies to Save the Land and the People a half dozen times and carefully. As suggestions, they are written to be helpful, prescriptive. But taken as diagnosis, they are damning to the hilt. They condemn the entire American way of life as we know it. This is Thomas Paine stuff. Politics, as mentioned, is the first institution upended alongside the other usual suspects -- corporations, technology and destructive land use. Education, market economies, our ruling ideology and even psychology are also taken down in turn. Each a villain, undressed and exposed in 20 words or less.

Politicians don't lead, they follow. Corporations impose standardized and unfit solutions. The ruling idea of our economy is violence and destruction. We misapprehend our needs by turning to big answers instead of small actions. We don't appropriately value subsistence economies. Education leads young people in the wrong direction -- away from home and into heavy debt. We are ignorant of local land ownership, local needs and the possibility of local production. We call technology "labor saving" instead of "people replacing." Economic supports come last or not at all to those who do actual work on the land. Those who live locally, often rurally, are prejudiced against themselves.

How much more off-track can we get?

The election of 2016 and everything that's come after feels to me like a repudiation and threat to the values and institutions that have brought whatever freedom and prosperity we currently enjoy. I feel this in my bones and I know that millions upon millions feel it too, including Mr. Gopnik, whose aforementioned letter pangs with foreboding and woe. But there's something very complicated happening here that we need to struggle with. Mr. Trump's ascendency is indeed a repudiation but Mr. Berry's list is one as well. Something rotten in the state of Denmark indeed, no matter where you line up.

It would be tidy if the rise of Trump were consonant with Wendell Berry's longstanding lament about rampaging forces first industrial and then global. But Wendell Berry's beliefs do not summon a President Trump. They forcefully renounce such a man. Mr. Berry's intent is to empower the family and community through the rediscovery of generosity, conviviality and neighborliness and Mr. Trump seeks for others not empowerment, nor fellowship, nor kindness.

But there is an overlap here, and it is perverse. By rejecting all centers of power -- politicians, universities, corporations and technology, Mr. Berry emphatically embraces an anachronistic and timeworn view. There is probably a post-modern version of the agrarian communitarianism that Berry describes, but there is most definitely an agrarian, bygone past that forces itself into view every time we read Wendell. It is therefore hard not to place him and his ideas in the past, shallow and wrongheaded though that might be. In the same way, we could oversimplify and call Wendell Berry a populist. We could easily mistake his localism for jingoism. We could elevate blue collars, home schools and town halls and were we to do it abstractly, we might not know if we were living in Mr. Berry's rhetoric or Mr. Trump's campaign bluster. Berry makes the target so damn fat that even a blowhard like Trump (especially a blowhard like Trump) can hardly miss.

What's painful to admit is that Trump's populism is made possible not only by his wormy ubiquity on TV, tabloids and hotel nameplates, but by the susceptibility of too many American families left isolated, hopeless and left behind economically because of the very conditions that Mr. Berry describes. America has sold itself out. Too many have been let down or misled by the Four Horsemen of the Apocolpyse -- Government, University, Corporation and Technology. People who are despairing over the election of Donald Trump (and I'm one of them), find the President-elect so reprehensible that it becomes almost impossible to ignore him and study instead his voters, or, more importantly, the circumstances that led to his voters' votes. There are lots of theories and history will likely deliver many more. But for me, one thought captures the light: the only condition by which the most unqualified, uncouth, untrustworthy, unpresidential person could be elected president, is the one that controverts not just some things, but everything about the American way of life.

We are as off-track as ever, but the ultimate reality is not political. No system or institution designed to help our families and communities thrive seems to be working well any more. The presidency is just the latest example.


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