Last week I came across some unusual Wendell Berry content online. Tamara Hill Murphy contributed an essay in Plough Magazine called The Hole in Wendell Berry's Gospel, which elicited a couple of smart responses at other blog sites. Wendell Berry is an esteemed American figure and a formidable thinker and whether deserved or not, his life story and subject matter cast him as something of a Norman Rockwell character. Which is why, I conjecture, I don't find much criticism except for the garden variety anti-Luddite stuff.
I was happy for the discovery, though, because starting WWW has ticked up my curiosity about my unblinking devotion to Mr. Berry's ideas. It's helpful to read how others find him lacking. Ms. Murphy's issue was over Wendell's fictional portraiture of small town life and his failure to depict the reality of abuse, neglect, betrayal and addiction. I happen to disagree with her claim, but the piece and its responses helped me organize this second post on Mr. Berry's essay Caught in the Middle.
In Part 1 of this post, I wrote that our interest should be less about what Wendell Berry believes about abortion and gay marriage, and more on how he thinks - how he arrives at his positions. This, I posited, might show us an alternative to "the mechanical way of thought" that he spurns in another essay in Our Only World.
The problem with that, of course, is complexity. The problem is always complexity.
Wendell Berry's thought process is, unsurprisingly, far too complex for my tools of analysis. I can find themes in his writing, but his mind? It's as evanescent as candle smoke. The problem that Ms. Murphy has with Mr. Berry's fiction is that it oversimplifies her acquaintance with rural life. His portraiture isn't complex enough to reflect her lived experience. And at bottom, this is precisely the same problem Wendell Berry has with our current political culture.
"How you vote is who you are," he says to open this essay. "Picking a side" has superseded every other consideration and paralyzed the honest work of public discourse and policy making. Our politics are dumb and certainly too dumb to admit it. "We appear to have evolved to a sort of teenage culture of wishful thinking, of contending "positions," oversimplified and absolute, requiring no knowledge and no thought, no loss, no tragedy, no strenuous effort, no bewilderment, no hard choices."
Such is the culture that hatches an oversimplifying, unknowledgeable, adolescent candidate. And such is the culture that carries an adolescent into the highest office in the land.
The wishful thinking goes like this: Liberals champion the freedom of personal choices and acts. Conservatives champion the freedom of economic choices and acts. But liberal rights extend to include freedoms from family and community responsibilities. Conservative rights extend to include freedom from social, ecological and economic responsibilities. Neither side upholds the community or family as the essential unit of moral governance, and both sides have conspired against communities of working families by supporting the economic determinism of industrial capitalists. Both sides then, having aided and abetted the undermining of communities, lumpishly appeal to government to enforce the standards of morality that can only be exercised at home.
Ultimately on abortion he feels there should be no law either for or against. And while he is personally opposed to the killing of a human being ("for it can be a being of no other kind"), he also says he would help a woman get an abortion under certain circumstances. This paradoxical position is the best he can do after acknowledging a series of stumping questions: When does life actually begin? (He likes Wes Jackson's response: "Life continues at conception.") How is a woman's right to control her body different from the requirement that other laws impose on us to control our bodies, say for example, from harming others? How can a choice as significant as abortion be said to ever be all good or all bad, when in fact choices rarely cut cleanly between good and evil? "Sometimes we poor humans must choose between competing goods, sometimes between two evils."
Mr. Berry's middle position on same-sex marriage is less an issue of moral ambiguity as it is a rejection of either side's starting point that marriage is a right at all. For if it is, it certainly cannot be withheld from a class of people. But more to the point: marriage is not a government invention, nor is the question of who should marry a government interest (for if it were, he points out, then the government might do best to forbid two bigots from marrying). How can any human right originate in a government, which, according to America's founding principles, exists not to dispense but to protect human rights, and must be restrained from violating them? Liberals cannot possibly see our human rights, which they are so eager to protect and extend, as gifts bestowed by a generous government. Conservatives, as paladins for small government, cannot be taken seriously if they are advocating for official accreditation of private choices regarding sexual partners or behavior.
As for the other various tropes against homosexual "abnormality," Mr. Berry swats them away like so many gnats: Biblical sin is a thin reed, since the Bible has far more to say about the sinfulness of fornication and adultery than it does about homosexuality; homosexuality as a disease is even an even sillier premise; nonreproductive coupling isn't the exclusive domain of homosexuals and would require that we withhold marital rights from childless heterosexual couples in kind; perceived threats to heterosexual marriage are a paranoid and programmed strategy born of capitalist-industrial competitiveness, since the marriage market is hardly threatened by a homosexual takeover.
Wendell Berry is in the middle on gay marriage because he ascribes to neither the liberal view of government dispensation, nor the conservative position that would sanction the government's withholding of the so-called right. But it may be better to imagine him caught between two poles that are identical in their unkindness, the root word being essential to understanding his predicament.
Mr. Berry teaches that "kin" and "nature" were synonyms in the Middle Ages. Think of "kind" the noun (i.e. "of a kind") rather than the adjective, and his point begins to dawn. The unkindness of the side-takers, no matter the side, excludes rather than includes. The very notion of "taking a side" describes a move away from the center, the universal, toward the partial and exclusive. As he so often does, Wendell reminds us that Jesus made just the opposite move when he rescued an adulteress from her categorical exile and brought her into the fellowship of her accusers. He ministered not to her sin but to her exclusion and her need. Her kinship begat his kindness. His kindness acknowledged her kinship.
When Wendell Berry rejects abortion as a simple "right" or "wrong," he does so in light of the suffering, mystery and bewilderment that attends real women who are forced to decide between "two heartbreaking alternatives, one of which she alone must choose, and between which, however she chooses, she will remain emotionally divided perhaps for the rest of her life." In imagining this woman (imagination being the key, always), Wendell releases his anti-abortion position so that he can hold this woman in need. He admits her into to the public argument, troubling though she is when considered as a fellow, suffering, needy and blessed human being. When he rejects the demonization of gay people, he rightly refuses to accept categorical hatred, which he names as the lowest form of hatred, "lacking the heat and even the courage of a personal hatred." This is mob hatred -- the righteous virus that can happen only after we have made a categorical refusal of kindness to any group that differs from our own. He refuses the abstraction in favor of the messy truth that a marriage is made by individuals committed to their vows -- vows that cannot be copyrighted by any government or church.
Why is the problem always complexity? Because we are limited creatures and we cannot see through to the bottom of creation. In law-making, we should admit our limitations and struggle forward, as there is no way to fit perfect law onto imperfect humans. In conceptualizing the role of a proper and just government, we must not forswear the role of families and communities despite their current state of decrepitude. We must try to remember that all of us, including the plants and animals, are of a kind. The mechanical mind misses all this, as does the adolescent mind. The machine and the adolescent seek victory, not clarity, believing the claim can be easily staked.
Grounded men and women seek clarity, not victory, knowing it will elude them, and that joy will occasionally guide the search. And they take comfort in knowing, as Wendell Berry does, that to have a mind depends upon one's willingness to change it.