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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

Thank You Anyhow

Is it just me, or do others read Wendell Berry and wonder, "Is this guy for real?" It happens to me all the time. Of course you already know from being here with me that I must not wonder too much. Wendell Berry's life is a testament to that thing we call "integrity," which comes from the Latin adjective integer meaning whole or complete. What he believes is what he says and what he says is what he does and what he does is what he believes. It's a closed loop, more or less. He is the Anti-Trump. And sure, I'll make the point that he would certainly make right now: he too is just a man -- flawed like the rest of us.

But still. Only Wendell Berry, I think, would accept a Dayton Literary Peace Prize by saying he was troubled by the honor. He meant it not in the falsely modest way that everyone says such things, but because in his view we are all, himself included, complicit in propagating the violence and wastage of our industrialized society. Integrity doesn't flatter I guess. Our ways, he said to his distinguished audience in 2013, are as violent as any the world has ever known. Regardless of whether we're making food or war, we use technologies of industrial production "minus care," to the immense power, profitability and accreditation of businesses and their scientific and political bedfellows.

None of this is new from Mr. Berry, so it's hardly surprising that his peace prize acceptance was occasion for him to name the violence that's been his lonely beat all these years. He wasted not a word.

Strip mining does away with the mountaintop and everything up there, but also ruins everything for people downhill, downstream and, perhaps most insidiously, "later in time." So you didn't blow up the mountaintop yourself? You aren't off the hook. It is an act of violence to conceal or rationalize our society's violent ways, which we do when we blithely accept falsehoods, prevarications and nonsense chalked up as the normal and expectable costs of representative government. Degrading our land and running off farmers while expecting to maintain and enjoy high rates of agricultural production is an example of our hypocrisy. Another is the tax increase to pay for our war adventuring that is never insisted on by so-called patriotic leaders and citizens. There are numerous questions that a common sensibility might ask, but somewhere along the line, our integrity falters and our inquiry atrophies. Wendell's hasn't, so he isn't quite like the rest of us. Not through the working-out of such questions but by the "will of God and his His prejudice in our favor will our rights and freedoms endure," says Wendell Berry, tongue firmly in cheek.

Rights and freedoms. Has it ever been so urgent that we Americans get past our second grade conception of what freedom means and how it comes to be (and be threatened?) If you're at all like me, freedom is a word that conjures the flag and Marlo Thomas and has seemed in my lifetime about as available the next breath of air. So sure, when Wendell said that when Americans speak of freedom we might as well be talking in our sleep, he was addressing the likes of me. In defense of all of us, I'll submit that we've been thinking about it a lot more since November 8, 2016.

Freedom has been a study subject for Wendell for decades now - scrutinized by him as carefully as any woodland or river. In his sights at the Dayton Literary Peace Prize event was the then recently discovered NSA secret surveillance program brought to light by Edward Snowden, and the notion of national security more generally. Where I've been hazy and ponderous about the costs and benefits of a heightened security state and the curtailment of personal privacy, Wendell is incisive and aghast. As is his way, he is able to juxtapose razor-sharp lawyerly logic on moral terra firma: "We have been so thoughtless and so careless of our freedom for so long that by now we cannot see that our assumed right to be limitlessly violent would finally bring us to a violence against freedom that would destroy it." A people inured to violence (that would be all of us) may not see such an unassertive "security" enterprise as violent, but make no mistake, he says. It is a violation of our rights under the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures and against our natural and intimate understanding of personal privacy which justified the need for a Fourth Amendment in the first place. It is a blatant assertion of absolute and unquestionable power -- the kind of totalitarianism against which the US has justified every war of Wendell Berry's lifetime.

I appreciate so deeply how Wendell Berry, again and again, chooses to speak on issues that I find hard to talk about, like abortion and same-sex marriage as he did in Caught in the Middle, and here on the unconstitutionality of our government's encroachment on personal freedom. I might be particularly moved because my liberal ideology is mostly unthinking and inchoate, whereas his is so profoundly clear and well-reasoned. At the end of the Dayton talk, in his gentle Kentucky honey-drawl, he blows apart the construction that people like me have been lazily relying on to ignore or condone the diminishment of personal privacy in the name of national security. You cannot trade these things off against each other, is what it comes down to. Freedom and security are not commodities to be measured, weighed, balanced and meted out. For one thing, he asks, "by whom?!" For another, "how?" Can we have "balanced" security by having just a small secret police force? Just a dollop of tyranny? Assumed suspicion of just some ethnic or religious groups?

No, freedom does not come from a compromise with security but is rather like integrity and therefore like the wheel or hoop. It doesn't matter how small the break - any gap at all and the thing ceases to be. And peace? Peace, said Mr. Berry to his listeners in Dayton, comes from freedom, real freedom, and from responsibility. "The relation between freedom and responsibility is not a 'balance' to be expediently adjusted by governments or citizens, who without both can have neither." Peace, freedom and responsibility are all choices. Courageous choices. Not commodities. We need to find better language to get this stuff right, and let's start by forgetting the language of the market. Let's make a pact to object the next time someone uses the term "price," "cost," or "investment," in matters of war and peace, truth and freedom, life and death. I think Wendell would approve of that.

In WWW I am beginning to see just how anti-government Mr. Berry has been, and how astringent he might come across to someone not so familiar with his work. I have always tended to see and hear anti-government types as angry and embittered -- as outsiders and Lone Rangers unwilling or unable to enlarge their faith to include others. But I know Wendell Berry to be a deeply kind, respectful, humane and spiritual man -- and of course a man of integrity. Such a man would have no choice but to speak out against any person, thing or institution that compromises peace on earth, peace or earth, which is exactly why he won this prize. And why he had to be such a curmudgeon in accepting it.


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