After Charlottesville: Dominion or Communion?
This month’s post was supposed to be a short piece comparing Henry David Thoreau’s antemortem fame to that of Wendell Berry’s. Then Charlottesville happened. That chant: “Blood and Soil! Blood and Soil!” – I had never heard it before. Now I can’t stop thinking about it.
In taking up this blog, I’ve committed to honoring the imperatives that Wendell Berry lays out for us. There aren’t many, but one of them is that we must mind the soil. We need good soil biologically, and if we are to ever become settled, rooted, placed -- we need it metaphorically. That’s why I’ve been so knotted up after hearing white supremacists invoke the soil in their propagandistic chanting. Because let’s be clear: no one talks about the soil in America. No one.
My ear is so tuned to Mr. Berry that the word “soil” -- expectorated from the mouths of these nazi punks, hit me as a vile profanity. Sickeningly, it also reminded me that a dark spirit has always co-inhabited Wendell Berry’s worldview. It’s a shadow barely admitted, and one that is difficult for me to make sense of.
The images from Charlottesville offered much to affright. That might be because the progenitors of these numskulls live on only in grainy newsreel footage from the 1930’s, goose-stepping in goofy helmets. The Third Reich was just long enough ago to seem like a museum piece. Furthermore, the disgrace of that regime has been so total, so absolute, that anyone ascribing to it always seemed to me a quacking long way from mattering a wit. Marching Nazis seemed faintly ridiculous to me. Kind of like Donald Trump.
There was nothing ridiculous about the scene in Charlottesville on Friday, August 11th. Had I been there, I would have been afraid. I would have absented myself at the first whiff of aggression. Just as I know I would have cowered in a corner if I had been aboard the light rail train where Jeremy Christian allegedly slashed the throats of two innocent men in Portland last May. Heather Heyer’s murder in Charlottesville is fused with those of Ricky Best and Taliesin Myrrdin Namkai-Meche, and with the victims of the Charleston church shooting and the Newtown shooting. Killers live amongst us, hiding in the millions who look like them. They are young, white, male, and deranged. And apparently many of them identify with a longstanding anti-Semitic German construct called “Blut und Boden,” or “Blood and Soil.”
There is a relationship between mankind and territory that is as old as our species (and here it is appropriate to use the masculine gender). We tend to forget that we are mammals. Millions upon millions of our ancestors have killed and been killed over some patch of land. Happily, our human history has been a long slow walk away from this kind of tooth and claw conflict to where “territoriality” today is understood more as a sociopolitical phenomenon than a biological one. But, to the dismay of Ray Kurzweil and Elon Musk fans, we remain land animals and land animals shall we always be. Our territoriality is not a vestigiality but remains alive in our very cells. The need for marked space, for a home place, for “dominion” you might say, is deep within us. It’s an ancient instinct. Tragically though, it points in two opposing directions. “Blood and Soil” is one. Wendell Berry’s Port William is the other.
“Dominion” is from the Latin “dominus,” or master. Indeed, the Blood and Soil gang only understand domination. “Jews will not replace us!” “Whose streets? Our streets!” I’m reminded again of Doug Rushkoff’s useful characterization of the digital age we live in. Everything is discrete – black or white, ones or zeroes. Our putative forward progress therefore risks returning us to the law of the jungle: kill or be killed (which has always been a grotesque feature of capitalism anyway). Now that our economics have thoroughly contaminated our politics, the same logic is metastasizing through the immature masculine energy that courses through our country. Of course it’s conducted through the veins and throats of young men, so vulnerable to the binaries of win/lose; dominate/succumb; master/slave. The rule is non-reciprocity. The relationship is parasite and host. The health of one is the demise of the other.
But “communion” is also from the Latin “communionem” meaning “fellowship, mutual participation, a sharing.” Like dominion, “communion” also describes a territoriality – a belonging, albeit of an entirely different kind. In communion, reciprocity is the rule and the relationship between a person and his place is codependent, bound, and mutually reinforcing. What’s good for the land is good for those on the land. The health of the one furnishes the health of the other. Obviously this is where the word and concept “community” come from. You’d be hard-pressed to find many instances of Wendell Berry using the term “dominion” to describe his characters’ (or his own) homecoming and homemaking urges. Berry’s is a territoriality that is ecological and communal.
What distresses me is how these two oppositional dialectics spring from the same headwaters. Right-thinking people immediately grasp that conservationists and environmentalists profoundly love the land. It’s much harder to understand and accept that this passion is the exact same nurse log on which the seeds of patriotism and xenophobia are germinated, along with the many horrible “-ism’s” that derive therefrom.
I am at a loss to understand how good and evil can share a parentage. What are we to do about a sinful twin? Like priests who molest children or caretakers who steal from the elderly – it’s oxymoronic but it is there, undeniably.
For instance I never knew the malevolence carried out in the name of agrarianism in late 19th and early 20th century Germany. Long before the Nazis rose to power, an ideology had long been promulgated in Germany about an idealized, racially defined national body (“blood”) united with a settlement area (“soil.”) In elevating rural and farm-life ideals, romantic conservatives of the time effectively enfolded anti-urban, racist and anti-Semitic beliefs into the overarching idea of a pure and sedentary Germanic-Nordic peasantry. Ultranationalists predating the Nazis argued that country living was healthier than urban living, and many urban children were sent to the countryside to work, partially in hopes of transforming them. By the 1930s, the Nazi party had built up its appeal to rural Germans by calling for a return from the cities to the countryside – an agrarian sentiment that bred antagonism to both the middle class and the aristocracy, presenting the farmer as a superior figure in opposition to the moral swamp of the city.
More sinister than the “back to the land” aspect, however, was the notion that German land was somehow, mystically even, bound to German blood. Peasants were Germany’s cultural heroes under the Nazis – the charge and stock and purifier of the nation’s history. Compared to the city with its corrupting and demoralizing Jewish influence, the countryside was home to true Bauern (“farmer peasants”) who were praised as sturdy, authentic, fruitful and righteous. Purebred Aryans. Come Hitler, the doctrine reached maximum perversion and the ideas of the regime curdled into a genocidal miasma.
If there is anything reassuring to take away from Charlottesville 2017, it’s that it only takes few hundred organized neo-Nazi’s to constitute an attack on our national conscience. Imagine living in 1930’s Germany when the national conscience became so completely infected that Nazism became the singular policy of the administrative state. If there’s confusion about the depravity of the president’s equivocal response to the rally, one need only remember the magnitude of horror that befell the world the last time “blood and soil” ideology wormed its way into a nation-state’s executive arm.
In one of my early posts, I posited my theories for why agrarianism has been such a neglected and even disparaged political organizing philosophy in the United States. In our modern techno-industrial faux-utopia, the irrelevancy of a small, local, farm-based system is all too obvious. But this new (to me) evidence of agrarian ideologies serving the worst example of nativism and ethnic nationalism is far more troubling. Our current fascination with and devotion to techno-industrial wizardry seems somewhat innocent to me. We are very much like children captivated by a magic show. The miracle of the fertility cycle has been upstaged yes, but one can conclude without too much effort that it is still the greater act.
The events of World War Two surely must have hastened agrarianism’s repudiation as well. This cause for rejection appears more credible to me. Perhaps after the carnage, the race was on to distance western civilization as fast as possible from ideas like a noble peasantry, rural superiority, and praiseworthy land-work.
Yet these are Wendell Berry’s ideas too. In fictional Port William, and in real-life Port Royal, an agrarian ethic suffuses the relations of men and women, people and land, farmers and animals. This ethic is one of health and wholeness, and it arises from the principle of communion. The principle of dominion in Berry’s writing shows up in the machinery and bureaucracy of the industrial powerhouses – corporations and an over-reaching government. History has shown and continues to show, however, that our need to feel safe and secure in place can give rise to the ugliest side of our human nature as well as our most benevolent. Agrarianism can be corrupted as a set of ideas without any help from our large institutions.
I’ll be on the lookout for material in future Wendell readings that shed more light on this enigma, but I’ll also count it as one more reason to keep learning and writing about what Mr. Berry is trying to teach. The urge for a home – for a place on this earth to care about, identify with, and derive sustenance from, can and will transfigure itself into all manner of beliefs and behaviors. We would do well to begin paying more attention to this fact. Communion asks a lot of us, but dominion doesn’t ask at all. It takes what it wants, and always by any means necessary.