Wendell Berry published Thoughts in the Presence of Fear shortly after 9/11. The second piece in Citizenship Papers, it’s a tabulation of 27 short exhortations that link together Berry’s reaction to the 2001 Al-Qaeda attacks on the U.S.
The first of these is a rarity -- a Wendell Berry take that appears completely wrong. “The time will soon come,” he wrote
when we will not be able to remember the horrors of September 11 without remembering also the unquestioning technological and economic optimism that ended on that day.
The last 18 years have continued the comet ride of technological optimism that appears only to be strengthening. As for economic optimism – neither 9/11 or the near collapse of the global banking system seven years later produced even a dent. At least not to the system.
It may be we’re still too close to the event -- too much in the middle of the plot, to know what 9/11 did to us. When is “soon,” anyway? The history that will be written in 2050 or 2090 may indeed look back to 9/11 as the day that ended our unquestioning optimism. Global corporate capitalism rages on, but it won’t do so forever.
Cracks are beginning to show in the footings of our society. Ten years ago it was unimaginable to think Facebook would come to be viewed as a rogue company, or that Amazon would be thrown out of New York, or that socialism would poll more favorably than capitalism among Democrats.
People don’t tie these reversals to 9/11. But Wendell Berry didn’t see the events of that day as a beginning point either. He saw the attacks as inevitable. More importantly, he saw them as a responsible party.
What is Responsibility? It’s a concept that deserves a hundred times more study and discussion than we give it. To understand what Responsibility actually means, -- what it looks and feels like, and why it matters so much, you have to pick up Wendell Berry.
I initially read Thoughts in the Presence of Fear as a standard Berryist diagnosis of our culture’s wayward habits and practices. Indeed the first few thoughts on “what happened” are just what you’d expect from him:
· Our ill-founded optimism rested on a supposed new world order of unprecedented prosperity
· Our leaders noticed neither that this prosperity accrued to a vanishing few, nor that it was made possible through the exploitation of the many, and of the natural world
· The free market had been given the status of a religion, before which forests, farms and “unmodern” people were being regularly sacrificed. Pollution and global warming became simple costs of doing business.
Seems about right. The system is bad. It engenders hatred and misery. It condones violence. And that violence came home to roost on that fateful September day.
No one describes upstream causes as well as Wendell Berry.
But only after a long period of contemplation did it occur to me that this piece is not a diagnosis of our societal demise, though it can be read that way. Rather, in how it’s written, and in the perspective it takes, Thoughts in the Presence of Fear is better understood as a treatise on Responsibility.
Nowhere in here does Berry cast blame. No one is disparaged, least of all members of the Muslim faith. To the contrary, his thought about Islamic nations is that if some of these people are now our enemies, we had better begin teaching their language, histories, arts and cultures in our schools. There is no mention of Osama Bin Laden or Al Qaeda.
But he is not silent on Responsibility. He singles out one group at the turning point in this essay – just one.
We citizens of the industrial countries must continue the labor of self-criticism and self-correction. We must recognize our mistakes.
These Thoughts are those of an American implicated in an American-made economy and an American-armed world. For Berry, there was no getting around the fact that the malevolence cultured overseas grew from seeds exported from the U.S. So while he explains, patiently, point by point, how technological euphoria and growth spur each other on, how blind innovation ends up devouring all things inherited and free, and how war industries and evildoers inevitably find each other, most of these Thoughts are about what we must now do. These are meditations on Responsibility.
A conversation I’ve been having with my family lately is what we should be doing in the face of climate change. Figuring out how to live a life that aligns personal behavior with political views and global ethics seems damn near impossible. I am desperately aware and afraid of the ever-increasing exterminations that are happening on this planet, and yet still I burn about a tank of gasoline every week. I continue to eat meat. My vacations are powered by jet fuel at the expense of poor people and endangered species everywhere. David Wallace-Wells captured my sense of paralysis perfectly in a recent New York Times opinion piece.
I know the threat is all-encompassing, and I know its effects, should emissions continue unabated, will be terrifying. And yet, when I imagine my life three decades from now, or the life of my daughter five decades from now, I have to admit that I am not imagining a world on fire but one similar to the one we have now. That is how hard it is to shake complacency.
He says “shake complacency.” He could have just as easily written “take responsibility.”
Wallace-Wells’ argument is that it’s time to panic because fear is the only motive-power strong enough to overcome the multiple biases that keep human beings from doing what's necessary to protect ourselves from a climate-induced global catastrophe. More urgently, he says, what needs doing is not individualized, but collective action.
We don’t ask people who pay taxes to support a social safety net to also demonstrate that commitment through philanthropic action, and similarly we shouldn’t ask anyone — and certainly not everyone — to manage his or her own carbon footprint before we even really try to enact laws and policies that would reduce all of our emissions. That is the purpose of politics: that we can be and do better together than we might manage as individuals.
Wendell Berry would approve of this last idea – that the purpose of political action is to improve the lots of all of us beyond what any one of us could do on our own. And he would argue for a corollary: the political actions that any one of us could do to improve the collective, we must do. The difference between Wendell Berry and everyone else is the size of the circle of Responsibility that he draws around himself. It’s enormous.
That’s why after 9/11, Wendell Berry’s wasn’t interested in assigning blame. Blame is disempowering, oversimplifying, and dehumanizing. When everyone else was thinking about retaliation and flag-waving, Wendell was thinking in his usual way – holistically, particularly, proactively and humanely. If Responsibility were a molecule, and you could break it into its constituent parts, protein-like, those are the building blocks you would discover inside.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Berry called on us, his fellow citizens, to make a choice between a global economy based on corporate extraction (and now reliant on a global police force of some kind), and a decentralized economy of locally self-sufficient regions. He urged vigilance of an ongoing global order, cognizant that post 9/11, curtailment of freedoms and civil rights would be more at risk than ever. Rhetoric, he reminded us, “always a temptation in a national crisis,” must not substitute for thought and must be resisted by citizens and officials alike.
Our national scorecard on these calls to action is not good.
Perhaps most urgently, Berry implores us to remember that 9/11 was not unique but only the latest in an uninterrupted series of war acts perpetrated on human beings without bringing about any peace or making anyone more peaceable.
We should recognize that while we have extravagantly subsidized the means of war, we have almost totally neglected the ways of peaceableness. We have, for example, several national military academies but not one peace academy. We have ignored the teachings and examples of Christ, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and other peaceable leaders. And here we have an inescapable duty to notice also that war is profitable, whereas the means of peaceableness, being cheap or free, make no money.
Berry’s careful language – “we have an inescapable duty to notice…” is Responsibility language.
But do we have a country of capable notice-ers?
Berry’s final thoughts about 9/11 go to the crisis of an education system that fails to teach essential ideas of citizenship and responsibility. The proper use of education is not to serve industry; it is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially and culturally responsible.
And the first thing we must teach our children (and learn ourselves), he says, is that a wasteful economy is inherently and hopelessly violent, and that war is its inevitable by-product.
His last words are singular, poetic and tragic, and unlike anything else I’ve heard in connection with the causes of 9/11:
“We need a peaceable economy.”
My close is a tweak on his, to honor what I’ve learned from reading Thoughts on the Presence of Fear: We need to make a peaceable economy. It’s not someone else’s job. It’s ours. It’s on us.
So what to do about climate change? Or racism? Or political corruption? Do like Wendell does. Take Responsibility. Draw a bigger circle.