Saturday, 05 December 2015 05:12

Survey of Conservative Magazines: The Fatuous Wendell Berry

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Survey of Conservative Magazines: The Fatuous Wendell Berry

Fayette Durlin and Peter Jenkin

Fayette Durlin and Peter Jenkin write from Brownsville, Minnesota.

We are sorry to have to say it, but we must reluctantly agree with those critics who claim that conservatives are so obsessed with national politics that they are astonishingly unaware of significant trends, not immediately political - developments under their very noses. So they were blind to the dangers of Greenism until quite recently, and they still don't fully understand it (as we shall see). A sad example of this conservative naivet appeared in the 7/30 issue of National Review: "A Jeremiah for Everyone: Why Left and Right Like Wendell Berry."

The first two paragraphs describe Berry's speech at the Kennedy Center in April, when he delivered the prestigious Jefferson Lecture, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The speech itself was preceded by Berry's remarks thanking the NEH for its "courage" in letting him speak and for not asking to see the speech beforehand, remarks that "provoked anxious laughter from the audience" according to the writer. The speech was a "jeremiad on the ravages of a free market," a collection of cliches: pollution, species extinction, erosion, fossil fuel depletion, big bad agribusiness executives, overconsumption, waste, unsustainability, and so on.

The third paragraph says that those are also the views of many conservatives, citing the award to Berry of the Russell Kirk Paideia Prize for "cultivating virtue and wisdom," and the publication last year of The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry by the conservative ISI Books.

At that point the scene shifts to Kentucky where the writer interviews Berry and is completely taken in by the old fraud who puts on a pose of modesty immediately challenged by the writer, who compares his fiction to Faulkner's and cites an award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers as well as National Humanities Medal. Then he says that Berry is

. . . almost impossible to categorize politically. He can sound at times like an agrarian populist, and environmental radical and a family-values traditionalist.

He quotes an essay "Why I am not going to buy a computer" (reprinted by Harpers "to acclaim" and notoriety) in which Berry "takes a stand":

I would hate to think that my work as a writer could not be done without direct dependence on strip-mined coal.

He also writes during the day "so he doesn't have to use electric light."

The writer is much taken with Berry's book The Unsettling of America, an attack on large scale farming that praises

. . . the small holder farm . . . as an essential component of a living culture that values strong communities and ecological stewardship. The healthy farm sustains itself in the same way that a healthy tree does, by belonging where it is, by maintaining a proper relationship to the ground.

This flapdoodle impressed Russell Kirk, who wrote that "Humane culture has no better friend today than he." The writer sees what he thinks is conservatism here: "suspicion of progress, support for local autonomy, and a preference for the old way of doing things."

But enough. The article is a disheartening demonstration of conservative naivete. The writer is the national correspondent of the most prominent conservative magazine and yet he is taken in, as befooled as the audience for the Jefferson Lecture (actually more befooled, since it's probable that many in the audience took Berry's speech as entertainment), by a man whose phoniness is obvious, as we shall see. Those who are taken in want to be taken in.

The first thing to note is that Berry plays the old role of the gadfly, as in his remarks before the lecture. He knows that it took no "courage" to invite him, and the laughter of the audience was "anxious" only in the ears of the stupefied reporter, because the pose of danger is always a pose with the gadfly, who can be defined as an expert at knowing how far to go in going too far. He flatters us, he makes us feel good about ourselves because we dare to appreciate this supposedly outspoken maverick. When we look at Berry's speech, we see that it is nothing more than the cliches of the day, readily accepted by all right-thinking people. Some conservatives, like the reporter, may think this is red-hot stuff, but Lefties and Greens have been saying it for so long that it is now conventional wisdom among the haut monde.

The absurdity of his writing practices is another ploy: we see it as extreme, but by golly, here's a man who takes a principled stand and lives up to it! The writer, obviously prompted by Berry, reports that a correspondent "suggested mockingly, that perhaps Berry thought the Sierra Club should quit printing its magazines and instead have its members pass around a hand-copied manuscript." Berry shot back:

This is what is wrong with the conservation movement. It has a clear conscience. The guilty are always other people, the wrong is always somewhere else.

Berry's response is not an answer to the mocker, who has a sensible point, but he uses the occasion to show off his "guilt" and to pose as the principled hero. That the writer is taken in is shown by his approving "Berry shot back."

Berry's attacks on modern farming reveal the profound selfishness not only of Berry, but of his self-satisfied audience. Our agriculture is a tremendous force for good in the world, feeding not only Americans but millions of people overseas. But Greens are intent on destroying it, fondly imagining small farms of a high colored 19th century vision as replacements. The effect of such a dire step would be similar to the suppression of fossil fuels, another goal of Berry and his followers: our impoverishment. The smug audience of the Kennedy Center, however, is indifferent to consequences; the titillation of the moment is all.

What is so depressing about this foolish article is not that the writer was fooled by this consummate phony, but that he failed to see the radically destructive implications of Berry's cliches. None of the claims in his speech or his books are true, but the writer, like too many conservatives, does not understand Greenism and so becomes another victim of its chicanery. *

Read 3347 times Last modified on Saturday, 05 December 2015 11:12
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