This week, what we are doing (instead of listening to me) is hearing and discussing quotes from Wendell Berry’s 2015 book, Our Only World: Ten Essays.
Today, Wendell Berry expresses a frustration many of us feel. We are comfortable with neither the left nor the right, today’s conservatism or progressivism (especially as practiced by the current political parties). Both sides have contributed to the degradation of individual, family, and local community governance, because both are beholden to corporate interests. The result, Berry laments, is a “politics of mutual estrangement” that just keeps spinning its wheels in the mud, splattering anyone and everyone around.
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In the present political atmosphere it is assumed that everybody must be on one of only two sides, liberal or conservative. It doesn’t matter that neither of these labels signifies much in the way of intellectual responsibility or that both are paralyzed in the face of the overpowering issue of our time: the destruction of land and people, of life itself, by means either economic or military. What does matter is that a person should choose one side or the other, accept the “thinking” and the “positions” of that side and its institutions and be so identified forevermore. How you vote is who you are.
We appear thus to have evolved into 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.
…To believe, as I do, that families and communities are necessary despite their present decrepitude is to be in the middle and to be most uncomfortable there. My stand nevertheless is practical. I do not think a government should be asked or expected to do what a government cannot do. A government cannot effectively exercise familial authority, nor can it effectively enforce communal or personal standards of moral conduct.
The collapse of families and communities— so far, more or less disguisable as “mobility” or “growth” or “progress” or “liberation”— comes from or with the collapse of personal character and is a social catastrophe. It leaves individuals subject to no requirements or restraints except those imposed by government. The liberal individual desires freedom from restraints upon personal choices and acts, which often has extended to freedom from familial and communal responsibilities. The conservative individual desires freedom from restraints upon economic choices and acts, which often extends to freedom from social, ecological and even economic responsibilities. Preoccupied with these degraded freedoms, both sides have refused to look straight at the dangers and the failures of government-by-corporations.
The Christian or social conservatives who wish for government protection of their version of family values have been seduced by the conservatives of corporate finance who wish for government protection of their semireligion of personal wealth earned in contempt for families. The liberals, calling for too few restraints upon incorporated wealth, wish for government enlargement of their semireligion of personal rights and liberties. One side espouses family values pertaining to temporary homes that are empty all day, every day. The other promotes liberation that vouchsafes little actual freedom and no particular responsibility. And so we are talking about a populace in which nearly everybody is needy, greedy, envious, angry, and alone. We are talking therefore about a politics of mutual estrangement, in which the two sides go at each other with the fervor of extreme righteousness in defense of rickety absolutes that are indefensible and therefore cannot be compromised.
From “Caught in the Middle” (2013)
In Our Only World: Ten Essays