Throwing Berry out with the Bath Water: The Progressive Backlash against Wendell Berry

In the recent American Conservative interview with Michael Pollan, a conversation about the left and the right, and how the food culture is seen on both sides, inspired mention of a name familiar with many readers of this blog: Wendell Berry.

DREHER: What about human society as an organism? Many people think of Wendell Berry as a man of the Left because he criticizes humankind’s unnatural exploitative relationship to agriculture and the environment, but Berry has argued on similar grounds against the individualist sexual ethic pervasive in contemporary culture. Is he on to something?

POLLAN: Berry’s on to a lot of things. He’s a very wise man. Is he Right or Left? Those categories don’t fit him. He is a fierce critic of capitalism because he sees it destroying community, destroying traditional sexual relationships, destroying family. I agree with a lot of that, but not all.

This is a blind spot in a lot of contemporary conservatism—not understanding that while capitalism can be a very constructive force, it can also be very destructive of things that conservatives value.

DREHER: It’s also a blind spot of contemporary liberalism to fail to see how pursuing a sort of autonomous individualism when it comes to social forms undermines a community in the same way that capitalism does.

POLLAN: That’s right. The Left can be blind to that possibility also.

It seems that many so-called “progressive” bloggers have seized on this as an opportunity to lambaste Berry as a “paleoconservative“–and dismiss many of his ideas as out-of-touch, and Berry himself as a “diehard, reactionary traditionalist.”

It is true that Berry wrote in 1987 that he was not going to purchase a computer, so it seems to me that this backlash is perhaps happening in the wrong forum for Mr. Berry to make a reasoned response to their insults–and perhaps Berry’s thoughtful, slow-reading prose might have inspired one of these authors’ “general displeasure of reading some of the man’s works.” Or maybe it’s, as White, Pollan, and others have noted, that he’s just too difficult to pigeonhole into some straightforward label.

If these bloggers had read the July 2008 interview with Berry in The Sun magazine, they might realize that Berry is not so diehard as all that. He responds, when asked by interviewer Jeff Fearnside, about the apparent contradiction of Berry “rely[ing] on the machinery of the corporate world to get [his] message out,” that:

There are contradictions in it, no doubt about that. There’s an absolutely lethal contradiction in my driving and flying around to talk about conservation and local economies. But you have to live in the world the way it is. You can’t declare yourself too good for it and move away. You have to carry the effort wherever you can take it.

You don’t have to go for all Berry’s ideas to know he’s got a lot of good ones, and that his voice is incredibly valuable and amazingly accessible even though he’s not personally online.

One of the most obnoxious mud-balls I’ve seen slung over and over at Berry is that his wife is a slave to him, and that she, and wives in general in Berry’s view, exist only to “haul water and make babies” (I tried to locate this precise comment again and couldn’t).

This was one of the accusations made when Berry wrote, in the aforementioned essay, that his wife types and edits his manuscripts, and he responded that while a defense of personal life is hardly ever entirely successful, the prosecution obviously had not taken into account that she might enjoy this work and receive some compensation for it.

I have read some, not all, of Berry’s work, and I do not find his ideas on marriage as partnership as well as social contract reprehensible. I think that if a couple can create a life together wherein they support each other’s endeavors, that is a positive thing. Not all couples can do this, of course, but to force a couple to work separately and both outside the home so they can “have their own lives” and fulfill some PC “feminist” modern dictum of how couples ought to behave is ridiculous.

Too–Berry’s writings explore positive aspects of traditional ways of life that may not be entirely possible in this age, but can certainly be emulated and fit into our modern way of living. Berry’s not telling us to give up our computers, he’s explaining why he chose not to buy one, and if his reasoning makes sense to you, then maybe you should follow suit, or figure out some other way to cut back on your dependence on finite resources, the extraction of which destroys our environment.

Progressivism does not need to scrap every traditional idea in order to enter a “brave, new world.” And the ideas of our best thinkers, Berry included, may not all be palatable to every one of us. But if Berry’s words can inspire thoughtful nods and assent on both the right and the left, and in the middle as well, that seems like a good thing to me.

It is a meager and mean thing for the so-called “progressives,” on seeing Berry’s name in a conservative magazine, to give Berry and his ideas over to the “other side.” Berry and his words do not belong to any side other than his own perspective, and it is an immensely valuable one.


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