Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

06 MAY, 2015

James Baldwin and Margaret Mead on Reimagining Democracy for a Post-Consumerist Culture

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“Democracy should not mean the leveling of everyone to the lowest common denominator. It should mean the possibility of everyone being able to raise himself to a certain level of excellence.”

NOTE: This is the third installment in a multi-part series celebrating Mead and Baldwin’s historic yet forgotten conversation. Part 1 focused on forgiveness and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility; part 2 on identity, race, and the immigrant experience; part 3 on changing one’s destiny.

Three years before E.F. Schumacher laid out his seminal vision for a Buddhist approach to economics, urging us to stop prioritizing products over people and consumption over creative fulfillment, two other titans of thought shone their luminous intellects on the dark underbelly of capitalism and consumer culture. When Margaret Mead and James Baldwin sat down for their remarkable public conversation in August of 1970, the transcript of which was eventually published as A Rap on Race (public library), they explored with great insight and dimension the many factors that shape the forces of equality and inequality in our world — the world of 1970 and doubly so the world of today, for such was the prescience produced by cross-pollinating these two formidably fertile minds.

Art by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

As Mead and Baldwin weave in and out of the subject of capitalism throughout the conversation, they reserve especial criticism for the mainstream models of success we’ve bought into — models that continue to shackle us to social Shoulds as we race on the hedonic treadmill of consumerism:

BALDWIN: I have never accepted the notion that you keep a Cadillac or a yacht or anything at all, except perhaps for convenience. I have always had a quarrel with this country not only about race but about the standards by which it appears to live. People are drowning in things. They don’t even know what they want them for. They are actually useless. You can’t sleep with a yacht. you can’t make love to a Cadillac, though everyone appears to be trying to… I think the great emotional or psychological or effective lack of love and touching is the key to the American or even the Western disease.

Mead considers the origin of this compulsive consumption and how the pursuit of privilege over happiness poisoned the American dream:

MEAD: But most people who came here were terribly poor and wanted things.

BALDWIN: To prove they existed.

MEAD: To prove they could get them all. They had been eating the black bread of poverty, so they came over here and they wanted to eat the white bread that was eaten in the castle. So they instead of eating good, nourishing, whole wheat bread —

BALDWIN: They started eating white bread. Yes, indeed, look at the results.

MEAD: They began eating too much sugar too; thats what the people in the castle had… Old Americans were frugal… I was brought up to untie each package carefully, untie the knots in the string and roll it up and put it away to use again.

BALDWIN: Yes, I still do that too. And I hate myself for it.

Having grown up in Bulgaria during communism, I too had an acute experience of this bread-as-status-symbol phenomenon, as well as of the conflicted self-loathing it produced and still produces. And yet, as Baldwin and Mead both acknowledge, such fallibility is a profoundly human reaction to the oppressive forces of adversity — a testament to the notion of force and counterforce:

BALDWIN: The dream of the starving is to be fed.

MEAD: Yes, that’s it. And the dream of the people who have nothing is to have things…

Echoing Martin Luther King’s famous proclamation that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere [and] whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” Baldwin adds:

BALDWIN: The great revolution … that one has dared… The dream of the starving is not only to be fed… One has got to arrive at the point where one realizes that if one man is hungry everyone is hungry.

Illustration from 'We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy,' Maurice Sendak's darkest, most controversial, yet most hopeful children's book. Click image for more.

Indeed, this conversation took place at the height of the New Age movement and the hippie counterculture — a time when Alan Watts admonished that “Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others.” In this call for unity, Mead sees as a model for a better dream of our shared human future — a vision resurrected by the sustainability movement of our own age. Today, Mead’s vision seems remarkably prophetic as we enact a great many of her hopes and some of her fears:

MEAD: What I hope is going to happen in the world is a demand similar to the one in this country, the demand for a simpler form of life. Coming up from the kids of the affluent middle class who say, “We don’t want to live like this. We don’t want to over-capitalize the individual home this way. We want to make things much more collective.” Then maybe we can invent a style in this country that is viable for other countries. because otherwise what is happening is that other countries are copying this style, so the few educated and elite can get themselves some Cadillacs and big houses. Then all of the rest of the people are miserable. Also we are bleeding the world of its resources and we can’t do that.

This, too, I experienced acutely while growing up in Bulgaria — my mother used to rinse out empty yogurt containers and even previously-used plastic bags, which she reused for various purposes. I was tremendously embarrassed by this practice, which didn’t signify resourcefulness but a lack of resources. And yet by the time I was in my twenties, reusing shopping bags became a status symbol for the conscientious consumer who could, but chose not to, afford disposability. Indeed, recycling today is primarily a political act of the privileged, not a coping mechanism of the poor.

Mead peers backward and forward in time to examine the origin and outcome of these cultural forces:

MEAD: So what is the American dream? The American dream has been the dream of the immigrant. The dream of old Commodore Vanderbilt. What did he borrow? Two hundred dollars from his mother and started bringing potatoes over from Staten Island — who ended up building palaces. But they were not palaces of kings. They were palaces of people who had had nothing and wanted things. And then I go back to my Manus people in New Guinea, who said, “When you have plenty, then you can afford to begin to think about human beings. And when you don’t have, you don’t think about human beings.”

BALDWIN: Well that is both true and not true. I don’t want to be sentimental about poverty, which is a hideous condition. I once flew from Istanbul to Switzerland. Istanbul is exceedingly poor. But the people will give you anything they have, and there is a kind of human warmth which you do not find on the streets of Lausanne.

MEAD: Where everybody is well off.

BALDWIN: Yes. And you wouldn’t dream of asking anybody for the time of day.

MEAD: Well, you can produce a kind of private-property-oriented society, where they also have the private property, where they don’t have any free energy for anyone else at all.

Illustration from 'We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy,' Maurice Sendak's darkest, most controversial, yet most hopeful children's book. Click image for more.

Later in the conversation, Mead and Baldwin revisit the general problem of capitalism and the particular problem of our consumerist dependence on cars, once again presaging the buildup of brokenness that would lead, decades later, to the success of solutions like Tesla:

BALDWIN: Mass production has made human life impossible.

MEAD: No, not really. We never could have things for everybody until we got mass production.

BALDWIN: And what are we going to do with it now?

MEAD: Well, something else. You know, just because the Ford car and the idea of Mr. Ford did give enormous freedom to people in this country, it doesn’t mean that we have to —

BALDWIN: It didn’t give them any freedom, it gave them tremendous mobility.

MEAD: Well, Americans think mobility and freedom are very close together. If you take Detroit, now… A study has just been made that compares somebody without a car only a few blocks away from somebody with a car. The one with a car is not twice as mobile, he is over ten times as mobile.

BALDWIN: This I discovered to my horror when I was living in Hollywood… Human feet have suddenly become obsolete. There’s no point in having feet, except to drive the car. I guess I am badly placed in this society, in many ways. But I see what you mean. I know we had to have these things, we had to have them. I know that it was at one point in human history a tremendous advance for the human race. But now mass production, the consumer society, seems to be one of the things that menace us the most, because we have become so dependent upon it.

MEAD: The automobile in its present shape is a monster. But to envisage a society without automobiles, with the number of people that we have, is also very difficult, We will have to make some new inventions.

BALDWIN: Then we have got to find a way to control this… this monster we have created.

MEAD: That’s right. We have to find different kinds of automobiles, set them up differently.

BALDWIN: And keep them out of the cities.

Illustration by Paul Rogers from the picture-book adaptation of Bob Dylan's 'Forever Young.' Click image for more.

And yet changes of this magnitude, Mead and Baldwin agree, require that we unmoor ourselves from some of our most basic assumptions about how the world works. They consider the exploitive models upon which capitalism is built and envision a more just alternative:

BALDWIN: It is very difficult to ask people to give up the assumptions by which they have always lived, and yet that is the demand the world has got to make now of everybody.

[…]

BALDWIN: One has been avoiding the word capitalism and one has been avoiding talking about matters on that level. But there is a very serious flaw in the profit system which is implicit in the phrase itself. And, in some way or another, one can even say at this moment, sitting in this room, that the Western economy is due to the fact that in a way every dime I earn, the system which earns it for me — I don’t mean the fact that I write books, but the way the system works, the base — is standing on the back of some black miner in South Africa, and he is going to stand up presently. Now, if we don’t anticipate that, we will be in terrible trouble. Because he is not going to be bending under his weight ten years from now. And if we don’t understand that and let him stand up, the whole thing is going to be a shambles.

MEAD: I agree. But I also think … that if the systems, whether they call themselves private power or public planning, don’t learn to think ahead further and include all human beings more, they are contributing to the shambles.

Ultimately, such a shift away from exploitive profit requires — then and, even more urgently so, now — that we reimagine what democracy itself might look like if all human beings are to be elevated and none exploited:

BALDWIN: It demands — especially here and now because we are here and now — a vast amount of passion and some courage to attack the forces which menace everybody’s life. The life of everybody on this planet is menaced by, to put it too simply, the extraordinary and even willful ignorance of people in high places. If the democratic notion has led us to where we now find ourselves, some kind of radical revision of the democratic notion is needed.

[…]

Democracy should not mean the leveling of everyone to the lowest common denominator. It should mean the possibility of everyone being able to raise himself to a certain level of excellence.

A Rap on Race is a tremendous read in its entirety. Explore other threads of this historic conversation in the three previousparts, then revisit Alan Watts on the difference between money and wealth.

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04 MAY, 2015

Love Is Love: Maria Bello on Resisting the Labels We Are Given and Redefining Those We Give Ourselves

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A courageous quest for nuance that liberates the different experiences of partnerships we have in the modern world.

“Labels are distancing phenomena. They push us away from each other,” Leo Buscaglia wrote in his seminal 1972 book based on the world’s first university course on love. Susan Sontag echoed this a few years later in lamenting the detrimental divisiveness of labels. It might be tempting to think that, four decades later, we live in a post-label society: that is, a society that has transcended all the categories into which we put people — race, gender, nationality, sexuality, political affiliation, basketball team preference — in order to avoid the intimate and demanding work of getting to know each other on a level beyond the superficial. And yet nearly half a century after James Baldwin admonished that “you’ve got to tell the world how to treat you [or else] you are in trouble,” we still find ourselves in a world that constantly tries to tell us how we deserve to be treated through the arbitrary labels it bestows upon us based on fragments of our wholeness.

How we can begin to move past that is what actor and activist Maria Bello addresses with great courage and candor in Whatever… Love Is Love: Questioning the Labels We Give Ourselves (public library) — an exploration of “the beauty of the fluidity of love and partnership,” sprouted from her spectacular 2013 New York Times coming-out essay and titled after her twelve-year-old son Jackson’s response when she finally told him that she was in love with a woman.

Photograph from 'The Invisibles: Vintage Portraits of Love and Pride' by Sébastien Lifshitz. Click image for more.

Looking back on the flood of moving responses to her New York Times essay and on her own lifetime spent as “a woman who was both ashamed and proud of her own truth,” Bello considers what a post-label conception of love and partnership might look like for a culture increasingly needful of such liberation from limiting labels:

At the time, I had no idea how many modern families and unconventional partnerships were out there. And I didn’t realize how many people did not have labels to describe themselves or the structure of their lives. So the phrase “being a whatever” came to describe them. According to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, whatever is a pronoun “used to emphasize a lack of restriction in referring to anything.” And because I am not interested in restricting myself or anyone else with a particular label, I decided that I am a “whatever,” too.

[…]

Many people in our world today are having different experiences of partnership and aren’t sure how to label these different kinds of love.

[…]

[There is] a new conversation to be had about the labels society gives us and the labels we give ourselves.

Traditional labels just don’t seem to fit anymore. These labels are limiting the possibility for people to question more and become who they are meant to be. By asking questions and challenging our own beliefs, I feel we can update all of our outdated labels and realize that labels need to evolve just like people do.

Most of us have directly experienced, in one shape or another, the way in which labels demand that we settle for smaller versions of ourselves. The more specific they get, the more our expansive wholeness is asked to acquiesce to fragmented smallness — and that slippery slope of specificity, while meant to better capture our identity, ends up suffocating it. I, for instance, could be labeled a woman, then a queer woman, then an immigrant queer woman, then a Bulgarian immigrant queer woman, and so forth. And yet, while none of these labels are incorrect, the accretion of them tips over into being wrong — wrong for concretizing a handful of psychographic variables to the exclusion of the vast variability of all the more abstract traits and tastes and talents that make a complete person. At the heart of how labels impoverish our interpersonal imagination is a dearth of nuance — something Bello captures with elegant precision as she considers the questions that thinking about being a “whatever” opens up:

My romantic partner is fourth-generation African, so why can’t she call herself an African American? My cousin Marty has dark skin but is Italian, so does she call herself African Italian? Can a gay couple consider themselves Catholic even though they are excluded from the church? Is a man who is married to a woman but kissed a boy when he was 12 considered bisexual? Are all those historical heroes of mine who also had extramarital affairs bad guys?

Illustration from 'Grandma, What’s a Lesbian?,' one of the greatest LGBT children's books. Click image for more.

Remarking with warm wryness that “the person who claims to have all the answers is usually a cult leader, a dictator, or just a really pushy salesperson,” Bello argues that what is needed for this new conversation is a commitment to reframing those questions in order to discover what it takes to celebrate our singular experience and “embrace love, family, and partnership in all possible forms.” She recounts how one such pivotal question shifted her own experience as she began to fall in love with her best friend, Clare:

As I continued to look through my writing and photos, I came across a black-and-white print of a photo of my best friend and me, taken on the previous New Year’s Eve. We looked so happy and I couldn’t help but smile. I remembered how we had met two years before; she was sitting in a bar wearing a fedora and speaking in her Zimbabwean accent.

We had an immediate connection but neither of us thought of it as romantic or sexual. She was one of the most beautiful, charming, brilliant, and funny people I had ever met, but it didn’t occur to me, until that soul-searching moment in my garden, that we could choose to love each other romantically.

What had I been waiting for all of these years? My friend is the person I like being with the most, the one with whom I am most myself. The next time I saw her, in New York, I shared my confusing feelings.

We began the long, painful, wonderful process of trying to figure out what our relationship was supposed to be.

Even so, the tyranny of “supposed to be” warps the very asking of those questions, including that of what a “partner” really means in the modern world — something that circles back to the challenge of being labeled by the outside observations of others rather than by the inner truth of our experience. Bello writes:

It’s hard for me even to define the term partner in my life, but others would try.

For five years I considered the closest thing I had to a partner to be a dear friend who just happened to be in his seventies. He was a former producer and studio head named John Calley, and I spoke to him daily until he died. We both loved books and, being seekers in life, always worked to understand ourselves and the world more.

What seems imperative is that we decouple the notion of a “partner” from evolutionary biology’s implication of “reproductive partner” — a primitive definition that doesn’t even begin to capture the kaleidoscope of nuance that partnership has in contemporary life. Bello addresses this by examining the further narrowing of that definition:

I have never understood the distinction of a “primary” partner. Does that imply we have secondary and tertiary partners, too? To me, a partner is someone you rely on in your life — for help, companionship, mutual respect, and support. Can my primary partner be my sister or child or best friend, or does it have to be someone I am having sex with? I have two friends who are sisters, have lived together for 15 years, and raised a daughter together. Are they not partners? And many married couples I know haven’t had sex for years. And yet, everyone thinks of them as partners.

[…]

My feelings about attachment and partnership have always been unconventional. Jack’s father, Dan, will always be my partner because we share Jack. Just because our relationship is nonsexual doesn’t make him any less of a partner to me. We share the same core values, including putting our son first.

Our partners are often revealed at times of crisis — when life throws its curveballs, only true partners show up to catch them. Bello, who was nearly killed by an undiagnosed parasite she had contracted while doing humanitarian work in Haiti, reflects on how that episode clarified the question of partnership:

At one point during my illness that summer, I thought I might not survive. But the people who were at my bedside every day at the hospital were all my life partners: my mother, Jackson, Dan, my brother Chris, and Clare.

Clare rarely left my side and called every doctor she knew to help figure out what was wrong with me.

Illustration from 'Heather Has Two Mommies,' one of the greatest LGBT children's books. Click image for more.

Shortly thereafter, Bello came out to twelve-year-old Jackson, who issued the heartening proclamation after which Bello’s memoir is titled: “Whatever, Mom… love is love.” Indeed, embedded in this exchange is the very thing that makes Bello’s book significant — a vibrant testament to the idea that in every realm of human rights and equality, what is needed isn’t merely tolerance but acceptance, wholehearted and unconditional. And this begins with the values we bequeath to the young, be it through parenting in the literal sense or through a kind of societal parenting by the heroes and role models of the culture we live in — the indirect parenting of personhood that happens through what legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead called our “spiritual and mental ancestors.”

And here is the beauty of it: We can choose who our spiritual parents are by choosing whom we admire and whose advice we heed — in fact, we are being parented all the time in the larger nest of culture, which incubates our values through direct and indirect guidance from those in the public eye. This is why it is both so courageous and so crucial for people like Bello to speak out and reaffirm the values of social justice and equality — and what more intimate a frontier of justice than the evolving definition of what a modern family is?

Bello writes:

The label of “partner” as only your sexual partner is outdated. An updated label of partner might be anyone who is significant to you in some fundamental way. The definition of the family is changing, too, and I hope it’s working to bring people together with a new respect for different kinds of relationships. So I would like to consider myself a whatever, as Jackson said. Whomever I love, however I love them, whether they sleep in my bed or not, or whether I do homework with them or share a child with them, “love is love.” … Maybe, in the end, a modern family is just a more honest family.

In the end, it comes down to not letting others define us — a commitment demanding, above all, that we do as young André Gide aspired in his diary: prioritize being over appearing. Bello reflects on this gargantuan task and the urgency at its heart:

The old ideas of love, marriage, children, and happily ever after just don’t apply to most of us. I have come to see that the labels that other people might give me about my partnerships, family, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, and spirituality do not define me. I am only concerned with the only labels that matter—the ones I give myself.

[…]

All I hope is that we all keep questioning our labels, get rid of the ones that hold us back, and hang on to the ones that shine light on the beauty of who we really are.

Whatever… Love Is Love does precisely what it promises to do — question the labels we give ourselves, not for the sake of simplistic and static answers but in a noble quest for nuance in the dynamic act of answering. Complement it with Susan Sontag on how labels limit us, Diane Ackerman’s superb natural history of love, and modern love patron saint Edie Windsor on love and the truth about equality, then revisit history’s most beautiful love letters by “whatevers,” including Virginia Woolf, Margaret Mead, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

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01 MAY, 2015

JFK on Poetry, Power, and the Artist’s Role in Society: His Eulogy for Robert Frost, One of the Greatest Speeches of All Time

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“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”

In January of 1961, as John F. Kennedy’s inauguration approached, his would-be Secretary of the Interior suggested that the poet Robert Frost participate in the ceremony as the first inaugural poet. Eighty-six-year-old Frost telegrammed Kennedy with his signature elegance of wit: “If you can bear at your age the honor of being made president of the United States, I ought to be able at my age to bear the honor of taking some part in your inauguration.” He proceeded to deliver a beautiful ode to the dream of including the arts in government, which touched Kennedy deeply.

Frost died exactly two years later, in January of 1963. That fall, Amherst College invited the President to speak at an event honoring the beloved poet. On October 26, Kennedy took the podium at Amherst and delivered a spectacular speech mirroring back to Frost that deep dedication to the arts and celebrating the role of the artist in society. Perhaps more than any other public address, it affirmed JFK as that rare species of politician who is equally a poet and prophet of the human spirit.

The speech was eventually included in the altogether superb Farewell, Godspeed: The Greatest Eulogies of Our Time (public library) — a compendium of breathtaking adieus to cultural icons like Amelia Earhart, Martin Luther King, Jr., Emily Dickinson, Keith Haring, Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Schulz, and Virginia Woolf, delivered by those who knew them best.

This original recording of the speech, while short in length, is endlessly ennobling in substance. Highlights below — please enjoy:

Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.

[…]

Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state… In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role…

If sometimes our great artist have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth… In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man, the fate of having “nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.”

Typed draft of the speech, edited in Kennedy's own hand (Courtesy of John F. Kennedy Library)

But as notable as the speech itself — for reasons both poetical and political — are the parts Kennedy edited out in his own hand, including this heartbreaking-in-hindsight passage from the second page:

We take great comfort in our nuclear stockpiles, our gross national product, our scientific and technological achievement, our industrial might — and, up to a point, we are right to do so. But physical power by itself solves no problems and secures no victories. What counts is the way power is used — whether with swagger and contempt, or with prudence, discipline and magnanimity. What counts is the purpose for which power is used — whether for aggrandizement or for liberation. “It is excellent,” Shakespeare said, “to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.”

Three weeks later, one of history’s ugliest and most arrogant misuses of brute power took place as JFK was assassinated, prompting Leonard Bernstein to pen his timelessly moving address on the only true antidote to violence. But the message at the heart of Kennedy’s speech continued to resonate even as his voice was silenced by brutality. Less than two years later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, creating the National Endowment for the Arts — the very dream that Frost had dreamt up at JFK’s inauguration.

Complement with two more titans of poetry on the role of the artist in culture: E.E. Cummings on the agony and salvation of the artist and James Baldwin on the artist’s responsibility to society.

The JFK speech appears as the opening track on composer Mohammed Fairouz’s spectacular album Follow Poet — titled after a line from W.H. Auden’s beautiful elegy for W.B. Yeats — and can be heard in Fairouz’s wholly fantastic On Being conversation with Krista Tippett:

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22 APRIL, 2015

Wendell Berry on Our Contempt for Small Places and the Perils of Our “Rugged Individualism”

By:

“The extent of our knowledge will always be… the measure of the extent of our ignorance.”

Novelist, poet, farmer, and environmental activist Wendell Berry (b. August 5, 1934) is the closest thing our era has to Thoreau — a magnificent writer whose poems and essays remind us, over and over, what it means to be awake to the world, inner and outer. Whether he is contemplating solitude and the two great enemies of creative work or examining how poetic form illuminates the secret of marriage, Berry breaks through even our most hardened ego-shells and beams into the cracks enormous warmth and wisdom.

That’s precisely what he does in The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays (public library) — a masterwork of luminous lucidity on our civilizational shortcomings, delivered with the intelligent hope necessary for doing better.

Wendell Berry (Photograph: Guy Mendes)

In the introduction, penned years before Stuart Firestein’s manifesto for “thoroughly conscious ignorance” and a decade before astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser’s elegant modern case for living with mystery in the age of knowledge, Berry clarifies the misunderstood value of ignorance:

There are kinds and degrees of ignorance that are remediable, of course, and we have no excuse for not learning all we can. Within limits, we can learn and think; we can read, hear, and see; we can remember. We don’t have to live in a world defined by professional and political gibberish.

But… our ignorance ultimately is irremediable… Do what we will, we are never going to be free of mortality, partiality, fallibility, and error. The extent of our knowledge will always be, at the same time, the measure of the extent of our ignorance.

Because ignorance is thus a part of our creaturely definition, we need an appropriate way: a way of ignorance, which is the way of neighborly love, kindness, caution, care, appropriate scale, thrift, good work, right livelihood…

The way of ignorance, therefore, is to be careful, to know the limits and the efficacy of our knowledge. It is to be humble and to work on an appropriate scale.

Illustration from 'The River' by Alessandro Sanna. Click image for details.

In a beautiful essay titled “Contempt for Small Places,” Berry — a lifelong celebrator of the grandeur of smallness, and a self-described “small writer” and “small farmer” — reflects:

The health of the oceans depends on the health of rivers; the health of rivers depends on the health of small streams; the health of small streams depends on the health of their watersheds. The health of the water is exactly the same as the health of the land; the health of small places is exactly the same as the health of large places…

We cannot immunize the continents and the oceans against our contempt for small places and small streams. Small destructions add up, and finally they are understood collectively as large destructions.

Berry points to the coal industry as a major culprit in this accretion of small destructions — and now, a decade later, one can’t help but wonder whether almonds are the new coal, with so many of the same commercial and political dynamics at play. With an eye to “the contradictions in the state’s effort ‘to balance the competing interests,’” Berry quotes Kentucky Appalachian Commission director Ewell Balltrip’s perfect articulation of the interdependencies at stake:

If you don’t have mining, you don’t have an economy, and if you don’t have an economy you don’t have a way for the people to live. But if you don’t have environmental quality, you won’t create the kind of place where people want to live.

He revisits the complexities surrounding these conflicting interests in another essay from the same collection, titled “Rugged Individualism”:

The career of rugged individualism in America has run mostly to absurdity, tragic or comic. But it also has done us a certain amount of good. There was a streak of it in Thoreau, who went alone to jail in protest against the Mexican War. And that streak has continued in his successors who have suffered penalties for civil disobedience because of their perception that the law and the government were not always or necessarily right. This is individualism of a kind rugged enough, and it has been authenticated typically by its identification with a communal good.

The tragic version of rugged individualism is in the presumptive “right” of individuals to do as they please, as if there were no God, no legitimate government, no community, no neighbors, and no posterity. This is most frequently understood as the right to do whatever one pleases with one’s property. One’s property, according to this formulation, is one’s own absolutely.

Illustration from 'Once Upon an Alphabet' by Oliver Jeffers. Click image for details.

To be sure, Berry’s “rugged individualism” is simply a more poetic term for our common complaint of “entitlement” — an accusation usually aimed at the young, which upon closer inspection reveals itself as a major undercurrent of capitalist society itself. Contemplating how we got there, Berry points to the aberrant evolution of property rights — something that originated as protection of the private individual and mutated into destruction of the public good:

Rugged individualism of this kind has cost us dearly in lost topsoil, in destroyed forests, in the increasing toxicity of the world, and in annihilated species.

When property rights become absolute they are invariably destructive, for then they are used to justify not only the abuse of things of permanent value for the temporary benefit of legal owners, but also the appropriation and abuse of things to which the would-be owners have no rights at all, but which can belong only to the public or to the entire community of living creatures: the atmosphere, the water cycle, wilderness, ecosystems, the possibility of life.

What has only exacerbated the situation, Berry argues, is the growing tendency toward granting brands and companies the status of “persons,” who then exercise their own “rugged individualism” by further abusing these property rights as permission to do as they please. Berry writes:

Because of the overwhelming wealth and influence of these “persons,” the elected representatives and defenders of “the people” … become instead the representatives and defenders of the corporations.

It has become ever more clear that this sort of individualism has never proposed or implied any protection of the rights of all individuals, but instead has promoted a ferocious scramble in which more and more of the rights of “the people” have been gathered into the ownership of fewer and fewer of the greediest and most powerful “persons.”

Illustration from 'Inside the Rainbow: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times.' Click image for details.

Once again, it’s hard not to think about the almond-farming predicament and other such modern manifestations of this corporate anthropomorphism of property rights as Berry concludes:

“Every man for himself” is a doctrine for a feeding frenzy or for a panic in a burning nightclub, appropriate for sharks or hogs or perhaps a cascade of lemmings. A society wishing to endure must speak the language of care-taking, faith-keeping, kindness, neighborliness, and peace. That language is another precious resource that cannot be “privatized.”

Under the tyranny of “rugged individualism,” this profound disconnect between our personal interests and our world’s wellbeing is a rift rooted in pitting the wilderness as an antagonist to human progress and seeing the welfare of the two as mutually exclusive — a pie fallacy which began at least as early as the Industrial Revolution and which Bertrand Russell bemoaned in his 1930 classic, observing that we’ve come to measure our progress by our “separation from the life of Earth.” How we ended up with this rift is what Berry examines in another essay from the volume, titled “Compromise, Hell!”:

Since the beginning of the conservation effort … conservationists have too often believed that we could protect the land without protecting the people… If conservationists hope to save even the wild lands and wild creatures, they are going to have to address issues of economy, which is to say issues of the health of the landscapes and the towns and cities where we do our work, and the quality of that work, and the well-being of the people who do the work.

Governments seem to be making the opposite error, believing that the people can be adequately protected without protecting the land… If we know that coal is an exhaustible resource, whereas the forests over it are with proper use inexhaustible, and that strip mining destroys the forest virtually forever, how can we permit this destruction? If we honor at all that fragile creature the topsoil, so long in the making, so miraculously made, so indispensable to all life, how can we destroy it?

[…]

The general purpose of the present economy is to exploit, not to foster or conserve.

The Way of Ignorance and Other Essays is a spectacular read in its entirety. Complement it with Berry on pride and despair and form, faith, and freedom, then revisit Jon Mooallem on rediscovering the larger value of small places.

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