A native Kentuckian, Wendell Berry is a farmer and philosopher, essayist and poet, environmental activist, and localist. He has written over 40 works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, on topics ranging from sustainable farming to biographical novels to cultural commentary. Over the years, Berry has been the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, the National Humanities Medal, and the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award—given for works that “advance peace through literature.”
Berry doesn’t easily fit political boxes: Though many of his views on community and culture are traditional, his views on the environment and pacifism are more often associated with the politics and policies of the left. He often angers people on both left and right with his stances. Yet despite this, there is a marked consistency to Berry’s thought. He is concerned, first and foremost, with representing and defending his home: Port Royal, Kentucky.
Indeed, Berry’s fictional works all center on the town of Port Royal—known as Port William in the books—chronicling its heritage through the lives of its townspeople. One of his most beloved novels, Jayber Crow, tells the story of the town’s fictional barber. After an early life of rootlessness, Jayber anchors himself in Port William, living a quiet life of service within its community. The novel demonstrates, in a very straightforward way, the importance of local rootedness and stewardship.
The entirety of Berry’s work, despite its breadth, is focused on the relationship men and women have to the earth and to their townships—to the communities that are integral to human flourishing. Berry’s fame is growing as more people come to appreciate the role he has played in our national conversation—not as a prophet of conservatism or of liberalism, but as a vital thinker for our culture and country as a whole. The American Conservative associate editor Gracy Olmstead recently spoke with Berry about politics, faith, land, and economy.
The American Conservative: Jayber Crow is deeply rooted in his community. He’s opposed to war and much of the so-called “progress” that goes on around him. Would you call Jayber Crow a conservative?
Wendell Berry: It never occurred to me to think of Jayber as a “conservative.” I don’t think that would have helped, though he is instinctively and in principle a conserver. His membership is not in a party or a public movement, but in Port William. He is a man of unsteady faith in love with a place, a perishing little town, a community, a woman—with all that is redemptive and good—struggling to be worthy. I didn’t (and don’t) think of him as a “liberal” either.
TAC: What are your biggest objections to conservatism?
Berry: Often, as with Jayber, a political labeling never occurs to me. But often too I am conscious of a need to avoid all the names of political sides.
“Liberal” now names a lot of people who thought the election of President Obama put an end to American racism, which was a kind of good-heartedness but also a kind of silliness. “Conservative” names at least a significant number of people who know that Obama’s election is the best thing that has happened to American racism since the “Southern strategy,” for it set up a man partly of African descent whom they could entirely hate and totally oppose while being politically correct.
But both of those political sides evidently accept war as a part of human normality. Both evidently suppose that the only effective limit of human conduct is technological capability: whatever is possible must be done. And both evidently assume that nature, the land communities, and the economies of land use can be safely exploited or ignored.
And so I prefer to get along without political labels. They don’t help thought, or my version of thought. Since I’m self-employed and not running for office, I’m free to notice that those political names don’t mean much of anything, and so am free to do without them. I’m free, in short, to be an amateur. Jayber to me is Jayber unclassified.
The same for Edmund Burke, whose writings and speeches I have read eagerly and at considerable length. As an amateur, I don’t need to be waylaid by wondering how he, a Whig, comes now to be counted a conservative, the sire of “Burkean conservatism,” not the least bit liberal. I can object to some things he said, but that is not remarkable, and it doesn’t matter much.
I don’t read him to be confirmed in a party allegiance. I read him for his steadfast affirmation of qualities I see as, in a high sense, human. I read him for his decency, the luster of his intelligence and character, his patience and endurance in thinking, his willingness to take a principled stand, the happiness of his prose.
He was a peacemaker, a lover of “order and beauty,” of “the amiable and conciliatory virtues of lenity, moderation, and tenderness.” As a man in politics should do, he preferred reason to the passions. He thought that “the separation of fame and virtue is a harsh divorce.” He said, “I do not like to see anything destroyed…” He said that a person “has a right to a fair portion of all which society, with all its combinations of skill and force, can do in his favor.” He said, “The poorest being that crawls on earth, contending to save itself from injustice and oppression, is an object respectable in the eyes of God and man.” A useful exercise for an American is to ask which of our holders of office has ever spoken publicly in favor of beauty or the “virtue” of tenderness.
TAC: You write a lot about the importance of conservation—which, really, conservatism is supposed to be about. How have conservatives lost an understanding of proper conservation?
Berry: For those who enjoy absurdities—as I do, up to a point—“conservatives” opposed to conservation are vibrantly absurd and worth at least a grin. But such conservatives have achieved this amusing absurdity by a radical and dangerous narrowing of purpose. They apparently wish to conserve only the power and wealth of the most powerful and the most wealthy.
The conservation of wilderness and “the wild” seems now to be recognized as a project belonging exclusively to “liberals.” But that also is a dangerous narrowing of purpose. It is true that “liberal” conservationists also fairly dependably oppose the most excessive and sensational abuses of “the environment,” such as oil or slurry spills (in some places), surface mining (off and on, never enough), extreme pollution of air and water (mainly as it affects cities), and so on.
But in fact most politicians, “conservative” and “liberal,” are the pets or juvenile dependents of the industrial corporations. In Kentucky, for example, the Party of Coal has swallowed, digested, and shat nearly all politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike. Above all, it is still virtually impossible to interest any of the powers of politics in the economic landscapes of farming and forestry. In those landscapes the gravest and most extensive damages are being done: by soil erosion, by toxic pollution of soil and water, by impairment of the diversity and integrity of ecosystems, by drastic interruptions of the fertility cycle, by the devastation of rural communities and of our never adequately developed cultures of husbandry.
There are reasons to hope for and even to foresee the coming of more honesty and better purposes—the need for a sustainable economy, the increasingly obvious failures of industrialism and corporate rule—but no extensive improvements can come easily or soon.
TAC: You once wrote of the Gulf War, “But we know that this was descended from a history of war and that it evokes the fear of other wars that may descend from it.” Is war with ISIS also part of this chain—descended from the Iraq War, in particular? How do we stop this cycle?
Berry: It does seem that there are lineages of war and that wars are the causes of wars. And it seems unlikely that wars cause peace. Wars cause victory and defeat, equivocal terms because in wars both sides lose much that they would rather keep, and they cause exhaustion. But victory, defeat, loss, and exhaustion don’t define peace. It is certain that peace does not cause war. Wars, moreover, tend not to end. Damage from our Civil War continues today. We are still under the influence of World War II. We still suffer the effects of the succession of wars that have followed.
But I don’t believe we can hope to make sense of our modern wars until we have acknowledged that war is good for business. The industrialization of war has made it far worse than before. And weapons, ammunition, explosives, the vehicles of battle—like throwaway bottles, made to be destroyed and expensively replaced—are ideal products of industrialism. Wars favor “industrial development.” They are invariably the occasions and agents of “technological progress.” The greatest benefits by far of the Civil War went to the railroads and the mineral and timber industries.
And so the damages have continued and become worse. Young people in the “armed services” pay for war with their lives, and so do children and other innocents in foreign countries (so far), while even the wealthiest citizens, for whose freedom these deaths supposedly pay, oppose paying taxes. And who among the experts, scholars, and promoters of war has calculated its ecological damages? As mere citizens, people, suffering humans, we face two arresting questions about industrial war: How much longer can we stand it? And how much longer can we and our world afford it?
We threaten and make war, as a first choice or as a matter of course, because we conceive of violence as the normal answer to other people’s violence. As war becomes ever more industrial, more technological, more able to inflict its damage at a distance and by remote control, we seem to like it better. President Obama has become, as he was fated to be, the new head pioneer of remote control. There is no need to face your enemies or even know them, if you can push a button and kill them at a distance of thousands of miles without getting up from your chair. For this there are the urgent practical reasons that war invariably supplies.
But we also are susceptible to the technological charm of, for example, drones. In the very midst of war, these weapons of precision killing have become “consumer products,” and the most modern and up-to-date people are buying them as they bought cell phones. They fit with perfect logic the needs of the preservers of the “balance” of freedom-and-security, and by the same logic the needs of blackmailers and hit men. No doubt already there are drone billionaires.
Peace assuredly would pay even larger dividends, but to the wrong people. It is not at all clear how you could make a billion dollars by being peaceable. And so we don’t consider or study the means of peace, or make them available to our leaders. We speak well of peace, we say we want it, we have paid the lives of innumerable other people and unaccountable wealth supposedly to get it, but we seem not to mind, we seem not to notice, that all we have got for so much loss, for so long, is more war.
TAC: Many U.S. Christians feel a burden to protect and help Iraqi Christians put in danger because of ISIS. What do you see as the balance here—between compassion for those who suffer persecution and focusing our attentions on the troubles in our own neighborhoods?
Berry: Of course Christians want to kill the enemies of Christians. How could this not be so when Christians have so often and so happily killed other Christians? But it is remarkable and disturbing that Christians were pointedly instructed by Christ not to do this. In most of historical and institutional Christianity there appears to be a void where should have appeared Christ’s requirement that we should love, bless, do good to, and pray for our enemies, and forgive those who offend us. In order to end war, somebody, some nation, would have to stop fighting. In order to stop fighting there would need to be an alternative, something to do instead. After 2,000 years all Christian nations and most churches have found nothing preferable to war.
Only a few marginal Christians have dared to think that Christianity calls for the radical neighborhood, servanthood, love, and forgiveness that Christ taught. I agree with them, and much against my nature I have tried to make my thoughts consent. I do not say this with confidence.
TAC: The localist movement seems to get a lot of bipartisan support, at least when it comes to supporting farmers’ markets and buying local. What do you think of the “locavore” movement?
Berry: Though “local” and “movement” are almost a contradiction in terms, we do seem to have, in this country and in others, the substantial beginning of such a movement. As you suggest, it is so far limited to the promotion of local consumption of locally-grown food. Its founding premise, as I understand it, is that a local supply of food is (or, if fully developed, would be) more secure, more democratic in scale, cheaper, fresher, and healthier than food supplied by distant producers dependent upon long-distance transportation. A local food economy obviously also would strengthen the local economy as a whole and therefore the local community.
This possibility is extendable to local economies of energy, forest products, and to appropriately scaled industries adding value to the produce of the local countryside. As the local economy grew and diversified, the local people would become dependent on it, and would become, in effect, a lobby for the sustainable use of local sources.
It is important to understand, and to be grateful, that this movement is diametrically opposed to the “global economy” (much older than its present name) which exists for the purpose of extracting everything of value from every locality and gathering it into fewer and fewer hands.
I did once write an essay, “In Distrust of Movements,” and I will maintain my distrust, which is to say that I will attempt to weigh, as fairly as I can, any movement’s aims against its results.
TAC: Partisanship is often, it seems, a national-level stance, whereas agreement seems easier to find on a local, particular level. Could localism serve as an antidote to partisanship and schismatic politics?
Berry: I think so. People speaking in good faith of what they know and love, in the presence of those things, are likely to find that they have a common ground, literally and figuratively. This has happened in conversations between conservationists and ranchers.
TAC: Many believe that marriage as an institution is no longer uniquely valuable in modern society. If a couple lives together, sharing a faithful commitment to each other, that is seen as enough. What would your response be to such a claim? What role can marriage play on a communal level?
Berry: I don’t think modern society is a proper context for evaluating marriage. Modern society supplies the statistics of divorce and the attendant reasons and lamentations. Modern America knows that divorce is good for business, and a marriage that makes a reasonably productive and self-sufficient household economy is bad for business. At the least, marriage is made by vows and the implied effort may certainly make [a couple’s] marriage valuable to themselves. Its value may be extended, even increased, within the circumstances and influence of a family and a community, if the couple has a family and a community. But there is an aura of comedy hanging about Christian conservatives, who have stood silently by while corporate (Christian!) industrialism has broken the old coherences of family and community, and who now come out sweating and shouting in favor of “traditional marriage.”
TAC: You have described yourself as a “forest Christian,” and as a “marginal Christian.” What are the primary reasons you have distanced yourself from a particular church or denomination? What are your biggest concerns with the modern Christian church?
Berry: I’ve called myself a “forest Christian” because on Sunday mornings when the weather is favorable, my vocation (as it seems to me) has led me to the woods. I call myself a “marginal Christian” because I’m pretty much a literalist. I think, for example, that Jesus meant literally the imperatives I mentioned [above]. I don’t think their embarrassment can be lightened by interpretation. As a literalist, I can’t allay my unhappiness, for example, with Christ’s killing the barren fig tree (Matthew 21:19) or his condemnation of the wedding guest who showed up without a proper garment (Matthew 22:13). And I deplore entirely the racism and genocide in some passages of the Old Testament (Joshua 6:21, for example), and what I take to be their bad influence on American history.
Why have I distanced myself from any particular denomination? If I were to apply on the condition that I would attend only in bad weather, and that I have founded my faith on some passages of the Bible selected by me, I think I should be refused.
The core tenets [of Christianity], I think, are an undiscriminating neighborliness, help to “the least of these my brethren,” love in response to hate, mindfulness of the present rather than the future, peaceability, forgiveness, justice, and above justice mercy.
My concern about modern Christianity? I don’t know when, why, or how it happened, but at some time the mainstream denominations put themselves in charge of the Sunday job of accrediting people for admission to Heaven, turning the workdays, the human economy, and the material creation over to the materialists. And so it became possible for people to commit their souls to God while participating in an economy dedicated to the swiftest possible extraction and consumption of everything it values in God’s world, with unlimited collateral damage to all creatures, humans included, that it does not value.
Once this desecration of creation, of life itself, becomes conventional economic practice, then the submersion of the Gospel in nationalism and the waging of Christian warfare readily follows. Once war is accepted as the normal condition of human, including Christian, life, then spying upon citizens, imprisonment without indictment or trial, torture of prisoners, and all the malpractice of a tyrannical “security” evidently follow and are justified by leaders. If the life of the poorest being that crawls on the earth is not respected as a great and holy mystery, then it may be that humans go “free” of all limits, become disoriented, and are truly unable to find themselves.
Gracy Olmstead is an associate editor at The American Conservative, from which this interview was reprinted (January/February 2015). The American Conservative is a bimonthly political magazine that emphasizes ideas over ideology and principles over party.