Rod Dreher got the closing chapter in The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry, with Wendell Berry: A Latter-Day St. Benedict.
Excerpts and a few comments:
There is among Republicans little if any appreciation of how the party’s enthusiasm for laissez-faire capitalism—and the idea that economic growth is the raison d’être of our common existence—undermines the communal and social bonds necessary to support the traditional family-centered morality Republicans claim to esteem.
Conservatives, [Berry] writes, exalt the family as a sort of “public icon” but will not stand against economic practices that undermine the family’s structure and purpose. Liberals exalt sexual emancipation and the abrogation of established traditions governing sexual relations but refuse to recognize how their libertine ethic undermines the community they claim to support. Neither side can offer a credible solution to the current crisis because neither side has a credible answer to the question once posed by Berry: “What are people for?”
This is true and is a terrible Republican “conservative” blind spot. If you’re incredulous at the suggestion that consumer capitalism undermines families, you need take the blinders off and get out more. But the Democrat blind spot is never far from my mind, either, and makes me a bit cynical about Gubernatorial candidate John Gregg’s otherwise fetching “we take care of our own” TV ads.
We are a people given over to autonomous individualism. Mainstream liberals are more sympathetic to sexual autonomy; mainstream conservatives to economic autonomy. The ferocious contempt partisans of both sides have for each other obscures their fundamental philosophical agreement. As the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has said, all modern political arguments come down to disputes “between conservative liberals, liberal liberals and radical liberals.” He meant that in our culture, nearly all political factions accept as given that the choosing individual is the base unit of our political order, and all claims must be made in terms of expanding freedom to choose.
C.S. Lewis’ essay “On the Reading of Old Books” observed:
Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united — united with each other and against earlier and later ages — by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?” — lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth.
Dreher, channeling MacIntyre, is suggesting that one of our untroubled agreements is that “the choosing individual is the base unit of our political order, and all claims must be made in terms of expanding freedom to choose.” Having viewed the world mostly from the Right, that’s starkly obvious in Left slogans like “pro-choice.” Perhaps even more telling is Justice Anthony Kennedy’s view in Planned Parenthood v. Casey in the early 90s:
These matters, involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy, are central to the liberty protected by the 14th Amendment. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life ….
(Emphasis added) That’s telling because Justices know that the legitimacy of their opinions come entirely from the persuasive plausibility, as the court has no troops or police to enforce its will. Radically autonomous individual choice either has real cachet or Justice Kennedy is tone deaf. I wouldn’t bet on the latter.
There are more communitarian ways of viewing reality, and as I’m now ensconced in a religious tradition one of whose modern voice wrote “Being as Communion,” I’m trying to shift into such ways of thinking.
[W]hile it is satisfying to bewail the failures of the Republicans and the Democrats, let’s not deceive ourselves. Our problems come not so much because American political parties have lost their way but rather because we, the American people, have lost our way. There are no votes in telling people this, so politicians don’t. Still, the wise among us will heed Wendell Berry’s verdict: “Our country is not being destroyed by bad politics; it is being destroyed by a bad way of life.”
This principle—that our natural state imposes duties and limits upon us and our relations to others—is increasingly foreign to the American way of life, which rejects limits, natural or prescribed. As the military historian Andrew Bacevich has argued, with reference to Jimmy Carter’s disastrous attempt to convince Americans to live within our means (the so-called malaise speech), we have become a people who will tolerate war in the Middle East as the price for maintaining the right to live without limits. It is, or has become, the American way.
Alasdair MacIntyre counseled rejecting both political parties in 2004 “not primarily because they give us the wrong answers, but because they answer the wrong questions.”
I am convinced that conservatives have placed far too much stock in political action and far too little in the work of culture. “Society’s long-term direction is not set mainly by politicians,” the political theorist Claes Ryn recently wrote. “It is set by those who capture a people’s mind and imagination.”
You don’t need much to capture minds and imaginations. A TV network will do. Currently, Glee and Modern Family, having supplanted Will & Grace, are doing a nice job of convincing us that niceness is job #1, and that it’s not nice to say “no” to anyone’s sexual preference. That’s a major reason why the same-sex marriage cause is triumphant already, although the “conservative” undermining of the family didn’t help. (Bless their hearts. They just can’t help themselves.)
The ideal polity will favor small-scale economics—small farmers, small manufacturers, small merchants—because that is the kind of society in which people are most likely to develop in wisdom, virtue, and happiness.
We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless quite different—St.Benedict.
Much more might be a spoiler. I commend the whole book and the works of Berry generally.