Rod Dreher

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Wendell Berry, Hater and Ideologue

So says Matthew Franck, based on the man’s Jefferson Lecture. Excerpt:

Taking a breather from his litany of loathing, he indicates that he loves Nature, which he capitalizes, and draws attention to capitalizing, just in case we might be too slow to miss his implicit pantheism. He loves the local, and he loves the land, and he loves the impressive but largely vacuous sentences he composes about them. He loves E.M. Forster, a minor novelist of the last century who is remembered today chiefly for providing the raw material for some rather precious motion pictures.

He loves the “stickers” and he hates the “boomers,” terms he borrows from his teacher Wallace Stegner. Boomers are mobile creatures, moving from place to place and seizing opportunities—presumably like the first Berry who came to America centuries ago. Stickers are the ones who stay in place and sink roots in the land. Is there room in Wendell Berry’s moral imagination (he loves that word, “imagination”) for a good word to be said about each of them?

Not on your life, you boomer you. “The boomer is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power. . . . Stickers on the contrary are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it.” The Berry family is a bunch of stickers, and Wendell is the Poet of Stickers. There is nothing redeeming or redemptible, not one thing, to be found in boomers. They’re hateful. So there.

It goes on like that, with Franck denouncing Berry’s words as “a sparkling example of an ideological mind at work.” Let me say that it’s actually refreshing to read something critical of Berry; I say that as someone who is rather worshipful towards him, and who downplays, at least in my mind, the fact that Berry’s stern moralism often doesn’t give one much direction in what a sympathetic person could practically do to live out his ethical and philosophical code in a non-agrarian world. As a lefty pal sympathetic to Berry once said to me, “The problem with Wendell is nobody is pure enough for him.” Then again, the lack of a prescription doesn’t necessarily compromise the diagnosis.

But this essay? Feh. Franck’s essay is one long neoconnish sneer at Berry, without any evident attempt to grasp the man’s thought. “Implicit pantheism”? I’m pretty sure Franck is a Roman Catholic. Berry, who is some sort of Protestant, is talking about the sacramental quality of the created world — which is not the same thing as pantheism. His book against scientism, “Life Is a Miracle,” is a profoundly Christian statement of intellectual humility and the sacramental worldview. “Pantheism”? Good grief. That’s on the same level as saying that Catholics worship statues.

About the Boomer-Sticker thing — and really, read the lecture itself to get a fuller understanding of what Berry said — Berry is making the perfectly reasonable, very conservative, point that there is something morally derelict in being the sort of person who doesn’t stay put to tend and to build, but rather in being the sort of person who sees the world — Nature, human communities — as disconnected from ourselves, spiritually and morally, and only there to be exploited.   His slam on James B. Duke has to do with Duke — and by extension, the capitalist — not seeing how his own decisions, indeed his own prosperity, depends on the well being of all the little guys under him. If Duke had affection (in the philosophical sense Berry means it, not mere emotion) for these people, he wouldn’t see these farmers as objects, mere entries on an accounting ledger, but as stewards of the common good, to whom he is obligated, as they are to him. Berry’s argument is that our entire way of living is narcissistic and materialistic, and only asks, “What’s in it for me?”

Does Berry undervalue the creative aspect of capitalism, and the goods inherent in mobility? I believe he does. That said, everything in American popular culture tells us that we should always move for better jobs, move to fulfill desires, that we should place the pursuit of happiness (versus virtue) as the absolute telos of our personal and communal lives. That we should be acutely conscious of our rights, but disdainful of our responsibilities. Berry really does speak prophetically about these things, and from a deeply conservative, traditionalist worldview — one that leaves very few people, on the left or the right, unimplicated in our predicament. What Berry asks, ultimately, is: What is a person? What does it mean to be fully human? What does our humanity, under God, require of us? What are our limits?

The fact that contemporary conservatives like Franck can only condemn Berry as a tree-hugging crypto-commie is by no means an indictment of Berry, but a rather stark example of the rigidity of the contemporary American conservative philosophical and theological imagination.

To be fair, though, if the Jefferson Lecture was one’s first exposure to Berry’s thought — and Franck has indicated elsewhere that for him, it was — then it’s understandable that one would be more dismissive of Berry and his vision than the overall facts warrant. Here’s Nathan Schlueter, responding to Franck’s polemic. Schlueter agrees that the Jefferson Lecture wasn’t Berry at his best. But:

Unfortunately, Berry’s almost complete silence about government in his lecture almost undoubtedly led many of his listeners to a conclusion he did not in fact make, that government is the solution. It is very difficult to believe that this was Berry’s intention, and it certainly cannot be deduced from his other writings, where governments are as guilty as corporations. Port William, his model of a community based on “membership,” has neither corporations nor a government.

In the end, I would strongly encourage people not to judge Berry based upon this one lecture. He fully deserved the honor of the lecture. His body of work in fiction, poetry, and essays constitutes the most impressive effort in our time to protect, preserve, and deepen the knowledge of the human person that lies at the heart of Western civilization, and to oppose the corrosive influences (utilitarianism, individualism, scientism, industrialism, etc.) that threaten to destroy that knowledge. His life itself is a testament of fidelity to that knowledge, worthy of acknowledgment, recognition, and celebration.

True. My defensiveness of Berry against Franck’s attack, I think, has to do with the fact that I’ve been reading Berry for years, and knew when I read this lecture that it was basically just Berry saying the same things he’s been saying for years, in a highly abbreviated form. It’s hard for me to read it with the eyes of someone who knows nothing of Berry.



Setting Sun for Millennial America

We’ve talked about this before in these parts, but I wanted to mention that the phenomenon of underemployment among the Millennial generation hit close to home this week. I had a conversation this week with a friend who is watching three of her four adult children — all in their twenties or early thirties — struggle to find jobs that can do more than just pay the rent. All these kids have good educations, and all the advantages that come with being raised in a middle to upper middle class American home, with an intact family, in a solid community. And yet, it’s hard. One of them is working very long hours in a hard job that doesn’t pay well, and offers no chances for advancement — this, while he looks for something with a brighter future. One of them is preparing to start grad school this fall, for lack of anything more remunerative to do. My friend said that in her state, starting salaries in her daughter’s field are … about what I started at 23 years ago as an entry-level newspaper reporter, which never has been a profession known for its generous salaries.

Said my friend, “The other night, my husband and I said to each other that there’s no way our kids are going to have the salaries we did.”

“How will they ever buy a house, or save for anything?” I said.

“God knows,” she said.

I know, I know. This is not news. Still, when it’s people you know well, it hits especially hard. I thought about how unless something changes, my friend’s kids will always live on the edge of radical insecurity, one minor financial disaster (e.g., an illness) away from catastrophe. This is called downward mobility. Talking to her the other day, I realized how little I really think this is going to happen to my children. But that, of course, is a complete illusion. Later, I thought about what the American businessman I met and had drinks with in Paris told me about what the last few years living and working abroad had told him about America’s political culture: that none of us, Republicans or Democrats, have grasped the decline that the younger generations will live through. Neither party is prepared to be honest with the American people about our condition, and that’s because, in his view, the American people don’t want to be told the truth. “In America,” he put it, “it’s always 1945.”

I don’t have anything new to add to any of this. It was just sobering to hear from my friend about what she’s seeing in her own family.

Also: a conservative friend phoned the other day and mentioned that his elderly father in Germany had been diagnosed with a couple of severe illnesses. While he wishes that he could see his dad regularly now, he said, “I thank God that he’s in Germany, where he can afford medical care.”


US Sells out Blind Chinese Activist?

What a disaster for the Obama administration! From CNN:

He said Thursday that he felt that his life and that of his wife would be in danger if he were to remain in the country.

“Anything could happen,” he said.

Chen said he left the embassy only after U.S. officials encouraged him to do so.

“The embassy kept lobbying me to leave and promised tohave people stay with me at the hospital,” he said. “But this afternoon, as soon as I checked into the hospital room, I noticed they were all gone.”

He said he was “very disappointed” in the U.S. government and felt “a little” that he had been lied to by the embassy.

This could be deadly for poor Chen Guangcheng, but it’s unequivocally humiliating for America. What the hell happened here? Throwing a blind man whose only crime was speaking out against forced abortions back to those wolves?

On the other hand, US officials insist that they never forced Chen out of the embassy, that they asked him over and over if he was sure he wanted to do this. More:

The American ambassador, Gary Locke, reiterated Thursday that Mr. Chen had not been coerced into leaving the embassy on Wednesday and insisted that the dissident lawyer had left of his free will after a plan had been worked out with the Chinese government that he and his family could relocate to a city close to Beijing where he would pursue his law studies.

If this is true, and Chen, upon release, realized he had made a terrible mistake, it is only human to blame the Americans for allegedly misleading him. My sympathies are naturally with Chen, but we should allow for the possibility that it was he who erred here, not our people. In any case, what a rotten bunch of bastards the Chinese government is. Funny how it’s the world’s rising power, rich and filled with opportunity, yet nobody wants to live there, unless they have a foreign passport and can leave when the thugocracy comes after them.


View From Your Table

Philadephia, Pennsylvania


Ric Grenell = Devon Banks

Ric Grenell, Romney’s recently defenestrated foreign policy adviser, sounds like a jerkwad a la Devon Banks, Will Arnett’s gay character in “30 Rock” (see video). Given his outsized personality, and his controversial public statements (e.g., bitchy tweets), I can see why such a loose cannon would have been a potential liability to the Romney campaign.

But if — if — Grenell was thrown off the campaign because he’s gay and supports gay marriage, and (therefore) Team Romney feared freaking out religious and social conservatives, then that’s third-rate, jerkwad behavior. Who cares if the guy is gay? Can he do the foreign policy job he was hired to do? That’s all that matters, at least to me, an anti-SSM religious conservative. I just don’t get Matthew Franck’s contention that having Grenell on Romney’s foreign policy team would mean bending US policy in a pro-gay direction. Dick Cheney supports gay marriage too; if he too liberal, therefore, to have a slot on a Republican presidential campaign?

Jennifer Rubin has a sensible take on the issue. Excerpt:

If there is a takeaway here, it is that some anti-gay voices wigged out when a gay man was hired as a spokesman for a conservative on foreign policy. This episode did not concern gay marriage. It did not concern Romney’s stance on gay rights (he hired Grenell, after all). It concerned whether the mere presence of an openly gay person in a Republican campaign is a bridge too far. Unfortunately, for some on the right it was, and they set out to make such a rumpus that Grenell felt he could not do his job. Grenell isn’t a one-issue voter, but they sure are.

Unless there’s something I’m not seeing, it does not speak well of Romney’s spine that he caved over this.

The Social Conservatism of ‘Girls’

I’ve not seen the controversial HBO show “Girls,” but Ross Douthat discerns some pretty socially conservative messages in it. Excerpt:

I’m not suggesting that Dunham is secretly channeling the show’s profits to the Family Research Council. But it’s still interesting to watch how effectively “Girls” weaves together elements from various recent critiques of modern sexual arrangements. The pseudo-relationship that Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, is pursuing with a shirtless hipster layabout is a case study inthe unearned sexual advantages that a culture that assumes a certain amount of promiscuity affords to underachieving and unworthy men. Her best friend’s exhaustion with her nice-guy boyfriend suggests how easily long-term “starter marriage”-type relationships can become smothering traps for the people involved. The babbling “Sex and the City” acolyte who treats her own virginity as a dreadful stigma illustrates the point that the sociologists Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker make in their excellent book, “Premarital Sex in America”– that contemporary teens and twentysomethings consistently overestimate how much sex their peers are having, which in turn puts pressure on them to have more sexual partners than their own preferences would otherwise incline them toward. The show’s treatment of condoms, STDs and abortion suggests the practical limits of an ethic of “safe sex” even among a population that’s been trained since puberty to practice it. And the entire show seems to have been conceived to vindicate a point that the novelist and critic Ben Kunkel made in a Salon conversation several years ago, about how the nature of what you might call the “adultescent” dating scenes militates against genuinely romantic sentiments…

Read the whole thing. Any of you watched the show? Is Ross onto something?


The Smell of Obama In Love

From a Vanity Fair excerpt of David Maraniss’s new book about Barack Obama:

She remembered how on Sundays Obama would lounge around, drinking coffee and solving the New York Times crossword puzzle, bare-chested, wearing a blue and white sarong. His bedroom was closest to the front door, offering a sense of privacy and coziness. Genevieve described it in her journal this way: “I open the door, that Barack keeps closed, to his room, and enter into a warm, private space pervaded by a mixture of smells that so strongly speak of his presence, his liveliness, his habits—running sweat, Brut spray deodorant, smoking, eating raisins, sleeping, breathing.”

Please, God, never let me get so famous that I have to endure ex-girlfriends telling biographers what I smelled like when I was 22.

This, from a letter young Obama wrote to a different girlfriend is pretty interesting:

I haven’t read “The Waste Land” for a year, and I never did bother to check all the footnotes. But I will hazard these statements—Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats. However, he retains a grounding in the social reality/order of his time. Facing what he perceives as a choice between ecstatic chaos and lifeless mechanistic order, he accedes to maintaining a separation of asexual purity and brutal sexual reality. And he wears a stoical face before this. Read his essay on Tradition and the Individual Talent, as well as Four Quartets, when he’s less concerned with depicting moribund Europe, to catch a sense of what I speak. Remember how I said there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism—Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance. (Counter him with Yeats or Pound, who, arising from the same milieu, opted to support Hitler and Mussolini.) And this fatalism is born out of the relation between fertility and death, which I touched on in my last letter—life feeds on itself. A fatalism I share with the western tradition at times. You seem surprised at Eliot’s irreconcilable ambivalence; don’t you share this ambivalence yourself, Alex?

I wonder what George W. Bush thought about Eliot, ecstatic chaos, and lifeless mechanistic order? Heh. No, seriously, it’s interesting to think about young Obama’s fascinating with Eliot’s ambivalence in light of this passage from another letter to that girlfriend, Alex:

Caught without a class, a structure, or tradition to support me, in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me The only way to assuage my feelings of isolation are to absorb all the traditions [and] classes; make them mine, me theirs.


Of Interest: Crazy Tax Problem

Inline image 1

Look at this image a friend of mine sent to me just now, taken from her state tax return. She underpaid by 66 cents. She now has to pay $30.86 in interest for “underpayment of estimated tax.”

She’s understandably outraged by this, but doubts that it’s worth fighting. What do you think?


Pastor: ‘Dads, Beat Your Sissy Sons’

Unbelievable. What a disgusting man, this Pastor Sean Harris of Berean Baptist Church in Fayetteville, NC. I cannot imagine counseling fathers to do physical violence to their sons for not acting “manly” enough! Please spare me the claim that this is how all Christians, even conservative Christians, behave. I’ve never heard anything like this, and hope I never do again. But if publicizing it can bring attention to the evil that is child abuse, which is to say, bullying by parents, and cause Christians (of all people!) to refuse and resist it, then … good. Christians, you do not have to call homosexuality a moral good to denounce this kind of evil. And if you think bullying your son or daughter for not being masculine or feminine enough to suit you is going to change them, you are a cruel fool who will live to regret it.

Pastor Sean issued a non-apology apology. Excerpt:

The purpose of this document is to issue an official statement of retraction of any and all words that suggest that child abuse is appropriate for any and all types of behaviors including (but not limited to) effeminacy and sexual immorality of all types. I should not have said what I said about “cracking,” “punching,” and particular bias toward outward attraction of girls. Nor should I have used the words “special dispensation.” I did not say that children should be squashed. I have never suggested children or those in the LGBT lifestyle should be beaten, punched, abused (physically or psychologically) in any form or fashion.

That is a lie. Listen to the audio and hear for yourself! Pastor Sean is, to the best of my knowledge, a far outlier, even among the conservative Christian community. But when our own side, broadly speaking, says things like this, we have to call them on it. It causes tremendous harm to the cause of defending orthodox Christian teaching about marriage and sexuality to have it taken up by vicious bullies like Pastor Sean Harris. He has just made of himself a gift to the entire pro-SSM activist community, many of whom would like everyone to believe that all traditional Christians think and talk like this.


Vive Les Vieilles Tantes!

(Or, “Long Live the Old Aunts”).

My mom came by yesterday with a bunch of documents from an old trunk she had been going through. They included material that had belonged to my Great-Great-Aunts Lois and Hilda Simmons, who were the sisters of my Great-Grandmother Bernice. Lois  (b. 1893) and Hilda (b. 1890), of whom I’ve written here before, were Red Cross volunteers at the canteen in Dijon, in the Great War. That image above is from a frail leather-bound book given to American soldiers and medical volunteers headed to the front, to help them speak and understand basic French and German. It turns out that Hilda kept a diary of their time in the war, a copy of which now resides in the local Historical Society museum. I didn’t realize that. I’ll try to get down there this week to read it.

Lois Simmons, ca. 1918

There were a few letters Lois had written back home to Bernice from Europe and beyond. There was a fantastic account she sent back, in pencil, from the train in the Toulouse station, when she and Hilda were apparently on a tour of France after the war’s end. It came on hotel stationery from Marseille, and read, in part:

We left Dijon May 6 and have had a most wonderful time since. First we went down to Cannes — right on the Mediterranean — just a lovely city built of white stone, great hotels overlooking the sea, banks of vivid flowers and avenues of palms. Everything is quiet modern and is so to tempt wealthy “globetrotters.” Counts and countesses, barons and baronesses, are as common as mulberries in your back yard. While in Cannes we took trips which covered the entire “Riviera,” as the coast line is called. Trips up into the mountains gave us wonderful views of the cities for miles. When up on the top of the mountains you see the clouds rising from the sea. They float up and then get on a level with you, then float on. At times you are above them. And below looks just as an ocean of silver would look. Hilda said, “I’m going to write Lorena [my grandmother, a teenager then — RD] and tell her that we’ve gone through the clouds.” I asked her why she wanted to cause Loren’as mind to become more puzzled? Personally, I think we’ve caused the kid to think enough. Words can’t describe the beauty of this part of France. 

Lois then describes the smells of the perfume town of Grasse, and the Provencal horticulture. Then she writes about how they headed to Toulouse to see their cousin Percy, an American military officer billeting with a friend with locals, taking classes and awaiting his next orders. She writes:

They both think they will be sent up into Germany in the Army of Occupation when the university  
closes. Neither are overly pleased. They live with a Baron and Baroness and are worshipped by them. We received quite a lot of attention, being the Captain’s cousin, and were dinner guests last evening with the family. From here we go over on the Spanish border, making several stops. Then Bordeaux, then Paris, up on the front and back to Dijon. The old jam sandwich. Love for all — Lois.

Mind you, Lois was about 25 at this time, and had grown up isolated in the south Louisiana countryside. Her parents didn’t have much, but they made sure their children had educations. I am in awe of how intrepid those old aunts of mine were, coming from deep in the sticks, and making themselves first of all volunteer nurses in the war, and then enthusiastic travelers. The sophistication of those ladies is a thing of wonder. Nothing stopped them. Back home and still working for the Red Cross, Hilda was told that she wasn’t allowed to take relief supplies to north Louisiana victims of the epic 1927 flood, because she was a woman, and it was too dangerous for women. So she disguised herself as a man, commandeered a boat, and took help to the stranded communities.

Back at the Red Cross canteen, during the war, General Pershing showed up late one night unannounced, and asked for tea. A tea strainer could not be found, so Lois found a clean edge of her petticoat, and drained the general’s tea through it. I remember her telling me this story as a child. I once wrote about my old aunts, and the influence they had on me as a very young boy. If you look at that post, you can see the ramshackle cabin in which they spent the final years of their lives, and you can see Aunt Lois at work in her kitchen, where I spent many hours as a child. My neighbor here in St. Francisville is a retired Episcopal priest who, early in his ministry, would pay pastoral calls on Lois and Hilda. He asked me not long ago why in the world the family let women in their seventies and even early eighties live in such relatively primitive conditions. A good and reasonable question, I thought. I put it to my father, who laughed heartily. “‘Let? ‘As if you could tell those old ladies to do a damn thing they didn’t want to do!” he said. Strong-willed women, even until the end.

In 1922, Lois lived in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, doing I don’t know what. There is a letter to Bernice from Honduras, in which Lois writes of the material poverty in which she’s living as an expat — her clothes are wearing out, new material is scarce and costly, and she won’t pay the “4 to 6 dollars” local seamstresses ask for new dresses (“I ain’t that kind of a coo-coo”). Mostly she tells of the joy she’s experiencing in her life there. She writes to ask Bernice if she might let her (Lois’s) sister Lorena, who is now 19, come to Honduras to visit with Hilda. “I’d love to have all these kiddies here on the beach, and don’t think of one thing that could happen,” she writes. “They would all have the time of their lives playing in the sand and bathing. Lorena is old enough to enjoy travel.”

My grandmother Lorena didn’t go, but stayed in the country, married my grandfather, and started a family. Aunt Lois, even more than Aunt Hilda, remained the impossibly sophisticated aunt who lived in the city — New Orleans, New York, wherever. My father once told me, “Any civilizin’ I ever had was thanks to Aunt Lois.” Unlike the rest of my family, Lois was at home away from home. She wrote to Bernice from Honduras:

I’ve had a lot of fun here, continue to have it — am satisfyingly liked and loved — and have a place in almost every heart. Certainly in every home. These things that you neither buy nor sell are greater balm for tired backs than anything I know.

It’s interesting that she put it that way. Last month, when I took my niece Hannah to Paris — for she is old enough to enjoy travel — we were walking through the Luxembourg Gardens one Sunday afternoon, and I watched her going off with my old friend Beatrice, talking privately about who knows what. (Bea sent a note just yesterday saying that even though she had just met Hannah, it was like she had known her for years). I thought at the time what an extraordinary gift I was able to pass on to my niece: the friendship of this wonderful French-Dutch family, which has been so dear to me for many years. Hannah ran in the garden with Bea and Philippe’s little girl, and though those particular words didn’t come to mind, I thought about the passing of this transatlantic friendship on to the next generation was one of those things that you neither buy nor sell, because it’s priceless.

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