Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Wealthy, powerful . . . and wasteful (Berry)

Last week I posted some quotes from Wendell Berry's 1991 essay "Peaceableness Toward Enemies" that I believe has some bearing on our national conversation about race, guns and crime in the wake of the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin incident. Berry published that piece in the celebratory afterglow of the First Gulf War, an afterglow history has shown to be unwarranted. In celebrating that "victory" we forgot that in war even in winning we lose. Like all "wars to end all war" this one didn't.

Berry was one of the few to recognize this at the time, and in this piece he castigated the lack of imagination of leaders that see war as the only way to deal with madmen like Saddam Hussein who will always be with us. He exposed the folly of justifying that war as "making the world safe for democracy" or creating a "new world order", phrases that were much thrown around back then. The victory in Gulf War I was proffered as evidence that American was once again the biggest most powerful player on the world stage, and that the lessons of Vietnam had been won. The first part of that statement probably was, and still is, true. Measured in economic and military might all was well circa 1991, but Berry looked around and saw a society that was sick in less measurable but fundamental ways.

If we are the most wealthy and powerful country in the world, we are also the most wasteful, both of nature and of humanity. This society is making life extremely difficult for the unwealthy and the unpowerful: children, old people, women (especially wives and mothers), country people, the poor, the unemployed, the homeless. We are failing in marriage and failing our family responsibilities. The number of single-parent households is increasing. Our children are ill raised and ill taught. We are trying—and predictably failing—to replace parenthood and home life with "day care" and with school. Our highways, shopping malls, nursing homes, and day-care centers are full; the homeless are everywhere in our streets; our homes are empty. We are suffering many kinds of damage from sexual promiscuity. We are addicted to drugs, to TV, and to gasoline. Violence is literally everywhere. While we waged war abroad, an undeclared civil war was being fought every day in our streets, our homes, our workplaces, and our classrooms. And none of these problems can be corrected merely by wealth, power, and technology. The world's most powerful military force cannot help at all.

Some 21 years later I can't see that Berry's lengthy laundry list of ills has gotten any shorter. Perhaps we've made progress in some areas, but it's hard to measure. Berry ended his jeremiad -- a word I'm reminded is inspired by the weeping prophet of the Old Testament -- with some practical good advice that if heeded will tend to the good health of any community or society: stop treating people as commodities and "waste less, spend less, use less, want less, need less."

(I include the photo above of Berry and his wife to show that he isn't a glowering prophet of doom and gloom, more like a kindly grandfather who enjoys a good apple pie.)

Quotes from pp. 74-5 & 92 of Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (Pantheon Books, 1993)

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