Dirt, Dollars, and Devices



Holland, MI. I confess: I hate farms. I hate everything about them. I hate the malodorous smells that take days to wash off. I hate the all-pervasive dirt which invades the home and clings to the children. I hate the aggressive, large, noisy and ubiquitous flies. I hate the crickets and their incessant mind-bending suicide-inducing chirping. I hate the mooing of the cattle and the braying of the goats. I hate the sanctimony of farmers, most of whom seem to agree with Jefferson that “Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever He had a chosen people, whose breasts He made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.” I hate intentionally making life more difficult than it has to be. I hate that most farmers would rather listen to bluegrass on the front porch than Beethoven in the concert hall. I hate the sartorial habits associated with farm life. I hate any job where I have to wash my hands before going to the bathroom rather than after.

I come about such hatred honestly. When my dad’s family immigrated to North America after the war, they purchased a farmstead north(!) of Winnipeg. By the time I was born my parents had moved to Michigan, this after years of significant hardship on the farm. Growing up, “the farm” was a term of approbation, synonymous with suffering, stress, want, teeming masses of rats, and economic hardship. “The farm” was what you ran away from in an attempt to better your life and that of your children. In this, the movement of my family seemed to recapitulate that of the species as a whole: to leave the farm for the city. Even the Biblical narrative seems to reflect this, for it begins in a garden and ends in a city. Thus, I have difficulty understanding anyone who intentionally avoids the charms of city life in favor of a country one. (Don’t even get me started on camping.)

Worse: I live in a suburb in a good-sized (and clean!) house that has a large attached garage obscuring much of the front, a small front porch and a large deck in the back. Although my neighbor to the west lives about ten paces away I have had exactly two conversations with him in my five-plus years at this location. My children each have a bedroom of their own, and we have three full baths for five people. I own a gas-powered mower, weedwhacker, and edger, and also have underground sprinkling. I commute about 25 miles one-way to work and have been known to read FPR articles on my blackberry.

I rationalize my aversions on Platonic-Aristotelian claims that any well-ordered city harmonizes disparate elements, including a contemplative one which requires others to do the dirty work of providing for the material necessities of life. Since I fancy myself to contribute to this contemplative element, I am perfectly happy to leave the sod-busting to someone else. Lord, let there be farmers, only let them not be me.

I am, in short, a heretic.

When I first read Wendell Berry I confess to some mixed feelings. For one thing, while I admired the obvious pleasure taken in fixing up a house or planing a board or planting a garden, the character’s pleasure was offset for me by my self-awareness that I never have and likely never will take pleasure in such activities. My wife tends a vegetable garden in our backyard and every time I see it I experience frustration because: a) it messes up my lawn; and, b) that spot would have made a fabulous putting green. I don’t like putzing around the house or working in the soil.

Additionally, Berry’s books seem rigged in extolling the virtues of agrarian life against the vices of city life. It’s as if Berry simply took the best of the former, held it up against the worst of the latter, and then said “you decide.” This struck me as an unfair comparison. In Berry’s world, it would seem, all ambition and desire for progress is destructive, but this without any fair accounting for genuine gains. Port William doesn’t have high infant mortality rates, high mortality rates among mothers in childbirth, high rates of easily curable diseases, lower life expectancies, problems of malnutrition associated with bad crop years, citizens with rotted teeth, or deformed bodies resulting from years of back-breaking labor. It doesn’t have low levels of literacy.

I’m not convinced his female characters are drawn with much sympathy. They seem to be either, like Mattie Chatham, supra-human beatific visions or, like Hannah Coulter, content with their lot in life (difficult as it is), or those who strain against the difficulties of life in Port William, such as Cecelia Overhold, who is portrayed as uppity, haughty, and unreasonable (even if it leads to great one-liners such as “I have always counted being unmarried to Cecelia Overhold as a privilege” and “She thought the human condition was a calculated insult to her personally”). Berry understands the temptations of wanting things better and to have this desire drive our decisions. At the same time, the thrust of his work seems critical of this desire, and this seems especially true of his female characters.

I admire Berry’s sense of scale, his sense of place, his sense of what is lost. Having returned to my hometown after 20 years of academic wandering has reaffirmed for me the importance of an axis mundi and the high costs of estrangement. For years my wife and I puzzled over where we might be buried when we died. That question has now been definitively answered, and the issue highlights a number of consequences resulting from massive social mobility. For us, the issues are complicated because we have returned home in a way that is not quite the case for our children. They do not think of themselves as Michiganders in the way we do. At the same time, they are Catholics in a way we are not, for it is to them not a choice they made later in life but a central part of their identity from the moment they were baptized. This gap exists between me and my children – they have no well-defined sense of place because of the moves we have made – and I wonder what it portends for them and for us.

Add to that the problems that occur when your children go off to college. Whatever the advantages of college life for your children, these are offset in part (from a parental viewpoint) by the realization and fear that once they leave for college, you may never live in the same place with them again. My oldest daughter now goes to college in Ohio, and I lament the distance that now separates us and fear its permanence. It’s not unthinkable that by the time my three children graduate from college I may not live again within a day’s drive of my children and grandchildren.

This sad awareness is deepened by the fact that it is precisely what I did to my parents, oblivious to how they might have felt. They graciously let me go, and I hope I can be as gracious with my children; indeed, I regard attending college as a desirable good for them, despite the costs (and not just monetary). But still, the thought of separation creates a sharp pang of pain and loss. This sense of loss is, as Oakeshott has noted, the essence of the conservative disposition, particularly if one is made aware of the loss without a sense of compensating gains. I find it striking how oblivious we can be to these costs, and also to what we extract from one another.

Leo Strauss has written that the price modern man has paid is oblivion of eternity, but in some ways the problem is even more fundamental than that. We live in a sort of oblivion of everything. Annie Dillard’s famous chapter “Seeing” in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek gets its evocative power from the fact that she has drawn our attention to our own oblivion, not just of eternity, but of the world around us. Our inability to see the natural world results from our distraction, our busyness, our inclination to adopt a stand of mastery and control which renders us unable to see not only the beauty of the natural world, but also its inner dynamism, the integrity of its structure, and its movement toward its own fulfillment.

So also our lives in the social world. We’ve become so distracted that we only with great difficulty see the integrity and destiny of those with whom we share a common life, a problem made worse by the constant expanding of the commons (one of the problems with the cosmopolitan temptation). We’ve also become so focused on individual autonomy that we’ve fallen for the seductions of mobility, opportunity, self-improvement, and choosing our own path often to the detriment of those who love us most.

In Civilization and Its Discontents Freud remarks that it was difficult for him to celebrate the virtues of the telephone which made it possible for him to talk to his brother across the ocean, without at the same time complaining about the ship that moved him half a world away to begin with. All too often we are dazzled by what has been made possible without reflecting on the changes that made the possible necessary. Berry forces us to consider such things, and in the process makes us aware of the high costs we have paid for progress and emancipation.

At the sane time, an accounting of the losses of modern life laid against the genuine gains remains elusive. I’m not sure if, given the choice with the sweep of history in front of me, I would choose a century or place other than the 20th Century west, and I’m even more inclined to think I wouldn’t choose anything else for my daughters. Conversely, I’m not convinced that this history has yet played itself out, and that any full reckoning remains which might get me to reconsider. Gregg Easterbrook argues that The Progress Paradox results from the material condition of the average person in the contemporary west is better than it has ever been, but the average person isn’t really any happier. Among the problematic assumptions in the book, however, are the claim that individuals are the best judges of their own happiness, and that there is or ought to be an intrinsic link between material well-being and happiness. Neither are self-evident. Are we in der Untergang des Abendlandes? My gut says yes (evidence: Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize: “When small men cast long shadows, then you know the sun is setting”) even if my heart says no. My head is undecided.

Capitalism, as we typically understand it, is a subspecies of modernity, and any accounting of its problems ought to include an accounting of the genuine accomplishments modernity and capitalism have given to the species, why their appeal runs so deeply, and an accounting of the technological advances that have produced demonstrable goods in human life. Modernity is not simply a movement of self-apotheosis, or renewed gnosticism, or scientific aggrandizement. Nor is it simply, on the affirmative side, simply the story of human progress and emancipation. Whether modernity has effected a genuine epochal shift or a shift in emphasis seems to me still a very live philosophical question. I’m not convinced that the condition of modern (or postmodern) man is essentially different than that of his predecessors. How thoroughly economic and technological changes alter the human condition or human consciousness still requires careful investigation.

This semester I am teaching Ancient and Medieval Political Thought, and I am struck anew by both the discontinuities and continuities between the ages. I have to do some serious reorienting with my students, getting them to recognize that ancient writers meant something very different by terms such as “nature,” “equality,” “democracy,” and “justice” than we typically do. I point out to them that if MacIntyre is right, that every moral theory presupposes a sociology (and I’m not convinced he is), then the ethical thinking of the ancient world is nearly inaccessible to us. At the same time, in the class we see how many of our contemporary problems are simply the perennial problems of the human condition. The fact that my students and I are able to engage such issues suggests that modernity might not be as cataclysmic a change as we often think.

In the next two installments of this essay, I propose to write about capitalism and then technology in an attempt better to understand how we might assess their relative claims and the ways in which they have reshaped our lives. In the process I hope to demonstrate that the condition of modern man is precarious in all sorts of ways, but this does not necessarily constitute a problem sui generis. Writing such an essay involves fully facing the difficulty of living in an age where we enjoy the fruits of the very things about which we complain, or at least express concern. So I’m largely motivated by the question of how we can think about these things in a way that neither hypocritical nor self-serving. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not an easy task.

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