Matt’s essay concludes our discussion of “Localist Social Media.” You can view all the essays in this symposium here.
When I first submitted my attempt at a jovial attack on localist Twitter to Front Porch Republic, I did so under the assumption that most Wendell Berry readers considered their use of Twitter a necessary evil and/or guilty pleasure. I thought it nearly axiomatic that people who had been moved by the writing of the world’s most famous abstainer from the computer would look with contempt or at least distaste on a platform that has done as much as any “disruptor” to entice us to define our lives in a digital relation to the universe.
Some of the responses do suggest this position. Apparently, however, Twitter is our best option for public life in some cases and the call to reject it is asking too much. I find that to be disconcerting for what it reveals about the extent of Twitter’s dominance of our public sphere. Tara Ann Thieke’s essay and Jordan Smith’s comment about Twitter are poignant for their confession that without Twitter they would have few outlets for conversation, whether due to the noble calling of amateurism (literally “for love,” as Berry once reminded his readers when discussing his own amateurism) or geographical isolation.
I am sympathetic to both and I’m sure we would have fine conversations about Berry and much else if we ever meet. At the same time, this only confirms what struck me at first as a rather rigid assumption from Berry when I revisited his essay on the computer—that tools “replace” rather than “coexist with.” It might be more accurate to say that the tools create new norms and allow the old norm to exist only as a boutique option, one available only to people with special privileges. But I think Berry is right to issue that provocation and let it hang over us.
Granting Berry’s legitimate provocation, it is worth asking: have conversation, letters, and even email become a boutique option for us? Is something only public, does it only engage our cosmopolitan longings, if it is submitted to Big Ether for validation? Is “alone together on the internet” the best we can hope for?
If this is the case, I think the war against Twitter is even more urgent, and I want to extend my arguments against it. First, I am sincerely grateful for the generous and judicious responses to my essay. I should acknowledge that my line of work does not (yet) require me to join Twitter and that my choice to forsake it is relatively easy. If all users of Twitter were as responsible as Jake Meador, Tara Ann Thieke, L.M. Sacasas, Jeff Bilbro, and Gracy Olmstead, we would not have a problem and Twitter would likely disappear. I do wish them well. For these localists who, like Frodo, are called to carry the Ring, I suppose I will be their Gimli.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s quip comes to mind: “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.”
I still think we need to take a cue from the New Pantagruel’s Father Jape on some occasions and risk offense for the sake of truth. Therefore, donning my carnival mask: I can’t help but be reminded of the technicalities demanded by John Humphrey Noyes’ practice of male continence upon consideration of their suggestions for wise use of Twitter. What fun is the aptly named Twitter Demetricator? A tool that can only be used well when it is stripped of all of its distinctive features seems like the wrong tool for the job. Twitter is not just any old brothel. It is the House of the Rising Sun, it is Hotel California, and I fear that the hymns of these localists are too often being drowned out. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s quip comes to mind: “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.”
It is true that the glass is decidedly half-empty in this analysis and that I risk hyperbole. But if the readers of Wendell Berry do not speak forcefully and often about the costs of our digital world, who else will? Who else can be counted on to simply reject, at times, these new “necessities?” Who else will remind us that we have options beyond either a grim realism that just accepts the tools that we have at hand and a shallow techno-utopianism that awaits not a new tool but a talisman? Poor old Twitter ($7.41 billion in total assets as of 2017) and Facebook ($84.5 billion in total assets as of 2017) can defend themselves, and I do not think it irresponsible to indulge in some hostile interrogation of the influence of their products.
I urge my fellow localists to think of their Tweets and Facebooks as analogous to cigarettes or plastic grocery bags. One or two are not so bad and they can even be enjoyable and useful. But they are not designed for moderate use and in the quantities with which we pump them out, a severe reckoning is at hand. I think it is likely that future generations will not look on us kindly as they labor to clean up the digital equivalent of secondhand smoke and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Unfortunately, I still find myself at odds with my friend John Fea, who wonders if I would charge him with heresy for hosting a podcast on the idea of “Flourishing in a Digital World.” Heresy is a strong word, but I do think this a jarring phrase that is unlikely to be the title of a Wendell Berry essay. Though no more likely to become the title of a Wendell Berry essay, I would be more comfortable joining a panel titled “Twitter and Facebook: Two Tentacles of the Digital Monster that Never Cries, ‘Enough!’”
Wendell Berry’s simple question, “what are people for?” should not have such a radical ring to it.
I am angry that Twitter and Facebook have tethered people so tightly to the screens that increasingly shape our public life. Jeff Bilbro and Jason Peters note that we live in a world built for cars; do we also wish to live in a world built for screens? Does any educator not see that the logic of many trends in education suggests that the whole process would really be much easier if we could just go ahead and automate both the teachers and the students? Wendell Berry’s simple question, “what are people for?” should not have such a radical ring to it.
We have ceded too much to the digital world when my young children cannot go to our otherwise wonderful public library without being subjected, right as they walk through the door, to the tyranny of screens and the invitation to experience the world digitally before they have developed the discipline to choose instead the quiet and enduring satisfactions of a book read to them by a kind librarian. Should screens be default and librarians boutique?
A Republic of Letters or High School Hallways and DIY Paparazzi?
To extend Eric Miller’s argument about the republic of letters, I think it is truly a loss if the cosmopolitanism of our republic of letters (I use the term ahistorically to suggest an idealized space for public debate and conversation that is open to the best argument regardless of the status of the debater) becomes completely coextensive with the world of social media. It is true that the Republic of Letters and republics of letters in a more general sense have never lived up to their ideal conceptions. They have been exclusive, they have mistaken particularity for universality, they have been populated by celebrities. It should also be noted that the ideal itself deserves challenge. However flawed, I still think the model of private letters, semi-public places, and public periodicals operating on various scales is more humane than the flattened model of social media created, monitored, and sustained by the new robber barons of Silicon Valley.
Twitter as republic of letters almost demands a celebrity-like status of its users. It would take more than a hair shirt for just about any Twitterer to use this tool without glancing too habitually at who is watching and how many are following. We are all celebrities now except that some of us must settle for DIY paparazzi. In 2005, Father Jape wrote of the quaint blog that “the better one is at it, the more subtle the vices and the greater the risk.” Twitter only exacerbates this problem by extending into the near-infinity of digital space the normal temptations we all have towards vanity, flattery, pride, cynicism, and envy. Further, the evidence of these sins is nearly impossible to extinguish and there is no earthly redemption from them. Our digital landscape is cluttered with the remnants of moral failure and dominated by people I do not trust.
Imagine how wonderful it would be if our Twitter King’s tweets were greeted with the sound of digital crickets.
I do not wish to live in Facebookistan and I certainly have no wish to spend my time in the Twitter King’s empire, or to be one of his 52.2M minions. Imagine how wonderful it would be if our Twitter King’s tweets were greeted with the sound of digital crickets rather than what is now our tired public routine: choruses of superlatives from the court evangelicals, and ritual outrage from everyone else. It is no wonder that we have a celebrity president when we have traded the republic of letters for a medium built for sophomores, as Jason Peters notes. It is the Twitter King’s turf and the Twitter Demetricator is not going to make the playing field any more level. We need to play where “another measure” is actually possible.
Though Christopher Lasch’s haunting line from The Culture of Narcissism—that Americans wish to be “envied rather than respected,” or loved, I would add—was written in 1979, our new technology has not made this situation any better. The older forms that the republic of letters took did not allow for quite this level of invasion into our private lives or the endless selling of a painstakingly handcrafted self. It allowed for some breathing room; there were still silences built into the old version. We should build practices into our lives that remind us that these silences are precious, that our memories are not reducible to our online clouds.
I tread lightly, but again I think a frank statement of this problem as I see it is worth the risk of offense: as a parent of small children myself, I would be frightfully worried about the constant temptation to use my kids as props for the narrative the medium demands of me. If I say I’m a husband, father, localist, etc., on my Twitter/Facebook mini-mission statement, my live feed better back it up: “Come on kids, get in a picture for daddy’s Twitter feed! Look grateful for the handcrafted breakfast I just served you!” The tragic confusion of means and ends lurks at the door.
The Whole Berry
Finally: Wendell Berry is one of the few great prophets of our time. He has with more restraint than any public figure of stature who I can name resisted the call to celebrity. I mentioned in my previous article his refusal to be considered for the MacArthur Fellowship. He declined to appear in Look and See, the recent documentary made in response to his work. And, of course, he cannot join any form of social media to hawk his latest without owning a computer.
Berry didn’t ask for permission from the internet to go live in Kentucky. He did it and risked his chance to write for a substantial public in doing so. I think we have good reason to take Berry at his word that if he would have disappeared from public view, he would have still considered his move back to Kentucky worth it even if, being human, he might have also fallen into bouts of envy or resentment. Did he write and publish several essays for the public that described this private decision? Did he ask the nation to observe, on occasion, his little plot of land in Kentucky? Yes, but that is much different from sending daily or even hourly missives to remind us of his continued localist existence. He trusted in the quality of his work, that if it was valuable enough to deserve a substantial audience it would get one.
To risk reducing Berry to cozy, tweetable thoughts about nebulous community, slow food, and bucolic farms is to risk losing one of our only real prophets. Prophets denounce, whisper, thunder, and lament. They rend garments and eat scrolls. They do not tweet. Let’s save this verb for the sparrows and finches, who tweet with infinitely more grace.
We cannot allow Berry’s books to be reduced to accessories that look nice next to homey knickknacks from Cracker Barrel or the latest from the Magnolia empire, however well-made the products are. We cannot risk a tame, sentimental Wendell Berry any more than we can risk becoming Wendell Berry fundamentalists who refuse to argue with him. We need the whole Berry.