Wendell Berry Defends Rural America Against an Attack by New York Review of Books Writer

John Collins May 10, 2017

An early photograph of Wendell Berry featured in the 2016 documentary Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry.

In the fol­low­ing let­ter to the edi­tor, Wen­dell Berry — the 82-year-old Ken­tucky farmer, nov­el­ist, poet, human­i­tar­i­an, envi­ron­men­tal­ist and all around agrar­i­an icon — responds to a New York Review of Books essay that, in his view, exem­pli­fies what big city lib­er­als con­tin­ue to get wrong about rur­al peo­ple, cul­ture, pol­i­tics and the economy. 

The sto­ry that prompt­ed Berry’s well-man­nered but caus­tic response was writ­ten by Nathaniel Rich, the 35-year-old son of for­mer New York Times colum­nist Frank Rich, and orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished as the fore­word to a new book by Joan Did­ion titled South and West—a col­lec­tion of notes, inter­views and obser­va­tions span­ning the leg­endary 83-year-old writer’s ear­ly trav­els and career.

Not con­cerned with the book itself, Berry’s cri­tique takes issue with Rich’s par­rot­ing of the now ubiq­ui­tous main­stream nar­ra­tive: That the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump was pri­mar­i­ly the result of a nos­tal­gic, racist and sex­ist sub­cul­ture that resides in a still-reel­ing-from-the-Civ­il-War, social­ly-back­ward and mono­chro­mat­ic rur­al America.” 

This mis­guid­ed con­ven­tion­al wis­dom, Berry argues, con­ve­nient­ly ignores the decades of destruc­tive eco­nom­ic forces rur­al com­mu­ni­ties have endured since the Eisen­how­er admin­is­tra­tion — a crony-cap­i­tal­ist-facil­i­tat­ed plun­der­ing” of every­thing not tied down — and the absence of any effec­tive polit­i­cal response from Democ­rats in Washington.

Sym­pa­thet­ic pan­der­ing? Yes. Results? Not so much.

Agree­ing on one thing, Berry writes, It is true that racism, sex­ism and nos­tal­gia have count­ed sig­nif­i­cant­ly in the his­to­ry of rur­al Amer­i­ca until this moment. But to attribute the approx­i­mate vic­to­ry of Mr. Trump only to those south­ern’ faults, and to locate them only in rur­al Amer­i­ca, is a driblet of self-right­eous ignorance.” 

Here’s Berry’s full response, includ­ing links to Nathaniel Rich’s reply and the fore­word that kicked off the exchange:

To the Editors:

Since the 2016 elec­tion, urban lib­er­als and Democ­rats have new­ly dis­cov­ered rur­al Amer­i­ca,” which is to say our coun­try itself beyond the cities and the sub­urbs and a few scenic vaca­tion spots. To its new dis­cov­er­ers, this is an unknown land inhab­it­ed by white blue-col­lar work­ers” whom the dis­cov­er­ers fear but know noth­ing about. And so they are turn­ing to experts, who actu­al­ly have vis­it­ed rur­al Amer­i­ca or who pre­vi­ous­ly have heard of it, to lift the mys­tery from it.

One such expert is Nathaniel Rich, whose essay Joan Did­ion in the Deep South” offers an expla­na­tion sur­pass­ing­ly sim­ple: over the last four decades,” while the enlight­ened cit­i­zens of Amer­i­can cities with inter­na­tion­al air­ports” have thought things were get­ting bet­ter, the south­ern frame of mind” has been expand­ing across the Mason-Dixon line into the rest of rur­al Amer­i­ca.” As Mr. Rich trusts his read­ers to agree, the south­ern frame of mind” is racist, sex­ist, and nos­tal­gic for the time when the men con­cen­trat­ed on hunt­ing and fish­ing and the women on their cook­ing, their can­ning, their pret­ti­fy­ing.’…”

This is provin­cial, unin­formed, and irre­spon­si­ble. Mr. Rich, who dis­dains all prej­u­dices except those that are prop­er and just, sup­plies no expe­ri­ence or obser­va­tion of his own and no fac­tu­al and sta­tis­ti­cal proofs. He rests his judg­ment sole­ly upon the tes­ti­mo­ny of Joan Did­ion in her notes from a tour of the Gulf South for a month in the sum­mer of 1970.” Those notes con­tain por­traits of south­ern­ers whom read­ers today will rec­og­nize, with some dis­may and even hor­ror” because (as Mr. Rich seems vague­ly to mean) south­ern­ers have not changed at all since 1970. The Did­ion tes­ti­mo­ny alone is entire­ly suf­fi­cient because she saw her era more clear­ly than any­one else” and there­fore she was able to see the future.”

What is remark­able about Mr. Rich’s essay is that he attrib­ut­es the south­erniza­tion of rur­al Amer­i­ca, and the con­se­quent elec­tion of Mr. Trump, entire­ly to nos­tal­gia for a more order­ly past,” with­out so much as a glance at the eco­nom­ic his­to­ry of our actu­al coun­try. The lib­er­als and Democ­rats of our enlight­ened cities, as Mr. Rich right­ly says, have paid lit­tle or no atten­tion to rur­al Amer­i­ca for more than half a cen­tu­ry.” But it has received plen­ty of atten­tion from the con­ser­v­a­tives and Repub­li­cans and their client cor­po­ra­tions. Rur­al Amer­i­ca is a colony, and its econ­o­my is a colo­nial economy.

The busi­ness of Amer­i­ca has been large­ly and with­out apol­o­gy the plun­der­ing of rur­al Amer­i­ca, from which every­thing of val­ue — min­er­als, tim­ber, farm ani­mals, farm crops, and labor” — has been tak­en at the low­est pos­si­ble price. As appar­ent­ly none of the enlight­ened ones has seen in fly­ing over or bypass­ing on the inter­state high­ways, its too-large fields are tox­ic and erod­ing, its streams and rivers poi­soned, its forests man­gled, its towns dying or dead along with their local­ly owned small busi­ness­es, its chil­dren leav­ing after high school and not com­ing back. Too many of the chil­dren are not work­ing at any­thing, too many are trans­fixed by the var­i­ous screens, too many are on drugs, too many are dying.

In a New York Times Op-Ed, A. Hope Jahren writes: Farm pol­i­cy hasn’t come up even once dur­ing a pres­i­den­tial debate for the past 16 years.” But the prob­lem goes back much far­ther than that. It goes back at least to Eisenhower’s sec­re­tary of agri­cul­ture, Ezra Taft Ben­son, who instruct­ed Amer­i­can farm­ers to get big or get out.” In effect that set the farm pol­i­cy” until now, and thus sealed the fate of the decent, small, inde­pen­dent liveli­hoods of rur­al Amer­i­ca. To that bru­tal­ly stat­ed eco­nom­ic deter­min­ism I know that Pres­i­dent Clin­ton gave his assent, call­ing it inevitable,” and so appar­ent­ly did Mrs. Clin­ton. The rur­al small own­ers sen­tenced to dis­pens­abil­i­ty in the 1950s are the grand­par­ents of the blue-col­lar work­ers” of rur­al Amer­i­ca who now feel them­selves to be under the same sen­tence, and with reason.

It is true that racism, sex­ism, and nos­tal­gia have count­ed sig­nif­i­cant­ly in the his­to­ry of rur­al Amer­i­ca until this moment. But to attribute the approx­i­mate vic­to­ry of Mr. Trump only to those south­ern” faults, and to locate them only in rur­al Amer­i­ca, is a driblet of self-right­eous ignorance.

Wen­dell Berry
Port Roy­al, Kentucky

In Rich’s defense, the Unit­ed States has an unde­ni­ably racist ori­gin sto­ry, one that con­tin­ues to explain a lot about how we inter­act with each oth­er. But if only to pre­vent it from ever hap­pen­ing again, both writ­ers would prob­a­bly agree it’s impor­tant for our his­tor­i­cal record to accu­rate­ly diag­nose Don­ald Trump’s ascen­sion. This requires acknowl­edg­ing that, unlike Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clin­ton failed to make a com­pelling eco­nom­ic case to mil­lions of Amer­i­cans who are find­ing it hard­er and hard­er to get by. Lies or not, Trump did.

Iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics aren’t going away. We’re grap­pling with a kar­ma-guid­ed hatch­et that’s nowhere close to being buried. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, ignor­ing the pain asso­ci­at­ed with that real­i­ty lends itself per­fect­ly to the pres­i­den­t’s (seri­ous­ly stu­pid) #MakeAm­er­ica­GreatA­gain hash­tag. That said, blam­ing rur­al Amer­i­cans for tem­porar­i­ly swoon­ing over the off-the-cuff bril­liance that was Drain the Swamp” — essen­tial­ly a promise to a seri­al­ly ignored seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion that, this time for realsies, things will change — is not pro­duc­tive or pro­gres­sive. We are, after all, deal­ing with a polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment that has for decades been los­ing sight of what We the Peo­ple” means.

And none of this changes how fast Trump-the-candidate’s Amer­i­ca First” rhetoric mag­i­cal­ly (freak­ing seam­less­ly) mor­phed into more for­eign inter­ven­tions, a cab­i­net stacked with states­men” cour­tesy of Gold­man Sachs and a tor­rent of pol­i­cy pro­pos­als that clear­ly favor the rich. On sec­ond thought, per­haps it’s time for all Amer­i­cans — the dis­ap­point­ed, the still-stoked and the ter­ri­fied — to start focus­ing not on how this hap­pened and who’s to blame (the diag­no­sis) but on what comes next.

In oth­er words, what’s the prognosis?

To read Nathaniel Rich’s reply to Wen­dell Berry’s let­ter, click here.

Jan­u­ary 3, 1968 — A futur­is­tic car­toon pub­lished in the Ari­zona Repub­lic. (Image: pale​o​fu​ture​.com)

John Collins is the edi­tor of Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times. He lives between Min­neapo­lis and La Pointe, Wis­con­sin, a vil­lage on Made­line Island in Lake Superior.
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