Thursday, April 22, 2010

from Wendell Berry

In Wendell Berry's fantastic essay "In Distrust of Movements," he manages to say clearly what I have been thinking for years, but have never been able to articulate as wisely and wittily. The essay is primarily a discussion of the intersection between the food movement and all other movements, but also speaks to the tendency to reduce action and activism to too-specific ideals.

He writes:
People in movements too readily learn to deny to others the rights and privileges they demand for themselves. They too easily become unable to mean their own language, as when a “peace movement” becomes violent. They often become too specialized, as if finally they cannot help taking refuge in the pinhole vision of the institutional intellectuals. They almost always fail to be radical enough, dealing finally in effects rather than causes. Or they deal with single issues or single solutions, as if to assure themselves that they will not be radical enough.

And so I must declare my dissatisfaction with movements to promote soil conservation or clean water or clean air or wilderness preservation or sustainable agriculture or community health or the welfare of children. Worthy as these and other goals may be, they cannot be achieved alone. I am dissatisfied with such efforts because they are too specialized, they are not comprehensive enough, they are not radical enough, they virtually predict their own failure by implying that we can remedy or control effects while leaving causes in place. Ultimately, I think, they are insincere; they propose that the trouble is caused by other people; they would like to change policy but not behavior.


Sam J. Miller said...

do you have a link to to the full article?

I dunno about this... Obviously he's correct, but on the other hand - what's the alternative? If we are committed to fighting for social change, we either go it alone or we work with others... and I don't think we stand a chance on our own. Unless we're rich or famous and can throw money or influence at the problem, we've all been so disempowered that we have an extremely limited ability to make change happen through our own decisions. So while there are a lot of frustrations that come when we align ourselves with an organization or a movement or a party, it's a personal balance we all have to strike - can we stomach the problems (the stridency, the inflexibility, the pinhole vision, the isolation of one problem from others) because we can achieve things collectively that we can't on our own...

Lee Houck said...

The full essay is here:

I hear you, Sam! I think you are right, but I think, ultimately, you will agree with Mr. Berry. He later says: "We should not envy rich movements that are organized and led by an alternative bureaucracy living on the problems it is supposed to solve." For example, the HRC.

Later, he writes that people "should take full responsibility for themselves as members of the economy." This ability to see yourself as an individual is key to the success of any movement--keeping your self, in an unselfish way, at the heart of the action.

your mom said...

And let's get rid of the hypocrisy of sponsoring an elaborate Earth Day celebration on campus while being surrounded by vending machines that dispense containers for which there is not a single recycle bin in sight and, at the same time, teach classes in "Environmental Science."