Wendell Berry on Patriotism and the History of Prejudice ~ The Imaginative Conservative


For many Americans, the national conversation about race that took place in the wake of the death of George Floyd is long overdue and needed. But while it has been necessary, it has also been limited and flawed, at a time when we Americans are ill-adjusted to conversation in general and particularly ill-adjusted to conversation about difficult issues such as race that run deep and deep. touch a nerve. . For decades, our ability to participate in public discourse has been slowly declining, eroded by a number of factors, primarily the changing nature of technology and media. The result has been a growing tendency to treat our political adversaries not as healthy opponents but as enemies. This new mode of public discourse has little time for truth, but plenty of energy for conflict. He has little patience with nuances but a lot of strength for hatred. His method is to caricature those who think differently and carefully classify people into good and evil, virtuous and sinners, saved and unworthy of redemption.

In this climate, a discussion of something important — let alone something as weighty as race — has become extremely difficult, whether at the kitchen table or on the debate stage. This is tragic, because our form of government depends on a serious conversation between people of goodwill. It is no exaggeration to regard our polarization as an existential political threat. For those who wish to resist this cultural moment, who wish to resume the conversation with friends, neighbors and strangers for the good of our communities, it is useful to find models and examples. Writer Wendell Berry is an example.

Mr. Berry has long thought about race. He first wrote about the matter over fifty years ago in his little book The hidden wound (1969, with a 1988 after). Many breed books from fifty years ago may seem dated, but not Mr. Berry’s. It reads today with absolutely intact relevance. Yet Mr. Berry had for some time felt the incompleteness of this effort, and in recent years he has taken it upon himself to revisit the subject, to reflect more deeply and more completely than he had thus been able to. .

The result, The need to be whole: patriotism and the history of prejudice, is about five hundred pages long, making it Mr. Berry’s longest work of non-fiction. Although the book suffers from some of Mr. Berry’s characteristic verbosity (he admits to being a slow thinker, and perhaps the style reflects this in its length and somewhat labored pace), it is an achievement incredible, a magnum opus that could be considered the pinnacle of his long and distinguished career.

But for many, alas, this will not be considered the pinnacle but rather the nadir of his work, because his thesis will not be popular. As he explains:

“I do not view chattel slavery in the pre-war South as an isolated or unique problem…. [The more I have observed], the more I saw the ancient version of slavery as part of a continuum of violent exploitation, including other forms of slavery, that has been with us since the European discovery of America. This is the dominant theme of our history thus far” (42).

Rather than discuss race in isolation, Mr. Berry argues that our history of prejudice needs to be placed in a larger context. Just as a man with heart disease, diabetes and obesity would do well to see the connection between his ailments, so, according to Mr. Berry, we would do well to see our sad history of racial prejudice as an expression of the trend exploit – deplete and discard – our land, our animals and our people. In this sense, although slavery was a particularly blatant expression of the tendency to exploit, it was not the only one. And while slavery and legal segregation have thankfully ended, other forms of exploitation have not. Indeed, they have become so entrenched in our culture, so normalized, that most of us do not perceive them at all.

If the embrace of slavery by the South was one form of exploitation, the industrialism of the North was another. Indeed, one of the results of the civil war was the expansion of industrialism from the North to the South. Today, we accept the pervasiveness of the industrial worldview without question, as if it were inherent in human culture itself. But Mr. Berry knows better.


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