On Wendell Berry’s “On Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience”

Academic Freedom, Authors, Book Review

Despite my best efforts to maintain a good work-life balance, it’s unavoidable that things I read for pleasure sometimes touch on issues I write about in a more professional context. This week: Wendell Berry, in his essay, “On Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience,” voices his skepticism towards total intellectual freedom within the arts, and how, in his opinion, situations have arisen in which this freedom has been abused: 

In fiction and poetry, in biography, in journalism and the entertainment industry, and finally in politics, the cutting edge for most of the twentieth century has been the dis-covering of the intimate, the secret, the sexual, the private and the obsence… 

I would question…the worth of freedom from..“deep-set repugnances”…it is dangerous to speak of them carelessly. To speak of them carelessly is to violate yet another nucleus that ought to be sacrosanct. 

The “nucleus” for Berry is oftentimes the community, whose well-being he sees as a major consideration for any and all artistic endeavor. If it damages the community, it’s existence is morally unjustifiable. 

Wendell Berry

“Community” is often invoked in a similar way in today’s political climate–either as an active participant in the fight to ban books (“the community must rescue its youth from the ‘pornography’”) or as a passive participant in need of saving (“the community must be protected from ‘pornography’”). Berry seems more fond of the former definition, but it seems to be that those who are calling for books to be banned prefer to oscillate between the two understandings, selecting one or the other depending on what makes the most rhetorical sense during any given media appearance. 

It’s indisputable that rural and exurban communities are being hollowed out at a rapid pace, both in terms of population and in terms of local culture. This is Berry’s (correct) insight. And it’s similarly true that in the past, many of these communities were home to the individuals most insistent upon the banning of books. Therefore, I will give the benefit of the doubt here and assume that this impulse comes from a place of powerlessness; it’s much easier to pull the levers of the government you can control than to challenge, say, corporate power (which often exists, by design, beyond the control of elected officials and is the real cause of the destruction of communities across the United States). 

In some ways, I think the current uptick in book banning can be attributed to the misguided belief that wielding any sort of political control over the system–no matter how banal, no matter how detrimental to certain, less-privileged community members–is better than facing up to the truth of the situation: We increasingly have no control over the communities in which we live. Banning books is an illusory victory meant to mask this fact. 

This isn’t to say that I agree with Berry’s analysis. The exhalation of community at the expense of the individual is especially easy to repudiate in the passive form he favors: Does the availability of “undesirable” literature within school libraries harm communities? Does it cause more harm than, say, the voting in of politicians hostile to climate initiates? The voting in of politicians who are on the payroll of agribusiness? It seems disingenuous to argue that it does, seeing as climate change has actual material risks, will, in short, lead to real deaths. Agribusiness, too, has already irreparably damaged millions of acres of soil. Can anyone insist that the same is true of queer children’s literature? Can we take seriously a movement that wants to “save us” from the “threat” of gay relationships but is more than willing to ally itself with perpetrators of ecological mismanagement and destruction? 

Which brings us to yet another repudiation, this time of the active form of community: One must grant that when invoked by parents at school board meetings, the phrase “our community” implies a whole host of cultural assumptions; it’s often, admittedly, code for “our white, heterosexual community.” Nonetheless, it’s first and foremost a spatial designation. 

In the age of the Internet, there are all types of communities that we no longer delineate in this purely spatial way. One example, of course, may be social media platforms where queer individuals find an active social life. Which community (the physical or the online) takes precedence here? It seems obvious to me that to favor the physical would be betrayal of the individual liberties of people who, by dint of their (sexual, racial, gender) differences, might find themselves at odds with their local environments. 

Berry himself seems to make this exact point, albeit in a different essay and in response to different circumstances: 

…this right [gay marriage] depends upon a curious agreement between liberals and conservatives that human rights originate in government, to be dispensed to the people according to their pleading at the government’s pleasure…This flatly contradicts the founding principle of American democracy that human rights are precedent to the government’s existence, that the government is established to protect them, and that the government must be restrained from violating them. 

…it cannot be allowable, under the above principles, for the government, on the pleading of some of the people, to establish a right solely for the purpose of withholding it from some other people. 

The right to gay marriage is something that exists prior to the establishment of a government and cannot be withheld, only guaranteed. Why is this also not true of intellectual freedom? Many of Berry’s underlying arguments–about the decay of communities, the suffering of  millions of people left behind by “progress”–provide the beginnings of a salient critique of our contemporary ills. But there are demonstrably worse diseases affecting our communities than Jerry Craft’s New Kid, and the nonsensical claim that we should limit our individual freedoms–and only in the very specific instance of artistic production–doesn’t seem to offer a viable cure for much of anything.

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