Wendell Berry - always relevant and poignant

I just stumbled upon this essay, written in the aftermath of 9/11, but which has important things to say to some of the current discussions about a new economy and the role of technology. I've taken the liberty of highlighting some sections.

Thoughts in the Presence of Fear

by Wendell Berry, Autumn 2001 (reprinted in 73 countries and 7 languages) 

I. The time will soon come when we will not be able to remember the horrors of September 11 without remembering also the unquestioning technological and economic optimism that ended on that day. 

II. This optimism rested on the proposition that we were living in a "new world order" and a "new economy" that would "grow" on and on, bringing a prosperity of which every new increment would be "unprecedented". 

III. The dominant politicians, corporate officers, and investors who believed this proposition did not acknowledge that the prosperity was limited to a tiny percent of the world's people, and to an ever smaller number of people even in the United States; that it was founded upon the oppressive labor of poor people all over the world; and that its ecological costs increasingly threatened all life, including the lives of the supposedly prosperous.

IV. The "developed" nations had given to the "free market" the status of a god, and were sacrificing to it their farmers, farmlands, and communities, their forests, wetlands, and prairies, their ecosystems and watersheds. They had accepted universal pollution and global warming as normal costs of doing business. 

V. There was, as a consequence, a growing worldwide effort on behalf of economic decentralization, economic justice, and ecological responsibility. We must recognize that the events of September 11 make this effort more necessary than ever. We citizens of the industrial countries must continue the labor of self-criticism and self-correction. We must recognize our mistakes. 

VI. The paramount doctrine of the economic and technological euphoria of recent decades has been that everything depends on innovation. It was understood as desirable, and even necessary, that we should go on and on from one technological innovation to the next, which would cause the economy to "grow" and make everything better and better. This of course implied at every point a hatred of the past, of all things inherited and free. All things superceded in our progress of innovations, whatever their value might have been, were discounted as of no value at all. 

VII. We did not anticipate anything like what has now happened. We did not foresee that all our sequence of innovations might be at once overridden by a greater one: the invention of a new kind of war that would turn our previous innovations against us, discovering and exploiting the debits and the dangers that we had ignored. We never considered the possibility that we might be trapped in the webwork of communication and transport that was supposed to make us free. 

VIII. Nor did we foresee that the weaponry and the war science that we marketed and taught to the world would become available, not just to recognized national governments, which possess so uncannily the power to legitimate large-scale violence, but also to "rogue nations", dissident or fanatical groups and individuals - whose violence, though never worse than that of nations, is judged by the nations to be illegitimate. 

IX. We had accepted uncritically the belief that technology is only good; that it cannot serve evil as well as good; that it cannot serve our enemies as well as ourselves; that it cannot be used to destroy what is good, including our homelands and our lives.

X. We had accepted too the corollary belief that an economy (either as a money economy or as a life-support system) that is global in extent, technologically complex, and centralized is invulnerable to terrorism, sabotage, or war, and that it is protectable by "national defense" 

XI. We now have a clear, inescapable choice that we must make. We can continue to promote a global economic system of unlimited "free trade" among corporations, held together by long and highly vulnerable lines of communication and supply, but now recognizing that such a system will have to be protected by a hugely expensive police force that will be worldwide, whether maintained by one nation or several or all, and that such a police force will be effective precisely to the extent that it oversways the freedom and privacy of the citizens of every nation. 

XII. Or we can promote a decentralized world economy which would have the aim of assuring to every nation and region a local self-sufficiency in life-supporting goods. This would not eliminate international trade, but it would tend toward a trade in surpluses after local needs had been met. 

XIII. One of the gravest dangers to us now, second only to further terrorist attacks against our people, is that we will attempt to go on as before with the corporate program of global "free trade", whatever the cost in freedom and civil rights, without self-questioning or self-criticism or public debate. 

XIV. This is why the substitution of rhetoric for thought, always a temptation in a national crisis, must be resisted by officials and citizens alike. It is hard for ordinary citizens to know what is actually happening in Washington in a time of such great trouble; for all we know, serious and difficult thought may be taking place there. But the talk that we are hearing from politicians, bureaucrats, and commentators has so far tended to reduce the complex problems now facing us to issues of unity, security, normality, and retaliation. 

XV. National self-righteousness, like personal self-righteousness, is a mistake. It is misleading. It is a sign of weakness. Any war that we may make now against terrorism will come as a new installment in a history of war in which we have fully participated. We are not innocent of making war against civilian populations. The modern doctrine of such warfare was set forth and enacted by General William Tecumseh Sherman, who held that a civilian population could be declared guilty and rightly subjected to military punishment. We have never repudiated that doctrine. 

XVI. It is a mistake also - as events since September 11 have shown - to suppose that a government can promote and participate in a global economy and at the same time act exclusively in its own interest by abrogating its international treaties and standing apart from international cooperation on moral issues. 

XVII. And surely, in our country, under our Constitution, it is a fundamental error to suppose that any crisis or emergency can justify any form of political oppression. Since September 11, far too many public voices have presumed to "speak for us" in saying that Americans will gladly accept a reduction of freedom in exchange for greater "security". Some would, maybe. But some others would accept a reduction in security (and in global trade) far more willingly than they would accept any abridgement of our Constitutional rights. 

XVIII. In a time such as this, when we have been seriously and most cruelly hurt by those who hate us, and when we must consider ourselves to be gravely threatened by those same people, it is hard to speak of the ways of peace and to remember that Christ enjoined us to love our enemies, but this is no less necessary for being difficult. 

XIX. Even now we dare not forget that since the attack of Pearl Harbor - to which the present attack has been often and not usefully compared - we humans have suffered an almost uninterrupted sequence of wars, none of which has brought peace or made us more peaceable. 

XX. The aim and result of war necessarily is not peace but victory, and any victory won by violence necessarily justifies the violence that won it and leads to further violence. If we are serious about innovation, must we not conclude that we need something new to replace our perpetual "war to end war?" 

XXI. What leads to peace is not violence but peaceableness, which is not passivity, but an alert, informed, practiced, and active state of being. We should recognize that while we have extravagantly subsidized the means of war, we have almost totally neglected the ways of peaceableness. We have, for example, several national military academies, but not one peace academy. We have ignored the teachings and the examples of Christ, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and other peaceable leaders. And here we have an inescapable duty to notice also that war is profitable, whereas the means of peaceableness, being cheap or free, make no money. 

XXII. The key to peaceableness is continuous practice. It is wrong to suppose that we can exploit and impoverish the poorer countries, while arming them and instructing them in the newest means of war, and then reasonably expect them to be peaceable. 

XXIII. We must not again allow public emotion or the public media to caricature our enemies. If our enemies are now to be some nations of Islam, then we should undertake to know those enemies. Our schools should begin to teach the histories, cultures, arts, and language of the Islamic nations. And our leaders should have the humility and the wisdom to ask the reasons some of those people have for hating us. 

XXIV. Starting with the economies of food and farming, we should promote at home, and encourage abroad, the ideal of local self-sufficiency. We should recognize that this is the surest, the safest, and the cheapest way for the world to live. We should not countenance the loss or destruction of any local capacity to produce necessary goods. 

XXV. We should reconsider and renew and extend our efforts to protect the natural foundations of the human economy: soil, water, and air. We should protect every intact ecosystem and watershed that we have left, and begin restoration of those that have been damaged. 

XXVI. The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. Its proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or "accessing" what we now call "information" – which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first. 

XXVII. The first thing we must begin to teach our children (and learn ourselves) is that we cannot spend and consume endlessly. We have got to learn to save and conserve. We do need a "new economy", but one that is founded on thrift and care, on saving and conserving, not on excess and waste. An economy based on waste is inherently and hopelessly violent, and war is its inevitable by-product. We need a peaceable economy.


Views: 170

Comment by Robert Riversong on November 28, 2011 at 7:40pm

The Internet itself had become "the most significant surveillance machine that we have ever seen," Assange said…"It's not an age of transparency at all ... the amount of secret information is more than ever before," adding that information flows in but is not flowing out of governments and other powerful organizations. "The technology gives and the technology takes away," he added.

The important question to ask about any technology is not "does it benefit we the people" but "who benefits most". If the WWW offers unprecedented connectivity but also traps us into a digital web that is easily mined by powers and principalities, then what is the NET benefit?


Comment by Robert Riversong on November 29, 2011 at 12:36pm

"...then what is the NET benefit?"

Even when I don't intend it, I'm a punographer.

Comment by Robert Riversong on November 29, 2011 at 1:11pm

Kevin Parcell - you're a hypocrite and an intellectual coward. And niether is that an ad hominem argument, since it is a logical conclusion based on your actions here rather than an attempt to undermine your arguments.

Kevin Parcell falsely accuses me of making ad hominem arguments as an excuse to avoid an honest debate about the merits of his Reconomy proposal, and blogs about the centrality and importance to OWS of "listening to every voice" while moderating (viz. censoring) comments to his home page and his blogs.


Comment by Robert Riversong on November 29, 2011 at 1:30pm

This is the comment I attempted to post to Kevin Parcell's http://www.occupycafe.org/profiles/blogs/a-suggestion-for-your-cons... but which has been blocked for "moderation":

"There is generally an assumption that the "specific purpose" of any movement must first be put forward.  Recent research and recent history shows that this is a mistaken assumption."

Clearly, you have not studied the vast sweep of social and political history. Nor do you seem to understand the nature and evolution of social-change movements. 

A broad social movement does not coalesce around a "specific purpose" but around a shared sense of what is wrong, and that is precisely what sparked both the Tea Party and #OWS. 

"#Occupy is rooted in the wide belief among people in existing democratic states that the voice of the people has been usurped by a minority." 

That is hardly the basis of the OWS movement. It is, rather, a widespread belief that the resources of society are skewed almost entirely to a very small minority to the detriment of the overwhelming majority. It is fundamentally an economic complaint, not a political one. That's why it began at Wall Street rather than DC. 

But no successful social movement remains at that initial inchoate stage. There are many historical analyses of the stages of movements, with anywhere from 4 to 8 identifiable steps toward success. A sense of grievance provides the broadest common denominator for initial formation, but that must shift to a common sense of purpose, with specific goals and strategies if it is to have legs. 

Such goals and strategies are already emerging, both from the general assembly process and from small group "think tanks" like this NING site. The 99% Declaration and its National General Assembly is, perhaps, the most concrete example of that next step. 

The third step will require actively organizing support for a program or agenda, and then staging actions to both popularize it and push it forward. If OWS never progresses beyond listening to everyone's voice, then it will build nothing but a Tower of Babel.

Comment by Kevin Parcell on November 29, 2011 at 3:34pm

I appreciate your taking the time to consider my post, but I do not permit comments on any of my pages that contain personal attacks of any kind, regardless of the merit of other opinions expressed.  If you delete the passages that offer your opinions about people, then please resubmit.

Very few forums tolerate such posts because most people will not stay in communities that permit it.  I suspect that the moderators here will realize that and delete such messages or accept that this site will eventually die.

I wonder how many more people would be participating in discussions here now if personal attacks were prohibited.

Comment by Robert Riversong on November 29, 2011 at 4:17pm


What you really mean is that you won't tolerate any judgements, about either your ideas or your behavior, which reflect badly on the image you choose to present. You will censor any comments which you choose to take personally, regardless of their merit or their value to the broader discussion. 

It is your behavior which undermines the creative potential of uninhibited and free-flowing ideas, thoughts and - yes - even judgements (the appropriate use of the mind). And, far worse, your censorious behavior is in diametrical contradiction to the very core of the #OWS movement (even as you, yourself, have articulated it). 

I have zero tolerance for secrecy, control, censorship or manipulation - and even less tolerance for hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty. A site dedicated to open conversation and the exploration of ideas should do likewise.

[And note that you are welcome to say anything you want on my blog pages, regardless of merit, style or even intent - and you have no qualms about taking advantage of my openness while refusing to reciprocate.]


Comment by Robert Riversong on November 29, 2011 at 4:22pm

Also, note the protective rationalization about "your pages". This site is not yours - it is a public site on which you are granted the privilege of creating pages to offer your own ideas. 

Another core issue of #OWS is that private ownership and control (particularly of ideas and public spaces) undermines democracy and the health of society.

So, when you claim "your pages", you are really claiming personal control over part of the public discussion space. You might have an argument for such control over a personal blog site that you created, but no such rationalization can apply to a space dedicated to free and open public discourse.

Comment by Robert Riversong on November 29, 2011 at 4:25pm

Further, what you call "personal attacks" are the same kind of judgements that #OWS levies against the 1%. If we refuse to tolerate such behaviors when "they" engage in them, we should be even more willing to challenge one another when we see the same dysfunctional behaviors here. 

Comment by Robert Riversong on November 29, 2011 at 4:35pm

And let us recall that this conflict began when you came to "my" blog, invited me to investigate your Reconomy site (by including the link), and then falsely accused me of a logical fallacy which you demanded that I acknowledge as a precondition for any discussion of the merits of your ideas.

So, quite evidently, it was you who chose to create an insurmountable obstacle to dialogue with a false accusation for which you required a confession from me. This was just one more underhanded method of exerting control over the terms of discussion, no less than "moderating" comments which you are unwilling to hear.



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