I have a pretty complete library of Wendell Berry's books -- his essays, his poems, and his fiction -- and I am currently re-reading The Unsettling of America, which he originally wrote in 1977, nearly forty years ago. (I must admit that I am a relative late-comer to Mr. Berry's work. This book -- the first of his books that I ever read -- was given to me nearly twenty years after it was written. It was a gift from a friend, Rick Koeplin, who was quite a good back-to-the-land type of man himself: he moved his family and his work (auto mechanics) out of the city onto a small farm in Indiana. There he and his wife designed and built their own house from timber harvested from their own property, planted their gardens, repaired farm machinery, and raised their six children.)
Wendell Berry's influence has spread widely -- he is probably even better known around the world than he is known in his own home state of Kentucky, where he lives and farms and writes. In this book he has a chapter called "The Use of Energy," in which he talks about the cycles of life and of energy, and the past and present and future of American culture and agriculture. But here I want to focus specifically on what he says about government duplicity; and so I will lift these words out from their context. They are words that can stand on their own:
"But then it must be asked if we can remove cultural value from one part of our lives without destroying it also in the other parts. Can we justify secrecy, lying, and burglary in our so-called intelligence organizations and yet preserve openness, honesty, and devotion to principle in the rest of our government? Can we subsidize mayhem in the military establishment and yet have peace, order, and respect for human life in the city streets?"
I think that the keepers of our political culture -- not just the party politicians, or the media pundits and paid experts, but ordinary people like ourselves -- have tried mightily to answer "Yes" to his questions. But our recent history, including our unending string of wars and rumors of wars, and our financial unraveling, give an unequivocal answer, "No."
Much food for thought, I think. I encourage anyone reading these words to get and read his book, and any of the many other books that he has written. His message is consistent, and consistently full of insight. It is sobering to me to realize that the problems that we face were well understood and discussed by this man decades ago.