Thursday, June 25, 2015

"If you aren't for us you're against us"

     It may surprise you (or it may not) that I am not quoting a recent president.  Not at all.

     Rather, I am quoting from a man who wrote these words in 1969, when the Johnson Administration was giving way to the Nixon Administration in this great country of ours.  He wrote them at first privately to himself, and later published them in his well-known and well-respected book, A Continuous Harmony.  The man is Wendell Berry.  I will let him speak in his own words:

May 21
If you aren't for us you're against us, somebody is always saying.  That seems to me a sad little pair of options, insofar as to any kind of intelligence the possibilities ought to be numerous, if not infinite.  Intelligence consists in being for and against such things as political movements up to a point, which it is the task of intelligence to define.  In my judgment intelligence never goes whole hog for anything public, especially political movements.  Across the whole range of politics now (and I suppose always) you find people willing to act on the assumption that there is some simple abstraction that will explain and solve the problems of the world, and who go direct from the discovery of the abstraction to the forming of an organization to promote it.  In my opinion those people are all about equally dangerous, and I don't believe anything they say.*

     I really need to stop the quote now, because there is plenty to digest here already; and as anyone knows who has read Mr. Berry, there is an abundance of wisdom on either side of any snippet, even if that snippet is a long one; and that he put those other words there for a reason, and they really shouldn't be left out.  (You'll need to buy the book.)

     But I cannot resist the desire to add the very next sentence that follows ". . . I don't believe anything they say."  Here it is:

     What I hold out for is the possibility that a man can live decently without knowing all the answers, or believing that he does -- can live decently even in the understanding that life is unspeakably complex and unspeakably subtle in its complexity.*

     Thank you, Wendell Berry, for words that help me to take from them, and from you, more of both humility (I hope) and courage.


* Wendell Berry, A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural. (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint. 2012 edition.) p. 49.

1 comment:

  1. I don't exactly remember these comments of his but I read this book several years ago and lent it to someone...

    Others I have read have written of Eric Hoffer's book on the True Believer. It's a pyschological phenomenon with certain people that whatever they are into they are into 110%. They tend to go through violent swings from one "abstraction" to the next, to use Wendell's terminology. I think in many ways I fit the profile of the True Believer...I've never read Hoffer's book but I think I know the True Believer "type."

    Having said that, I don't think that True Believers are a majority of the people out there, signing on to political movements. By definition, a "True Believer" would have to be a minority view, a small group, a subset of the larger set. Most people, in particular political leaders and men with governing responsibility, tend not to be True Believers. Particularly in America, I think people tend to go with "what works."

    American politics tends to gravitate toward a common center. Extremism doesn't play well here. The Constitution, with its onerous requirements for amending itself, as well as the system of checks and balances, make comprehensive, sweeping reform of anything difficult to get done. Purists of the Right, Left or Libertarian wings of politics are ever frustrated with this but that's the way things work.

    I think that most people realize the complexity of daily life and seek to live decently without knowing all the answers. Wendell seems to be saying that the True Believer defines the outlook of most people, but I don't think that's true. Given the forces of intertia, its' more likely for our people to overlook big problems or abject evil in the name of pragmatism than to be fanatically dedicated to some abstract cause.