Notes from Wendell Berry's Home Economics

Wendell Berry is a great writer on community, the local, and how to organize a life. These  notes are from his collection of essays Home Economics. I also recommend What are people for?.

  • To call the unknown by its right name, “mystery”, is to suggest that we had better respect the possibility of a larger, unseen pattern that can be damaged or destroyed and, with it, the smaller patterns.This respecting of mystery obviously has something or other to do with religion, and we moderns have defended ourselves against it by turning it over to religion specialists, who take advantage of out indifference by claiming to know a lot about it.

    What impresses me about it, however, is the insistent practicality implicit in it. If we are up against mystery, then we dare act only on the most modest assumptions. The modern scientific program has held that we must act on the basis of knowledge, which, because its effects are so manifestly large, we have assumed to be ample. But if we are up against mystery, then knowledge is relatively small, and the ancient program is the right one: Act on the basis of ignorance. Acting on the basis of ignorance, paradoxically, requires one to know things, remember things — for instance, that failure is possible, that error is possible, that second chances are desirable (so don’t risk everything on the first chance), and so on. (p. 4-5)

  • Both the Greeks and the Hebrews told us to watch out for humans who assume that they make all the patterns. (p. 5)
  • Ignorance of where to stop is a modern epidemic; it is the basis of “industrial progress” and “economic growth”. The most obvious practical result of this ignorance is a critical disproportion of scale between the scale of human enterprises and their sources in nature. (p. 15-16)
  • The proper scale confers freedom and simplicity…and doubtless leads to long life and health. I think that it also confers joy. (p. 16)
  • No good thing is destroyed by goodness; good things are destroyed by wickedness. We may identify that insight as Biblical, but it is taken for granted by both the Greek and the Biblical lineages of our culture, from Homer to Moses to William Blake. Since the start of the industrial revolution, there have been voices urging that this inheritance [nature] may be safely replaced by intelligence, information, energy and money. No idea, I believe, could be more dangerous. (p. 20)
  • Everywhere, every day, local life is being discomforted, disrupted, endangered, or destroyed by powerful people who live, or who are privileged to think that they live, beyond the bad effects of their bad work. (p. 50)

Act Now, Electoral College

Stopping demagogues and unqualified candidates is why the Electoral College was created. Time to reread The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton. Jon Zieger paraphrases and explains:

The intention of the electoral college is to protect us from interference in our elections by foreign powers and from unqualified candidates who rise up quickly based on “little arts in popularity”;  to stop “foreign powers… gain[ing] an improper ascendant in our councils… by raising a creature of their own to the [Presidency].” its purpose is to “afford a moral certainty that [POTUS] … will never fall to any man not in eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications as a majority of votes might not … happen [go to] one man, and as it might be unsafe to permit less than a majority to be conclusive…it provides that, in such a contingency, the House of Representatives shall select the man who … may be best qualified”

And he concludes:

If there were ever a case for individual electors to exercise judgment independent of their state populations, this is it. And doing so would be consistent with both the constitution and the intention of the system as expressed by the framers.

Yes.

21 States do not restrict their Electors. There is already unrest: Texas elector has said he couldn’t support Trump.

Tyranny comes from democracy

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I read Chris Hedges’ book The Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, many years ago, and I was impressed by his strong statements and his searing condemnation of the educated class to which we belong, and how we lost the people by the cynically serving them spectacle, and how that spectacle would eventually become indistinguishable, to them, from reality.

In his trademark manner he articulated and clarified many things that had been vague, unformed ideas I’d entertained, writing of a future characterized by a widening gulf between the literate and the illiterate, complexity no longer understandable by the masses. His writing was hyperbolic, dire, doomsday. It seemed like an apocalyptic screed and much too dark. No more. His prognostications have been realized, the day he warned of has arrived.

Chris Hedges writes again, with many more now hopefully listening, that neoliberal kowtowing to corporate masters destroyed the underclass and opened the doors for fascism. He writes in an August 2016 article:

College-educated elites, on behalf of corporations, carried out the savage neoliberal assault on the working poor. Now they are being made to pay. Their duplicity—embodied in politicians such as Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama—succeeded for decades.

On behalf of corporations indeed. He excoriates the press too, in this interview with my former boss David Talbot, dismissing most journalists as stenographers for the powerful.

There are tens of millions of Americans, especially lower-class whites, rightfully enraged at what has been done to them, their families and their communities. They have risen up to reject the neoliberal policies and political correctness imposed on them by college-educated elites from both political parties: Lower-class whites are embracing an American fascism.

These Americans want a kind of freedom—a freedom to hate. They want the freedom to use words like “nigger,” “kike,” “spic,” “chink,” “raghead” and “fag.” They want the freedom to idealize violence and the gun culture. They want the freedom to have enemies, to physically assault Muslims, undocumented workers, African-Americans, homosexuals and anyone who dares criticize their cryptofascism. They want the freedom to celebrate historical movements and figures that the college-educated elites condemn, including the Ku Klux Klan and the Confederacy. They want the freedom to ridicule and dismiss intellectuals, ideas, science and culture. They want the freedom to silence those who have been telling them how to behave. And they want the freedom to revel in hypermasculinity, racism, sexism and white patriarchy. These are the core sentiments of fascism. These sentiments are engendered by the collapse of the liberal state.

The freedom to hate has arrived and we can see it in the streets, in stores, in classrooms today, unleashed by the election of Trump.  All over the internet you can find innumerable examples of rising fascism such as this, which happened yesterday in Queens:

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Hedges quotes Richard Rorty, an old favorite of mine, whom I encountered because of his chapter “The Barber of Kasbeam”about cruelty in the work of Vladimir Nabokov in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity particularly “the potential of cruelty inherent in the quest for autonomy”. Rorty writes in his 1998 book Achieving Our Country a prediction of our current state of affairs:

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

But we can go even farther back than 1998 for this prediction.  Plato, in his Republic, warns that democracy is the very birthplace of tyranny. “Too much freedom seems to change into nothing but too much slavery, for both private man and city.” The Third Reich rose out of an era of great liberality and decadence, particularly in the cities, among the elite, a society of great freedom for women, gays, and Jews. At the time there was what people were calling a “überfremdung”–an “overpowering”–a great influx of foreigners into Germany.

There is a section, if you can bear to read it, on page 789 of your Bollingen edition of Plato, and continuing onto page 790 that describes a former oligarch, become a democrat, now shameless and resplendent in his freedom, sharing “equality” all around. See if you don’t recognize us in it:

“And does he not,” said, I, “also live out his life in this fashion, day by day indulging the appetite of the day, now winebibbing and abandoning himself to the lascivious pleasing of the flute and again drinking only water and dieting, and at one time exercising his body, and sometimes idling and neglecting all things, and at another time seeming to occupy himself with philosophy. And frequently he goes in for politics and bounces up and says and does whatever enters his head. And if military men excite his emulation, thither he rushes, and in his existence, but he calls this life of his the life of pleasure and freedom and happiness an cleaves to it to the end.”

“That is a perfect description,” he said, “of a devotee of equality.”

It is not reminiscent of the now classic description of the liberal elite as “tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving”? And, too, this “devotee of equality” is not unlike Hedges’ description of liberals lavish in their inclusion, but excluding one group in particular:

These elites, many from East Coast Ivy League schools, spoke the language of values—civility, inclusivity, a condemnation of overt racism and bigotry, a concern for the middle class—while thrusting a knife into the back of the underclass for their corporate masters. This game has ended.

This game has ended indeed, and not how we thought it would. We’re paying attention now. These have been bad days, and after my sorrow and shock, I begin working on a plan.

I seek relief in poetry, Plato and the care and feeding of children and small dogs.

Virginia Woolf’s Diary Vol. 2

I have been reading Virginia Woolf’s Diary Vol. 2. It has been good, and I recommend it.

I haven’t read it in years, and had forgotten how much she lived for other people’s compliments, how insecure she was, how she flowered under another’s approval, and how she withered beneath another’s dismissal. I also noticed how much she speaks of, and thinks of, her household, particularly her servants. It’s remarkable how much help she had, really. And Leonard, always in the background, a tremendous support to her. And I had the thought that, for someone with such an active social life, how could she have fallen into her dark periods, as friends and family are a balm for the trials of life.

Lighting Their Fires

I just reread this review of Lighting Their Fires by Nat Torkington, which had this very valuable list of “lessons” for children (and their parents). It’s a child-rearing book, which I haven’t read, but that I’ve already benefited from. So:

The lessons for parents and kids:
* punctuality,
* use time valuably,
* care about and learn from the past,
* repeat and repeat the values,
* embrace an art and learn time management, focus, etc.
* put away distractions,
* develop a personal code of behaviour (he uses Kohlberg’s six levels of motivation)
* radio, models, board games, getting good at music and other arts, reading all build focus. TV and games do not.
* the importance of decisions and that they be good ones,
* to recognise that they are making decisions every day,
* spotting and discussing decisions in novels, plays, and movies,
* if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well,
* actions have consequences, there are good outcomes and bad, strive for excellence, lose the sense of entitlement,
* consider your alternatives,
* in the arts, try for excellence not adequacy,
* allowances not tied to chores—chores are responsibility, and the reward is the job well done,
* identify substandard work and require it to be done to standard, otherwise there are no standards,
* be self-less,
* work with groups not individuals, so all can recognise and appreciate and celebrate the hard work of others,
* do the right thing for the right reasons,
* be able to do the right thing without acknowledgement or praise (humility),
* to be able to delay gratification.

Along the way, lots of great quotes. Over the library of Thebes: “Medicine for the Soul”. Mark Twain’s alleged line, “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.” Martin Luther King, Jr: “If it falls to your lot to sweep the streets, Sweep them like Michelangelo painted pictures, Like Shakespeare wrote poetry, Like Beethoven composed music.”

A handy guide to what types of speech are not protected by the First Amendment

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Here’s a useful guide to non-controversial types of speech that are not protected by the First Amendment, as recently re-articulated by the Supreme Court. Note that “hate speech” is not among them:

From 1791 to the present the First Amendment has permitted restrictions upon the content of speech in a few limited areas and has never included a freedom to disregard these traditional limitations.

These historic and traditional categories are long familiar to the bar, including obscenity,  defamation, fraud,  incitement, and speech integral to criminal conduct–are well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem.

The associated cases:

  • Simon & Schuster, Inc. v. Members of N. Y. State Crime Victims Bd., 502 U. S. 105, 127 (1991)
  • Roth v. United States, 354 U. S. 476, 483 (1957)
  • Beauharnais v. Illinois, 343 U. S. 250, 254-255 (1952)
  • Virginia Bd. of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, Inc., 425 U. S. 748, 771 (1976)
  • Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U. S. 444, 447-449 (1969)
  • Giboney v. Empire Storage & Ice Co., 336 U. S. 490, 498 (1949)
  • Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U. S. 568, 571-572 (1942).

Further Reading:

How To Spot And Critique Censorship Tropes In The Media’s Coverage Of Free Speech Controversies A superbly useful guide to help you understand who is right and who is wrong when they invoke the First Amendment in the media.

 

 

Storytelling, Narrative and the Utility of Knowledge

Why are we so intellectually dismissive towards narrative?” he asks. “Why are we inclined to treat it as rather a trashy, if entertaining, way of thinking about and talking about what we do with our minds? Storytelling performs the dual cultural functions of making the strange familiar and ourselves private and distinctive. If pupils are encouraged to think about the different outcomes that could have resulted from a set of circumstances, they are demonstrating usability of knowledge about a subject. Rather than just retaining knowledge and facts, they go beyond them to use their imaginations to think about other outcomes, as they don’t need the completion of a logical argument to understand a story. This helps them to think about facing the future, and it stimulates the teacher too.

– Jerome Bruner

Jerome Bruner died this week. He had lived well into his 90s and was working until the end.


Further Reading:
Actual Minds, Possible Worlds Bruner argues here that there is too much emphasis on the logical, rational and scientifically oriented parts of cognition, and too little on what he calls its “narrative” aspects, which are the source of all great storytelling, drama, myth and persuasion.

 

 

Acts of Meaning In which Bruner asks us to focus not on the mechanistic, computer-inspired way of looking at thinking, but give our focus to the rich, evocative, meaning-making aspects of our minds.

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