The crowd that went to see Wendell Berry give the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities last Monday seemed, at a cursory glance, to be split into three. The first third, to put it crudely, was a bunch of older hippies who had probably latched onto the environmental movement some time ago and treated Berry as a modern-day prophet. The second third was people more or less like myself—younger residents of D.C., often scruffy and dressed casually, who had come to embrace the sustainable-development movement and had often heard of Berry secondhand, through someone like Michael Pollan or Mark Bittman. We wanted to come see one of the intellectual godfathers of the Slow Food movement in the flesh (and engage in the time-honored city tradition of taking advantage of free entertainment). The final third was a well-heeled Washington, D.C. audience that looked like it was showing up for the opera. After all, Berry was giving his lecture at the Kennedy Center as an honored guest of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Technically speaking, this was a government-sponsored event that only happens once a year; the Very Important People who sit on the NEH board and fill its coffers must have all been there.

How strange, then, that Berry finished his lecture and walked offstage, only to be called back three times by an audience that was standing and hollering in unison. Each time, he entered stage right and didn’t step back up to the podium or even into the spotlight. He stood sort of awkwardly in the shadows before retreating backstage and making his way upstairs to the reception (which, of course, was also free). It was exactly how I imagined Berry would accept that sort of effusive praise. I don’t know if it was the first time he had done the Wendell Berry shtick—an eloquent, sharp defense of tradition and environmentalism coupled with a scathing attack on industrial capitalism—before an official Washington audience. But getting to do it under the aegis of the government, while it doesn’t quite reach the level of subversive, is still a pretty impressive accomplishment.

Berry, after all, is not simply a kinder, gentler capitalist who happens to be especially fond of spending time outdoors. His lecture was titled “It All Turns On Affection,” and Berry made it explicit that when he said “it all,” he meant the entire economy, from our interactions with individual farm animals up to the systemic forces that power the largest GDP the world has ever seen. I hope no one in the audience read the lecture as a straightforward attempt to describe the American economy as it works from day to day. Berry’s small farm in Kentucky may indeed run on affection for his own patch of land and all the creatures who inhabit it, “human and non-human” as he would say, but there isn’t nearly enough land to sustain this kind of lifestyle for everyone—never mind the fact that most of us aren’t physically up to the job either. Still, Berry lives the lifestyle he chooses and makes a living off his wits and the sweat of his brow. Doesn’t this make him, in his own way, the quintessential American capitalist?

Of course not. When the entire political chain of command in both parties has thoughtlessly embraced the language of the market and made efficiency and output the yardsticks by which all else must be judged, someone who insists that affection, not profit, should power the economy has essentially defined himself outside the community of capitalism as we know it. Berry never said this quite so plainly, and so instead of taking shots at capitalism per se, he said that it was “corporate industrialism” that “has exposed the falsehood that it ever was inevitable or that it has ever given precedence to the common good. … No amount of fiddling with capitalism to regulate and humanize it, no pointless rhetoric on the virtues of capitalism or socialism, no billions or trillions spent on ‘defense’ of the ‘American dream,’ can for long disguise this failure.” Perhaps in a less institutionalized city—that is, one less dependent on a single  (if multi-tentacled) industry for its livelihood—Berry could savage the indignities of industrial capitalism and still, in some way, remain a capitalist. But the cliché about our two political parties is true: they largely share core values and differ on the details. Here, that phrase is usually used as a sop across the aisle, as if to congratulate one’s political opponents for still being democrats and not proto-fascists. And so no matter which party they come from or which president appointed them, the board members of the Kennedy Center are unlikely to inveigh against the industrial system anytime soon.

Some people may find it odd that I used the phrase “the community of capitalism” in the first place, as if the most individualistic of ideologies could even provide a real community for Berry to remove himself from. But it is a real thing, bound together not so much by love of money as by a faith in rationalism, technocracy, and the power of tweaking to solve problems; this is, of course, the same faith in tweaking that Berry decried in his lecture as hopeless. And New York may be the center of the world financial system, but that city is too large and chaotic to ever be fully subdued by one ideology. Washington is smaller, more orderly, and most important, a company town. Even in these days of legislative nihilism, when Congress can barely save the country from a totally unnecessary financial default, we all ultimately serve the same masters and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The revolving doors between Citibank and the Treasury, between Monsanto and the Department of Agriculture, between nuclear power and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, between Lockheed and the Pentagon—they keep revolving no matter which party holds the reins of power. We are family.

So is there hope for a better way of doing things? Is Berry’s way of doing things actually a better one? His lecture contained a passing reference to “the by now well-established effort to build or rebuild local economies, starting with economies of food … To connect cities with their surrounding rural landscapes has the advantage of being both attractive and necessary.” And indeed, on weekends from May through November, Washington is rife with farmers’ markets. This, too, is its own form of capitalism, since it relies on a private transaction between producer and consumer. It just doesn’t look like the capitalism we’ve accustomed ourselves to; to paraphrase the heroes of Prague Spring, it’s capitalism with a human face. This year, Congress is going to write the bill that sets farm policy for the next five years, and despite assurances from people like Michael Pollan that organic food and a return to small farming are “ideas whose time has come,” I have no doubt that Monsanto will write the bill just as it did five years ago, and five years before that. Ultimately, that’s the way we do capitalism here: with a lid screwed on tight and very little left to chance.

Perhaps just a little, that’s the way it should be, especially when something as precarious and unpredictable as nature is at play. It’s hard to tell farmers, many of whom are already fighting to extricate themselves from a mountain of debt, that they should give up their subsidies and machinery and go back to farming au naturel in order to ease the consciences of Kennedy Center attendees and a handful of Grumpy Old Men with superlative writing skills. But Berry’s lecture certainly hit a chord with the audience. The chairman of the NEH, a former Republican congressman from Iowa who ended up endorsing Obama in 2008, looked a bit bashful when, at the end of the lecture, he stepped up to the microphone and wryly added, “Obviously, I, uh, should mention that the views expressed in the lecture are those of the speaker and are not the official position of the NEH or the United States government…” He couldn’t get any farther because the audience erupted in laughter. I was secretly a bit disappointed that my worst fears—Sean Hannity with the clips on his show the next day, alerting the audience that these are the guests that the Obama Administration chooses to honor—didn’t come to pass. Who knows? Perhaps if Hannity or someone like him had mentioned the words “conservative” and “conservationist” in the vicinity of one another, treating them as if they were polar opposites, some unwitting listener would have heard him and thought for a second that the two words sounded eerily alike.

May 2012

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