Our Only World – Wendell Berry
Talking Appalachian – Amy Clark & Nancy Hayward (eds.)
It doesn’t take any great insight to look at this year’s US presidential election coverage and come away with the conclusion that folks just aren’t listening to each other. We’re all too busy being right to bother wasting time figuring out why the “other side” sticks to a point of view that’s obviously wrong. It’s much easier to just argue with the straw man, with the caricature. And since I spend most of my time hanging around with people on the left side of the political spectrum, I’m mostly talking to you folks. As long as your imaginary Trump supporter is a diabetic racist with a sixth grade education riding to rallies on a rascal scooter and armed to the teeth, you can dismiss whatever it is they have to say. They just need to be educated, like you. They just need to accept facts, like you. Or they need to get old and die and get out of the way. And so you find yourselves astonished that 43% of the country will still turn out to vote for Trump. They must all be idiots, right?
I was recently surprised to find that the best analysis that I’ve seen of Trump supporters came from Cracked magazine, of all places. I remember Cracked from when it was just the less-funny little brother of Mad Magazine. But apparently they’ve got some pretty awesome editorial staff right now. In his piece “How Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind”, David Wong gets a lot of things right. In particular, he gets right the fact that rural America is hurting badly right now. In Appalachian coal country, you’ve had a mono-economy for a century, and that economy is disappearing fast. Nothing is replacing it. When the coal leaves, the town just dies. The same is true in farm communities that have been gutted by the rise of industrial agriculture. The young people leave if they can, find work in the cities, and the old folks scrape by on social security until they finally do die and get out of the way.
As of this writing, FiveThirtyEight has Trump at a 99.1% chance of winning West Virginia. This is not just because all West Virginians are a bunch of ignorant racists, although that’s a much simpler story to tell. As Wong puts it:
“The rural folk with the Trump signs in their yards say their way of life is dying, and you smirk and say what they really mean is that blacks and gays are finally getting equal rights and they hate it. But I’m telling you, they say their way of life is dying because their way of life is dying. It’s not their imagination. No movie about the future portrays it as being full of traditional families, hunters, and coal mines. Well, except for Hunger Games, and that was depicted as an apocalypse. So yes, they vote for the guy promising to put things back the way they were, the guy who’d be a wake-up call to the blue islands. They voted for the brick through the window.”
And it’s not just about jobs. It’s very much about identity, about keeping families together, about finding a way to feel proud of who you are and where you come from, while popular media disparage both. Rural folks are nearly always portrayed as ignorant hillbillies suitable only for reality television, so of course they want to oppose what they see as urban elitism. Their communities are dying, and they’re being mocked in the process. They’re pissed off, and they probably should be. Donald Trump isn’t the answer, of course – his very sketchy proposed policies ultimately wouldn’t do the rural poor any favors – but he is giving voice to the frustration, blaming somebody other than those affected. They finally feel listened to, even if they’re just being manipulated by another urban billionaire.
For rural folks, we define “success” as “getting out”. Success is moving to the city, becoming a doctor or a lawyer or a banker or a computer engineer. Success means leaving behind your community and your family. Only losers stay in their home town. Losers live with their parents or extended family. You can be a successful lawyer, but you can’t be a successful welder. There’s no such thing. We don’t even have a way to talk about people who want to stay in their local communities, who want to stay close to their family, without disparaging their values. We treat “traditional family values” as if it were only code for “anti-gay”, when it’s actually much more than that. While there is no doubt rampant homophobia in rural – and urban – communities, there also is a very real valuing of families that actually is threatened by the economic death of rural communities.That’s a real thing, and it really is happening, and people really do want to resist it for valid reasons that we just don’t listen to. That’s one of the things it means to them to “make America great again”.
In Talking Appalachian, the editors have collected essays that give voice to Appalachian dialects, dialects that – like urban African-American dialects – give its speakers a sense of inclusion, a sense of identity, and have traditionally been viewed by educators as “wrong” or “non-standard”. The book as a whole makes the case that when you try to teach a culture that they the way they talk is wrong, the result is a resistance to education. Because giving up your home voice and learning to talk like city folks makes you an outsider in your own community, an outsider in your own family. Several of the authors in the book make a case for teaching the voices of Appalachian dialects alongside standardized American English, and for teaching students to ‘code-switch’ — which is to say, teach them to be aware of context, and to modulate their dialect according to that context. It’s an approach to education that acknowledges the value of having a home voice, and acknowledges the role of that voice in maintaining social ties. And according to at least one of the authors, it produces quantitatively better results in terms of test scores for standard written English. When you don’t ask people to give up their home voice and instead teach them another language to use alongside that one, they become less resistant to education.
Wendell Berry, recipient of numerous literary awards, is himself deeply resistant to compulsory education. In “Our Deserted Country”, the cornerstone essay of Our Only World about the emptying out of farming communities, Berry writes:
“The Amish famously, or infamously, limit formal schooling to eight grades. (This is not at all to say that they limit learning. Some Amishmen, for example have gone on to learn mechanical engineering.) They limit schooling in order to keep their children in the community. This makes sense if you want to keep your children in the community, and if you have understood that the purpose of mainstream education is to prepare children, and especially country children, to leave the community. If you contrive in general to keep the community’s children in the community, there are two desirable results: 1) The children, from earliest childhood, learn the community’s work, by observing it and, as they become able, by doing it; and 2) If you keep all or most of the community’s children in the community, then as a matter of course you keep the brightest and most talented ones.”
I’m fairly sure that Berry is no Trump supporter, but he shares the distrust of education and the disdain for urban elitism for similar reasons. It has to do with the preservation of cultures and the preservation of families and identities. It’s easy for the “urban elites” (who, I understand, are equally a strawman group, but that’s a topic for another essay) to write those people off as LOL IGNORANT RACISTS, but there’s a whole lot more to it than that. And if we – all of us – don’t make an effort to take that seriously and understand the values that actually motivate people, we’ll remain as divided a nation as the current presidential polls make us out to be. I think we can do better. I think we must do better.
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern is a case of popular history done well. It’s intensely well-researched, but written for a popular audience. It tells a particular story, but nests that story well in the broader historical context. Stephen Greenblatt isn’t afraid to do a lot of heavy lifting, but doesn’t need to show off that he’s done the lifting. I get the sense that he’s done ten thousand pages of work and distilled that out into 400 pages of readable story, and left pointers to the rest in the citations and footnotes. It’s the way scholarship is supposed to work.
That said, The Swerve is nonetheless storytelling. Broadly, it traces a single work – On The Nature Of Things by Lucretius – as its ideas re-entered the European canon thanks to the rediscovery of the text by one Poggio Bracciolini of Florence. Greenblatt makes the case that the atomism of Lucretius and the Epicureans gave the Renaissance world a portrait of a mechanistic universe — one ruled not by gods and demons and incomprehensible forces of whim, but rather by discrete particles operating within natural laws. Lucretius didn’t necessarily argue that the gods didn’t exist; he merely argued that they could have no interest or influence in worldly affairs. According to Greenblatt, as the ideas of On The Nature Of Things spread across the world of the European Renaissance, it enabled thinkers like Galileo to probe the natural universe. If the world operates according to natural laws and not supernatural whims, then it can be studied and understood. Predictions can be made and reliably tested. In short, the Dark Ages could finally end.
Of course, there’s a lot more to the story than that. There were rival popes, earthly empires, political intrigues to influence and survive, patrons to satisfy and heretics to burn. One of the great ironies of the story is that while the Epicureans would eventually be decried as heretics, the survival of the Epicurean texts was due almost entirely to the efforts of religious copyists who toiled in secluded monasteries to copy and preserve the ancient Latin texts, despite often having little understanding or sympathy for the texts they copied. While they may have considered the pagan ideas expressed within to be dangerous, as aspiring Latinists they couldn’t deny the value of the classical Greek and Roman texts as far as language and rhetoric went. (Even the great church fathers like Thomas Aquinas had spilled massive amounts of ink trying to get Aristotle to square with Christian doctrine.)
There are an awful lot of details lost to time that Greenblatt just needed to invent. We know that Poggio found On The Nature of Things in the scriptorium of some monastery, but we don’t know which one. For the sake of the story, Greenblatt sketches in the missing details, tells us where Poggio may have found it, how the conversation with the abbot might have gone, how Poggio may have handled getting access and copying the text. It’s a lot of speculation, but to his credit Greenblatt frames it as speculation, and provides the citations that serve as the basis for that speculation.
Nonetheless, that kind of speculative storytelling is the way that history gets written, for better or worse. Our stories of nearly all significant historical figures depend heavily on imagined reconstructions, simply because the mundane things they did in their youth didn’t seem worth recording; they only became history in the retelling once the world had been changed. That’s the nature of history, and The Swerve does no worse than any other history in that respect.
The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible
I wanted to like The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. I really did. I thought that Sacred Economics was a pretty good book. While academically slipshod, it was nonetheless insightful, challenging, and offered specific (but radical) solutions to real-world problems. But The More Beautiful World does none of that. It’s just academically slipshod, with little insight. It dwells in generalities, vapid platitudes, unjustified assertions, and vague handwaving at complex issues. It simply refuses to do any heavy lifting, and is unapologetic and even proud of that refusal.
The basic premise of the book is as follows: Charles Eisenstein describes what he terms the Story of Separation. This story corresponds roughly to things like the Enlightenment, the Scientific/Industrial Revolution, the narrative of Man’s triumph over nature, and the story of rationality more generally. In the European/Western arc of history, man separates himself from the animals, separates himself from the natural world, separates himself from his fellow man, an eventually even separates himself from himself. Throughout most of modernity, we have been living in the Age of Separation, and that Age has now reached its limits. Our planetary resources are sagging under the weight of consumption, the perception of scarcity drives humanity to fight humanity, and we feel the weight of separation as anxiety, depression, fear and hopelessness. The Story of Separation is drawing to a close, and Eisenstein believes that we are now entering the Story of Interbeing and the Age of Reunion. This new story is one of interdependence instead of independence, of balance in place of unchecked growth, of spirituality over rationality. As he tells the arc of history, we currently sit in an uncomfortable place between two ages of human history, where the old story is breaking down, but we haven’t yet embraced the new one. And he argues that we don’t need to fight against the Story of Separation, because fighting against things is part of that Story. Instead, we only have to give way to the Story of Interbeing, to let it happen through our words and action, and humanity will get to where it needs to be because humanity has no other choice.
In the broadest general terms, I agree with him. It mostly boils down to “be kind to people, and take care of where you live”. Fair enough. But it somehow takes 282 pages to hash that out, mostly by way of anecdotes and bold assertions without footnotes or citations. We get gems like this:
We need to understand nature, the planet, the sun, the soil, the water, the mountains, the rocks, the trees, and the air as sentient beings whose destiny is not separate from our own. As far as I know, no indigenous person on Earth would deny that a rock bears some kind of awareness or intelligence. Who are we to think differently?
Er, citation needed? As far as you know, no indigenous person would deny this? How far do you know? Before speaking on behalf of every indigenous person on Earth, did you look this up? I always get pretty creeped out whenever someone starts making arguments by appealing to the wisdom of “indigenous people”, as if that were one thing, and the Hopi and the Aboriginal Australians and the original residents of New Guinea (and their 827 languages) all shared one animistic worldview. The lionization of “indigenous people” denies them their humanity. Certainly some “indigenous people” were less self-destructive than modern Europeans, and certainly others were more self-destructive (and are probably no longer with us as a result). Certainly some exhibit enormous wisdom and courage, and others exhibit enormous fear and selfishness. The thing about “indigenous people” is that they are people, with all of the diversity and all of the good and bad that comes with that. To pretend otherwise is to deny them their basic humanity.
But I get the sense that Eisenstein isn’t much bothered with research and citations and justifying assertions. Those are things that we did during the Age of Separation. In the Age of Reunion, what we need is good storytelling and things that spiritually feel right. He doesn’t leave room for criticism, because criticism is part of the old story. The book is full of anecdotes in which someone challenges him on some point in a talk he’s giving, and he becomes the hero of the anecdote by asking the critic to look within themselves to understand why his point makes them uncomfortable. They’re asking the question from the vantage point of the Story of Separation, and if they would just heal the separation within themselves, the challenge becomes irrelevant from within the Story of Reunion.
If that sounds like a tautology, that’s because it is. And Eisenstein is okay with that. Rationality is part of the old system. As he puts it:
I wish I could rely on evidence to choose my belief. But I cannot. Which story is true, Separation or Interbeing? I will in this book offer evidence that fits the latter, but none of it will constitute proof. No evidence is ever enough. There is always an alternate explanation: coincidence, fraud, wishful thinking, etc. Absent conclusive evidence, you will have to decide on some other basis, such as “Which story is most aligned with who you truly are, and who you truly want to be?” “Which story gives you the most joy?”
The Story of Reunion exists beyond “being right” or “being wrong”. But it doesn’t give you much to work with when you need to solve real-world problems. But yes: be kind to each other, and take care of where you live. And maybe let’s just leave it at that for now.
Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality
by Cacilda Jethá and Christopher Ryan
The authors of Sex At Dawn begin by setting up what they call the ‘standard model’ of human sexuality. In the standard model, humans are primates that form monogamous pair bonds for the purpose of raising children. The male tries to prevent the female from having additional sex partners (to protect the certainty of his paternity) whilst also trying to cheat with as many other females as possible (as to better spread his own genes). In this model, it is to the female’s advantage to keep the male emotionally faithful to her, as to secure his resources (i.e., food and protection) for her children and to better make sure that her genes survive. The standard model is one based on scarcity (males compete for access to females with which to mate; females secure males to protect access to food and defense) and conflict (the sexual goals of the male and the sexual goals of the female are at odds; the males are in competition with one another). The consequences are infidelity, war, and rugged pursuit of individual gain. For the standard model, this is the essence of human nature, which we try (and usually fail) to overcome.
But for Jethá and Ryan’s model, this actually isn’t human nature at all. Arguing partly from primatology, partly from evolutionary psychology, and partly from anthropology, they make the case that human nature is historically communal rather than individual, polyamorous rather than monogamous, and cooperative rather than competitive. Of the other primates, they point out that humans are most closely related (genetically) to bonobos and chimps (both of whom live in social groups and share multiple mates), rather than gorillas (alpha male with many females), orangutans (solitary), or gibbons (monogamous pair bonding, and the furthest from humans genetically). Through anthropology, they attempt to demonstrate that in hunter-gatherer societies, the evolutionary advantageous norm is for humans to live in groups in which resources are shared and to have multiple sex partners in which paternity is uncertain (and unimportant). They argue that these were cultures of abundance rather than scarcity – when someone in the clan makes a large kill, there is no reason (and indeed no way) to hoard the meat. Likewise, when fruit is on the trees for the taking, there is no reason for competition to arise. When paternity is uncertain, every male in the group looks out for all of the children in the group, leading to social cohesion and better group survival. Jethá and Ryan assert that the social bonds broke only very recently in human history, with the dawn of agriculture. With agriculture came ownership of land and scarcity of resources. With that came inheritance, and the need to know whom your offspring actually are. And with that came concepts of fidelity, monogamy, infidelity, and the corresponding moral imperatives.
The authors make the further claim that the monogamous nature of humanity has always been a Puritan fantasy — and one that we aren’t very good at. Even societies that glorify monogamy and chastity as the pinnacle of virtue simply don’t practice them: the data shows that nearly everyone cheats, and it causes us no end of societal trouble. The final chapter of Sex At Dawn encourages us to abandon the pretense. If we accept that we aren’t monogamous by nature, then what? We don’t necessarily need to go back to non-agricultural hunter-gatherer societies. But we do need to de-couple sex from land ownership, inheritance, moral norms, etc. In short, we need to treat sex as being no big deal, a thing that our evolutionary history has given us to enhance (rather than disrupt) our social bonds. The authors encourage us to have frank discussions with our chosen partners in light of our biological truth, and decide what actually works for us, rather than what we wish and pretend would work for us.
It’s hard to disagree with their conclusions. One need look no further than the newspaper on any given day to see that the people in power who push hardest for the virtues of chastity and monogamy fail to practice them any more than anyone else. Pick your pedophile priest, your homosexual evangelical Christian, your conservative politician who makes a tearful apology for infidelity to his family at a press conference. And while they rarely take the fall as publicly (partly because we simply have fewer of them in positions of power), the data shows that the women don’t fare any better in this regard. Take a look at the numbers on paternity testing, and how many children out there are fathered by someone other than their mother’s husband. And that’s just the episodes that result in pregnancy. There’s no denying it: we’re terrible at monogamy, and our biology is mostly to blame. And in evolutionary terms, that’s not a bug; it’s a feature.
But while I mostly agree with its conclusions, a lot of the argumentation in Sex At Dawn is frankly a mess. It’s a popular science book written for a non-academic audience, and so it can get away with a lack of academic rigor. The manuscript was rejected by Oxford University Press for that very reason, the authors took it to Harper’s, where it became a New York Times bestseller. It’s an easy read, a great conversation starter, and I think it ends up at the right place. But they way it gets there is sloppy. The authors cherry-pick from the literature, grab the anthropological cases that bolster their argument, extrapolate from the data that fits their premise and ignore the data that doesn’t. Upon its publication, Sex At Dawn was criticized as being pseudo-science, and I can’t bring myself to disagree. It is pseudo-science, pseudo-anthropology, and pseudo-primatology. It’s like a television dramatization of a true story — it gets at the spirit of the truth, but not in any literal way. But in the court of public opinion, for better or worse, that doesn’t matter. The book got far more attention in the public imagination than it would have as a peer-reviewed academic work, and in that sense it probably accomplished the authors’ goals better than a more scientifically rigorous work. Because that’s another feature of the human primate: we like shiny things, and we don’t like to work too hard for them.
The central question of Flow is that of how to experience life well. It’s not about the conditions of living well, because Csikszentmihalyi makes the case that the conditions of living (past a baseline of survivability) have little to do with the experience of living well. That experience, he argues, is a psychological state induced by a particular structuring of consciousness, and that structuring of consciousness is one over which we can (and should) exert control. His shorthand for this ‘optimal experience’ is ‘flow’, and the state of flow has a few specific conditions:
- To experience flow, one must be engaged in a purposeful activity. The purpose need not necessarily be a ‘higher’ purpose with moral weight, but simply a purpose: jumping higher, producing a garden, or learning to juggle will do.
- The purposeful activity must be one that challenges us. If it’s too easy, we get bored. If it’s too difficult, we get frustrated. We need goals that are achievable, but only with some effort.
- We need feedback. We need to have some means of knowing whether or not we’re making progress toward the chosen purpose.
When these conditions are satisfied, Csikszentmihalyi argues that we find ourselves in a state of ‘flow’ or ‘optimal experience’, and that flow is the basis for what we experience as having a good life. Without those conditions, what we experience is boredom, lack of purpose, low self-esteem, anxiety, or any of a number of other non-optimal experiences.
I find myself in agreement with Csikszentmihalyi‘s basic premise, and I find the argument persuasive based on my own experiences. That said, I don’t think Flow is a very good book. There wasn’t quite enough material in it. The substantive parts of the book were enough for a good solid article or essay, and the rest is just padded with endless listing of examples. Examples are useful in illustrating points, but they aren’t a substitute for arguments.
Nonetheless, the book succeeded in getting me to write about reading again – the point being to impose a structure on my reading, to once again read with purpose instead of merely to pass time. I try not to read books that don’t affect me, and this one did. Which, despite the sub-par writing, makes it not a waste of time to have read.