Book review: Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community

October 1, 2010

Note: I cross-posted this on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community is a collection of eight essays by Wendell Berry. Although each essay is on a different topic, covering subjects such as economics, conservation, tobacco farming, war and peace, Christianity, and sex, all eight essays are closely linked through a centering focus on the concept of community. Wendell Berry is an exceptionally clear thinker and writer, and he presents compelling arguments for why globalization is causing more harm than good and why we must instead return to true, localized communities (and, consequently, economies). In the title essay, he defines community as follows:

By community, I mean the commonwealth and common interests, commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to continue to do so. To put it another way, community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature… Lacking the interest of or in such a community, private life becomes merely a sort of reserve in which individuals defend their “right” to act as they please and attempt to limit or destroy the “rights” of other individuals to act as they please.

A community identifies itself by an understood mutuality of interests. But it lives and acts by the common virtues of trust, goodwill, forbearance, self-restraint, compassion, and forgiveness. If it hopes to continue long as a community, it will wish to – and will have to – encourage respect for all its members, human and natural. It will encourage respect for all stations and occupations. Such a community has the power – not invariably but as a rule – to enforce decency without litigation. It has the power, that is, to influence behavior. And it exercises this power not by coercion or violence but by teaching the young and by preserving stories and songs that tell (among other things) what works and what does not work in a given place.

A community as described above serves neither private interests nor “public” interests, but rather the interests of the localized community as a whole. A major point that Berry makes is that it is only in the context of such a community that we will take care of each other and the land and live out the higher human values of respect and compassion. For example, in the globalized economy, where our food comes from thousands of miles away, it does not seem to matter how we treat the land around us, because it does not directly impact our ability to obtain food. On the other hand, when our food comes from the land near where we live, we see the consequences of poor treatment and are therefore are more motivated to care for that land in a way that ensures it continues to produce the food we need.

Occasionally as I read the essays I sensed a hint of glorifying the past. However, on the whole Berry maintains a nuanced perspective on the reasons our society is broken and what it would take to fix it. Although his proposal for more localized communities and economies does hint back to lifestyles in the past, I do not think the Berry is proposing that we return everything to exactly as it was 100 years ago. Although Berry does not address this explicitly, I believe that we can take the aspects of life 100 years that will improve our society (e.g. more tightly-knit, localized communities and economies) and leave other aspects (such as oppression of women) behind. Overall, Berry makes important points about globalization and communities that hold a lot of truth.

Although I agree with much of Berry’s arguments, I do not agree 100% with everything he says. Take this perspective on technology:

We must give up also our superstitious conviction that we can contrive technological solutions to all our problems. Soil loss, for example, is a problem that embarrasses all of our technological pretensions. If soil were all being lost in a huge slab somewhere, that would appeal to the would-be heroes of “science and technology,” who might conceivably engineer a glamorous, large, and speedy solution – however many new problems they might cause in doing so. But soil is not usually lost in slabs or heaps of magnificent tonnage. It is lost a little at a time over millions of people. It cannot be saved by heroic feats of gigantic technology but only by millions of small acts and restraints, conditioned by small fidelities, skills, and desires. Soil loss is ultimately a cultural problem; it will be corrected only by cultural solutions.

I do agree that we sometimes try to solve problems with technology when in fact they cannot be solved in that way, because they are cultural and societal problems. However, I think there is a place for science and technology, for example in harnessing clean energy sources. Our extreme overuse of unsustainable energy sources is of course partly a cultural problem, but ultimately we will need sustainable, clean energy, and that requires a technical solution.

Reading Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community left me feeling a bit hopeless. The community-based society he describes is so very different from our current globalized society, and things seem to be going only further in the direction of globalization. I am left wondering how we get from here to there? The obstacles sometimes seem insurmountable.

I do not mean to leave you with negativity, however. Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community contains important, and at times very radical, ideas and one way that we will get from here to there is if more people read it and contemplate the ideas in it. I highly recommend it – you do not have to agree 100% with Berry in order to find his ideas worth thinking about. If you are not already convinced, here are some more quotes:

But a conservation effort that concentrates only on the extremes of industrial abuse tends to suggest that the only abuses are the extreme ones when, in fact, the earth is probably suffering more from many small abuses than from a few large ones. By treating the spectacular abuses as exceptional, the powers that be would like to keep us from seeing that the industrial system (capitalist or communist or socialist) is in itself and by necessity of all its assumptions extremely dangerous and damaging and that it exists to support an extremely dangerous and damaging way of life. The large abuses exists within and because of a pattern of smaller abuses.

Many people would like to think that our diseases are caused by one simple thing, like tobacco, which can be easily blamed on one group and fairly easily given up. But of course they are fooling themselves. One reason that people die of diseases is that they have grown old enough to die of something; they are mortal, a fact that modern humans don’t like to face. Another reason is that as a people we live unhealthy lives. We breathe unhealthy air, drink unhealthy water, eat unhealthy food, eat too much, do no physical work, and so forth.

So long as there is a demonstrable need and an imaginable answer, there is hope.

This war was said to be “about peace.” So have they all been said to be. This was another in our series of wars “to end war.” But peace is not the result of war, any more than love is the result of hate or generosity the result of greed. As a war in defense of peace, this one in the Middle East has failed, as all its predecessors have done. Like all its predecessors, it was the result of the failure, on the part of all its participants, to be peaceable.

The significance – and ultimately the quality – of the work we do is determined by our understanding of the story in which we are taking part.

The difficulty is that marriage, family life, friendship, neighborhood, and other personal connections do not depend exclusively or even primarily on justice – though, of course, they all must try for it. The depend also on trust, patience, respect, mutual help, forgiveness – in other words, the practice of love, as opposed to the mere feeling of love.


Book review: The Other

October 24, 2009

Note: I also posted this on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

The Other, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, is collection of six lectures written and delivered by Kapuscinski between 1990 and 2004. He was a Polish foreign correspondent who spent a great deal of time in the developing world reporting on the events taking place there. I had never heard of Kapuscinski when this book caught my attention while browsing at the library (although I have a vague memory of seeing the title of one of his other books, Travels with Herodotus, somewhere before, perhaps on a blog). I was intrigued by the subject matter, as “othering” is something I have thought quite a bit about, and I was not disappointed. Kapuscinski draws on his own experiences and various philosophical lines of enquiry both to acknowledge our experience of “the Other” when we encounter someone who is different from us and to make a strong case for recognizing our common humanity as our world becomes more and more globalized and multi-cultural.

One section I found particularly illuminating was his breakdown of the possible reactions when we encounter “an Other.” He points out that all options have always been there, and that we choose which one to take:

And so the three possibilities I have mentioned have always stood before man whenever he has encounter an Other: he could choose war, he could fence himself in behind a wall, or he could start up a dialogue.

Over the course of history man has never stopped wavering between these options; depending on the situation and culture he makes now one, now another choice; we can see that he is changeable in these choices, that he does not always feel certain, and is not always standing on firm ground.

It is hard to justify wars; I think everyone loses them, because it is a defeat for the human being. It exposes his inability to come to terms, to empathise with the Other, to be kind and reasonable, because in this case the encounter with the Other always ends tragically, in a drama of blood and death.

These paragraphs immediately resonated with me because it puts in to words something I have felt for a long time, that war represents a human failure. The perspective that Kapuscinski offers is an important contribution to the discussion of peace.

The Other is under 100 pages and a quick read. The translation from Polish is good: the language flows easily and it does not feel translated. I highly recommend it!


Imagine compassion

December 7, 2008

At my Unitarian church this morning, our speaker was Dahlia Wasfi, M.D., a peace activist with an Iraqi father and an Ashkenazi Jewish mother. Using a mix of personal photographs and depressing statistics, she spoke strongly for immediate and unconditional withdrawal of the United States from Iraq. Immediately following her talk, I sang with the choir John Lennon’s song “Imagine,” a beautiful and appropriate song with powerful lyrics such as “Imagine all the people living life in peace.” At the end I felt compassion and a strong agreement that the United States has no business being in Iraq and should get out.

I was therefore deeply disturbed by the reactions of other people. I heard several people say that they thought her talk was “over the top,” that she had an “edge,” and that leaving Iraq was “complicated.” I even heard indications that some people were questioning the truth of the statistics and claims in her talk. Many of these same people do not think we should have invaded Iraq in the first place, and yet now that we are there they seem unwilling to admit the extent of damage that our military presence there has and is continuing to cause. I am disappointed that this is the reaction from individuals in a liberal community.

Yes, her talk was strongly worded, and perhaps that was just not the right technique to get through to these people. I agree that I would have liked more of a focus on the personal impact, but the pictures said more than enough to evoke my compassion: some of the most striking were a contrast of herself as a happy 4-year-old in Basrah with a 3-year-old whose parents were killed by American troops last summer, a photo of a hospital destroyed by American bombs, and a photo of an American soldier giving a thumbs up and a grin over the body of an Iraqi she helped torture to death.

No, all violence is not going to magically stop when American troops leave Iraqi, but I can guarantee it won’t stop as long as we are there. I don’t want to hear excuses for why getting out is “complicated.” I don’t care what the latest reason for staying is. The simple fact of the matter is that the Iraqis see us as invaders, not liberators, and they want us to leave. And if they see us as invaders then that’s what we are. It is unacceptable to have invaded a country, to kill civilians (or anyone, for that matter), to destroy hopitals, to cause thousands of people to become refugees, and then to insist that getting out is complicated. Leaving Iraq may be “complicated” from an intellectual, strategical, or economic point of view, but that does not change the fact that it is the compassionate and right thing to do.

If all of us, every day, based our actions on compassion for other human beings, we would have peace. I challenge each of you to make an effort every day to live as a compassionate person, with awareness of everyone’s shared humanity, and to base your decisions in that compassion.


We are all human

November 22, 2008

The other day Feministing had a post about a new anti-gay video produced by the American Family Association, titled “They’re Coming to Your Town.” As I imagine many of you will be, I was horrified when I watched it. Do people really think this way in the 21st century? It demonstrates an extreme level of paranoia about homosexuals:

It seems impossible to reason with the people espousing these views, and I think in fact it is. They will not listen to reason because for some reason they are very afraid. Fear drives all sorts of irrational and violent behavior, and we are not going to connect with people who are afraid by trying to reason with them.

I was struck by one other thing in this video, and that is the extreme us versus them mentality adopted by both sides of the issue. Most people who are sympathetic to the homosexual point of view will probably primarily notice the way in which the people in the video have turned gays into “the other,” apparently seeing gay people not as individual human beings but as an enemy to fight against. However, those of us on the opposite side are also guilty of “otherizing” and turning the people in the video into an enemy. One man in the video says “They branded us as fundamentalists, as Christian hate bigots” and has clearly taken offense at being so labeled. I actually felt a bit empathetic when he said this. No one likes to be labeled and judged, and most people are going to become defensive when they are told that they are a bigot. I think it is counter-productive for us to slap labels on the people who express anti-gay views.

Now, you may argue that they are judging gay people, so why shouldn’t we judge them in return? The answer is that it is not going to get us anywhere to judge in return. We will stay stuck in an us versus them fight as long as we engage in otherizing behavior. I have certainly been guilty of calling people fundamentalists and bigots (although perhaps not to their face) as well, but we all need to rise above the temptation to engage at the level of fear and hate.

What do we do instead? We need to instead engage at the level of shared humanity. We need to recognize that everyone, no matter how bigoted their acts may be, have valid feelings and fears and needs. Furthermore, we need to show the people who act in bigoted ways that gay people are just as human as they are, that gay people have feelings and fears and needs as well. We need to dream big and build bridges instead of walls. What about team-building workshops that bring together people on opposite sides of this issues, that require them to work together in cooperation to solve a problem? What about videos that show the human-ness of every individual, gay and straight, Christian and not? What about just sitting down and talking to each other, really listening to the other side, what they fear and what they need?

Living together in harmony is not going to happen when 51% of the population vote for or against something. It will only happen when we all connect as fellow human beings.


Nonviolent Communication

November 20, 2008

I recently read Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Compassion, by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph. D. Nonviolent Communication, or NVC for short, is an important approach to and process of communication that allows us to stay connected to our own human-ness and that of others. As Rosenberg describes:

NVC guides us in reframing how we express ourselves and hear others. Instead of being habitual, automatic reactions, our works become conscious responses based firmly on an awareness of what we are preceiving, feeling, and wanting. We are led to express ourselves with honesty and clarity, while simultaneously paying others a respectful and empathic attention. In any exchange, we come to hear our own deeper needs and those of others. NVC trains us to observe carefully, and to be able to specify behaviors and conditions that are affecting us. We learn to identify and clearly articulate what we are concretely wanting in a given situation. The form is simple, yet powerfully transformative.

In a conflict situation, NVC is crucial in keeping things from escalating. If even one of the parties in the conflict uses NVC, they will be able to keep the focus on their own feelings and needs and those of the other party. It is only through acknowledging each individual’s feelings and addressing each of their needs that a conflict can be resolved in a way that makes everyone happy.

I am in some ways a natural at NVC, in large part because my parents were familiar with NVC when they raised me and they raised me very compassionately. I am good at both being aware of my own feelings and needs and at being compassionate and empathic with others and hearing the feelings and needs behind their words. However, there were still things I learned from reading this book, making me realize how complex and, at times, challenging the NVC process is. For example, I became more aware of how prevalent judgments are in our culture and language. Judgments show up in subtle ways, in phrases I would not have immediately labeled as being judgmental. Rosenberg effectively points out how many seemingly innocuous phrases are in fact judgments (or, as he also calls them, evaluations).

Another important aspect of NVC that I understood with new clarity is the importance of owning our feelings. This is particularly important when it comes to anger. Although we may feel a certain way in reaction to a particular behavior, another person’s behavior does not make us feel that way. We feel that way because we have a need that was or was not met by the behavior in question. Rosenberg describes this as distinguishing stimulus from cause. For example, imagine that you are meeting a friend and she is late. You may feel angry that she was late. However, her behavior is the stimulus but not the direct cause of your anger. The real cause of your anger is that your need to see her for the full hour you were planning to be together was not met, or your need to not walk in to a show late was not met. It can become easier to distinguish stimulus from cause when you imagine a situation where the same thing happens but you feel differently. For example, another time your friend is late you may not feel angry but instead relieved, because you had scheduled things too close together and you needed some downtime in between. It now becomes clear that your friend being late is not the cause of your anger in the first situation.

As you can see, NVC is about more than language itself. It is an entire approach to life. I believe that compassion and empathy are key components to peace, and the best way to prevent violence and instead have peace is to make sure people stay in touch with their human-ness. NVC is an important tool for doing that.

I also reviewed this book on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany. I highly recommend it.