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.

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Pieces of a puzzle

September 17, 2010

Creating a world and culture of peace is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. In a jigsaw puzzle, each individual piece by itself gives only a glimpse of the picture of which it is a part. It is only when all the pieces interlock together that the whole picture becomes clear. Peace is the same way. We have a general idea of the big picture, but can only imagine what the final result looks like. We catch glimpse of it when two nations resolve a conflict non-violently, when an individual strives to lead a sustainable life in harmony with the earth, when a girl in Africa is able to pursue an education and earn her own income, when a Muslim and a Jew in the Middle East become friends, but it is not until all these pieces come together to form a whole that we will have peace.

It is possible to construct sub-groups among the individual pieces, in both a jigsaw puzzle and the path of creating peace. The natural way to work on a puzzle is to look for pieces with similar markings and put them together to create something larger. In peace, some of the pieces are naturally more related to each other than others, and through looking at these groups we can begin to gain an understanding of what the whole might look like.

The edge of the peace puzzle might be the values on which a culture of peace is based: healthy relationships and communities, cooperation, compassion, and the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings. These values are the container in which actions towards the creation of peace take place. When two neighbors decide to use mediation rather than the adversarial courts, one reason is because they value their relationship. When we push our government to provide social services, it is because we have compassion and believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all humans.

Another sub-grouping of pieces are the ones focused specifically on building cooperation and addressing our tendency to categorize into “us” and “them”: conflict resolution, bridge-building, and restorative justice. These actions encompass inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogues; story-telling; groups with differences doing cooperative activities together; individuals learning non-violent communication and learning to listen; individuals, groups, and nations resolving conflicts non-violently; and restoring, rather than punishing, people who have caused harms in the community.

Closely linked to the cooperation and conflict sub-group is another group related to education and treatment of children. Our parenting methods and educational systems must teach children the values of peace: cooperation over competition, listening, valuing needs and feelings, compassion for others, and democracy. We must teach children that they are valued as human beings with worth and dignity, and that community and relationships are important. Perhaps most importantly, we must model the behavior we would like our children to learn.

Another crucial sub-group of pieces are social services and basic human rights, the economy, and the environment. Basic human rights include water, food, shelter, health care (including control of one’s reproduction),  education, and dignity. It is crucial to the big picture of peace that our societies, economies, and governments be structured in such a way that all humans are ensured these rights. In order to do so, our economy must be based on measures of health and happiness, not on ever increasing consumption of material goods. Resources must be distributed equitably and created in ways that are sustainable and not using up finite sources. In our economy and our lifestyles we must value community and the inherent worth and dignity of all humans.

Two last pieces each exist in their own sub-group: empowering women and inner peace. It is impossible to believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all humans without recognizing that throughout most of recent history women were not valued with the same worth as men nor afforded the same dignity, and that in creating peace we must take positive actions to reverse these effects. This piece is in fact linked to all the sub-groups I discussed above: we need education that teaches that women are as important as men, social programs targeted towards women (for example, job training and reproductive health care), an economy that values work traditionally labeled women’s work, and bridge-building between women and men.

Finally, there is the piece of inner peace. Although it is up to each individual to find and create it for themselves, many of the pieces I have discussed can help and encourage individuals on their path to inner peace. Conversely, as people reach inner peace, it will be easier and more natural for them to work towards peace through one or more of the actions above.

I am not under any illusion that I have definitively defined all pieces of the puzzle. What else can you think of that contributes to the big picture of peace?

As we work on our individual pieces in the puzzle of peace, let us remember to look as well for where we might fit in to the big picture. Together, and only together, we can create peace.


Quote of the week

May 15, 2010

After a couple months hiatus, I’m diving back into my weekly quote feature with a provocative quote on science and religion. It is from an essay titled “Mind and Spirit,” by John A. Buehrens, from the book Our Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism, by John A. Buehrens and F. Forrester Church.

As important as science is, however, a sound integration of mind and spirit means that the world cannot be saved by mind alone, nor by science alone, nor by reason, nor by technology. As our nuclear age and our ecological crisis so painfully demonstrate, without a larger sense of purpose and relatedness, the productions of science and the human mind can themselves become dangerous idols. These relational issues, and issues of purpose, are spiritual in character. At the same time, the various warring sects of religion testify that the products of the human spirit can also become dangerous idols if not brought within a wider and more reasoned perspective.

That “larger sense of purpose and relatedness” is what I believe is absolutely critical to becoming a more peaceful world. We need both rational, logical, critical thinking and a spiritual sense of the interrelatedness of all beings.


Book review: A Strategy for Peace

February 9, 2009

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

I chose to read A Strategy for Peace: Human Values and the Threat of War, by Sissela Bok, because I was looking for a book that would offer an alternative to the perspective of just war theory. I specifically wanted a book that addressed the topics of war and peace in the same philosophical vein as Arguing About War, including a focus on morality. This book seemed like a promising choice: the author has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University and the title and book jacket description emphasize moral values. As it turned out, the perspective that Bok offers is not necessarily contradictory with just war theory, but, unlike just war theory, it does focus on the goal of one day eliminating war. Overall, I found the book more dense and less accessible than Arguing About War. It took significant attention to take in what I was reading, and I found myself reading entire pages and realizing that I hadn’t quite registered what I had just read. This perhaps contributed to the fact that I did not get as much out of the book as I hoped I would.

Bok’s premise in A Strategy for Peace is that we must make a directed effort towards peace in order to avoid destroying ourselves in a nuclear war. To do this, she proposes a practical strategy that can and should be followed by both nations and individuals. She draws on two seemingly opposite philosophers to develop her strategy for peace: Kant and Clausewitz. She proposes that in order to take steps towards peace, we need both a moral framework to guide us and a clear strategy to follow. From Kant, she gets her moral framework, drawing in particular on his work “Perpetual Peace.” Kant lays out four moral constraints that must be adhered to in order to reach peace, and all of which are fairly universal across cultures and religions, to at least some degree: constraints on violence, deceit, betrayal, and excessive secrecy (which correspond the the positive moral principles of nonviolence, veracity, fidelity, and publicity). From Clausewitz, who wrote On War, Bok takes a sharp strategic sense. She suggests that the work towards peace should be approached as a “war” on war; that is, instead of nations warring against each other, they are together waging a war against a common adversary. When looked at in this light, it becomes clear that many of the stragies used during war apply equally to the fight for peace, as Bok explains:

A strategy of peace directed against such a threat [of world-wide nuclear war] is no longer opposed to the wisest military strategy, including that of Clausewitz. It requires the same long-range planning and coordination of efforts as the most intricate military campaign. And it calls for the same coolheaded skepticism about the rhetoric of trust, harmony, and peace that Clausewitz evinced about that of glory, honor, and invulnerability.

An important overarching theme in A Strategy for Peace is that of trust. Bok emphasizes that distrust between nations contributes to an atmosphere ripe for war. At the same time, she reassures the reader that “healthy” distrust is necessary to avoid being taken advantage of:

The second distinction is that between rational and irrational distrust. Everyone needs a measure of distrust to be able to discern and evaluate dangers and to guard against them while there is still time to do so. It is when such distrust veers toward paranoia or invites excessive, damaging distrust from others that it becomes unreasonable and, in the end, self-distructive.

She also points out that it is possible to have rational distrust without increasing your adversary’s distrust:

…there need be no automatic link between exercising rational distrust and behaving in such a way as to intensify distrust on the part of one’s adversary. It is when the two are seen as linked and stimulate one another that partisanship is most likely to reach the point of pathology and to encourage a spiral of escalation.

I think this is a very important point; so often it seems that a nation claims it is only “defending” itself, but it is doing so in such a way as to appear offensive and thus threatening to other nations.

A Strategy for Peace offered a new perspective to me. Although the question of trust is one that I have thought about before, Bok draws out its nuances quite clearly. The idea of laying out a firm moral framework that governments and individuals should adhere to was mostly new to me, and Bok has persuaded me of its importance. I do not like the language of approaching peace as a “war” against war, but I agree for the most part with the content of this approach: that we need a strategy for peace, and much of this strategy is in fact not so different from military strategy. However, although I find Bok’s arguments persuasive, I did not come away from the book feeling especially inspired or hopeful. Instead, I find myself harboring doubts. Is it really possible for governments to adhere to a moral framework? Is it really possible to move from our current atmosphere of immense distrust between nations to a more trusting one? I do not feel after reading this book that I have a clear sense of how exactly we can go about making changes for the better, even though she seems to be proposing a definite strategy. I have a sense that something more is needed that what Bok proposes – that everything she discusses is necessary, but it is not enough. I have not, however, clarified in my mind what that something more might be.