Roosevelt’s Reads

Roosevelt's Reads - Antioch College

By Mark Roosevelt, President

Mark RooseveltPerhaps this column, which I greatly enjoy writing and receiving feedback on from many Antiochians, would be better called “Readings and Reflections,” as the two intersect for me as they do for most readers. That is particularly so with this edition, which addresses, among other matters, the diminished reach of mainstream politics; the paucity of great American political novels; Spielberg’s film about Lincoln; and the long career of Wendell Berry, a wonderful American writer, activist, and farmer from our neighbor to the west, Kentucky.

My working life has been spent mostly “in the system.” I do not regret that fact, but often wonder about the alternatives. I think about this more as it becomes clear that our political system is unable to tackle the most pressing problems that threaten our future.

I grew up in Washington, D.C., in the heady days of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War protests. There was great conflict and debate on the big issues of the day. Young people were frustrated by the inability of our elders to use the resources of a booming economy to make more progress on issues of race and inequality. But still, as a nation, we embarked on big programs, such as sending a man to the moon, and embraced big dreams. Emboldened by the seemingly infinite possibilities of the era, both Martin Luther King Jr. and President Johnson spoke of ending poverty in our lifetimes.

I absorbed all of this and it shaped me in fundamental ways. In 1968, when I was twelve years old, I was volunteering evenings in the headquarters of Senator Eugene McCarthy’s quixotic campaign for the presidency.

I inhaled biographies of political figures, both well-known and more obscure. I believed then, and to a considerable extent still do, that real change in America is made by those who understand and work within the system. And I believed that the system could accommodate the dreams of all Americans and create the better world we saw as just around the corner.

Later, over the course of twenty years of involvement, I got a serious taste of life in electoral politics. In 1994, after eight years as a state legislator, I was the under-financed, long-shot Democratic nominee for governor of Massachusetts. Trounced by the highly popular Republican incumbent, I changed course and poured my energy into public education. That too is a bruising, highly factionalized field, where excessive, rancorous noise obscures the need to objectively analyze and effectively implement policies that might dramatically improve schools.

Over time I have grown more skeptical about what can happen within the system and more interested in the voices of those who have chosen to remain on the outside. Partly this is because big ideas seem to be a thing of the past in mainstream politics; in fact, even modestly aspirational public solutions have been hard to come by. Sadly, this has happened during a time in which many of our problems have grown so large that even the incremental approaches that appear beyond our reach are arguably delusional.

Increasingly I turn to writers, some who might be described as “public thinkers.” I do this with some reluctance, as time spent in the legislature and elected politics leaves me with a full understanding that actually getting things done in the public arena is far more challenging than talking, writing or teaching about it. Advocates and critics are not required to work things out with others, to engage in the compromise and horse-trading that allows you to actually get something done in the real world.

As an aside, although there are many marvelous political biographies, Robert Caro’s work on Robert Moses and Lyndon B. Johnson, for example, there is very little American fiction that truly illuminates the political process. Many believe that Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men is our only great political novel, although Billy Lee Brammer’s unfairly neglected novel about LBJ, The Gay Place, and some of Ward Just’s work comes close. One of the many beauties of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln film, whose screenplay was adapted from the biography Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, is that it tells the story of a lofty political event, enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in part through the many unlofty actions, including forms of bribery, that contribute to its passage. The film gives you Lincoln the dreamer and visionary, but also Lincoln the politician, willing to do what it is necessary to get something important done.

But even having great respect for people who still fight the good fight “in the arena,” the limited nature of mainstream public dialogue means that we desperately need outside voices, and places such as Antioch College, to raise the really big questions and to explore ideas for significant change—both of which our political structure seems hell-bent on avoiding. This is perhaps most true on “environmental issues,” where the requirements of electoral politics seem to dictate ignoring the increasingly substantial damage the way we live is doing to the long-term health of the planet.

I have come to believe that the fundamental issue of our time is recognizing that economic growth as the answer to most every problem is a root cause of our most critical problems. If this is so, then it would be good for the body politic if Wendell Berry gained a larger audience.

Berry has written more than 50 books, including novels, short stories, poetry, and essays on agriculture, religion, politics, and the human condition. He has done all this while still working a 125-acre farm in Lane’s Landing, Kentucky. A political activist and lifelong member of the Baptist Church, Berry has received many honors and recently delivered the 2012 Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities, a lecture described as “our nation’s highest honor for distinguished intellectual achievement.” Yet he and his ideas are unknown to a vast majority of his countrymen.

Partly this is so because Berry is a regional writer, deeply bound to a few miles of both real and fictional land in Kentucky. Most of his novels and short stories are based in Port William, a fictional Kentucky community that is a fully developed world with its own town map and family trees that track its inhabitants from 1784 to the current day. These are sweet, slow-moving books.

His work as an author and an advocate is symbiotic. All of his writings, fictions and otherwise, honor his home ground and record the lives of its inhabitants, and his political life is a fight for the future prospects of that land and its people.

His deepest belief is in small-scale farming and living. He has said that “local economies are being destroyed by the . . . displaced global economy, which has no respect for what works in a locality. The global economy is built on the principal that one place can be exploited, even destroyed, for the sake of another place.”

Berry’s Jeffersonian distrust of government can rankle, and, like most idealists, he can appear very naïve. He says change will come from the bottom up, one farm and community at a time and is as cynical about large-scale, government-sponsored solutions as Tea Party activists.

In his Jefferson Lecture, published in book form as It All Turns on Affection, Berry traces the economic misfortune of his family and community to the actions of the American Tobacco Company and its president, James B. Duke. He endorses Wallace Stegner’s separation of Americans into two groups—“boomers” and “stickers.” Boomers are “those who pillage and run,” whereas stickers are “those who settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.”

“The boomer,” Berry says, “is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power . . . stickers on the contrary are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it.” For Berry, everything ties to the land. And no subsequent action absolves a person of his responsibilities to respect it. So when he visits Duke University and comes upon a statue of its founder, the aforementioned James B. Duke, he draws a sharp distinction between his grandfather, ruined by the tobacco monopoly, and Duke, who profited from it.

“After my encounter with the statue, the story of my grandfather’s 1906 tobacco crop slowly took on a new dimension and clarity in my mind,” Berry says. “I still remembered my grandfather as himself, of course, but I began to think of him also as a kind of man standing in thematic opposition to a man of an entirely different kind. And I could see finally that between these two kinds there was a failure of imagination that was ruinous, that belongs indelibly to our history, and that has continued, growing worse, into our own time.”

Berry’s stubbornly agrarian vision is both radical and also conservative populist. He is an heir to William Jennings Bryan and the Vanderbilt Agrarians who authored I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition in 1930. He and his brethren have been on the losing side of nearly every major political battle of the last 200 years.

But that does not mean he has nothing to offer even those of us who have lived lives very far from his vision. His lecture notes that his father looked out at his land and felt he needed nothing more. How many of us have felt that way? Much of modern life is built upon engendering dissatisfaction with what we have and the desire to accumulate more and more of, well, something else that we do not have, and, in Berry’s view, that leads exactly nowhere.

It is an unsettling vision that seeks to upend much on which we have built what we think of as civilization. Berry dislikes bigness and abhors our addiction to its pursuit through growth. Quoting E.M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End and its “manifesto against materialism,” he writes:

It is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness, to think that a thousand square miles are a thousand times more wonderful than one square mile . . . That is not imagination. No, it kills it . . . Your universities? Oh, yes, you have learned men who collect . . . facts, and facts, and empires of facts. But which of them will rekindle the light within?

To Berry and Forster, “the light within” is affection. And for Berry, affection for the land is at the core, central to both culture and economy. He writes: “I am nominating economy for an equal standing among the arts and humanities. I mean, not economics, but economy, the making of the human household upon the earth; the arts of adapting kindly the many human households to the earth’s many ecosystems and human neighborhoods. This is the economy that the most public and influential economists never talk about, the economy that is the primary vocation and responsibility of every one of us.”

This is a vision with which we all must wrestle, especially those of us involved with recreating a certain liberal arts college in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Does Berry really believe change will come from a grassroots movement built by “small is better” advocates? I doubt it. He has seen too much of life to give that much chance. I suspect that he sees some dramatic environmental calamity as the likely catalyst for change.

And in that he is not alone.

I write the end of this piece in my office on a cold gray Sunday in late November. On the cover of today’s New York Times Sunday Week in Review is an article by James Atlas titled “Is This the End?” Atlas contemplates Hurricane Sandy, not as the “storm of the century” but as a harbinger of things to come, and he prophesizes the eventual submergence of New York, “whether in 50 or 100 or 200 years.” He notes that no civilization foresees its own decline and eventual disappearance. He appears to believe our own fate is sealed because “[our] species tends to see nature as something of a nuisance, a phenomenon to be outwitted.”

Perhaps the calamity is not so close at hand; perhaps we can still create a better relationship with the land. But to get there, we will have to listen to outside voices such as Wendell Berry and change the way we think about many things, including words with weighty meaning—words such as “progress,” “economics,” “growth,” “culture,” civilization,” and, yes, “affection.”