Bill Luse has an excellent post up about Wendell Berry's shallow positions on homosexual "marriage" and abortion.
Not having previously paid a whole lot of attention to Berry, I had nevertheless managed to pick up that he is considered an agrarian and is admired by some on the right, especially the paleo-right and trad-right, who are sympathetic to agrarianism and critical of capitalism. He also (as Bill mentions) was evidently admired by Russell Kirk. More about that below.
A little googling had shown me a while back something of the ambivalence of Berry's views on the abortion issue and also that he has been arrested outside of nuclear power plants. (An action he may have to repent of if he eventually decides, as evidently some environmentalists have done, that nuclear power isn't such a bad thing after all. But I digress.) I made a wild guess--on which I'm happy to be corrected, that Berry is not known for being arrested outside of abortion clinics.
So, not only did I disagree with Berry's over-the-top environmentalism, I also already suspected what the various quotations Bill has brought together confirm: Berry has his priorities totally reversed.
On the subject of environmentalism he is passionate. And he makes his life (and his wife's life) inconvenient in various ways in the pursuit of this passion. It's what he's about. On the subject of environmentalism, his words are "raping the earth." On the subject of abortion, he is detached, dispassionate, and wouldn't want, God forbid, to be thought of as being part of the pro-life movement. The claim (which Rod Dreher appears to take quite seriously) that this is because Berry doesn't like to be thought to be part of movements won't bear a moment's scrutiny, considering his unabashed willingness to be identified with environmentalism and anti-nuclear-ism.
What all this amounts to is that Berry never did think of himself as a conservative, is a lifelong Democrat, thinks shallowly about social conservative issues, and can't bear the thought of being thought to be passionate about a conservative movement such as the pro-life movement. "Raping the earth"--yep, that gets him riled up. Tearing babies into tiny pieces, not so much. He's just opposed to abortion "as birth control." But sometimes it's "necessary." Blah, blah. And as for homosexual "marriage," his comments are about as deep as those of a thoughtless sophomore. Maybe he could do better if he tried, researched the issue, thought more about it, but he doesn't try. Because, quite obviously, he really doesn't give a darn. That's not where it's at for him.
Well, okay. People are going to be what they are going to be. Normally I wouldn't write a blog post about some American Luddite ecology writer like Berry. Who cares what he thinks about conservative social issues? He's never claimed to be a conservative anyway. Give him points for honesty, I guess. He's just some guy with whom I have nothing in common, and his thoughts on life and marriage issues are, it turns out, not worth the pixels it takes to reproduce them.
But I'm writing this because there are conservatives who still greatly admire Berry. Apparently Russell Kirk said of him in the late 1970's, "Berry is possessed of an intellect at once philosophic and poetic, and he writes most movingly. Humane culture has no better friend today than he."
Now, I'm not necessarily blaming Kirk for that. After all, a lot had to shake out after that. But, to paraphrase Gilson on Descartes, while there may have been an excuse for being Russell Kirk on Wendell Berry in 1978, there is no excuse for a conservative's taking a Kirkian position on Wendell Berry in 2012. But unfortunately, that's not how people look at it. There are still self-styled conservatives who truly admire Berry and think of him as a deep thinker. Rod Dreher is surprised himself at Berry's shallowness on homosexual "marriage."
But Dreher acknowledges that, "Nobody familiar with Berry’s work could possibly expect him to be a conservative culture warrior on the gay marriage subject." That's kind of interesting. Not reading much of Berry, I don't know exactly to what Dreher is alluding, but I'm going to guess it might be to the general fact that Berry doesn't think of himself as any kind of conservative at all and would never want to be caught dead (as it were) endorsing a real conservative culture war position. But in that case, why the surprise? Liberals are "evolving" all over the place these days on the issue of homosexual "marriage." Why should Berry be any different? Perhaps because despite his being a lifelong Democrat, even post-Roe, despite his shallowness on the life issues (which does not appear to be new), Dreher still thinks that "humane culture has no better friend than he." Hmmm.
Now, as sure as God made little green apples, there are readers here at W4 (you know who you are) who are going to be almost irresistibly tempted to respond to this post by beginning a discussion of the "evils of capitalism" and all the great wisdom that you believe Wendell Berry has to offer on that subject. I urge you to resist that almost irresistible temptation. Stop instead and think about the following thoughts:
What does it say about a man's judgement when he is a shallow thinker and unwilling truly to commit himself on the matter of killing babies? Does it not indicate a poor judgement that he is obviously driven by a sense of political solidarity with the Party of Death to reverse his priorities to such a serious extent? Is there not a danger that, in admiring him so much and resenting criticism of him, in thinking of him as so deep, one will become like him and one's own priorities become skewed?
Nor is this worry about skewed priorities on the non-mainstream Right merely a hypothetical one. There is, for example, the fact that Thomas Fleming, the grand old man of paleoconservatism, seems to feel that he must distance himself both from pro-lifers and from those who oppose homosexual "marriage."
I'm not saying that Fleming was influenced in this distancing by Berry. Probably not. I'm saying it's a similar phenomenon. "I'm not like those goldarned neo-con conservatives, and I won't make common cause with them." Which makes the person in question uncomfortable with the pro-life and pro-marriage movements.
We need to pick our role models carefully. If someone whom you greatly admire on sociopolitical issues is so uncomfortable with conservatism (or mainstream conservatism) that he waffles on the most important social issues of our day, think again about your evaluation of him. And watch and pray that you enter not into temptation to do the same as he. Some things are non-negotiable and much, much more important than others.