Matthew J. Franck has a strong critique of Wendell Berry’s Jefferson Lecture at First Things today. The lecture, Franck says, was “chiefly a catalogue of Berry’s hatreds”:
He hates “agribusiness” and large-scale farming, though it is a great success story in the battle against hunger. He hates “corporations” and derides the notion that they are “persons” in the law, sounding as much like a wise man as the average backbench Democratic hack in the U.S. Congress. He hates “industrialism,” “plutocracy,” and “capitalism,” explaining why his thought is popular among a certain breed of college professors. He hates “materialism” but seems unable to transcend it at any point in this lecture.* * *He loves the “stickers” and he hates the “boomers,” terms he borrows from his teacher Wallace Stegner. Boomers are mobile creatures, moving from place to place and seizing opportunities—presumably like the first Berry who came to America centuries ago. Stickers are the ones who stay in place and sink roots in the land. Is there room in Wendell Berry’s moral imagination (he loves that word, “imagination”) for a good word to be said about each of them?
The answer to that question, Franck writes, is emphatically “No.” I’ve read the lecture, which is ironically titled “It All Turns on Affection,” and I think Franck is right in his critique, though perhaps a bit too fervent. Nathan Schleuter offers a helpful response, pointing out that Berry is equally critical of governmental agencies elsewhere, but this is besides the point and does nothing to justify Berry’s unfair derision of “all agribusiness executives,” who, in Berry’s words, “don’t imagine farms or farmers. They imagine perhaps nothing at all, their minds being filled to capacity by numbers leading to the bottom line.”
Berry is not the only literary figure recently to show a lack of imagination in complaining about the lack of imagination. In her new collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson argues that American public discourse is distinctly lacking in empathy and generosity, and like Berry in his lecture, she fails to show either. My full review is forthcoming in The Weekly Standard, but in a nutshell, she derides the lack of governmental spending on education and welfare programs, and claims that it is unchristian to oppose such spending. She demonizes corporations and suggests that those in favor of austerity measures are suffering from “paranoia.” Yet, while she claims to have had “a broader experience of the American population than is usual,” she shows no real understanding of why serious Christians who care deeply about the poor and the defenseless (particularly unborn children) might actually oppose government welfare and an increase in centralized power.
Too often conservative Christians give greedy corporations or the unjustly rich a free pass. Greed is a sin, and we should speak boldly against it. But so is willful ignorance, which, of course, conservatives can be guilty of as well. Boldness and fairness are not mutually exclusive. Our times require both.