July 26, 2003

The Good Things in Life

Wendell Berry comes out foursquare in favor of the good things in life: short life expectancy, chronic malnutrition, plague, and poverty:

Feminism, the Body and the Machine: ...Some people would like to think that this long sequence of industrial innovations has changed human life and even human nature in fundamental ways. Perhaps it hasóbut, arguably, almost always for the worse. I know that "techno- logical progress" can be defended, but I observe that the defenses are invariably quantitative--catalogs of statistics on the ownership of automobiles and television sets, for example, or on the increase of life expectancy--and I see that these statistics are always kept carefully apart from the related statistics of soil loss, pollution, social disintegration, and so forth. That is to say, there is never an effort to determine the net result of this progress. The voice of its defenders is not that of the responsible bookkeeper, but that of the propagandist or salesman, who says that the net gain is more than 100 percent--that the thing we have bought has perfectly replaced everything it has cost, and added a great deal more: "You just canít lose!" We thus have got rich by spending, just as the advertisers have told us we would, and the best of all possible worlds is getting better every day.

The statistics of life expectancy are favorites of the industrial apologists, because they are perhaps the hardest to argue with. Nevertheless, this emphasis on longevity is an excellent example of the way the isolated aims of the industrial mind reduce and distort human life, and also the way statistics corrupt the truth. A long life has indeed always been thought desirable; everything that is alive apparently wishes to continue to live. But until our own time, that sentence would have been qualified: long life is desirable and everything wishes to live up to a point. Past a certain point, and in certain conditions, death becomes preferable to life. Moreover, it was generally agreed that a good life was preferable to one that was merely long, and that the goodness of a life could not be determined by its length. The statisticians of longevity ignore good in both its senses; they do not ask if the prolonged life is virtuous, or if it is satisfactory. If the life is that of a vicious criminal, or if it is inched out in a veritable hell of captivity within the medical industry, no matter--both become statistics to "prove" the good luck of living in our time.

But in general, apart from its own highly specialized standards of quantity and efficiency, "technological progress" has produced a social and ecological decline. Industrial war, except by the most fanatically narrow standards, is worse than war used to be. Industrial agriculture, except by the standards of quantity and mechanical efficiency, diminishes everything it affects. Industrial workmanship is certainly worse than traditional workmanship, and is getting shoddier every day...

Of course, Berry is the kind of guy who could never be bothered to learn to type--so his wife types all his manuscripts for him.

Posted by DeLong at July 26, 2003 07:01 PM | TrackBack

Comments

I think that's an unfair assessment of Berry. If we continue to degrade the planet at the rate we are now, in the long run our longer lives of the past few decades will be more than compensated for by shorter lives of our posterity and possibly human extinction. Berry is only chiding us for our failure to take in the whole picture when we count the benefits and costs of technology. And your dig about his wife's typing his manuscripts is an ad hominem barb that adds nothing to your argument.

Posted by: fastback on July 26, 2003 07:31 PM

It is one thing for a man to be free and think he would be happier in chains. It is another thing entirely to recommend slavery for everyone else.

I was recently in Cambodia, and I occasionally wondered if people there were happier than I was. The people I met there I'm sure had no doubt I was happier than they. This is perhaps one thing unchanged from 6000 BC: ask anyone who is the happiest person in the world, and they will always name someone else.

Posted by: Walt Pohl on July 26, 2003 08:34 PM

"...his wife types all his manuscripts for him. "

She has to read this stuff?

By astonishing coincidence, as I was putting my eight year old to bed, she asked me if it was better to be alive now, or in medieval times.

I told her that most people back then worked veryhard all day, and were hungry, and dirty, and didn't have bathrooms, or medicine, and never traveled, and didn't have medicine so they got sick and died a lot, especially kids, and I sort of kept filibustering like this until her little eyes got droopy, just like yours are, yes, YOU, wake up!

And now, having been informed of this alternative viewpoint, I feel like such a dope.

Posted by: Tom Maguire on July 26, 2003 09:57 PM

"Industrial war, except by the most fanatically narrow standards, is worse than war used to be."

um. no. unless counting how nastily people died, how many died per capita, how many wars there were at any one time, and how long they went on counts as narrow standards. industrial wars are denser, but i seriously doubt on the whole they are as bad.

Posted by: quinn on July 26, 2003 10:24 PM

Actually, I think he has a point, on one small area, sort of. The gains of industrialisation are mitigated by their costs. The hand-made furniture my grandfather made and sold is, in fact, much higher quality stuff than the crap I've got from IKEA. Grandpa's furniture has lasted over 50 years, I expect my IKEA stuff might make another five. However, Grandpa's furniture cost his customers roughly a week's wages when it was new, and the things he made are too valuable to actually use, for fear that my cats will put a scratch in a valuable antique. IKEA costs a few hours wages, and I don't care if the cats trash it.

I can see the value in counting the costs of progress along with its benefits. Things do have down sides and mitigatng them is important and worth worrying about. It's just that I can't see any calculus where industrialisation hasn't been worth its costs.

Posted by: Scott Martens on July 27, 2003 02:32 AM

well I've never been a fan of Berry, but this just clinched it. I mean really, the guy never learned to type, and his wife does it for him, I bet he beats her too, all sorts of nasty sordid stuff going on in that relationship that no doubt discredits his ideas better than JUST arguing against them ever could.

Oh sure, I bet he's got some lame reason for not learning to type, but how can one trust a man that has threeways with a stray dog and his unborn child while all coked up on something or other. Has he no shame that he does not do the same tasks that we do? I wonder, does this deviant do the dishes at his house, if so, well, think about it, he doesn't do the typing - but he does the dishes! Lesbian!

You know I never learned to drive a car, but I learned LISP, other people have to drive for me, and no one wants programming in LISP any more, so basically I contribute absolutely nothing to humanity whatsoever and I should be exterminated along with the non-typers and diabolical left-handed monkey-wrenchers.

Sorry, but I found the snark a challenge in some way, and thought I'd respond in kind, if with more ammo.

Posted by: bryan on July 27, 2003 02:56 AM

Sigh. Why are there so many retchedly morrose anti-industrialists yearning to be free. The world is teeming with virgin territory as yet untainted by the foul hand of machine tools or vaccinations.

And one need not fear offending the lucky-duckies of Eden by barging into their paradise.
I am sure there are many rural Nigerians, for instance, who would gladly trade places with Berry.

P.S.
By far the most significant factor in the increase of life-expentancy has been the reduction of infant mortality.
Does this make Berry objectively pro-baby-killing?

Posted by: WillieStyle on July 27, 2003 05:58 AM

"However, Grandpa's furniture cost his customers roughly a week's wages when it was new..."

So what, then, is the point? You are still free to buy exquisitely handcrafted furniture for an equivalent sum. The difference now is that reasonably well-made, well-designed furniture is available to nearly everybody.

There is a strong anti-democratic bias built into nearly all these Miniver Cheevy anti-technology rants.

Posted by: Dave Larson on July 27, 2003 06:00 AM

Why do these morons despise women? Could dispising women be the ultimate displacement in prejudice?

Posted by: emma on July 27, 2003 07:22 AM

Note to Scott: A more reasonable comaprison with IKEA furniture would be the furniture working-class people used in your grandfather's day. You're no more likely to find an example of that in use than you will be to find today's IKEA stuff in use in 50 years.

Posted by: arthur on July 27, 2003 07:53 AM

Right, bashing women has become the preferred prejudice. Same people, simply a displacement of expressed prejudice.

Posted by: lise on July 27, 2003 08:07 AM

I'm not interested in why Berry's wife does his typing, but I would like to know, for example, why he wonders "how people living in the country, where there is no public transportation, can give up their automobiles" without also wondering how people living in the city can give up their (no less technological) public transportation.

It's a hopeful sign, though, that Berry's highly selective primitivism was too much even for the readers of Harper's, which I would have thought the perfect market for his sort of nonsense.

Posted by: Paul Zrimsek on July 27, 2003 08:12 AM

Anybody types this? Talk about lacking the courage of one’s convictions! Write this out with a quill pen and send it around (by very slow mail).

Posted by: Andrew Lazarus on July 27, 2003 09:08 AM

Anybody types this? Talk about lacking the courage of one’s convictions! Write this out with a quill pen and send it around (by very slow mail).

Posted by: Andrew Lazarus on July 27, 2003 09:08 AM

"There are, however, still some married couples who understand themselves as belonging to their marriage, to each other, and to their children. What they have they have in common, and so, to them, helping each other does not seem merely to damage their ability to compete against each other. To them, 'mine' is not so powerful or necessary a pronoun as 'ours.'"

Signed, Wendell Berry.

Posted by: Matt Weiner on July 27, 2003 03:52 PM

"Of course, Berry is the kind of guy who could never be bothered to learn to type--so his wife types all his manuscripts for him."

When will you feminists stop being so touchy? Berry has explained the practice as follows:

"What they have they have in common, and so, to them, helping each other does not seem merely to damage their ability to compete against each other. To them, 'mine' is not so powerful or necessary a pronoun as 'ours.'"

This is a nice update of the principle of coverture. No need to put his wife's name on the published work alongside his own, for she is covered by he.

And Berry is surely right about the illusory progress of increased longevity too. We should return to the conditions of the early modern period, when life was short but sweet and roughly half of all children born into the world did not live to age 18.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct on July 27, 2003 10:20 PM

What Wendell misses is that people have a choice of the length of their life. If they choose to do without the high-tech medical care that keeps people from dying at an early age, then can do so. The people in earlier ages who died sooner unquestionably had no choice in the matter.

Freedom is important.
-russ

Posted by: Russell Nelson on July 28, 2003 02:02 PM

Does DeLong=Sullivan?

I have enjoyed Professor DeLong’s writings here, and appreciate the ideas and sources he has acquainted me with. I also understand that he must at times paint with a broad brush.

I have not enjoyed Mr. Berry’s writings nearly as much. They “trouble my thoughts”, make it plain to me how little I know, and how little assurance I can take from claims of authority as our society blunders optimistically forth, assuming our economy of fire will never run out of fuel.

I was disappointed at how little I learned in having DeLong ‘assess’ Berry’s ideas, in fairness, I don’t think any real assessment was attempted. But I do think a dismissal was, which was unconvincing. I have read Mr. Berry as a serious, even anguished participant in our world, and have found Professor DeLong to be thoughtful and engaged. When the two offer so little to one another that each is presented as caricature it seems our ability to communicate is little improved by all our new information tools. I do wonder if in sharing his work with his wife, Mr. Berry’s writing profits from an intimate first reader. Mr. DeLong’s ability to type may discourage the reconsideration that benefits most writing, and thinking.

Like Chomsky and Sullivan, DeLong is smart enough to know one thing: if he writes it down, some less perceptive readers will assume it to be true. The respondents who determined from DeLong’s post that Berry is a ‘moron’ who ‘despises women’ and ‘bashes’ them owe it to themselves to read his entire essay—if they remain convinced of their initial judgments then they are truly ‘less perceptive readers.‘

I am interested that Professor DeLong reads Berry, and hope he will share insights about his reading that will set my mind at ease about the concerns that Berry bedevils us with. Instead, I am now not only unconvinced that Berry is wrong, but also suspect that his message is so unwelcome that serious consideration of it is avoided by our most qualified thinkers. Thus, my troubles are only redoubled by Professor DeLong’s dismissal.

Posted by: j. forney on July 28, 2003 05:14 PM

I think Berry is an anguished writer and rightfully so. Having grown up myself in eastern Kentucky, I can understand the depth of his feeling at seeing such a beautiful place raped for its coal. It's a place that juxtaposes the best of nature with the worst of industrialization.

Posted by: fastback on July 28, 2003 06:49 PM

Since this sort of thing seems to be very popular around here, here's Shorter Wendell Berry:

Our lives (and by "our lives" I mean "your lives") are so tacky nowadays that we (and by "we" I mean "you") are better off dead.

Posted by: Paul Zrimsek on July 29, 2003 05:55 AM

"By astonishing coincidence, as I was putting my eight year old to bed, she asked me if it was better to be alive now, or in medieval times."

In medieval times, she would probably have 1 chance in 3 of being dead by age eight.

No parent should have to witness the death of a child before adulthood. But in medieval times, virtually every parent witnessed the death of *at least* one child before adulthood.

Posted by: Mark Bahner on July 29, 2003 09:32 AM
Post a comment