Sex, Economy, Freedom, And Community (1992)

I reproduce here part of an essay by Wendell berry

If the word community is to mean or amount to anything, it must refer to a place (in its natural integrity) and its people. It must refer to a placed people. Since there obviously can be no cultural realtionship that is uniform between a nation and a continent, “community” must mean a people locally placed and a people, moreover, not too numerous to have a common knowledge of themselves and of their place. Because places differ from one another and because people will differ somewhat according to the characters of their places, if we think of a nation as an assemblage of many communities, we are necessarily thinking of some sort of pluralism.

There is in fact a good deal of talk about pluralism these days, but most of it that I have seen is fashionable, superficial, and virtually worthless. It does not foresee or advocate a plurality of aggrieved groups and individuals. It attempts to deal liberally – that is by the superficial courtesies of tolerance and egalitarianism – with a confusion of claims.

The social and cultural pluralism that some now see as a goal is a public of destroyed communities. Wherever it exists, it is the result of centuries of imperialism. The modern industrial urban centres are “pluralistic” because they are full of refugees from destroyed communities, destroyed community economies, disintegrated local cultures, and ruined local ecosystems. The pluralists who see this state of affairs as some sort of improvement or as the beginning of “global culture” are being historically perverse, as well as politically naive. They wish to regard liberally and tolerantly the diverse, sometimes competing claims and complaints of a rootless society, and yet they continue to tolerate also the ideals and goals of the industrialism that caused the uprooting. They affirm the pluralism of a society formed by the uprooting of cultures at the same time that they regard the fierce self-defence of still-rooted cultures as “fundamentalism”, for which they have no tolerance at all. They look with wistful indulgence and envy at the ruined or damaged American Indian cultures so long as those cultures remain passively a part of our plurality, forgetting that these cultures, too, were once “fundamentalist” in their self-defence. And when these cultures again attempt self-defence – when they again assert the inseparability of culture and place – they are opposed by this pluralistic society as self-righteously as ever. The tolerance of this sort of pluralism extends always to the uprooted and passive, never to the rooted and active.

The trouble with the various movements of rights and liberties that have passed among us in the last thirty years is that they have all been too exclusive and so have degenerated too readily into special pleading. They have, separately, asked us to stop exploiting racial minorities or women or nature, and they have been, separately, right to do so. But they have not, separately or together, come to the realisation that we live in a society that exploits, first, everything that is not ourselves and then, inevitably, ourselves. To ask, within this general onslaught, that we should honour the dignity of this or that group is to ask us to swim up a waterfall.

Any group that takes itself, its culture, and its values seriously enough to try to separate, or to remain separate, from the industrial line of march will be, to say the least, unwelcome in the plurality. The tolerance of these doctrinaire pluralists always runs aground on religion. You may be fascinated by religion, you may study it, anthropologise and psychoanalyse about it, collect and catalogue its artifacts, but you had better not believe in it. You may put into “the canon” the holy books of any group, but you had better not think them holy.

The problem with this form of pluralism is that it has no authentic standard; its standard simply is what one group or another may want at the moment. It’s professed freedom is not that of community life but rather that of a political group acting on the pattern of individualism. To get farther toward a practicable freedom, the group must measure itself and its wants by standards external to itself. I assume that these standards must be both cultural and ecological. If people wish to be free, then they must preserve the culture that makes for political freedom, and they must preserve the health of the world.

A culture capable of preserving land and people can be made only within a relatively stable and enduring relationship between a local people and its place. Community cultures made in this way would necessarily differ, and sometimes radically so, from one place to another, because places differ. This the true and necessary pluralism. There can, I think, be no national policy of pluralism or multiculturalism but only these pluralities of local cultures, And if these cultures are of any value and worthy of any respect, they will not be elective – not determined by mere wishes- but will be formed in response to local nature and local needs.

At present, the rhetoric of racial and cultural pluralism works against the possibility of a pluralism of settled communities, exactly as do the assumptions and the practices of national and global economies. So long as we try to think of ourselves as African Americans or European Americans or Asian Americans, we will never settle anywhere. For an authentic community is made less in reference to who we are than to where we are. I cannot farm my farm as a European American – or as an American, or as a Kentuckian – but only as a person belonging to the place itself. If I am to use it well and live on it authentically, I cannot do so by knowing where my ancestors came from; I can only do so by knowing where I am, what the natureof the place permits me to do here, and who and what are here with me. To know these things I must ask the place. A knowledge of foreign cultures is useful to me in my effort to settle here, but it cannot tell me where I am.

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