Bill Moyers and Wendell Berry

moyers-berry-350In an essay about an earlier Moyers & Company program, I wrote that “amidst the polluted TV waters, filled with all sorts of inanities, his [Moyers’] programs have been isles of reason and sanity.” Although his program is on weekly, I don’t watch it as faithfully as I should.  But earlier this month, I did tape and then watch it because he was interviewing the writer (and farmer) Wendell Berry, an American who should be valued more widely than he is. As a young man, Berry studied for a while at Stanford University under Wallace Stegner, another writer who often displayed the reverence for nature that came to characterize Berry’s works, including his poems, fiction, and essays. In 1990, Stegner wrote (it can be found here) an open letter to him. Below are just a few of the words he said about his former student.

Your books seem conservative. They are actually profoundly revolutionary . . . They fly in the face of accepted opinion and approved fashion. They reassert values so commonly forgotten or repudiated that, reasserted, they have the force of novelty. . . .

You have established yourself as a major figure in the environmental movement. . . . You look upon the earth not mystically but practically, as a responsible husbandman, but your very practicality has made you one of the strongest voices against land abuse.

Stegner’s words about conservative and revolutionary remind me of something I like about Berry: he defies easy political categories; his views spring from his very being, not any ideology. He reminds me of the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov, who believed that ideology skewed the understanding and depiction of reality, and he disliked being labeled, as he said, by those “determined to regard me either as a liberal or as a conservative.” But Berry did admit to becoming more radical as he got older (he’s now 79), and two years ago he participated in a four day sit-in at the Kentucky governor’s office that protested the mountaintop method of removing coal. Below are some quotes of Berry in answer to Moyer’s questions and comments.

  • In our society, people with money are bigger and more powerful and more noticeable and count more as citizens than people without much money.
  • The world and our life in it are conditional gifts. We have the world to live in and the use of it to live from on the condition that we will take good care of it.
  • The aim of the Industrial Revolution from year one has been to replace people with technology. So it’s a little contemptible to hear these people express in surprise at this late date that we have an unemployment problem.
  • The other thing that we’re having trouble confronting . . . is the disaster of being governed by the corporations.
  • It’s mighty hard right now to think of anything that’s precious that isn’t endangered.
  • [As quoted by Moyers] “No amount of fiddling with capitalism to regulate and humanize it . . . can for long disguise its failure” to conserve the wealth and health of nature. Eroded, wasted, or degraded soils; damaged or destroyed ecosystems; extinction of biodiversity, species; whole landscapes defaced, gouged, flooded, or blown up … thoughtless squandering of fossil fuels and fossil waters, of mineable minerals and ores, natural health and beauty replaced by a heartless and sickening ugliness. Perhaps its greatest success is an astounding increase in the destructiveness and therefore the profitability of war.”
  • Agriculture as we are now practicing it involves a highly destructive ratio between people and land. More and more land is being used and used fairly destructively by fewer and fewer people. . . . used destructively because the fewness of the people implies and requires a dependence on more and more mechanical power and more and more toxic chemicals.
  • The rule in using other creatures and I mean plants and animals is to use them with the minimum of violence.
  • [And Berry reading from his “Poem on Hope”] It is hard to have hope. It is harder as you grow old, for hope must not depend on feeling good and there’s the dream of loneliness at absolute midnight. You also have withdrawn belief in the present reality of the future, which surely will surprise us, and hope is harder when it cannot come by prediction anymore than by wishing. But stop dithering. The young ask the old to hope. What will you tell them? Tell them at least what you say to yourself. Because we have not made our lives to fit our places, the forests are ruined, the fields, eroded, the streams polluted, the mountains, overturned. Hope then to belong to your place by your own knowledge of what it is that no other place is, and by your caring for it, as you care for no other place… This knowledge cannot be taken from you by power or by wealth. It will stop your ears to the powerful when they ask for your faith, and to the wealthy when they ask for your land and your work. . . . Be still and listen to the voices that belong to the stream banks and the trees and the open fields. . . .Find your hope, then, on the ground under your feet. Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground underfoot. . . .The world is no better than its places. Its places at last are no better than their people while their people continue in them. When the people make dark the light within them, the world darkens.

After interviewing Berry, Moyers commented on his clairvoyance and mentioned that eleven years ago he wrote of the danger of making “the world too toxic for honeybees.” Moyers then went on to say that “this past winter, a third of US honeybee colonies died or disappeared in a phenomenon scientists call Colony Collapse Disorder. More and more, the culprit is believed to be certain pesticides, fungicides and herbicides that may be killing bees or adversely affecting brain and nerve functions.” Following his words, he showed the short film “Dance of the Honeybee,” narrated by Berry admirer, environmentalist Bill McKibben. (See here and here for two of my earlier essays discussing this problem and how serious it is). Finally, Moyers ended his program with some incisive political comments. He talked about the Republicans “who hate government so much they’ve shut it down” and who have “fought tooth and nail to kill President Obama’s health care initiative.” But he also indicated something else that has too often been forgotten in the rhetoric of recent weeks: Although “Obamacare, as it’s known, is deeply flawed,” it’s mainly because Republicans and the “corporate wing of Democrats. . . managed to bend it [Obama’s original health initiative] toward private interests.” “Big subsidies to the health insurance industry. A bonanza for lobbyists. No public option.

And as The New York Times reported this week, ‘Millions of Poor Are Left Uncovered by Health Law.’ Largely because states controlled by Republicans refuse to expand Medicaid.” Moyers adds, “As far as our bought and paid for legislative process goes, Obama’s initiative made it through the sausage factory. Yet even after both the House and Senate approved it, the president signed it, and the Supreme Court upheld it, the Republicans keep insisting on calling the law a ‘bill,’ thumbing their noses and refusing to accept that it is enacted legislation.” (Despite the flaws in the Affordable Care Act [“Obamacare”], Moyers believes it is better than trying to destroy it).

walter mossAs usual, Moyers crammed a lot into his one hour program.

Do yourself a favor and watch it here.

Walter G. Moss

Saturday, 12 October 2013

About Walter Moss

Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. His most recent book is An Age of Progress?: Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008). For a list of all his recent books and online publications, including many on Russian history and culture, go here: http://people.emich.edu/wmoss/pub.htm

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  1. […] Moyers interview Kentucky writer Wendell Berry, I became more interested in Berry’s views and wrote briefly about them. Since then I have read his The Hidden Wound, written about racism while he was […]

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