wisdom from 1984

“In the first twenty-five years after World War II, our farm people were driven off their farms by economic pressure at the rate of about one million a year.  They are still going out of business at the rate of 1,400 farm families per week….”
“Less than 3 percent of the population of our country is left on the farms…”

“Increasing the number of property owners is not in itself, of course, a guarantee of better use.  People who do not know how to care for property cannot care for it, no matter how willing they may be to do so. 

But good care is potential in the presence of people, no matter how ignorant; there is no hope of it at all in their absence.  The question bearing ever more heavily upon us is how this potential for good care in people may be developed and put to use.  The honest answer, at present, seems to be that we do not know how.  Perhaps we will have to begin by answering the question negatively.  For example, most people who move from place to place every few years will never learn to care well for any place, nor will most people who are long alienated from all responsibility for usable property.  Such people, moreover, cannot be taught good care by books or classroom instruction, nor can it be forced upon them by law.  A people as a whole can learn good care only by long experience of living and working, learning and remembering, in the same places generation after generation, experiencing and correcting the results of bad care, and enjoying the benefits of good care.  
    It may be, also, that people who do not care well for their land will not care enough about it to defend it well.  It seems certain that people who hope to be capable of national defense in the true sense – not by invading foreign lands but by driving off invaders of their own land – must love their country with the particularizing passion with which settled people have always loved, not their nation, but their homes, their daily lives and daily bread.
    An abstract nationalist patriotism may be easy to arouse, if the times offer a leader sufficiently gifted in the manipulation of crowds, but it is hard to sustain, and it has the seed of a foolishness in it that will become its disease.  Our great danger at present is that we have no defensive alternative to this sort of hollow patriotic passion and its inevitable expression in nuclear warheads; this is both because our people are too “mobile” to have developed strong local loyalties and strong local economies and because the nation is thus made everywhere locally vulnerable – indefensible except as a whole.  Our life no longer rests broadly upon our land but has become an inverted pyramid resting upon the pinpoint of a tiny, dwindling, agricultural minority critically dependent upon manufactured supplies and upon credit.  Moreover, the population as a whole is now dependent upon goods and services that are not and often cannot be produced locally but must be transported, often across the entire width of the continent or from the other side of the world.  Our national livelihood is everywhere pinched into wires, pipelines, and roads.  A fact that cannot have eluded our military experts is that this “strongest nation in the world” is almost pitifully vulnerable on its own ground.  A relatively few well-directed rifle shots, a relatively few well-placed sticks of dynamite could bring us to darkness, confusion, and hunger.  And this civil weakness serves and aggravates the military obsession with megatonnage.  It is only logical that a nation weak at home should threaten abroad with whatever destructions its technology can contrive.  It is logical, but it is mad.”

Taken from Wendell Berry’s essay “Property, Patriotism, and National Defense.”  Written in 1984.


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