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Goldberg Misses the Point

I'm no close student of Wendell Berry's. He may be brilliant and he may not be. I only know him by reputation and scattered bits and pieces. That you put so much stock in him inclines me to give him the benefit of the doubt. Also, perhaps there is a larger context that makes the passage below into something more sensible than it appears to me now. That is as charitable as I will be. Now, look at this passage:

The “conservatives” more or less attack homosexuality, abortion and pornography, and the “liberals” more or less defend them. Neither party will oppose sexual promiscuity. The “liberals” will not oppose promiscuity because they do not wish to appear intolerant of “individual liberty.” The “conservatives” will not oppose promiscuity because sexual discipline would reduce the profits of corporations, which in their advertisements and entertainments encourage sexual self-indulgence as a way of selling merchandise. ~Jonah Goldberg quoting Rod Dreher's citation of Wendell Berry, Crunchy Cons

This is one of Goldberg's favourite tactics against the crunchy con idea. He cites something that Rod Dreher has said or quoted, solemnly avowed that nobody he knows has ever said these things and therefore declares that Dreher's point is either irrelevant or, in this case, sophomoric. However deficient his arguing style is, though, I think Rod Dreher gave him an easier target than Goldberg deserved.

Update: Rod Dreher clarified the Berry quote here, and Caleb Stegall called Goldberg on his recourse to the "No True Scotsman" fallacy here.

Let me say right off that I have not read any Wendell Berry, so I cannot explain what Mr. Berry refers to when he says things like this. Maybe I am not quite so crunchy in that respect. My first impression is that Mr. Berry took a constellation of ideas that could be a powerful indictment of conventional conservatism's practical indifference to social and moral questions and then ruined it all with the de rigeur reference to corporate profits. This is not to sing the praises of corporations a la the LRC Blog--long-time readers know me better than that--but to acknowledge that to put things this way is to confuse things rather badly.

I think one would be hard pressed to find someone who chooses not to discourage promiscuity specifically because he does not want to diminish some corporation's profits or corporate profits in general (unless he is a shareholder, his motives in this regard would be mystifying in any event). But the basic insight that many "conservatives" conventionally acquiesce in the debauched, passion-soaked, spiritually deformed marketing culture that feeds sexual sin and social disorder, both generally and sometimes in their own purchases, is so spot on that Goldberg is fortunate that the problem was posed that awkwardly. He would have no riposte to this, except to shrug his shoulders and mutter something about freedom of choice.

It is obvious that advertising is saturated with messages designed to incite passions and desires--that is, to be blunt, the entire purpose of advertising and a serious problem for a crunchy con. In the acquisition of a rightly ordered soul, such things are pernicious, and when they spill over into vice they are pernicious for the society as a whole. Less tangibly, but even more importantly, they are demonstrably harmful to the spiritual welfare of a people. What Berry was probably trying to say, and may have gone very far off the mark in the process, was that many conventional conservatives buy what these marketers are selling, both with respect to the products and the debased visual "culture" they create, and many of these conventional conservatives have no interest in breaking up this arrangement that temporarily satisfies their desires. All of this does arise from an incoherent understanding of freedom as an undefined fulfillment of desires, as restraint and delayed gratification are now treated as holdovers from a bygone era, when anyone who has given it much thought recognises desires as the chains of the spirit and the mind. If this is not the point Berry was making, it is the one I believe Rod Dreher intended to make by invoking Berry, and it is the one that should be made.

Instead of cheering on and underwriting a culture of consumption founded on spiritual anarchy and slavery to passions, conservatives should be looking for another path. Indeed, they should already be on this other path, but at the very least not running headlong away from it. They lack the language to describe that path, because they have made choice and the indulgence of choice into major determining criteria of what is valuable and because there is no longer any sensibility rooted in the mortification of the flesh, the ordering of the passions towards the Good, which is God, and a healthy ascetic discipline of prayer and fasting. This is part of a re-balanced life of asceticism, festivity and communion that I point towards in my New Pantagruel essay.

Daniel Larison | February 24, 2006



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