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Editorial

Author offers food for thought about mindsets

Poet, novelist, farmer, conservationist Wendell Berry recently challenged today’s rampant individualism and concentration on the bottom line, as they contribute to the current economic and spiritual conundrum.

His April lecture on “It All Turns on Affection” sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., offers food for thought to stir conversations.  It is at neh.gov/about/awards/jefferson-lecture.

Berry told about his grandfather’s small tobacco farm in Kentucky that is still in the family.  In 1906, his grandfather hoped the crop would bring a good price at auction, not a windfall, but enough to allow him to pay his expenses and have a bit left over.

However, James Duke and his American Tobacco Company had a monopoly on the tobacco market, and the crop brought in only enough to pay for its transport to market and the commission on its sale.

Barry said one of his teachers, Wallace Stegner, identified two groups of Americans: “boomers” and “stickers.”  Boomers are “those who pillage and run” who want “to make a killing and end up on Easy Street.”  Stickers are “those who settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it.”

Berry said a boomer is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property and power.  Stickers are motivated by affection, “by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it.”

Duke was a boomer.  The pedestal of a statue of him at Duke University says “industrialist” on one side and “philanthropist” on another.  Berry said the two labels were more true for his grandfather and others exploited by Duke, pointing out that by appropriating “for little or nothing the work and hope of enough such farmers, you may dispense grand charity as a philanthropist.”

Today as then, boomers see no connection between people whose labor they use and their own prosperity.  Nor do they think sustainability is necessary.  Pay lower prices, so more has to be produced on the same land, and the land becomes depleted.  What eventually happens to the farm and the farmer is not of concern.

Because of people who give in to such destructive tendencies, Berry sees “a ruinous failure of imagination” throughout history and growing worse in our own time. 

For people to have a responsible relationship to the world, he said, people must let their imagination enable sympathy, and their sympathy enable affection.  “In affection, we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind and conserving economy,” he said.

Berry sees risks in “making affection the pivot of an argument about economy.” For him, affection and values of love, care, sympathy, mercy, forbearance, respect and reverence have meanings related to worth.  He calls people to give their affection to the true, just and beautiful.

That’s food for thought to chew on in our faith community conversations.

Nancy Minard - Contributing Editor