Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Certain Unalienable Responsibilities

by Wendell Berry


If we are responsible older people, we try to teach the young to read, write, speak and think with care and with due respect for the complexity of issues and events. We try to give them the knowledge that informs and enables care, believing that such knowledge and such care will lead to understanding and to a sufficient measure of truth.

But if we aren't careful we will imply to our children and students that the present world of politics, industry and commerce is eagerly awaiting the arrival of young people who are able to read, write, speak and think with care—and that would be wrong. As we are aware ourselves, we need to warn the young that the dominant mode of thought and speech in the present world is oversimplification, often gross oversimplification, leading to falsehood.

For example, the powers of the present world, "liberal" and "conservative" alike, have been assuming for a long time:


  • That economic value originates in "the market" or "the economy," not in the earth or in human need for the earth's products.


  • That the economy, having thus no natural limits, is therefore limitless.


  • That therefore the "global economy," being merely the logical result of limitless economic growth, involves no natural or cultural penalties, and is a "win-win situation" for everybody.


  • That the profitability of this economy is the result of altruism and compassion, but its destructiveness is merely "inevitable."


  • That the "inevitable" inequities, injustices and damages of this economy, and the consequent anger, require it to be protected militarily by the world's most powerful nation in the interest of its own security.


  • That the result of this more or less constant warfare will certainly be national security and world peace.


  • I don't have time here to construct an argument against this remarkable set of assumptions, but will only point out that it is invalidated by its oversimplifications and its internal contradictions.

    It is invalidated, furthermore, by its indifference to some of the fundamental principles of our culture and politics:

  • That the earth belongs to God, who loves it and has enjoined us to "keep it"—that is, to take proper care of it.


  • That we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, and that we must not exclude from this love even our enemies.


  • That since God has imparted His spirit and His breath to all the living world, we are not permitted to exclude any of it from our love and care.


  • That, for those reasons, colonialism in any of its forms is wrong and justly to be opposed.


  • That it is "self-evident...that all men are created equal" and are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," among which are "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."


  • That governments derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed."


  • These great principles are not "problems" to be "solved" by some hotshot intellectual or politician. They are not going to be easily or quickly understood by anybody. They are instructions to be suffered, lived with, struggled with, learned from, for the lifetime of a civilization—and, we must hope, for longer than that.

    How are we to "keep" this world? Who are our neighbors? Who are ourselves? How are we to enlarge the practical and effective reach of our love? What is the meaning of political equality? What, properly, may we consider to be our rights? On what conditions may we properly consent to be governed? What is security? What is patriotism? What is peace?

    My dear children, don't let anybody else answer those questions for you. Keep them vital, never finally answered, in your thoughts. Beware the establishment. Beware the anti-establishment establishment. Stay responsible, stay alive, all your life.

    —Wendell Berry, essayist, novelist and poet and the author of The Unsettling of America, gave this commencement talk to Highlands Latin School in Louisville, Ky. His granddaughter was one of the two graduates. Berry farms in Kentucky and is a member of the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.

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