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Missive #116

A strong polemic, in which Berry (Another Turn of the Crank, 1995, etc.) takes a wrecking ball to E.O. Wilson’s Consilience, reducing its smug assumptions regarding the fusion of science, art, and religion to so much rubble.I read a lot of Berry’s books while living in Reno and could get them as dead trees from the Reno library. When they changed their policy about charging for Interlibrary Loans I let him slide. Very glad that I have picked up again about where I left off with this book published in 2000. If you read nothing else in the book read the last essay, Chapter VIII Some Notes In Conclusion

Berry does not see life as mechanical or predictable or understandable, and he does not believe it possible to reduce it to the scope of our understanding. This would be to “give up on life, to carry it beyond change and redemption, and to increase the proximity of despair.” For Berry, “life is a miracle” (as Edgar said to King Lear), and it is not containable in Wilson’s empiricism or his reductionism or his subordination of art to science—particularly as Berry sees science currently under the sway of corporate interests. Berry advocates intellectual standards that “shift the priority from production to local adaptation, from power to elegance, from costliness to thrift. We must learn to think about propriety in scale and design.” Despite Wilson’s “pretensions to iconoclasm,” Berry sees orthodoxy and the hand of politics: “for the putative ability to explain everything along with the denial of religion (or the appropriation of its appearances) is a property of political tyranny.” The obtuse nature of the scientific attitude is crudely suggested in Berry’s caricature of Wilson responding to the prophet Isaiah in the following dialogue: “The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as a flower of the field.” To which Wilson replies, “But, sir! Are you aware of the existence of the electromagnetic spectrum?” Somewhat lame, to be sure, but it illustrates Berry’s point: “I have been trying to learn a language particular enough to speak of this place as it is and of my being here as I am.… And then is when I see that this life is a miracle, absolutely worth having, absolutely worth saving.”Berry has earned these lofty sentiments about life’s abiding mystery and beauty. He has lived close to the earth, pressed his ear to the ground, and been rewarded with doubt and discernment. — Kirkus Reviews

A few quotes:

This religification and evangelizing of science, in defiance of scientific principles, is now commonplace and is widely accepted or tolerated by people who are not scientists. We really seem to have conceded to scientists, to the extent of their own regrettable willingness to occupy it, the place once occupied by the prophets and priests of religion. This can have happened only because of a general abdication of our responsibility to be critical and, above all, self-critical.
Why is there not a robust, profoundly questioning criticism of science within the scientific disciplines? One reason, I assume, is that such self-criticism, especially in public, would be considered “unprofessional.” Another reason is that the modern sciences, working always in such proximity to “application,” are simply too lucrative or too potentially lucrative to be self-critical. The professions increasingly have adopted the standards and thought patterns of business: If you’re making money, what can be wrong?

The frequent insultingness of modern (scientific-technological- industrial) medicine is precisely its inclination to regard individual patients apart from their lives, as representatives or specimens of their age, sex, pathology, economic status, or some other category.
The specialist to whom you have been “referred” may never have seen you before, may know nothing about you, and may never see you again, and yet he or she presumes to know exactly what is wrong with you. The same insultingness is now also a commonplace of politics, which treats individuals as representatives of racial, sexual, geographic, economic, ideological, and other categories, each with typical faults, complaints, rights, or virtues.

Now we seem to have replaced the ideas of responsible community membership, of cultural survival, and even of usefulness, with the idea of professionalism. Professional education proceeds according to ideas of professional competence and according to professional standards, and this explains the decline in education from ideals of service and good work, citizenship and membership, to mere “job training” or “career preparation.” The context of professionalism is not a place or a community but a career, and this explains the phenomenon of “social mobility” and all the evils that proceed from it. The religion of professionalism is progress, and this means that, in spite of its vocal bias in favor of practicality and realism, professionalism forsakes both past and present in favor of the future, which is never present or practical or real. Professionalism is always offering up the past and the present as sacrifices to the future, in which all our problems will be solved and our tears wiped away—and which, being the future, never arrives. The future is always free of past limitations and present demands, always stocked with newer merchandise than any presently available, always promising that what we are going to have is better than what we have. The future is the utopia of academic thought, for virtually anything is hypothetically possible there; and it is the always-expanding frontier of the industrial economy, the fictive real estate against which losses are debited and to which failures are exiled.
The future is not anticipated or provided for, but is only bought or sold. The present is ever diminished by this buying and selling of shares in the future that rightfully are owned by the unborn.

The anti-smoking campaign, by its insistent reference to the expensiveness to government and society of death by smoking, has raised a question that it has not answered: What is the best and cheapest disease to die from, and how can the best and cheapest disease best be promoted? … Science can teach us and help us to resist death, but it can’t teach us to prepare for death or to die well. … The refusal of modern medicine to confront the deaths of its patients is only a function of its refusal to confront the unique and unempirically precious lives of its patients.

Wendell Berry is a writer that has been farming for over 40 years. Wes Jackson is the founder of a non-profit organization, The Land Institute (1976), a leader in the international sustainable agriculture movement and sometimes a writer. They are friends and Berry’s writing led me to Wes. I picked up a couple of quotes from an interview that he had a few years ago

“I’ve written that I think the discovery of America lies before us. So far we have done what colonizing people do – we come in and take and do not pay much attention to tomorrow, or the next year, or the next century. That’s not having a culture. That is simply engaging with the world, with the ecosphere, as colonizers. Take and go.”

“If you are working on something you can finish in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”

Two US presidents that apparently changed their minds.

This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing Government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.” — President Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address March 4, 1861

The right of revolution is an inherent one.  When people are oppressed by their government, it is a natural right they enjoy to relieve themselves of the oppression, if they are strong enough, whether by withdrawal from it, or by overthrowing it and substituting a government more acceptable. — Ulysses S. Grant; 18th president of the US, Personal Memoirs Chapter XVI

Real Clear Defense has been generally pro-Ukraine with its coverage over the last 18 months but, unlike the Institute for the Study of War, has offered occasionally some solid analysis questioning Ukraine’s chances of vanquishing Russia. The latest piece on Real Clear Defense, Why Is Ukraine’s Counteroffensive Destined To Fail?, is a stark warning that the Fat Lady is starting to sing:

The much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive was predicted to break through Russian echelon defenses swiftly, however, it turned into a stalemate. The operation was strategically planned and executed with misguided optimism, as Ukraine’s defense strategists underestimated the strength of the adversary. It was launched under the wishful thinking of the Ukrainian government assuming that Russian soldiers would desert their positions and run away from their trenches in the first waves of the counterattack. However, the opposite happened, and Russians are holding their positions, occasionally launching counterattacks, and not allowing Ukraine’s land forces to breach their defenses. Already two months have passed since the launch of the offensive and Ukraine’s military has yet to make significant gains. With the current situation, the highly anticipated counteroffensive is destined to fail.

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