Tuesday, April 24, 2012

We Are Not Alone

There’s a large Presbyterian church in Pittsburgh that is known, in some circles, as Mellon’s fire escape. It was built on the donations of Andrew Mellon, and the clear implication of the nickname was that building a cathedral was Mellon’s best chance of escaping the fires of hell to which he would be consigned by a life marked by rapacious greed.
It was the ultimate money laundering scheme, and I thought about it last evening when I heard Wendell Berry describe the intimate connection between philanthropy and pillaging.
Berry was in DC to give the 41st annual Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. Established in 1972, the Jefferson Lecture is the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual and public achievement in the humanities. It is awarded each year by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the federal agency charged with serving and strengthening “our republic by promoting excellence in the humanities and conveying the lessons of history to all Americans.”
Berry framed his remarks with the story of his grandfather, a Henry County Kentucky tobacco farmer whose 1907 crop was rendered worthless through the monopoly machinations of the American Tobacco Company and its founder, James B. Duke.
Duke is the namesake of Duke University. I don’t know whether or not the Duke foundation contributes to the National Endowment for the Humanities, but that’s about the only funding source that could be more ironic than E*Trade Financial, which, along with the History Channel and the Owsley Brown Charitable Foundation, provided major funding for the Jefferson Lecture.
Duke, as Berry said last night, disregarded “any other consideration, followed the capitalist logic to absolute control of his industry and, incidentally, the economic fate of thousands of families such as my own.”
Berry has written often on the theme of proximity and the importance of small places. Last night he spoke of “stickers” – a term Berry’s teacher Wallace Stegner used it to signify those “who love the life they have made and the place they have made it in,” and to distinguish a stream in American life that runs apart from the mainstream of “boomers,” Stegner’s term for “those who pillage and run, who want to make a killing and end up on Easy Street.”
“James B. Duke was a boomer,” Berry said, motivated by greed and the desire for power. Stickers, Berry insisted, are motivated by affection for the small places which they steward. The logic of corporate capitalism is that of the boomer, of Wall Street, of E*Trade and other financial institutions that exist to serve the dream of Easy Street.
I almost wrote “who exist …” in the previous sentence, and thus barely sidestepped the trap laid for us by the United States Supreme Court when it assigned “personhood” to corporations. Berry noted last night the great irony that institutions that have no self are, nonetheless, defined most purely by selfishness.
The deeper irony, as Berry alluded to, lies in the complex web of culpability in which each of us is caught in relationship to the logic of capitalism that determines the shape and structure of the economy that encompasses us. That web has been spun over the past century by men such as James Duke and Andrew Mellon and Bill Gates and Mitt Romney and the other five thousand or so who have comprised the “one percent” since Duke’s company consigned Berry’s family to poverty.
Every one of us is caught in it, participates in it, serves it, gains and loses in it. My livelihood depends upon it, laundered by the church though my pay may be. As much as I might like to think otherwise, I am holding the ladder steady as Mr. Mellon continues his climb. (That is a description only of the smaller economy of our society not of the larger economy of the Kingdom of God, and thus it is a statement of political ethics and not of eschatological theology – although the two are not unrelated.)
This would be true enough if I served the Presbyterian church in Henry County, Kentucky. It seems all the more so true for those of us who serve the vast American suburban population. When Wendell Berry’s grandfather’s livelihood and farm were threatened by the corporate economic powers of the early 20th century the Berry family was among the majority of Americans who lived on farms or in rural communities and small towns.
Now the majority of a much larger nation lives in the suburban sprawl of major metropolitan areas or in the cities at the heart of the sprawl. Not only are we caught in the web of corporate capitalism, but we are also far removed from the small places to which one can relate with affection over the course of a lifetime. If, as the title of Berry’s lecture holds, “it all depends on affection,” then what is the proper, effective, realistic way to live out such affection in places that are defined as much as anything by the kind of bland sameness that removes affection from the equation altogether?
Most of us live as if we live in no place in particular at all. The Target up the way from my house in Arlington is virtually indistinguishable from the Target that was up the way from where we lived in the suburbs of Cleveland, or of Pittsburgh, or in the city of Lexington, Ky. Target is the major funder for the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, and thus a particular example here. I imagine the E*trade branch locations are the same, as well, though out of my experience.
 Affection demands particularity. I have no real affection for Target, though it carries the basics and it is convenient. It saves time.
Affection also demands time. It demands that we spend time. However, the prime directive of the present economy and of suburban life in general is to save time. The gadgets that I can and do buy at Target promise to save time, to make me more efficient. Target, in that way, promises to liberate us from the demands of the very places where we live.
I only know of Andrew Mellon through the bank the bears his family name and through the church built with his money. Perhaps he felt as trapped within the logic of the larger economy as the countless families who were dispossessed at the other end of his business dealings. Maybe the staff at the church he built feels trapped, too, as surely do lots of folks who attend that church, which serves an economically marginal urban neighborhood these days. I know with certainty that lots of folks in the various suburban congregations I have served feel trapped in the logic of an economy that can put a price on almost any thing but that cannot account for that which is of real and lasting value.
As Berry noted last night, millions of Americans since the economic crisis of 1907 lost their farms, homes and land, and the economic crisis of our time has similarly displaced millions more. Despite the obvious fact that this experience is far from unique, perhaps the singular nature of modern economic crisis is how alone we feel within its logic.
Berry has insisted for decades now, against the tides of his time, that none of this is inevitable. He insisted so again list night in the face of visible ironies: beginning with corporate sponsorship of a national endowment for whatever it is that “humanities” might mean within this economy, and including an entirely expectable yet still odd display of so-called patriotism in the presentation of colors by the U.S. Joint Armed Forces Color Guard and the music of the U.S. Air Force Band Ceremonial Brass Quintet playing beneath a huge screen on which was projected a quote from Berry’s essay, “The Failure of War.” In that essay, published a decade ago, Berry wrote”
“We experience no shortages, we suffer no rationing, we endure no limitations. We earn, borrow, spend, and consume in wartime as in peacetime. And of course no sacrifice is required of those large economic interests that now principally constitute our economy. No corporation will be required to submit to any limitation or to sacrifice a dollar. On the contrary, war is the great cure-all and opportunity of our corporate economy, which subsists and thrives upon war. War ended the Great Depression of the 1930s, and we have maintained a war economy—an economy, one might justly say, of general violence—ever since, sacrificing to it an enormous economic and ecological wealth, including, as designated victims, the farmers and the industrial working class.”
Despite that long history of state and corporate military and economic violence, despite the displacement of millions and the deaths of countless others, despite the economic logic that seems every day to extend its reach and circumscribe our lives, our futures, our imaginations, Berry continues to insist that, ”this has not been inevitable. We do not have to live as if we are alone.”