Wendell Berry’s NEH Jefferson Lecture

Last night the Kentucky poet, fiction-writer, and activist Wendell Berry delivered the prestigious National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture.  According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Berry delivered a “scathing critique of the industrial economy and its toll on humanity….”  At the end of the lecture, NEH chairman Jim Leach said, in jest, “the views of the speaker do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States government.”

Read all about it here.

Running a Civilization of Dunkin Donuts, TGIFs, and Leaf Blowers

Over at Front Porch Republic, Jason Peters has assembled a pretty powerful collection of quotes from his favorite authors.  Here are a few of our favorites:

We will extract everything we possibly can, even transforming the face of the earth into a living hell, if it means we can continue to run a civilization of Dunkin Donuts, TGIFs, and leaf blowers.
— Patrick Deneen

We are being made aware that the organisation of society on the principle of private profit, as well as public destruction, is leading both to the deformation of humanity by unregulated industrialism, and to the exhaustion of natural resources, and that a good deal of our material progress is a progress for which succeeding generations may have to pay dearly. I need only mention, as an instance now very much before the public eye, the results of ‘soil-erosion’—the exploitation of the earth, on a vast scale for two generations, for commercial profit: immediate benefits leading to dearth and desert. . . . [A] wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God, and . . . the consequence is an inevitable doom. For a long enough time we have believed in nothing but the values arising in a mechanised, commercialised, urbanised way of life: it would be as well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live upon this planet.
T.S. Eliot, “The Idea of a Christian Society”

 The fact remains: the earth’s finite resources will not support an indefinite expansion of industrial civilization. The right proposes, in effect, to maintain our riotous standard of living, as it has been maintained in the past, at the expense of the rest of the world. . . . This program is self-defeating, not only because it will produce environmental effects from which even the rich cannot escape, but because it will widen the gap between rich and poor nations, generate more violent movements of insurrection and terrorism against the West, and bring about a deterioration of the world’s political climate as threatening as the deterioration of its physical climate.
—Christopher Lasch, The True and Only Heaven

A city that outdistances man’s walking powers is a trap for man.
— Arnold Toynbee

Daylight Saving’s Time: One Man’s Noon is Another’s 11:50

Don’t forget to change the clocks this weekend.  Perhaps Howard Mansfield’s op-ed in today’s New York Times will remind you.  This is a nice historical piece on time zones and daylight savings time in American history.  Here is a taste:

…The railroads ran by their own time, which vexed travelers trying to make connections. Many stations had two clocks, one for railroad time and one for local time.

To eliminate the confusion, railroads took it upon themselves in 1883 to divide the country into four time zones, with one standard time within each zone. To resist could mean economic isolation, so at noon on Nov. 18, 1883, Chicagoans had to move their clocks back 9 minutes and 32 seconds. It’s as if the railroads had commanded the sun to stand still, The Chicago Tribune wrote. Louisville was set back almost 18 minutes, and The Louisville Courier-Journal called the change a “compulsory lie.” In a letter to the editor, a reader demanded to know “if anyone has the authority and right to change the city time without the consent of the people?” In an 1884 referendum, three-quarters of voters in Bangor, Me., opposed the 25-minute change to “Philadelphia time.”

One sees the same annoyance with the “compulsory lie” of daylight saving time. When it was being debated in 1916, The Literary Digest saw it as a trick to make “people get up earlier by telling them it is later than it really is.” The Saturday Evening Post asked, in jest, “why not ‘save summer’ by having June begin at the end of February?” And an Arkansas congressman lampooned the time reformers by proposing that we change our thermometers: move the freezing point up 13 degrees and a lot of folks could be tricked into burning less fuel to heat their houses.

We adopted daylight saving time (during World War I), rejected it (after the war), adopted it again (during World War II), and then left it up to the states and localities until 1966, when Congress once more decided it was a national concern. And as much as we complain and point out that it doesn’t make anyone more productive or save any energy, it persists. Almost every state has eight months of it each year and only four months of so-called standard time. As a result, today we rose with the dawn and next week we’ll be eating breakfast in darkness.

The change is disconcerting. But more unsettling still is the mystery we’d rather not face: If clock time isn’t real, what is time, anyway? We don’t understand time, and we definitely don’t want to admit that our allotment is limited. We just want to get on with our day.

Dr. Seuss and Modern America

I was lecturing in my U.S. survey class today on the social consequences of economic nationalism in the early American republic. I wanted the students to see that the United States’ attempt at developing a sense of nationalism in the wake of the War of 1812 led to improvements in infrastructure such as roads, canals, etc… that profoundly changed the lives of ordinary people. We discussed the way the subdivision of tasks undermined the master craftsman and how roads helped people to see themselves as participants in a community that transcended their local bounds. We talked about the growing class-consciousness among Irish immigrant canal-workers and the life-changing consumer habits of rural farmers with access to markets.

During the lecture I referenced an essay I wrote a few years ago on the liberal cosmopolitanism of Theodore Giesel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss. Seuss’s writings challenge kids to think beyond the local. In books like Oh the Places You’ll Go or McElligott’s Pool he asks young people to imagine the world beyond home. I argue that Seuss, like the industrialists and economic improvers of the early 19th century, have contributed to the destruction of an older Jeffersonian vision of America rooted in place, agriculture and local community. (Ironically, many of those who supported this destruction of place in the early 19th century claimed the mantle of Jeffersonianism).

A few students have asked me about the piece, so I have linked to it here.

Of course I explored many of these themes in the eighteenth-century in The Way of Improvement Leads Home.