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Center and Periphery

Wendell Berry didn't win the Nobel prize for peace this year, nor the Nobel for literature, though he has long belonged at the top of any list of those deserving the former, and might richly as well be awarded the latter.

Still, however, the gentleman farmer, in his early seventies now, yet writes from his Port Royal hillside farm on the Kentucky River.  And this recent month Shoemaker & Hoard published another collection of his essays, The Way of Ignorance.   Throughout it, as through all his work, Wendell Berry speaks with two voices.  The first:  that of a well-traveled, well-published former university professor.  The second:  that of a man in clay-clod boots and jeans or bib overalls behind mule, horse, or roto-tiller.  The two voices merge most articulately in this new book's perhaps most pertinent chapter, "Local Knowledge in the Age of Information" – it dwells on the question how in America or in the world "the center" sees "the periphery."

This one essay, coming out for the first time in book form as it did last month, has the added piquancy of that timing.  It appeared just when France found itself in the midst of its greatest rioting since the student revolts of '68.  This time the thousands of cars and buildings burning showed a newly-dramatized twist in the story of center vs. periphery.  Until their two-week-long explosion, France's heretofore largely hidden masses had lived as if unseen, unheard on the outskirts of Paris and scores of outlying cities.  As rioters, mostly unemployed male youth from France's former colonies, these first- and second-generation North African Muslims and sub-Saharan blacks occupied the sterile geometries of high-rise, cube housing estates long doomed to upkeep neglect and policing indifference or worse.

Coinciding with the anonymity of their unemployment and peripheral designation, French officialdom long refused to see any of these tens of thousands at all as part of the Muslim or sub-Saharan black cultures they also yet residually inhabited.  No schools, courts, newspapers, or police were ever allowed to refer to anyone in France by one's ethnicity, religion, or race.  All citizens were presumed to be just that:  citizens, and no more.

The center – in France, America, anywhere – has a particular value, Wendell Berry says in "Local Knowledge in the Age of Information."  As he puts it, "The center collects and stores things of value.  It is a place of economic and cultural exchange.  It is the right place for a stockyard or university."  The biggest problem comes, he adds, from how most of us have learned from too many in our centers to take for granted and ignore the values of diversity on the peripheries.   So he argues for reciprocity – that, between center and periphery, "One is unthinkable without the other" and that "each must be in conversation with the other."

Wendell Berry wrote these words some six or seven months before the rioting in France. His book containing them, The Way of Ignorance, came out not only during that rioting, but also as full debate finally erupted in the U.S. Congress, when the otherwise traditionally hawkish and Pentagon-friendly Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha called for an end to the Bush administration's military occupation of Iraq.

When Murtha made this call, partisans on the floor of Congress went berserk, but many thousands of more thoughtful observers across the country also joined the debate, from the well-known in our corporate media, to many lesser-knowns on Web sites and blogs.  Among the latter, on a site for Uncommon Thought Journal, Dave Stratman of New Democracy reviewed John Walsh's dual CounterPunch and Antiwar.com posting, "A Fractured Antiwar Movement."  Walsh argued that the Bush invasion of Iraq both signals and masks class war in America – that, coupled as it is with a purported "war on terrorism," it is all

meant to frighten us and drive us into the arms of our leaders while they steal our pensions, cut our wages, out-source our jobs, test our children into despair at school, and construct a police state around us.

Stratman has Walsh quoting another blogger, Steve Lopez, on "a dirty secret" behind the war:  "it is not about changing Iraq, it's about changing America. . . . The whole idea is to train you to expect less and to feel patriotic about it."  Under this scenario,

Ordinary American workers – the people who build our cars, teach our children, nurse our sick, build our houses, harvest our crops, keep our offices and hospitals and airlines running – are under attack as never before.  They are opposed to this war – it is, after all, their sons and daughters who are being "poverty-drafted" or "stop-lossed" to fight it – but the sheer ferocity of the assault on them at work and their children at school and their elderly parents in their homes is distracting and debilitating.  People are under assault from so many different directions that they find it hard just to keep running in place.

Stratman and Walsh (and presumably Lopez, too) regret how, in fighting class war at home, too many anti-war protesters appear as loony lefties, clumped together with abortion lefties, gay marriage lefties, and tree-hugging lefties.  Stratman and Walsh (Lopez likely, too) object to how those on the right, though they also suffer from class war, see no common cause with our lefties.

Wendell Berry – never a partisan political writer – doesn't go this far.  He asks not for alliance against the center, but for a redefinition of conversation, and conversational enlargement.  Our current corporate culture, which pervades everyone everywhere, doesn't value listening particularly.  It more-usually features one-way communication.  And it scants the great particularities and diversities "out there," he says.  "The information that is accumulated at the center – at the corporate or academic or governmental end . . . and then dispersed to the periphery, tends necessarily toward the abstract or universal, toward general applicability." He gives Kentucky examples:

The Holstein cow and the Roundup-ready soybean are, in this sense, abstractions:  the artifacts of a centrally divised [sic] agriculture, in use everywhere without respect to place or to any need for local adaptation.  When the periphery accepts these things uncritically, adopting the ideas and the language of the center, then it has begun to belong to the center, and usually at a considerable long-term cost to itself.  The immediate cost is the loss of knowledge and language specific to localities.

Wendell Berry sets as alternative, first and prior to real conversation:  "placed knowledge."  Once we admit that "no two woodlands, no two farms, and no two fields are exactly alike," we can see how "people of the periphery will have to cultivate and cherish knowledge of their places and communities, which are to some extent always unique."  When he goes on to say "this will require a placed language, made in reference to local names, conditions, and needs," he invokes a logic parallel to that of Essaying Differences.  Students in their universities, learning the ways of the center, might well also admit how all also bring with them and express vitality from originating cultures.  As he puts it, setting the ground for enlarged conversation, and beginning with our presumed experts:  "The people of the center need to know that this local knowledge is a necessary knowledge of their world."  When he says those comfortable in empire also "need to hear the local languages with understanding and respect," he means those trusting in their lives in institutions will benefit, too.  All of us can enlarge – outside of our sinecures, outside specializations, outside the allure of corporate entitlements and consumerism.  Then, he says, "no more talk about 'hicks' and 'provincials' and 'rednecks.'"  Real conversation can begin when those of the center, and those aspiring to it, realize "conversation goes two ways."  It goes "back and forth," not just, "as we say now," that the center "'communicates' with the periphery."

We have so much to do to change.  And rather than beginning these changes, our schools all launch backwards into even more of the worst of our imperial, corporate habits – more standardized testing, more retreat into the mutual isolations of specialization, more submersion in expensive and top-down, pre-packaged systems.  We could change.  We could get the wisdom A. J. Liebling put near the end of Between Meals, when he recounted how he first learned that the importance of communication wasn't its content, but "somebody on one end of a wire shouting 'My God, I'm alive!' and somebody on the other end shouting, 'My God, I'm alive too!'"  We could realize how, as Wendell Berry puts it, a conversation, "cannot be prepared ahead of time, and it is changed as it goes along by what is said."

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