Monday, September 5, 2022

Review of Citizenship Papers by Wendell Berry

This review was written by Eugene Kernes  

Book can be found in:
Genre = Politics
Book Club Event = Book List (01/21/2023)

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“A government, committing its nation to rid the world of evil, is assuming that it and its nation are good.  But the proposition that anything so multiple and large as a nation can be good is an insult to common sense.  It is also dangerous, because it precludes any attempt at self-criticism or self-correction; it precludes public dialogue.” – Wendell Berry, A Citizen’s Response to “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America”, Page 5

“Facts in isolation are false.  The more isolated a fact or a set of facts is, the more false it is.  A fact is true in the absolute sense only in association with all facts.  This is why the departmentalization of knowledge in our colleges and universities is fundamentally wrong.” – Wendell Berry, Going to Work, Page 41

“People in movements too readily learn to deny to others the rights and privileges they demand for themselves.  They too easily become unable to mean their own language, as when “peace movement” becomes violent.” – Wendell Berry, In Distrust of Movements, Page 44

The book contains a range of topics which include epistemology, economics, national security, and agriculture.  The topics are intimately tied, especially because each has a political theme.  To understand information, needs an understanding of a lot of related information and how they interconnect.  With that information can an understanding be built as to the potential consequences of behavior, alternative ways to behave, and solutions to problems.  

Citizens within democratic societies need to figure out how to manage the various topics together, rather than just have decision told to them by leadership.  Citizens need to discuss the issues, and understand the consequences of taking certain actions, because they impact other citizens and nations.  Economic production can threaten communities and the environment, but citizens can change policies and behavior.  Conflicts do arise, but if they are resolved with violence, then violence becomes justified.  To end cycles of violence requires peace oriented behavior.

National Security, Violence, and Democracy: 
Leaders speak from a perspective of representing citizens, but the decisions made are by the individual.  They do not necessarily reflect what citizens actually think.  Leaders during war assume an acceptable price, but that price becomes what was paid.  There never was an accepted level of sacrifice.  While others make sacrifices, those who live proclaim them acceptable.

When a nation is attacked, the reasons for defensive action would be publicly known.  Alternatively, reasons for aggressive or preemptive action would not be publicly known, but known to the few close to the center of power.  Preemptive war can be started by the leader.  Justifying the war with secret information, without the need to share the contents of the secret information.  The war is planned in secret.  Without the need of forewarning to execute the plan.

Preemptive attacks do need secrecy, for a discussed preemptive attack would risk being preempted by opposition.  Preemptive war is undemocratic, for the leader cannot obtain the consent of the governed.  This strategy requires the public to be manipulated by executive power.  As information will not be shared, that means that the public needs to be ignorant.  Public needs to be fearful of potential consequences of not following the directives of executive power.  Even legislature would need to be intimidated.  Depending on how much secrecy there is in the government, determines how democratic and free its people are.  Secrecy is inherently undemocratic.   

Violence without authorization from a national government is considered terrorism.  The same acts of violence with the authorization from a national government is considered war.  The same acts that are condemned as atrocious under terrorism, are not condemned under war.  Using different standards for the same violent acts for terrorism and war, means accepting and affirming the legitimacy of war.  Sanctioned violence defined as ‘just’ by the state, enables the same acts to be justified in the same way by individuals.  Committing violent actions against opposition, justifies the opposition’s use of the same acts against one’s own people.  By trying to destroy the opposition, nations create conditions to destroy themselves. 

A war on terrorism requires constantly needing new enemies.  Making the war endless, expensive, and supportive of bureaucracy.  A nation that is at war with terrorism is making a case of good versus evil.  That the government wants to remove evil from the world.  Which has the assumption that the government and the nation are the representatives for the good.  But nations are far more complicated than being just good.  Making the assumption that what the government does is good precludes public dialogue.  Assuming the side of the good prevents self-criticism or self-correction. 

It is very understandable to want to reaction against an attack.  But the reaction usually comes from fear and lack of proper direction.  There are many domestic issues that cannot be rectified by attacking foreign peoples.  Reactions to attacks cannot protect against destruction of the environment, selfishness, wastefulness, and greed nor obtain self-sufficiency or the consequences of dependence.  Foreign and domestic terror are related, but while the public is usually kept aware about foreign terror, domestic terror is ignored. 

National security would require becoming more self-sufficient, to prevent dependence on other nations who might not be at peace later.  This policy would require appropriate taking care of the environment, adjusting resources use, managing imports, improving community relations and foreign relations.  Without an environment that supports life, there would be no point in military strength.  Difficult to defend freedoms, when necessities are imported from foreign nations with no such concern for one’s own nation.  Should a war break about in which the imports are no longer provided, would have negative consequences on the national supply.  

The rule of law is upheld by a nation that declares itself above the law.  Foreign power catastrophic weapons are deemed illegitimate, but not one’s own national catastrophic weapons.  It is contradictory to speak of wanting cooperation and many other celebrated virtues, while also making claims about sole intention for making war.  Cannot reduce terror, by holding terror as a fear against the world.  A rouge state is defined in the pursuit of national interests with military capabilities that can threaten neighbors.  That is any nation, expect one’s own.     

The end of WW2 brought about ideals of a united world for peacemaking.  But has become globalized under trade that seeks to plunder the world of cheap resources.  Difficult to know how nations protect themselves under this regime.  Difficult to know how the economy would survive wars of nations. 

War is a profitable business, while peace is not.  War has been extravagantly subsidized.  Violence does not lead to peace.  Peaceable means are needed for peace, but are not yet the methods used to obtain peace.  Method is still the paradox of trying to make peace by making war.  Opposition to violence has become selective or fashionable, which is a brutal hypocrisy of violence against other humans and nature.

Historically, violence leads to reciprocity of violence.  Violence committed with moral superiority of justice, affirmation of rights, or defense of peace do not end violence.  They justify the continuation of violence.  Preparation for more violence.  

Economics, the Environment, and Agriculture:
To obtaining the products to satiate economic desires, nations have been willing to sacrifice their environments and communities as normal costs of operations.  Work and economic production needs to not destroy the environmental resources, but be sustainable without degrading the users.  There needs to be a balance between environmental preservation, and economic opportunities.  

The modus operandi is to delegate economic and political activities to others.  That change can only occur in the realm of politics, which has already gotten the economic proxies.  An assumption that passive consumers can change which will cause public experts, politicians, and corporate executives to change.  

Delegation of production to industrial society has led to people not knowing the histories of their products.  People no longer know how to produce food, take care of the environment, or even their communities.  Difficult to understand the environmental costs of products, and even the origins of the products.  The information is too scattered, and the economic processes too complicated.  Those within the industries that supply the products, can have reasons for not wanting to share the information about the product histories.  

Globalization has become dominated by supranational corporations, which use economic exploitation similar to colonialism.  Supranational corporations manage the rules of the global economy through the World Trade Organization.  Operating without election and can overrule regional laws that conflict with the free market. 

Agriculture is lucrative for everybody, except those who produce the food.  Powerful corporations and food conglomerates became wealthy through the work of struggling and failing farmers.  While the agriculture business claim this as progress.  Neither industry nor politics expects decent prices for food products that can help farmers.  Farmers need to be part of the solution within the agriculture economy.  

The Knowledge of Facts: 
Knowledge is impossible to know in any complete form, or all the consequences of actions taken.  Mystery is the norm.  Existence is more complicated and intertwined than simple.  Individuals and societies are complicated, and are most certainly not idealized perfections.  Willingness to judge negatively ancestors who were partly sinners, means being judged under the same terms by successors.  

Things that become popular, are in danger of being oversimplified.  Such an as oversimplification of the destructiveness of human relationship with nature.  Movements also oversimplify, and have a tendency to become self-righteous and self-betray.  Denying people rights and privileges, that those within the movement demands for themselves.  The problems caused are by other people, and propose policies to change the problems, but not behavior.  Claiming to be a particular type of movement or for a purpose, but in practice not keeping to how they define themselves such as peace movements using violence.  Making impossible to mean what is said because language becomes anything that anybody wants it to mean.  

Knowledge is useful no matter its age, or whether it is empirical or not.  Factual information is not sufficient for what is considered true.  A fact is a sum of information about the thing.  Abstract representations would not be recognized in practice for what they are.  Recognition requires incorporating various information.  Facts do not live in isolation of other facts.  Facts are only true with all their associated facts.  Departmentalization of knowledge limits understanding and creates many false ideas.  Only the thing, idea, person, or place can represent itself.  Everything else is an incomplete model.  Only tautologically can reality be represented in its true form.  

Social orders are socially constructions fiction.  Not because they are false, but because they are incomplete.  Even by trying to make them as inclusive as possible, still makes them exclusive.  Usually find what has been excluded too late.

There are different ways of handling information such as being rational or sympathetic.  Under a rational mindset, any trade-off can be rationalized.  While under the sympathetic mindset, nothing can be rationalized.  Fear of being wrong or misled motives the rational mindset, while the sympathetic mindset is motivated by failures of carelessness and exclusivity.  Many trade-offs fail as they lead to disaster. 

The essays have varied quality.  Topics are interrelated, but the essays are not necessarily related to each other.  Synthesizing a coherent understanding from all the topics is the responsibility of the reader.  
Recognizing social contradiction is a familiar theme in the book, but sometimes the explanations are lacking and are one-sided.  Sometimes making moral arguments, without explaining why the alternatives are causing the harm.  Simplifying the alternative ways and solutions opens the arguments to their own contradictions and counterclaims.  Understanding the why of the alternatives can facilitate in finding solutions.

An example of a one-sided argument is the negative consequences of delegating economic production to others.  By delegating and not needing to think about that production, the individual can apply themselves elsewhere.  If everyone needs to understand every bit of economic production, there would not be much delegating and each person would not have much more on their minds than that information.  Ideas, economics, and society can become stagnant.

Another example of a one-sided argument is the need for self-sufficiency.  Security and other benefits of self-sufficiency are provided, but not their costs.  Self-sufficiency means less trade, but that makes war more likely.  Trade increases the cost of going to war, for the nations rely on each other.  As the author supports peaceable ways of cooperation, trade is what makes peace become profitable.  Self-sufficiency means not having much peaceable negotiations with neighbors.  Limits the products and ideas within a nation for the nation would have to produce and figure out everything on their own rather than dividing the labor of that effort.  Also, the author supports a sustainable environment, but agriculture production for different foods can be done more sustainably in other countries because their soil and environment can be more adequate for that kind of food.  Self-sufficiency is just a different way of degrading the environment.

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•How are facts related to other facts?
•How should democratic societies approach issues within their society? 
•Why is there a need to maintain communities?
•How does the environment get used in the economy?
•Do democratic leaders represent the citizens? 
•What sacrifices are worth the price of war? 
•What is the difference between defensive and preemptive action?  How do they impact citizens?
•How does government withholding secret information reflect the public?
•What is the difference between terrorism and war?
•How is terrorism and war justified? 
•What does a war on terrorism mean?
•Is any nation good or evil?
•How to cooperate with other nations, while maintaining the ability to act alone?
•Does national security depend on self-sufficiency?
•Is war or peace profitable? 
•Can peace brought about by violence? 
•What costs does economic activities have?
•Why do individuals delegate economic and political activities to others?  What are the consequences of the delegation?
•What are product histories and do citizens need to know them?
•How is globalization managed?
•How is agriculture managed? 
•What are the limits to knowledge?
•How should ancestors be judged?
•What are the advantages and consequences of popularity?
•How do movements behave?  
•What do large concentration of animals and large fields of monoculture evolutionary produce?  

Book Details
Publisher:         Counterpoint
Edition ISBN:  9781619024472
Pages to read:   189
Publication:     2014
1st Edition:      2003
Format:            Paperback

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          5
Overall           5