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Is America a Nation without a Country?

Updated: Apr 6, 2023

The highly regarded writer and activist, Wendell Berry, thinks so. In his latest book, The Need to be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice (2022), he does address the problem of racial prejudice, but his primary message concerns our industrialized, urban world’s dismissal of the country and the people (black and white farmers) who care for it.

Berry is not an easy person to criticize. After reading his latest book, I read The Hidden Wound, which he wrote as a response to the civil rights unrest in 1969, and his collection of poems in This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems (2014). He wrote some beautiful things.

He is certainly a good white guy who tries to correct the course of our current trends. I think he would probably agree that we live now in a climate of injustice, and I certainly agree that we had better gain an appreciation for the earth as our home, but we have chosen to live in different social worlds.

Like Berry I grew up on a farm. I know the pleasure of hard work, of doing something well, of tending to plants and to animals, and the feeling of comradery with my brothers and father when we worked together. I also left the farm as he did, but I did not return. Although I would not have said so at the time, I assumed that the “public” world that Berry faults for being alienated from the land, is the context for making the changes we must make to move from the climate of injustice to a climate of justice.

As an individual, of course, a person can do what they want, but when they assume that they have good advice to help us change course, it would be good to appreciate other social worlds beside their own.

In Berry’s social world, there is racial prejudice, and before that there was Jim Crow and slavery. His settlement in Kentucky, however, was not as violent as the deep South. Berry draws on his experience of friendships with Black people when he was young to give us reasons to think about what he calls “degrees of prejudice.” He admits that he cannot know what others were feeling, but for him, “The most regrettable cost of school segregation, I think, was the detriment to friendships between blacks and whites.” (104). I would have thought that he would have known that segregated education cost Blacks much more than friendship with whites.

The fact is that Berry’s social world was not as benign as he presents it. History professor George C. Wright, in the research for his 1990 book, Racial Violence in Kentucky, 1865-1940, found documentation of at least 353 lynchings in Kentucky.

In Berry’s social world, the profoundest prejudice is not racial, but urban. It’s urban people treating the country (people of the land both black and white) as inferior. For him, the Civil War was a war against the patriots who defended their country, and the nationalists who invaded it.

During the war, the immediate issue for both sides was the war itself: the invasion of the South by the North, Not freedom versus slavery, but a nationalist offensive versus the defense of a homeland by people who, with some justice, thought of themselves as patriots. After the war the salient political issue was that of racial equality. That was the aim of reconstruction, but the conflict then was between occupation and resistance or subversion (264)

Berry doesn’t appear to adopt the ideology of the Lost Cause, but he does seem to miss the point that by the end of the war, the war had become a fight for freedom for Black people. 36% of the Union forces were African American.

On the other hand, I think Berry encourages us to acknowledge the significance of the North’s invasion of the homeland of Southerners, many of whom were not owners of enslaved people. The destruction of Southern lands and Western lands during the “Indian Wars,” adds weight to Berry’s claim that we are a nation without a country.

Could it be that “the country” is not only in Kentucky or Nebraska? Could it also exist in urban areas? One of the terms that Berry employs in opposition to the country is the “public.” He sees the “public” as alienated from our the land and its people.

It [the public] is nobody's home, and its gatekeepers are not filled with the spirit of welcome and hospitality. The freedom it offers is in fact the freedom of the richest and most powerful to reign and the freedom of the less rich and powerful to succeed as “human resources,” perhaps highly paid, perhaps not—and, like all “resources” under industrial rule, to be used, used up, and discarded (136).

There doesn’t seem to be any “country” in Berry’s public realm, but there is also no mention of public parks, libraries, museums, schools, board walks, ice rinks, movie houses, art centers, public holidays and celebrations, street parties, music festivals, theaters, sports, community centers, hospitals, research centers, volunteer centers, nor any mention of playgrounds, dog parks, or circuses, nor demonstrations, boycotts, and sit-ins (Not much reason for a demonstration in Port Royal, Kentucky).

Public life also includes the civic realm and civic participation in shaping the urban environment. It’s a place, in fact, where we could develop policies that would move us toward a climate of justice.


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