Earl Butz v. Wendell Berry debate transcript

Thanks to the generosity of Mark Musick, here is a link to a transcript of the debate (audio here) between former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz and Wendell Berry. It occured on November 13, 1977 at Manchester College in North Manchester, Indiana. Originally published in the Spring, 1978 edition of The CoEvolution Quarterly, the text here was re-printed in News that Stayed News: Ten Years of CoEvolution Quarterly, published in 1986. Download Earl Butz v. Wendell Berry - 11-13-77

BUTZ: I asked Dr. Berry this evening how big a farm he had, and he said fifty acres. I said, "Do you farm with horses?" He said, "Yes." But you see, Dr. Berry can do that because he has a substantial income as a poet, as a writer, as a professor at the University of Kentucky. He can afford to pay the electric bill—he doesn't have to have kerosene lights. He can afford to have an automobile—he doesn't have to drive a horse and buggy. He can afford to do those things because he takes outside income. Let's never forget that. That's true of many writers who write about such things as he does.

People say, "Butz, you're not for the family farmer." Of course I am. I'm for the family farm to make a decent living for the farm family. I don't want that family to starve to death slowly. I want that family to be able to enjoy some of the amenities of life-a color TV set, electric lights, indoor toilets. I want them to be able to afford an automobile and a vacation trip once in a while.


BERRY: Well, since Mr. Butz referred to my life, which is something I didn't intend to do, I may as well tell you about it. I know a little bit more about it than Mr. Butz. I am a school teacher and a writer. I've written a lot of books, which haven't exactly sold like hot-cakes. I may have made a year's salary out of it by now—not a large year's salary. I turned away from the main line of a teaching career. I was living in New York City, and I got a chance to come home and teach in the University of Kentucky. And then I went all the way home, to Henry County where my family, seven generations of my family, have lived and now live—not on the farm I live on, but on the next farm.

I just had twelve acres for a while, most of it steep, and I could hardly have called myself a farmer then. But a developer bought the forty acres next to me and was going to cover it up with little cottages, without any plumbing or sewage. He did some rather bad bulldozer work on it and made a hideous mess of it and failed. Then I bought him out, and I've spent the last four years restoring that forty acres. It has been expensive. The land could never have paid for the operation. I paid for it out of my salary. It's productive land now—steep; by modern standards, marginal. It's producing enough cattle now to pay the taxes, and we're taking our subsistence from it. I should say that subsistence taken off that little farm makes our domestic economy extremely sound. I've done the work with horses.

I've done it because I like horses, and because driving horses, I'm independent of the oil companies. I like that. Also, having horses makes economic sense. A good broke team of young mares now brings from two thousand to ten thousand dollars without any trouble at all. So I don't want any of you all to worry about me, because I farm with horses.

I was wondering how my neighbors were thinking about it until one stopped—an old man—and told me how proud he was of me, and until another stopped just the other day, a young man, and asked me if I could find him a team. He said that he thought he'd cultivate his crops with them and do—one—a better job, and—two—a cheaper job than he could with his tractor. He's right on both counts.

It goes on: Wendell Berry, Wife, and Typing

This article is a bit of a hand grenade, but it's worth understanding that the argument is still a thing.

While thinking about the problem of the Unfinished Revolution recently, I was reminded of this essay, "Feminism, The Body, and The Machine,” by foolish liberals’ favorite reactionary, Wendell Berry.  Berry wrote an essay, published in Harper’s Magazine, defending his refusal to buy a computer.  He mentioned in passing that he wrote his manuscripts in pencil and had his wife type the fair copy for publication on a manual typewriter.  When confronted with some blowback for making his wife do shit work while he did the fun part of writing, he wrote the linked response.  In the most petulant manner possible, Berry sniffs that his critics judged him unfairly, but he never provides any real evidence demonstrating that his wife was not exploited by their relationship.  

Berry wrote one specific line in the linked piece that demonstrates better than anything else why feminism is stalled and in retreat.  He claims, in the middle of his Peak Privileged White Dude Whine, “I understand that one cannot construct an adequate public defense of a private life.”  This is immediately and effectively contradicted by his own statement that his critics fail to consider a number of other possibilities: “that my wife may do this work because she wants to and likes to; that she may find some use and some meaning in it; that she may not work for nothing.”  He obviously knows that some facts could blunt his critics and yet provides no evidence of any of those things.  Since he mentions that his wife might find some “use and meaning” in doing his shit work, I think it’s worth examining how he describes their respective tasks. 

Read all of "The Unfinished Revolution" by Karen Cox at Daily Kos.

Our Home Place Meat from The Berry Center

NEW CASTLE — For more than a century Henry County relied on tobacco to keep its farmers and its economy going.

For most of the second half of the 20th century a federal program stabilized the price of tobacco, guaranteeing those farmers a steady, predictable income. That all changed in the new century after Congress ended tobacco price supports.

Just as all that change was underway, Mary Berry, the daughter of Henry County’s renowned author, activist, farmer and environmentalist Wendell Berry, founded The Berry Center to carry on his vision of “prosperous well-tended farms serving and supporting healthy local communities.”

Thinking about how to help farmers prosper, they began with the mantra, “start with what you have.” With tobacco gone, what Henry County had was cattle and pasture.

No state east of the Mississippi River produces more cattle than Kentucky.

Read all of "Happy Cows, good food, more profits for farmers" by Jacalyn Carfagno at Kentucky Lantern.

On Wendell Berry's economic writings

What would a fair and just economy look like? This isn’t a new question. It isn’t even new since the Great Recession, when reckless speculation proved much American economics was founded on air. People of wisdom and learning have asked that question since at least Adam Smith and Karl Marx, and come no closer to an answer that satisfies everyone. Poet and farmer Wendell Berry suggests we’ve been looking in the wrong direction.

Berry, who has worked the same stretch of Kentucky highland his entire life, grounds his economy in judicious management of resources; and for him, the foremost resource is land. His use of “land” broadly encompasses water and air, forests and pastures, which humans must manage, not merely use. Humans arise from land, and humans create money; any economy that places money first inverts, and thus destroys, the natural order.

America, and the world generally, has fallen under sway of “autistic industrialism,” in Berry’s words, a laser-focused belief that man-made technologies will solve everything. This finds its apotheosis in a financial services industry that sees its dollar-sign output as superior to whatever it places a price on. And it works exclusively through creating ever increasing demands: Berry writes, “Finance, as opposed to economy, is always ready and eager to confuse wants and needs.”

Read all of "Building an Economy From the Soil Up" by Kevin L. Nenstiel at hs blog, WordBasket.

An excerpt from Wendell Berry's upcoming book

I recommend second thoughts about the possibility of a “side” of love, but current political rhetoric tends toward such an absolute division. The side of hate is composed of avowed racists; avowed racists have espoused an absolute, un-excepting prejudice against a kind of people; and so they may be called “the side of hate” rightly enough. That haters hate is morally as straightforward and uncomplicated as it can be. But they themselves are perceived by the side of love as a kind of people. And the side of love, as perceived by the side of hate, is a kind of people also, another kind. And so we have a confrontation of two opposite kinds of people, lovers and haters, each side as absolute in its identity as it can make itself, and they do not know each other. They cannot imagine each other. For the haters, this situation is wonderfully simple and entirely acceptable. They don’t need even a notion of consequence. They are there to oppose. That is all. The lovers, on the contrary, have everything at stake and the situation is clouded by moral danger.

Read all of "Can Love Take Sides?" by Wendell Berry at Plough.

Wendell Berry speaks against development plans

Berry rued the placement of a large industrial operation "right in the middle of one of our finest agricultural landscapes," and Wayne went so far as to call Angel's Envy a "colonizer."

"This is a very sacred place that God made – it's called Henry County," he said.

Despite the opposition, the commission nonetheless approved the industrial rezoning of the property and the conditional use permit for the agritourism destination. in  The commission added binding elements to the development plans prior to approval that included certification of data and charts provided by Angel's Envy that concerned naturally occurring flora and ethanol concentrations related to generation of whiskey mold.

Read all of "Planning commission recommends Angel's Envy rezoning, Bourbon Trail development" by Robb Hoff in Henry County Local (12 August 2022).

Wendell Berry, NFTs, and "an anti-economy"

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While blockchain holds unfulfilled potential and some NFTs do possess aesthetic value, their rapid ascendance reveals disturbing truths about our economy. One especially ironic NFT helps uncover the NFT craze’s downsides. Strangely, a user named “Wildsheep” is selling a pixelated portrait of Wendell Berry as an NFT, which nobody has yet bid on. Front Porch Republic readers will appreciate the irony of speculating on a virtual image of Wendell Berry, who refuses to buy a computer or smartphone and instead insists on writing by pencil. What then might the great Kentucky agrarian say about NFTs? While Berry doesn’t discuss NFTs explicitly, answers to this question can be found in What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth, a 2010 collection of Berry’s economic writings.

Primarily, Wendell Berry assails the very speculative economy that NFTs represent and entrench. An economy based around reckless gambling on digital images cannot support community or respect limits, two central themes of Berry’s work. While ostensibly promising decentralization, NFTs instead further a hyper-financialized economy built on falsehoods and abstractions, one that Berry labels in “Money Versus Goods” an “anti-economy” or “a financial system without a sound economic basis and without economic virtues.” He further lambastes how this economy produces goods that are destructive, fraudulent, unnecessary, useless, or any combination of the four.

Read all of "The Irony of a Wendell Berry NFT" by Andrew Figueiredo at Front Porch Republic.

Thinking About Wendell Berry's "Think Little"

In 1969 the agrarian writer, poet, and Kentuckian, Wendell Berry, published Think Little, a short essay dealing primarily with environmentalism and the principle of subsidiarity. I found it to be a well written and compelling piece. While it is brief, Berry’s essay contains striking observations that continue to be relevant in our own day.

As I began reading it, my immediate thought was how little has changed. This short essay could easily have been written yesterday. “First there was Civil Rights, and then there was the War, and now it is the Environment. The first two of this sequence of causes have already risen to the top of the nation’s consciousness and declined somewhat in a remarkably short time.” While the Civil Rights Movement itself has passed, the issue of race has again come to the forefront of the national and global stage. In 2020 the Black Lives Matter and George Floyd protests and riots dominated headlines, while in 2021 Critical Race Theory surfaced as a major point of contention. Then, though Berry speaks of Vietnam, one could easily replace that with the war in Afghanistan or even just the broader War on Terror. As for the Environment, there has hardly been a more prevalent and constant issue than Climate Change. The push for expanding renewable energy sources, building more electric cars, changing people’s diets, and reducing carbon emissions has been in the national and global discourse for decades now. Yet, as Berry points out, both Civil Rights (race) and the War (of your choice) have been short-lived in their prominence in the public sphere. This is not to say that racial issues have disappeared necessarily, but neither the protests of 2020 nor Critical Race Theory have actually lasted very long in terms of how important they are perceived as being and how much they dominate the political sphere. The protests came and went, and the Critical Race Theory debate has mostly given way to debates surrounding COVID-19 regulations and mandates (at least for now). Afghanistan is a similar story. While it took over headlines for a month or two, it has practically disappeared from the news and from public discourse. I doubt many people are actively thinking about our withdrawal and defeat at all, and likely will not remember it until it appears in midterm election advertisements.

Read all of "Wendell Berry’s “Think Little” Remains Relevant Today" by John Thomas at The New Utopian,.

Revisiting Wendell Berry's "Racism and the Economy" (1988)

In his 1988 essay, “Racism and the Economy,” Wendell Berry addresses these questions [of racial/economic inequality] directly with a clarity probably beyond the reach of the shared metropolitanism of Baldwin and Buckley. He begins by diagnosing the “contagion” of racism as a form of hubris or pride: “The root is in our inordinate desire to be superior – not to some inferior or subject people, though this desire leads to the subjection of people – but to our condition. We wish to rise above the sweat and bother of taking care of anything – of ourselves, of each other, or of our country” (47). This allows Berry to set racism against people of colour in the wider context of the exploitation of cheap labour. In essence, he agrees with Baldwin that the American Dream has been too often built through the sweat of others.

One of the ways we manifest this desire for superiority is in a hierarchy of labour. Many Americans enslaved Africans to do the kind of work they refused to do themselves, “what used to be known as ‘nigger work’—work that is fundamental and inescapable” (48). Berry argues that this impulse to force others to undertake menial work infects even those who push for greater racial equality and hence taints such aspirations. Berry writes,

The “success” of the black corporate executive, in fact, only reveals the shallowness, the jeopardy, and the falseness of the “success” of the white corporate executive…. It only assumes that American blacks will be made better or more useful or more secure by becoming as greedy, selfish, wasteful, and thoughtless as affluent American whites. The aims and standards of the oppressors become the aims and standards of the oppressed, and so our ills and evils survive our successive “liberations.” (49)

In short, the socio-economic order created by European expansionism and racism not only tilts systems and structures against people of colour, it also defines the goals towards which they strive. Though Berry does not explicitly make this connection, fundamentally western economies – and especially corporations – define the beata vita, the happy life, for everyone.

Read all of "Baldwin. Buckley, and Berry on Racism and the World Order" by Mark Clavier at Front Porch Republic.