This semester, as most Fall semesters, I’m auditing a course here at Berry College, Religion 333: Land, Race, Violence and the Bible. I think what I love most about “taking” these courses is the bounty of interdisciplinary, trans-disciplinary understandings and applications of concepts native to a discipline not my own, in this case religion (and as its sister, at least here at Berry, philosophy).
One of our first readings was a selection from Wendell Berry’s “It All Turns on Affection,” and in this reading I found a sideways argument for local journalism. The same alienation that Berry describes in decrying the swallowing up of small(er), family-owned, family-run farmlands by soul-less corporations I argue is a byproduct of the death and dearth of quality local journalism. Swallowed up by soul-less hedge funds and buyout specialists — think Tronc and Comcast — local journalism is being lost, creating alienation, fueling division and, as Berry so eloquently puts it, diminishing our capacity for sympathy.
Berry writes, “By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And in affection we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy” (p. 14).
In journalism, as in farming, people have been replaced by machines, by technology. Wealth and resource has concentrated into the hands of the greedy few and drained out of local communities. Eroded, wasted, degraded lands are the metaphor for eroded, wasted, degraded communities, replaced as they have been by digital tribes hell-bent on scorched earth, fact-free rhetorical demolition of ideological enemies, real and perceived. Our entire informational, journalism-driven ecosystem is at risk. Defaced and defouled, flooded with misinformation, increasingly extinct of precious species of independent, fact-driven journalistic endeavor, this ecosystem is seeing its natural health and its community-centric beauty ravaged and replaced by, in Berry’s description, “heartless and sickening ugliness.”
What’s so surprising, and disturbing, about both scenarios, about both the disappearance of family-controlled legacy lands and organic community journalism, each a metaphor for the other, is that “we the people” formerly known as society know these phenomena and behave as if we aren’t affected by them. Again borrowing from Berry’s evocative exploration of imagination, we’ve lost our “sight,” our vision. Amazon is killing our local retailers. Algorithm-driven “news” is killing our local news organizations. Smartphones are wiping out any vestige of personal privacy, which is to say perhaps the most localized “local” of them all.
Wallace Stevens wrote that, “Imagination applied to the whole world is vapid in comparison to imagination applied to a detail.” To read that “airstrikes have killed thousands of civilians at weddings, funerals, and on school buses, aided by American-supplied bombs and intelligence” in Yemen is vaguely sad. To see a color photo of Amal Hussain, a 7-year-old Yemeni emaciated by malnutrition in a country with plenty of food, and know that by the time you are able to physically see the photo that Amal has died is perhaps the beginning of sympathy.
We have no local commitment. We have no affection, or what Berry describes in calling for its rescue, “informed, practical, and practiced affection.” “Truth, nature, imagination, affection, love, hope, beauty, joy. Those words are hard to keep still within definitions; they make the dictionary hum like a bee-hive,” writes Berry.
Ah, bee-hives. Something else at risk globally, which is to say locally.
Brian Carroll is a professor of communication and department chair at Berry College. This column was first published on his blog at wanderingrocks.wordpress.com.