In the book (and eponymous essay) Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays Wendell Barry writes an final impassioned essay pushing the importance of community. Mr Barry notes the inability of public discourse to deal with sex and other issues is due to the failure of community. Writing:

Once it [a society or culture] has shrugged off the interests and claims of the community, the public language of sexuality comes directly under the influence of private lust, ambition, and greed and becomes inadequate to deal with the real issues and problems of sexuality. The public dialogue degenerates into a stupefying and useless contest between so-called liberation and so-called morality. The real issues and problems, as they are experienced and suffered in people’s lives, cannot be talked about. The public language can deal, however awkwardly and perhaps uselessly, with pornography, sexual harassment, rape, and so on. But it cannot talk about respect, responsibility, sexual discipline, fidelity, or the practice of love. “Sexual education” carried on in this public language, is and can only be, a dispirited description of the working of a sort of anatomical machinery — and this is a sexuality that is neither erotic nor social nor sacramental but rather a cold-blooded, abstract procedure which is finally not even imaginable.


The public discussion of sexual issues has thus degenerated into a poor attempt to equivocate between private lusts and public emergencies. Nowhere in public life (that is, in the public life that counts: the discussions of political and corporate leaders) is there an attempt to respond to community needs in the language of community interest.

Bertrand de Jouvenel as summarized in Mahoney’s little book Bertrand De Jouvenel: Conservative Liberal & Illusions Of Modernity (Library of Modern Thinkers) also notes that the discourse between liberal and conservative is an intramural struggle between two parties which share a largely common set of (erroneous) assumptions. Modern political discussion is straight-jacketed by the Hobbesian/Lockean assumptions which are largely fraught with error, yet remain dominant. For example, Locke proposes notions of natural rights to protect from the obvious dictatorship of Hobbes social contracts ability to subsume any and all parts of the private into the public realm. Rousseau, critiqued this by noting that the notion of rights does not in any way hinder the government from taking. Observe the last weeks dialogs on the banking crises. Nowhere in the discussions do we find asked if it is the “right” of government to decide whether the proposed takings (the $700 billion) was right. So often there is talk about the barriers between politics and religion. Barriers between the partisan political and the financial seem, if anything, more important. But no fundamentals needed discussion here. The assumption is, that whatever is needed, can be extracted by fiat by those in the beltway.

I have on a number of occasions argued for pushing our political members to assign powers and responsibilities to the local level. There are many good reasons for this. Above, Mr Berry notes eloquently yet another of them. Community in this country is dying. In part this is due to the very low price of energy in our petroleum driven economy. High mobility and ease of travel makes anonymity and disconnect from our neighbor easy and in part natural. This may be a temporary adjustment as it may be likely that in a half-century the petroleum engine driving the modern 20th and 21st century economy may in fact wind down. Mr Berry points as well to other structural elements in our society that keep our alienation from community intact. Mr Jouvenel also isolates and notes the peculiar yearnings that citizen of Babylon (as he terms our multifarious multicultural society) possess. For the citizen of Babylon is a repellent and attractive nature to the smaller more unified societies of old. The unity that a small society could have is at the same time exciting in that it is a thing one can strongly believe in, can join, and participate fully … but at the same time that giving up of self to one particular thing is repellent.

My suggestion to this is strengthening of the small community by giving it responsibility and authority. Babylon might perhaps co-exist with a multiplicity of small cohesive micro-societies joining together in a larger whole.

Filed under: GovernmentMark O.You Cry Out

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