Saturday 2 May 2020

The Most Vulnerable Person in the Situation*

Nothing so lovely as a tree.
Yesterday was partially healthy, partially not. At lunchtime I went outside for half an hour and tended to my plants. I hoed up weeds between the concrete paving stones that form the paths. Most importantly, I met our downstairs neighbour's southern neighbour. (I mean that the latter's flat is to the south side of the former's.)

My current goal is to somehow learn the names of everyone in our eight-flat terrace building. This is not the easiest thing to achieve, even in relatively gregarious Scotland, because many people like to "keep themselves to themselves." 

However, I was soon back inside working on an investigative article that will cause a sensation and, no doubt, unhappiness to some now but will, hopefully, bring increased happiness to all later. Research during the lockdown is difficult and frustrating, and searching for turds in the sewage is a dirty and depressing job. However, it is also as absorbing as a puzzle, so I was still poking around in odd corners of the internet until midnight. My stinky task was interrupted briefly by supper and a film. In the film evil triumphed over good, and then was itself defeated by a worse evil, which the viewer was supposed to think of as good. 

No wonder, then, that I went to bed sad, and my dreams were haunted by my work. When I woke up, I didn't want to get up, and when I got up, I didn't want to wash the dishes. Fortunately, I had enough discipline to put on my shoes and go out to visit the apple blossoms and my plants. This improved my day greatly, and then B.A. kindly did the dishes, so that improved it even more. I made my coffee and sat down with Wendell Berry, who discussed "Peaceableness Towards Enemies." This was a long essay, and I had many thoughts, so I had to trot out discipline again to resist opening my laptop before reading another chapter of Baltic out loud. 

Beside me B.A. patiently made no complaint as I made weird noises for ten minutes. I once sat on a bus behind chatty and exciting Poles (I think--I hadn't heard Polish spoken in decades) the entire distance between London and Edinburgh without the slightest idea what they were saying, and it was punishment for my sins. But when I got off the bus, I met B.A. in person for the first time, so it was worth it. 

In "Peaceableness Towards Enemies," Berry blasts the 1991 Gulf War, which I remember for two things. The first thing, which I remembered just now, was my horror of seeing the 1991 bombing of Baghdad on TV presented by newscasters as if it were something fun and exciting. The second thing, which I remembered first, was a photograph of charred Iraqi bodies in tanks in the desert. It was clear, from the rhetoric and photos of the time, that Saddam Hussein's forces had not the ghost of a chance against American military might, U-S-A, U-S-A.  

This leads to the horrible, but in hindsight inevitable, thought: box-cutters. 

But Berry wrote his essay in 1991, so he didn't know about 9/11, although he was prophetic about other things. Look at this, for example, as we sit under virtual house arrest:"War always encourages a patriotism that means not love of country but unquestioning obedience to power." 

I have, by the way, witnessed some lack of social distancing in my neighbourhood, and I would literally rather go to jail than call the police to tell them. One of the horrible things this and other countries have witnessed is the eagerness of people to call the police on their neighbours for not always following these arbitrary rules. It's not always a Parisian falsely accusing a priest of celebrating "clandestine Masses" ("clandestine"--in France!), but it's always despicable. 

The phrase "new world order" turns up early in "Peaceableness Towards Enemy", as does Berry's protest against globalism. This messes with my categories, as I connect yelling "No blood for oil" with the Left and worries about the "new world order" -- to say nothing of opposition to globalism -- with the Right. Possibly one reason why people like Berry so much is that he blows up these outworn (and originally from the French Assembly) categories. 

I have many complaints about how the "Left" makes natives of a place feel dispossessed by telling them that they don't really belong there, or at least not any more than the person who arrived yesterday, but this would be outside the limits of Berry's essay. I would like to point out, however, as I am setting aside the concepts of "Right" and "Left" for the those of "Powerful" and "Powerless" that one way the "Powerful" have demoralized and distracted the "Powerless" is by setting large numbers of [also Powerless] strangers suddenly in their midst, e.g. the resettlement of Protestant Scots in Catholic Northern Ireland.  The British were not alone at doing this: at one point Portugal ensured that Macau was policed by Angolans. 

(My worldview is still very much determined by a workday afternoon encounter between me, a burly Polish shopkeeper, and a drunk young Scot who had just told us to speak English. Who was the most vulnerable person in that situation? I because I'm female and foreign? The Pole because he was  foreign and English was his second language? The Scot because he was drunk and, I'm relatively sure, the victim of the forces of post-industrial British history?**)

Back to Berry, but only briefly, because B.A. and I are walking to a farm shop while the sun is out and the wind is down. Berry's description of American poverty, which is cultural and social as well as financial, is very important and what both Mother Teresa and St. John Paul II were trying to get across to people eager to make themselves less themselves and more American.  

But here are the points he wants to get across about war and peace:

1. "We have destroyed the capacity of war to improve anything."
2. Peaceability is "a proven possibility."
3. We should establish a "peace academy" with "the same prestige and standing as the military academies have."
4. "We must learn to prefer quality over quantity, service over profit, neighbourliness over competition, people and other creatures over machines, health over wealth, a democratic prosperity over centralised wealth and power, economic health over 'economic growth'."

Somehow those thoughts are so much more attractive when Wendell Berry says them than when red-faced, gasping Greta does when having a meltdown. Poor girl. 

*The question that was banged into our M.Div. student heads during "Introduction to Christian Ethics" was "Who is the most vulnerable person in this situation?" Everything at my theology school was taught with a big dollop of Lonerganian critical realism, so this was something that had to be deeply considered, not just answered with slogans. The answer could be surprising. In one situation the priest-professor suggested, the answer was the dead person. 

**One of the sadder things about the Scot is that what he said was "You're in Scotland, speak English" in English, not Scots. I could go on at great startling length, but instead I'm going to have a shower, put on clean if worn clothing and go for a walk to the nearest farm shop to spend over my comfort level on eggs. 



  1. Blogger just ate a long comment, but here's a shorter one. I've lurked since your Seraphic days but I'm especially enjoying your thoughts on professor Berry. Thank you again.

    Kathy Johnson

  2. I love the tree and your description of all the little daily life things you are getting up to in between working and writing.
    Wishing you a happy month with Mary.