Wendell Berry: What New York Times Columnist Paul Krugman Gets Wrong About Rural America

‘Those of us who speak for the country (“rural America”) must never give up’

Wendell Berry March 21, 2024

I have been asked by Barn Raiser to respond to Paul Krugman’s New York Times column for February 27, 2024, “The Mystery of White Rural Rage.” In 2017, 2018 and 2019, Mr. Krugman, upset like others by the election of former President Donald Trump with the support of a lot of rural voters, wrote several columns on the economic decline of rural America. I responded to four of those columns in my book The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice.

And now, with the candidacy of Mr. Trump looming again upon the horizon, Mr. Krugman returns to the subject of rural America, inspired by a book entitled White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy. In the five years since 2019, rural America has remained pretty much the same. So has Mr. Krugman, and so has his judgment of rural America. I know that to reply to Mr. Krugman’s repetition of his opinion with a repetition of my objection is probably a waste of time. And yet I know that Mr. Krugman, at least on the subject of rural America, speaks for urban America. And I know that those of us who speak for the country (“rural America”) must never give up. This time I am going to reply by taking Mr. Krugman to be a representative urban American and by noticing how, in his column for February 27, he characterizes himself and those he speaks for:

1. It is obvious, to begin with, that they are not rural Americans, and they believe that rural Americans are nothing like themselves. So far as they can see, they have no stake in the fate or future of rural America.

2. They believe that the difference between urban America and rural America is really a division clean and clear. They think that the only advantages in rural America are “Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and more… financed from taxes paid by affluent urban areas.” If it were not for the law of gravity, urban America could secede from rural America by rising into the air and floating away.

3. They believe that technological progress is an absolute law, beyond question or alteration, like the law of gravity. If it causes pain for some, if it is devastating for others, if it “undermines… whole communities,” they take notice, they are even sympathetic in their fashion, but such things are, as they will tell you, “inevitable.” There is nothing they can do about it.

4. They believe that “about two-thirds” of “the agricultural work force” could be, and has been, without significant costs to land or people, displaced by “machinery, improved seeds, fertilizers and pesticides.” They give “thanks to” this technological progress even though, among its other faults, it pollutes with vast tonnages of toxic chemicals the streams, lakes and rivers that supply drinking water to cities.

5. They notice that “thanks partly to technologies like mountaintop removal, coal mining as a way of life largely disappeared long ago.” They are not likely ever to have seen mountaintop removal, for rural America is not really visible from the air or the interstate highways. But rural and urban Americans who have seen this mountain-destroying technology at work—if they respect nature and have the use of their minds—regard it as heartbreaking and a kind of blasphemy. They see that such destruction is not enabled by technological progress alone. Also required is a progressive hardening of the human heart.

6. They are doctrinaire materialists, to whom nothing matters but matter. They see the reluctance of “many workers … to leave their families and communities,” not as a potential of sanity and moral health, but as an obstruction to progress. To them the human economy rests upon the use of material things that are either not living or treated as if they are dead. They assume, therefore, that they are free to disregard the natural and human life of the earth. They are thus made free, in their ignorance, to disregard the necessary involvement of human love in human work. I am speaking now of practical and practiced love. One of our words for this sort of love is “husbandry,” which is related to the verb “to husband,” meaning to conserve, to care for, to use lovingly the things of this world that we must use.

“[R]ural and urban Americans who have seen this mountain-destroying technology at work—if they respect nature and have the use of their minds—regard it as heartbreaking and a kind of blasphemy,” writes Wendell Berry.

And so it is not surprising that Mr. Krugman ends his column with a confession of perfect despair: “[T]he truth is that while white rural rage is arguably the single greatest threat facing American democracy, I have no good ideas about how to fight it.” This despair comes from an impoverishment of heart and mind. A person who has no idea of goodness can have no good ideas. If one cannot imagine dealing with rural rage except by fighting it, one is already too late.

Let us suppose, instead, that Mr. Krugman is serious in his wish to have good ideas about rural America. Would he then not try to learn in some detail the history of rural America since, let us say, 1945? And would he not try to learn in some detail the condition of rural America—the country, the land, the people—as a result of that history? Would he not try to speak with actual rural Americans, people who live in and care for and know about their rural homelands?

Well, I for one am ready to receive him as a guest, to show him around and to talk at length. I know others as ready as I am.

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry, poet, essayist and novelist, tends a farm with his wife Tanya near Port Royal, Kentucky. In 1958, he was awarded the Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University's creative writing program, where he studied under Stegner in a seminar that included Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, Ernest Gaines, Tillie Olsen and Ken Kesey. His first novel, Nathan Coulter, was published in 1960. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture is his best known work of nonfiction.

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