Cross-posted from the Chronicle of Higher Education.
In a time when we’ve seen global economic crisis, societal unrest, and ecological deterioration, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) could not have picked a more potent speaker than Wendell Berry for this year's Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. In his remarks in Washington, D.C., on Monday, the essayist, novelist, and poet -- a Kentuckian long known for his advocacy for family farming, community relationships, and sustainability -- delivered a characteristically eloquent yet scathing critique of the industrial economy and its toll on humanity.
"The two great aims of industrialism -- replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth into the hands of a small plutocracy -- seem close to fulfillment," Berry told the crowd at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. "At the same time, the failures of industrialism have become too great and too dangerous to deny. Corporate industrialism itself has exposed the falsehood that it ever was inevitable or that it ever has given precedence to the common good."
The Jefferson Lecture "is the most prestigious honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities," according to the NEH, which sponsors it every year.
Before the speech, Berry wryly commended the NEH's courage in inviting him without first reading his remarks. At the end of the event, NEH Chair Jim Leach humorously added: "The views of the speaker do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States government."
Berry's reputation and strident prose must have promised fireworks: An official with the NEH said that Berry's lecture was sold out three days after it was announced (although some seats were unclaimed on a cold, rainy night in Washington). Samuel Alito, the conservative Supreme Court justice, was rumored to be there.