Motels and Filling Stations

Rural and small town America is nearly dead. A distinctive culture rooted in family farms, weakening since 1900 and seriously diseased since 1960, emerged from the 1980's in a terminal state. In Iowa alone, the last ten years saw a net out-migration of 280,000 people, a full tenth of the state's population, with most of the loss concentrated in the countryside and in hamlets of under one thousand souls. As a rural minister recently told the Wall Street Journal, "These towns are bleeding people." Deaths now outnumber births in many Iowa counties. As another commentator remarked, "People who grew up with families and neighbors suddenly don't have either."

Amidst this accelerating collapse of the agrarian order, the most consistent voice of protest and warning has been that of Kentucky farmer and poet Wendell Berry. With good reason, his most recent collection of essays. What Are People For?, conveys mainly pessimism, even despair.

Berry remains a maddening figure for ideologues, both right and left. Conservatives have fumed over his lack of respect for industrial capitalism, and his new volume offers no recantations. Americans live "by the tithes of history's most destructive economy," he says. The author labels the economic ideal of competition as false, silly, and "destructive both of nature and of human nature." He despises "agribusiness"...

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