Christopher Roberts, amplifying in a blog post on his fine article on Wendell Berry’s reversal on same-sex marriage, quotes Berry as saying of contemporary Americans that “we are talking about a populace in which nearly everybody is needy, greedy, envious, angry and alone.” This, of course, is an empirical claim, and there is, to be blunt, practically no empirical evidence to support it. On the contrary, social scientists who study these matters empirically (there is now a subdiscipline of economics called “happiness studies”) generally find that a large majority of Americans (and people in other countries too, in fact) are very happy or pretty happy on a daily basis. See the speeches by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke discussing the literature here and here.
Now, when people make broad empirical generalizations, especially about other people, and do so without considering any actual empirical evidence, they usually tell us more about themselves than about the people they are putatively describing. They unwittingly reveal their own subjective impressions of things and thus their own emotional states. What we learn from Berry’s remark, therefore, is that he must be a rather dour fellow. Ironically, he thinks everyone else is unhappy, but pretty much it’s just him.
Christopher Roberts says repeatedly that we ought not dismiss Berry, but, in my view, that’s exactly what we should do. Social criticism has to begin with getting the facts right. If it doesn’t, it’s generally a self-indulgent waste of time.
That’s not say, of course, that such unmoored speculations never produce any benefits at all. In this case, for example, Berry’s rumination gave me some wry amusement, increasing the overall level of happiness among Americans and thus making him even more wrong than he was before. Unintended consequences are sometimes happy ones.