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Book Review: "Crunchy Cons"

Book Review: "Crunchy Cons"

7 Mins
March 21, 2011

March 2007 -- Rod Dreher, Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party) (New York: Crown Forum, 2006). 272 pp., $24.00.

CCHBBGLOGEFRFHHMRWNLATDTOCCPTSAOALTRP is an extended moan against individualism, technology, the “cult of efficiency,” the free market, artificial birth control, and just about everything else that has supposedly “alienated” us from that wonderful agrarian era when large families flourished but many infants didn’t.

“Crunchy Con” is Rod Dreher’s cutesy label for a conservatism that’s traditional, religious, and rural—one that overlaps comfortably with the granola-grounded lifestyles of the countercultural left. “Now is the time for a fresh conservatism,” Dreher declares. His idea of fresh? He certainly can’t mean “new,” since point #8 in his “Crunchy Con Manifesto” is: “Small and Local and Old and Particular are to be preferred over Big and Global and New and Abstract” (emphasis added). But his notion of “fresh” does include stale, long-winded laments over consumerism…cultural doom scenarios… environmentalist fear-mongering…distortions of the free-market system…sermons about the “depredations of big business” and about Republicans being “the Party of Greed.”

Where have we heard all this before? Apart from the conceit of bestowing the label “conservative” on such shopworn left-liberal positions, Dreher has added nothing “fresh.” Nor does he ever bother to address the substantial criticisms and evidence that have aged these notions so gracelessly.

To pad this lightweight drivel, Dreher shares sentimental tales from ordinary folks living la vida local.

His excuse for this omission is that “[t]his is not a book of sociology, much less of political theory or any sort of maximum heaviosity.” For sure. It is, instead, “a collection of stories about my family and conservatives like us, exploring how we integrate our political and religious beliefs with a lifestyle that’s doubly countercultural”—a book inspired by the heartening response that he got to the short National Review essay in which he introduced the “crunchy con” idea.

Indeed, this hippie-era hand-me-down received the official imprimatur of placement in conservatism’s seminal journal. The magazine even hosted a blog about the book on its NRO website. To be fair, a number of prominent conservatives, such as NR’s Jonah Goldberg, did attack major aspects of Dreher’s thesis. But why bother to give it such a platform in the first place? And why so positive reception to it from some conservatives? Could it be that Dreher’s ideas are resonating with certain values deeply embedded within conservatism?

To begin with, Dreher’s selection-process for quotations is nothing if not egalitarian. Traditionalist icons Russell Kirk and Edmund Burke appear a few times at their most banal, while E. F. “Small Is Beautiful” Schumacher is quoted extensively enough to deserve co-authorship. Also reproduced throughout are the rustic ruminations of agrarian environmentalist Wendell Berry, who prophesies doom like there’s no tomorrow. Berry is described as a “farmer and poet,” but since nothing remotely poetic is attributed to the man, Dreher must have quoted from his farming.

To pad this lightweight drivel, Dreher shares sentimental tales from ordinary folks living la vida local. Thanking the readers who wrote to him, he wishes “I could’ve given every one of you a voice in these pages.” And hardly a few paragraphs go by without his wife butting in for pages on end. (“She looked up from her book” on page 129, and didn’t look back down until page 137.)

Yes, this book truly is a community effort—a fact which combines with the author’s rabid anti-individualism to provide the only internal consistency within its pages. Ibsen wrote that “the strongest man in the world is he who stands alone.” Dreher can’t even sit alone to write.

Dreher says he is “not an economist,” but it would be a cruel world that let him get away with such a modest understatement, as he gives new meaning to the phrase “not an economist.” “The free market extolled by conservatives as the holy of holies is destroying communities, and turning us all into slaves of the economy,” he laments. Will people ever learn “the economy must be made to serve humanity’s interests, not the other way around”? Out of fairness, Dreher does denounce Karl Marx as being a thinker of a very low order, right down there with…Adam Smith. They are “two sides of the same coin: they define man as primarily economic man.”

The clichés keep coming, thick and fast. Republicans believe “the free market should be the guiding light of our lives together.” Railing against the Texas GOP for making cuts to a local medical-welfare program, Dreher notices how “[t]heir willingness to see families…suffer rather than raise taxes even the tiniest bit…showed where their values really were.” He is “appalled” to learn that “for quite a few of my fellow Republicans, almost nothing matters more than keeping taxes low.”

The author’s rabid anti-individualism provides the only internal consistency.

Dreher’s fundamental problem with capitalism is how it is “empowering individuals and encouraging—even mandating—individualism.” Republicans unfortunately “view the individual as sovereign, and freedom of individual choice as the highest good,” which results in “the radical individualism that is balkanizing America.” “Consumerism fetishizes individual choice….Its idea of liberty involves the steady increase of the individual’s sovereignty (the choice thing again).” Such individualism, our Founders notwithstanding, is a very bad thing.No matter what else, “unless you die to yourself—meaning submit to an authority greater than yourself—it will come to nothing.”

Even the more thoughtful liberals understand the free market better than Dreher does. Few of them would simultaneously decry corporate welfare, influence-buying, and regulatory favoritism—as Dreher does when he explains how such collusion can crush an upstart small farmer—and insist that we have a laissez-faire economy, as he also does. Even most leftists would find tired and tiring his formulaic references to “soulless corporations” that are “destroying the world,” his maudlin declarations that “Industrialism destroyed a wonderfully integrated way of life,” and his preposterous claims that contemporary America “has ceased to be a credible human habitat.”

Oops—I forgot: this is not supposed to be a work of “maximum heaviosity.” “The solution is surely not to be found in ideology,” Dreher insists early on. Thus does he evade the necessity of providing cogent arguments to attack a philosophically and empirically grounded system of thought. Instead, his preferred style of argument is simply to pose rhetorical questions.

About our current state of life, he asks: “Is that working well for us? Think we can keep this up for much longer? Will it be possible to conserve anything under these conditions?....How long do you think we can keep living as we do, destroying country life, rural traditions, and the countryside to produce mountains of processed food that makes us less healthy, and letting lay fallow the sacred trust we’ve been given by our forbears?....” Not trusting his readers, he answers for them: “I don’t. And you don’t either.”

That settles that.

Dreher supports his belief that the modern way we live “doesn’t seem to be in our genes” by incisive empirical observations, like this one:

To be frank, becoming an amateur home cook is what taught me, as a conservative, to mistrust and at times to loathe American industrial farming. What you do when you go to a farmer’s market, if you are at all observant, is pick up on the direct connection between what you eat, where it came from, and how it got to you. [Seeing this is] to become aware of the radical giftedness of our lives.

Actually, if you are at all observant, you would notice this same connection when you go to Wal-Mart. You would realize the far more fascinating genealogy of an industrial product, and how many more links there are in the chain between its origin and destination. And, if you have a desire for it ,you would “feel in touch” with the world of human creativity and productivity. Dreher obviously hasn’t read Leonard E. Read’s famous essay “I, Pencil,” in which a pencil spends 2,000 captivating words explaining how it came to be. That pencil might have enlightened Dreher about the virtues of the capitalist system that he spends 272 pages denouncing.

But then, he isn’t even aware of his own contradictions. He complains that television “trains us to prize emotion and stimulation over logic and abstract thought. …[W]e learn to judge the world by essentially aesthetic criteria.” Yet his book prizes emotion and aesthetic stimulation over logic and abstract thought, and his “Crunchy Con Manifesto” specifically states that the abstract should be avoided and that the aesthetic is “the key to a good life.” He complains about the “alienation” and insularity of modern life and believes “Hillary Clinton got a bum rap from the right: it really does take a village to raise a child.” Yet he advocates home-schooling. He trumpets a holistic approach to life, yet opposes globalization. He disapproves of big corporations, but loves Whole Foods. His clarion call for the organization of a Luddite Right relies on the internet.

By decrying whatever he dislikes as being materialistic, Dreher doesn’t expose an obsession on the part of society—he simply reveals his own. “We have unwittingly allowed a consumerist mentality to shape the way we think about nearly all aspects of our private and public lives”—writes one who frames everything in material terms and insists on a necessary connection between spirituality and consumption. He even admits as much, saying his “fundamental stance toward reality is sacramental…a sacrament is a physical thing through which holiness is transmitted.” Dreher interprets this to make his spirituality depend upon physical things. He “can’t see how God could be pleased by the way so many of us eat.”

Must it be said? If your spirit can operate only on a certain diet, in a certain house, with a certain scenic view, built under certain codes of urban planning, then you certainly can’t claim that your lifestyle is one that “lives by the Permanent Things.”

Dreher’s real problem is simply that everyone else isn’t living the way he wants them to.

Dreher’s real problem is simply that everyone else isn’t living the way he wants them to. His social solutions—as extreme as overhauling our entire industrial farming system and rewinding the clock hundreds of years—would impose that way of life on the rest of us, like it or not. As far as he’s concerned, the ghastly consequence of allowing consensual behavior is that “Civil Society, the middle-man between the marketed and the marketed-to, is disenfranchised.” Mr. Civil Society is actually Rod Dreher, miffed that the delivery truck is blocking his view of the weeds across the street.

Say what you want about Dreher’s argument, you can’t deny that it’s delivered with pregnant prose: moody, bloated, and unattractive. Senseless turns of phrase, such as “radical giftedness,” pop up everywhere. I never knew that virtues were things one could “become alienated from.” Crunchy Cons, he tells us, “are for agrarian life as a positive,” not to be confused with those evil people who are for it as a negative. Even “crunchy,” as slang for “earthy,” is not corroborated by any known dictionary. Similarly, one of Dreher’s oft-cited mouthpieces criticizes fellow conservatives for being “very Western in our thinking. Greco-Roman-linear-segmented-compartmentalized thinking.” It’s telling that this spokesman needs five words to designate one concept: “rational.”

If you didn’t know Dreher is a religious home-schooler, you would hardly think of him as politically conservative. Sure, he calls the Democrats the “Party of Lust” and denounces public schools. But such comments come off as mere attempts to reassure mainstream conservatives, “See? I eat my Blackford Oates every morning, too!”—efforts made necessary by the transparent nanny-statism of his political recommendations. His chapters on religion and home-schooling actually do little more than affirm his lifestyle and temperament as those of a rugged collectivist.

This book should’ve been a memoir about that personal lifestyle and temperament, without political assertions. Instead, it’s a memoir whose personal style becomes an excuse for failing to rationally defend its political assertions.

In January, Dreher—still protesting that he is a conservative—gave a talk on National Public Radio in which he lamented his failure to learn foreign policy from the “hippies” of the Sixties and pledged to pass their wisdom down to his children. Jonah Goldberg took the occasion to predict that this was the beginning of Dreher’s move to the left. Given the author’s premises, though, explicit affiliation with the left would seem a mere formality.

More significant than Dreher’s intellectual status is the fact that his views—despite their explicit anti-individualism and admitted lack of “heaviosity”—have been seriously entertained and prominently featured in mainstream conservative circles. And that fact reveals far more about the intellectual status of modern conservatism.

Alec Mouhibian
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Alec Mouhibian
Ideas and Ideologies