Monday, June 29, 2015

Crunchy Cons

I recently read Rod Dreher's 2006 book, Crunchy Cons, subtitled [take a deep breath] how Birkenstocked Berkeans, 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).

It's a breezy read, where the author pays a bit too much attention to being witty and not enough to being thorough, yet is worthwhile nonetheless. What do I mean by not thorough? Dreher complains about how mainstream conservatives leave no room in their firmament for his minority brand of politics—environmentally and socially conscious conservatives who do not bow down to the idol of commerce as the highest god—yet turns right around and commits the same error in neglecting to recognize people like me: a thoughtful liberal who has gotten off the consumer horse long before Dreher did and has already been frequenting all the same stops he visits in his cook's tour of the thoughtful conservative: slow food, organic farming, homeschooling, buying local, preserving beauty, emphasizing the primacy of relationships, and buying houses with front porches. Where Dreher believes that only organized religion can provide sufficient moral support to sustain the personal discipline necessary to be a true conservative, I observe, that's not all how I discovered and have maintained a lifestyle that's remarkably similar to the ideal he espouses. And "conservative" is not a label I gravitate toward at all.

Nonetheless, I think it's a valuable contribution to the larger political dialog that tends to be limited to the simplistic, knee-jerk sorting-everyone-into-one-of-two-camps mentality: a) liberal Democrats who are obsessed with sexual freedom, a large governmental safety net, and environmental sanity; or b) conservative Republicans who are staunch defenders of the free market, minimal gun laws, and national defense.
Dreher makes the case—and I agree— that there has to be something better. He articulates what he thinks a thoughtful conservative (as in someone who wants to conserve what's valuable in life) ought to believe in. The term "crunchy" in the book's title comes, as far as I can discern, from his pro-environment stance (conserving the Earth rather than embracing the more common Republican spin that God's creatures and creations are here principally for man to consume, carrying capacities be damned), which is often associated derisively with "crunchy granola types." Besides, it's alliterative (an aesthetic I appreciate).

So here's Dreher's ten point overview (in italics) with my commentary (in Roman). Much of it I like:

A Crunchy Con Manifesto

1. We are conservatives who stand outside the contemporary conservative mainstream. We like it here; the view is better, for we can see things that matter more clearly.

I agree both that Dreher's is a minority viewpoint, and that it's based on taking a longer view than is apparent in most conservatives (who gleeful discount the future by insisting on viewing it through the myopic lens of compound interest).

2. We believe that modern conservatism has become too focused on material conditions, and insufficiently concerned with the character of society. The point of life is not to become a more satisfied shopper.

Amen, brother.

3. We affirm the superiority of the free market as an economic organizing principle, but believe the economy must be made to serve humanity's best interests, not the other way around. Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.

Though I'm not ready to swallow the large frog that Dreher begins with, I like where he croaks with it—everything that follows after the word but. When it comes to embracing the free market system, it is not apparent to me that Dreher has looked deeply enough at how free market capitalism is inimical to environmental sanity—which he says he embraces.

4. We believe that culture is more important than politics, and that neither America's wealth nor our liberties will long survive a culture that no longer lives by what Russell Kirk* identified as "the Permanent Things"—those eternal moral norms necessary to civilized life, and which are taught by all the world's great wisdom traditions.

* [Kirk lived 1918-1994. His best known work was The Conservative Mind, published in 1953, tracing the roots of conservative thought in the Anglo-American tradition back to Edmund Burke.]

I'm good with this, and appreciate that Dreher has framed this in terms of "wisdom traditions" instead of "religious traditions."

5. A conservatism that does not recognize the need for restraint, for limits, and for humility is neither helpful to individuals and society nor, ultimately, conservative. This is particularly true with respect to the natural world.

I am wholly on board with the need for a major shift in how we think of a healthy economy, moving away from relying on throughput as the main way we test for robustness (GNP) to one that rewards the conservation of resources (achieving the greatest good with the least consumption). You might look at economist Herman Daly's, Steady-State Economics (1977), for a thorough treatment of this concept.

6. A good rule of thumb: Small and Local and Old and Particular are to be preferred over Big and Global  and New and Abstract.

You the man, Rod.

7. Appreciation of aesthetic quality —that is, beauty—is not a luxury, but key to the good life.

While I think this principle is a slippery one to hold (given that much of beauty is individually defined), I like insisting that it should have a seat at the main table.

8. The cacophony of contemporary popular culture makes it hard to discern the call of truth and wisdom. There is no area in which practicing asceticism is more important.

I take this to be a call for each of us to develop our own moral compass, followed by an admonition to not let the fickleness of pop culture deflect the needle. While I'm good with this as a general warning, I don't believe that all truth and wisdom has already been discovered and is adequately described. I don't believe that the proper role of modern humans is simply to cleave to the North Star of ancient wisdom. I think it's worthwhile to keep panning for gold in the streams of contemporary thought. For example, in my lifetime there has been an amazing amount of progress in how society thinks about race, gender, sexual orientation, and right relationship to the environment. These are not trivial shifts, and it behooves us to be open to the possibility of profundity emerging from the dross of fad.

9. We share Kirk's conviction that "the best way to rear up a new generation of friends of the Permanent Things is to beget children, and read to them o' evenings, and teach them what is worthy of praise: the wise parent is the conservator of ancient truths… The institution most essential to conserve is the family."

I'm uneasy here. Right off the top, Dreher's pro-natalist position sends chills up my spine. How can a thinking person (remember his brave claim about seeing better in point #1?) not see the train wreck between population growth and environmental degradation? Any arguments about needing to outbreed the heathens contains the same fatal flaws as the discredited nuclear policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (which, not coincidentally, bore the acronym MAD). We need a lot more babies in the world about the same as we need a lot more nuclear weapons.

Beyond that, I'm nervous about each parent being the conservator of ancient truths because it promotes closed-mindedness—which the world is already plagued with in ample amounts without further encouragement. Upon closer inspection, a fair number of ancient truths are culturally specific rather than universal (for example, contrast the plurality of Native American cosmologies with one-size-fits-all Christian cosmology). Thus, there can be awkwardness (read jihads) over which "wisdoms" are true. This can be a real goat fuck.

Finally, I'm uneasy defining family—the implication being nuclear family—as the fundamental unit of cultural construction. If (and it's possible that Dreher is OK with this, though that's not the way his book reads) we stretch the sense of family to include the concepts of extended family and even families of adults not related by blood or marriage—with which I am thoroughly familiar as a result of having immersed myself in the world of intentional community—then I'm OK. Having raised my two kids in the family-of-friends intentional community of Sandhill Farm you cannot tell me that that wasn't an excellent way to do it, so I object to Dreher's narrow-mindedness unless it embraces my experience as an option in this vein.

10. Politics and economics will not save us. If we are to be saved at all, it will be through living faithfully by the Permanent Things, preserving these ancient truths in the choices we make in everyday life. In this sense, to conserve is to create anew.

I'm fully on board with the opening sentence, then I get uneasy again. One of the fundamental lessons that comes out of my community experience is that we (as in healthy society) need to be more focused on Relationship as the prime directive, rather than Truth—and I expressly mean relationships across party lines, rather than relationships among allies as we strive to become a more effective united front against the unwashed. 

That said, Dreher's book is actually a mixed bag in this regard. While this tenth conservative insight speaks solely of Truth (which makes me squirm), his book is full of anecdotes that make clear his care and feeding of Relationships (which calms me down)—even to the point of repeatedly crossing the aisle to make common cause with neighbors and acquaintances with whom he shares some precious aspects of the good life, though not all. Bully for him.

• • •
Taken all together, there is much to celebrate and be inspired by in the rich stew that Dreher has served up (with organic ingredients). I'm just not swallowing the whole bowlful.

1 comment:

Bringing Money to Light said...

Wow, Laird. Thank you so much for your enzymatic activity making this soup much easier for me to digest as well. Fantastic work, very very interesting phenom on the horizon ("crunchy cons") I might never have heard about and yet feel I really needed to hear about as...sorry!...some of my best friends are conservative!