Thursday, February 23, 2006

Crunchy Con Job

Rod Dreher, a writer and editor at the Dallas Morning News and National Review Online contributor, invented the term "Crunchy Conservative" to describe a movement among conservatives to promote ecological and communitarian values over globalization and economic growth. His book on the subject, "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)" is being promoted by Dreher and his "tribe" of crunchies at a book-club blog on NRO. Here is the obligatory manifesto of the Crunchy Con movement:

A Crunchy Con Manifesto

1. We are conservatives who stand outside the conservative mainstream; therefore, we can see things that matter more clearly.

2. Modern conservatism has become too focused on money, power, and the accumulation of stuff, and insufficiently concerned with the content of our individual and social character.

3. Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.

4. Culture is more important than politics and economics. [Double yep! The health of a society is almost entirely the result of culture, if we define culture as "thought." Healthy thoughts equals healthy culture.

5. A conservatism that does not practice restraint, humility, and good stewardship—especially of the natural world—is not fundamentally conservative.

6. Small, Local, Old, and Particular are almost always better than Big, Global, New, and Abstract.

7. Beauty is more important than efficiency.

8. The relentlessness of media-driven pop culture deadens our senses to authentic truth, beauty, and wisdom.

9. We share Russell Kirk’s conviction that “the institution most essential to conserve is the family.”

The tenth item was not released on the blog, you have to buy the book to read it.

Without having read the book it is hard to get a good understanding of the particular things that Dreher would have done in service of these platitudes, though a read of the discussion thread on the blog gives some idea. Here are some of my thoughts on the manifesto.

Item 4, "culture is more important than politics or economics" is a rather slippery one to grasp. The problem I have with this statement is that these three aspects of society are so closely intertwined that it is almost impossible to separate them and deal with them as independent entitites. We have the luxury, by virtue of our historically unprecedented prosperity, to be able to make tradeoffs with our incomes to pursue more fulfilling cultural pursuits. But we shouldn't take that prosperity for granted, or disparage the hard work and ambition of our ancestors whse economic strivings provided this material bounty that we enjoy. If we were reduced to grinding poverty overnight through some global catastrophe, economics would most certainly become our most pressing concern. Likewise if our political situation deteriorated to the point that the very stability of our society were at stake, then politics would be our primary concern. It is only through the superior accomplishments of our political and economic system in the US that we have bot the stability and the prosperity to worry about cultural matters, at least that aspect of culture that has nothing to do with economics or politics.

In item 6 he states "Small, Local, Old, and Particular are almost always better than Big, Global, New, and Abstract". I really don't see that we have to make a choice between these things. The local, like your shadow, will always be there, wherever you are. Wherever one chooses to live, one will always have to come to terms with his locality. There will always be products and services that can only be provided locally. Whether the technician who installs your phone line works for a locally owned small business or a global multinational conglomerate, the interaction you have with him will be as authentic as otherwise.

I sense here a nostalgia for a time long gone that will never return. Dreher and company seem only capable of finding fault with modern, mobile society, and imagine that the settled provincial life will cure all those ills without introducing any of their own. They apply no imagination to the task of seeing what is good about mobility.

There is a negative flip-side to this preference for localness and aversion to moving away from home. When local identity becomes overly deterministic in setting values, it does so at the expense of a connectness to the greater whole. Provincial loyalty breeds an aversion of the foreigner. Wars are usually not started by the cosmopolitans, but by the nativists.

For whatever sins that are pinned on globalization, we have to admit that it has brought many peoples of the world closer together. I work daily with people from India, Russia and China, among other places. I have to believe that these daily human contacts between the peoples of the world serve the greater good of us all.

Item 7 states "Beauty is more important than efficiency". Again, I think that there is a false dichotomy at work here. To the extent that we have the luxury to indulge in inefficiency for beauty's sake we have to thank three hundred years of relentless innovation and improvement in all areas of economic life. I am no enemy of beauty, but I believe that there is a danger in moralizing aesthetics. Beauty is a pleasure of life that is bestowed upon us in measured doses, but it is not the end all of life, and it is not something to be worshipped. Goodness and beauty are not one in the same. Some of histories worst cruelties were committed in the pursuit of beauty. The Nazi movement in Germany was inspired in a large part by aesthetics, both racial and cultural. Of course I am not comparing Crunchy Cons to the Nazis. But I've noted among some of the commenters on the blog a tendency to use this aesthethic sense of the good life as a club with which to bang on the unregenerate slobs that don't share the vision. This quote from Caleb Stegall makes my point:

I grew up despising hippie culture. I found, and still find, virtually all of the Boomer cultural affectations to be utterly false and preening; I find the nihilism of their intellectual and popular leaders to be entirely banal and unromantic; their radical egalitarianism was, I thought, an emasculation of all the good things in life. Rather than donning Birks and tie-dye t-shirts, I dreamed about sword-canes and black capes. My image of a conservative hero came from men like Theodore Roosevelt, Andre Malraux, T.E. Lawrence, and Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Men of action and adventure yet also of refined taste and intellect. Men who wore black, fought for the old world, were on intimate terms with both life and death, and who never went anywhere without their driver or their butler. The image is about as far as one can get from John Lennon.

I came to understand, later, that while the romantic age of Malraux and Saint-Exupery was gone (if it had ever truly existed), there was a certain quiet romanticism still to be had in living a life closely rooted to the ground, learning to love the limits of one’s existence; to suffer one’s place and one’s people in service of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. This is the true basis for finding love, friendship, and a meaningful — or decent, as Bruce put it — life: master one’s passions, deny oneself, and love others.

It was this quiet romance that I found, on reflection, in the small-town folks and traditional religious community I grew up with and in which formed a spiritual order — both personal and social — nourished on a veneration of children, work, craft, a sense of honor in commitments, and a common responsibility. Then I found the same thing in the writing and lives of people like Russell Kirk and Wendell Berry.

It was not until later, when I moved into the wider world of business, high-stakes law, and Evangelicalism, that I discovered that all conservatives were not like this. That instead, there existed a kind of upwardly mobile coldblooded rationalizing self-serving conservative mind that struck me, still strikes me, as sterile and not quite human.

I find it hard to admire the moral compass of a man who can let his aesthetic values lead him to question the humanity of his fellows. This is what I meant by the dangers of moralizing aesthetics. Can he point to anything immoral that these one-time business acquaintances have engaged in, other than career ambitions? It is an extreme judgment of personal qualities that society as a whole finds admirable. If this is the face of crunchy conservatism, then it will be seen as no more than a scolding kind of snobbery and holier-than-thou elitism. While these self-appointed saviors of the American soul imagine themselves on a quest for deeper values, it appears that they are, in reality, fishing in some rather shallow water.


Blogger Hey Skipper said...

That is some serious self-regard Mr. Dreher has going there. And I thought Brights were stuck on themselves.

... therefore, we can see things that matter more clearly.

I presume that means they have retching readers in clear focus. Unless, of course, they don't think steroidal pomposity triggering the gag reflex across this great land of ours doesn't matter.

Then there is the simply mind boggling. Beauty is more important than efficiency.


In a great many cases, those two terms don't even belong in the same sentence. Who, upon hearing Beethoven, thinks, "My, that would be more beautiful if it weren't quite so efficient."

In contrast, where they can be usefully be appear between the capital letter and period, lack of one always comes at the expense of the other. From my particular line of work, with regard to particular airplanes "Nothing that ugly can fly any good" is always true, as is its inverse.

You sense a nostalgia for a time long gone that will never return.

I sense a capacity for analytical thinking that, if ever present, is by now long gone.

I work daily with people from India, Russia and China, among other places. I have to believe that these daily human contacts between the peoples of the world serve the greater good of us all.

As do I. I'm the only American in a group consisting of Chinese, Indians and a Pakistani.

Speaking of just such a thing, my favorite example happened at the Minneapolis Airport.

Where I had Mexican food, with a Hawaiian twist, served by Somalis, to a first generation American, in the Scandinavian stronghold of America.

I find it hard to admire the moral compass of a man who can let his aesthetic values lead him to question the humanity of his fellows. This is what I meant by the dangers of moralizing aesthetics.

And what I have called elsewhere establishing exclusionary moral communities.

Its hard to know what to do when stuck between a Bright and a Crunchy place.

Scoffing seems a good place to start.

February 24, 2006 8:11 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

I think the efficiency thing is a critique of Wal Mart, the suburbs, and the whole commercial culture. As far as jetliners, it sounds like they would rather do without them. They just make it easier for people to move away from home.

The thing about beauty is, besides being in the eye of the beholder, that noone is really against it. But where does it fit in the hierarchy of values? If you need to make your budget stretch as far as it will go you forego the trappings of nice architecture and buy your stuff at Wal Mart. There's a certain amount of utiitarian infrastructure that you have to put up with, like freeways, efficiently built pre-fab concrete buildings, and power lines, in order to enjoy the prosperity we've achieved.

Dreher and his allies don't like the tradeoff, they'd prefer the settled life of medieval villages to industrial cities and suburbs. In that sense they are basically anti-modern romanticists. Realizing that they can't go back, their program is all about tying to craft what they think is an "authentic" lifestyle out of the free market choices that they have. But it is done so consciously as to become, in essence more of a pose, a political statement. Here's a perfect example of this "manufacured" authenticity at work in another quote from Casey Stegall:

Along those lines, I am headed outside to my woodlot from my home office with my boys, my chainsaw, and my axe, to chop some wood for the woodstove. We have a warm spell here just now, but being Kansas, it’s sure to turn cold again before spring. There are many virtues in this, I think, and among them is a political virtue, one I do not practice enough.

Real authenticity doesn't involve the conscious creation of a lifestyle, it is basically living the life of your times unconsciously, without a second thought to it's authenticity.
I have a chainsaw too, I use it to trim the trees in my yard when they get unruly. I don't see anything political about the act. The ironic part about this movement (can we get a reading on the meter, Skipper?) is that it is the very capitalist, commercial culture of choice that lets them craft these lifestyle statements of authenticity in reaction to that culture.

February 25, 2006 7:48 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

[I]t is the very capitalist, commercial culture of choice that lets them craft these lifestyle statements of authenticity in reaction to that culture.

And the crude, raw, and grimy industrial culture which gives Casey Stegall the chainsaw that he uses to "get back to the land".

Further, where does he think that the gasoline used to power that chainsaw comes from ?
The entire process of extracting crude, refining it, and transporting the resultant products to consumers is a modern miracle.

I use "miracle" advisedly, because the process of "cracking" crude oil is a 20th century product of human genius that is truly the real-world equivalent of the mythical Philosopher's Stone.

Crude oil normally contains between 10% - 30% gasoline, but by breaking down the longer carbon chains, and by "reforming" the shorter ones, we can now squeeze 50% gasoline out of the average barrel of crude oil.

Further, the modern industrial world creates beauty, and allows it to be affordable to the masses.

Just as the 17th century Amerinds were awed by ceramic beads, mirrors and other trinkets that the contemporary Europeans saw as near-disposable, so too does the poorest modern American have everyday access to mass-produced designs, vivid colors, and smooth, glossy finishes that rival the best art of the pre-industrial world, work that was owned and treasured by those eras' elites.

Those designs, colors, and finishes are so ubiquitous that we only notice the absence of them - such as in the third world.

Which is one reason why I think that every capable young American ought to spend a few years in the developing or third world - it really brings home how lucky and clever we are in the advanced world.

Also, although perhaps it's just the boy in me, I really LIKE the crude, raw, grimy industrial culture, in small doses.

While I wouldn't want to see such everywhere, I LIKE the look of refineries, huge steel mills, interwoven freeway overpasses, acres of windmills on wind farms, crowding the sky...

It smells like victory.

It's just the raw productive energy inherent in such places that makes the average greasy, dusty, rust-streaked industrial site, often with piles of refuse, waste, or salvage strewn about, seem to have a rosy glow in my eyes.

Which is not to say that all industry is like my above characterization - I've been to many factories and warehouses that were tidy and immaculate. They are the minority, however, in my experience.

February 26, 2006 12:53 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I went to college with an ur-cruchy conservative. He preferred to live the live of an 18th century Virginia planter. He actually turned off the electricity in his apartment and used the refrigerator to store his supply of port.

He gave up everything modern except his BMW. (In those distant days, a BMW was a serious sports machine.)

So I agree with all that was said here again C.C., but it gives me a chance to belabor a point that bugs me.

Whatever beauty is (and I don't think it's a building by Fred Geary), we need more of it in public places.

Jane Jacobs makes the point, in 'Death and Life in Great Cities,' that a utilitarian courthouse design does not inspire the sense of the majesty of the law (I don't think majesty was the word she used, but it's been 30 years since I read it and I cannot recall which word she did use) that inspires people to support the legal system even when they are on the losing side of a case.

In college, an architecture professor pointed out that the cathedral of Chartres was built by a community about the population of Fuquay-Varina, N.C.

Compare any old high school building in your community with the newest.

Perhaps we feel unable to afford the lofty halls that our grandparents thought essential to public buildings because we also feel obliged to provide a lot of public services that they got along without.

Would the people of Chartres have been better off investing the energy that went into the church on improving the drainage of their fields? Probably, in the short run.

In the longer run, the new technics required to build the cathedral probably drove their descendants toward urbanization, importation of Algerian menials, Foucaultian philosophy and Gauloises.

Any concept that leads political conservatives to calculate value in units other than dollars is good in my book.

A beautiful critique of Crunchy Conservatism is 'The Man from Home,' a play written by Harry Leon Wilson and Booth Tarkenton in 1908 and rewritten as a novel by Wilson in 1915.

February 26, 2006 11:33 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

I like Harry's utilitarian argument for useless beauty - a new route to the conclusion, but I agree with it.

We have our own version of the 'crunchies' here in Britain.

All things organic and free-range and home-grown and locally produced have really taken off here in the last five years or so.

The odd thing is that the big champions of the organic lifestyle come from polar opposite ends of the political spectrum. On the one hand are the liberal leftie, Guardian-toting, middle-class intelligensia, and at the other are the High Tory, tweed-wearing, Old Money, huntin' shootin' and fishin' types.

Just another reason why it's impossible to settle upon a single definition of 'conservative'.

February 27, 2006 8:20 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

If we had a decent artist class then we'd have a lot more useless beauty to ogle. But as it is they have been stuck in a deconstructionist mania for the last 100 years as a reaction to Victorian sensibilities or some such excuse.

The thing about such nostalgic yearning is that few people who lived in the period yearned for actually yearned it. They either looked to the future or yearned for the past world of their grendparents. My wife was an antiques collector/dealer, so I spent a lot of time rummaging through antique stores. I have a theory that newly designed items first become valuable for the cachet or chic that they lend to their owners as being in fashion. They slowly lose value until, usually when the owners are cleaning house or their children are liquidating their parent's estate, they are looked at as junk.

Then, when their grandchildren, who have fuzzy, idyllic memories of days at grandma's house see these articles in a Goodwill or antique shop, it brings back the nostalgia of their carefree childhood, and the item becomes something of great worth.

So it is with these crunchy enthusiasms. The crunchies never actually lived the lives they yearn for, it has a symbolic, emotional appeal for them that it probably never had for the people who lived it. Stegall thinks it is "crunchy" to heat his home with a woodstove. But when everyone heated their homes in this way, they deforested most of Europe. Even America in the 18th & 19th centuries was less forested than it is today. I think that it is specifically because our economy is so efficient that we can afford to leave our wildlands wild. American settlers didn't look at the forests as a paradise, it was a barren wilderness to them, full of trees that had to be ripped down so they could farm. When you live off the land you assign economic value to it, which means you can't afford these gooey sentimental emotions. The land was something you fought with to extract what livelihood you could from it, and it was never obliging.

February 27, 2006 1:26 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

There is a huge American art community that ignores 'deconstruction,' and is in turn ignored by all arbiters of high taste.

Send off for a Daniel Smith catalogue of art supplies and look at the reproductions of works by their customers.

Much of it is of a standard, though perhaps not a subject matter, that a Medici would have lusted to collect.

February 27, 2006 2:10 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

James Lileks comments today on Crunchy Conservatism. Pretty much what's been said here, but if there's a sounding board today that reflects Joe Everyman's take on life, it's Lileks.

March 01, 2006 12:03 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Can you post a link to the Lileks piece? I've scoured his website and can't find it. Thanks!

March 03, 2006 12:23 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

Never mind, I found it.

March 03, 2006 2:04 PM  

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