Books April 2006
On Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher.
You may be familiar with the “crunchy” disposition, which takes its name from the texture of the granola its adherents enjoy eating. My own exposure to the crunchies has been largely limited to the college campus, where they are a clique, a type, every bit as recognizable as, say, the frat boy or the fish-eyed “intellectual.” Like these other groups, the crunchies are differentiated by their lifestyle cues. These include a certain fondness for frisbee, organic farming, the out of doors, drum circles, teach-ins, burlap apparel, and hemp jewelry.
There is a crunchy politics, of course—a sort of bohemian, back-to-the-earth eco-sensitivity—but the politics are potted, de rigueur, a way to relate to peers. You hesitate to devote any serious thought to the opinions in the same way you might hesitate to applaud performing seals: After all, they’re just going through the motions.
Perhaps this assessment is unfair, but not if Rod Dreher’s self-indulgent, irretrievably awful new book is any indication. In Crunchy Cons, as the title suggests, he attempts to graft the crunchy ethic onto conservatism. His “crunchy conservatism,” I suppose, is only the latest contrived boutique conservatism to be inflicted on the American mind in the past few years. Remember compassionate conservatism? Or “South Park” conservatism? Crunchy conservatism is headed straight for the same garbage barge.
Dreher is unhappy with much of modern life, and he sees the encroachments of chaos everywhere. America is apparently in the teeth of “empty consumerist prosperity,” a relentless, destructive materialism that is brutalizing our spiritual, moral, and aesthetic values and tearing the fabric of society to ribbons. Dreher takes up a strain of traditional conservatism located somewhere between Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk, and, in parsing their thought, he reiterates several valuable points. Boundaries and limits are necessary to keep civilization in good working order. The contemplative life yields more rewards than a life lived otherwise. Luxury can be enervating. Families are important social units. Culture matters. These ideas, however, have been articulated more rigorously and more eloquently elsewhere, most notably by Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk.
The major thinkers, to be sure, may be reinterpreted to meet the conditions of contemporary life. New discoveries must be made. But Dreher’s findings are slight. The novel thing about a “Birkenstocked Burkean,” it seems to me, is not the Burke but the Birkenstocks. Dreher is preoccupied by lifestyle signifiers—the way people dress, the homes they live in, and, particularly, the food they eat. For reasons I can’t comprehend, he has a voracious obsession with the “right” kind of organic food. At one point, he tells a story about a really delicious free-range chicken he ate with his family: “It was … almost the Platonic ideal of chickenness.” Eating is for Dreher a fundamentally political act. “There are many mansions in the American conservative house,” he writes, “and some of them are old and funky and smell like a pot of organic mustard greens cooking down on the stove.” This gives you a taste of his ersatz cracker-barrel folksiness.
Dreher is very big on the idea of a conservative counterculture, and for him its “alternative” choices are acts of dissent. Crunchy cons are estranged from contemporary culture in all its forms—not only from liberal culture but also from what he styles “mainstream” conservative culture. One thing he marginally adds in this is the notion that under our current political alignment, not all conservative ideas belong usufruct to the Republican Party, and indeed the GOP often does things that are not conservative. He further reminds us that not all ideas emanating from the left are bad ones, particularly in regards to the stewardship of the environment. True enough. The traits crunchy cons mainly borrow from the left, however, are sanctimony, condescension, and impermeable self-regard.
This is most evident, and most insulting, when Dreher draws distinctions between crunchy cons and regular cons. If you’re not wearing the Birkenstocks, so to speak, you’re not getting Burke. Only those who have been inducted into the mystery cult of crunchy conservatism are leading rich, fulfilling lives. Dreher’s mainstream conservatives are “really” spiritually arid and “really” desire only filthy lucre. “[M]ost people who call themselves conservative today,” he summarizes with by-God certainty, “aren’t really conservative in a deep sense.”
These are severe charges. Regrettably, Dreher is not analytic but impressionistic in his writing. He relies heavily on interviews, which lend to his arraignment an air of sociology, but little evidence or argument. You could say that the crunchy cons believe they’ve cornered the market on virtue—but then, they don’t believe in markets.
Dreher’s readiness to impugn is immediately traceable to his thumbless grasp of how the free economy really works. For instance, he hysterically asks: “How can you be a traditional-values conservative in a society whose very economic structure is designed to separate you, your kids, and your community from those values, and each other?” Designed? In fact, the market system we have in place is extremely subtle, sophisticated, and layered. It was designed—over centuries of flux and correction and constant fine-tuning—to give people in heterogeneous societies the opportunity to cooperate. It allows us to choose.
Here’s an example. Dreher despises Wal-Mart, saying it runs small businesses out of town and vitiates traditional ways of living. But if old Mom and Pop are hurting, it is because the townsfolk are choosing the big boxes over the country stores, presumably because they offer something that Mom and Pop do not. No one is forcing them to make those decisions. This is the great decentralized vitality of the American system—you can find a little stamp somewhere out there and, through your own choices, gradually make it fit for yourself, even if that stamp is in the vast drive-thru plastic-fantastic wasteland of suburbia that Dreher constantly maligns. The crunchier-than-thou are quite rightly accorded the same freedom.
Dreher goes mooning on about “a considered critique of the assumptions on which mainstream American life is built,” but never bothers to critique or even consider his own. If you are dissatisfied by the mainstream America that our democratic arrangement has fashioned, I can think of some 298 million people you can blame.
It is not that we should be unconditionally satisfied with American society—only very lucky idiots are that. It is rather that complex cultural and social phenomena shape economic development, not the other way around, and we ought to treat these forces with the weight and seriousness they deserve. The grubby business of modern life is confusing and turbulent and troubling, and in being left free to choose we have often drastically changed our culture, hardly realizing what we’ve lost. Unfortunately, Dreher looks only to the capitalist crypto-conspiracy. He dedicates no concentrated thinking to how culture changes, or why, and he offers no credible program for arresting decline. No offense, but it’s hard to imagine what about his brand of conservatism the country or any large part of it actually wants or needs. America isn’t exactly the Big Rock Candy Mountain that Rod Dreher desires—but it’s enough, and the best we’ve got.
New to The New Criterion?
Subscribe for one year to receive ten print issues, and gain immediate access to our online archive spanning more than four decades of art and cultural criticism.Subscribe
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 8, on page 66
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com