Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Crunchy Cons

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 counterculture conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican party)
© 2006  Rob Dreher
272 pages

Imagine a Republican who praised Jimmy Carter instead of dedicating a Two-Minute Hate to him. That's Rob Dreher. In an age of bitter partisan rancor, it's refreshing to encounter someone who looks beyond the asnine liberal-conservative divide and realizes that politics and values aren't as simple as they tell you on the television. Alas, values are still simple to Dreher, who knows there's still an Us and a Them; it's just that the Thems and the Us's sometimes swap sides.  The Us's are those people on the left and right who seek a meaningful life and are prompted by their inner convictions to live differently than the mainstream; the Thems are those wretched modernists, the consumerists, the cafeteria Catholics, and the individualists who defy culture and brazenly think for themselves. (You know, because thinking for yourself makes you so mainstream.)

The title alone may give you a feel for the goings-on of crunchy cons. Various sections cover Dreher's (who is the authority on who may be and who cannot be a Crunchy Con) thoughts on consumerism and technological dependence (bad), food (industrial food bad, CSAs awesome), homes (modern architecture bad -- read Jim Kunstler), and religion (orthodoxy for the win). While the thoughts as expressed can be found in other books*, Dreher's positions and criticisms are couched in the language of conservatism and traditionalism; he attacks agribusiness not on the grounds of social justice (as Eric Schlosser did in Fast Food Nation and Reefer Madness), but because he wants  to promote the rugged  old values of small farmers and promote self-reliance.  Dreher doesn't attack consumerism because mindless consumption plays into the hands of the bourgeoisie, or destroys Mother Earth; his hostility stems from the fact that there's more to life than owning stuff, and the idea of our being able to buy happiness is not only unhealthy, it's impious.

Religion undergirds Dreher's approach: for him, being a 'crunchy conservative' means living sacramentally; "viewing the physical aspects of life -- the food we eat, the places we live, the world in which we move -- as being inseparable from spiritual reality."  Dreher's aim in being a crunchy con is to live a meaningful life, and for him, religion supplies that meaning. The problem with mainline conservatism is that world changes too quickly for traditionalism-for-principle's-sake to mean anything. Yesterday's raging liberals are today's  conservatives, because the status quo is a moving target. Dreher's people stand out among  other conservatives by defining what they intend to conserve, instead of being content to resist change on principle. Hence, while most conservatives are fine defending relatively recent developments like automobile oriented sprawl, Dreher is still defending the old-fashioned, traditional, human-oriented cities that have now been embraced by progressives.

There's a lot to like about Crunchy Cons, but there were a few too many flies in the soup for me. Like the authors of The Plain Reader, Dreher puts a lot of stock behind parents being the chief cultivators of their children.  And while I get the reason for concern -- I, too, would prefer not exposing children to television for numerous reasons, the values it imparts among them --  as someone who was raised in a "conservative", no-television household, I'm awfully glad I was able to view TV and other media from time to time that let me see the world beyond the prison walls of my controlled environment. I was able to compare my parent's worldview with another, and figure out what I wanted out of life. This obsession with controlling children, witnessed in both The Plain Reader and in Crunchy Cons, and displayed in the authors' hatred for public schools and media, strikes this escapee as sinister and unhealthy. Your values mean nothing if children cannot grow into adults who can make a choice. And therein lies the rub with Dreher's work, for as much as he advocates choice in other areas -- people should be free to run small farms, instead of being forced to play by agribusiness' rules; people should be freed from compulsory education, raising their children whatever way they decide; when it comes to belief, people should Learn their Place and believe what they're told. Tradition is God, and if you think you can modify it you are a degenerate loser who is responsible for the imminent destruction of humanity.

At times, Crunchy Cons was an eye-opening delight. Like The Plain Reader, it demonstrates how people can lives of purpose and value amid the noise of an entertainment-obsessed world.  The author's contempt for those who do not seek more meaning, however, and his anti-human belief in the primacy of tradition, left me feeling sick. The Plain Reader was a far better example of a conservative counterculture, and though problematic in ways, it was far gentler.

 *In Praise of Slow, The Omnivore's Dilemma, Fast Food Nation, The Geography of Nowhere, Technopoly, Amusing Ourselves to Death, To Have or to Be, American Mania, and Bowling Alone.

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