Rod Dreher

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Thinking, and the Big Divide

Monastery of Tentudia, in southern Spain (Felgari/Flickr)
Monastery of Tentudia, in southern Spain (Felgari/Flickr)

Driving to a meeting yesterday afternoon in Baton Rouge, I heard a fascinating interview on NPR with the marvelously named Marie Mutsuki Mockett, a Japanese-American author of a memoir in which she details grieving her Japanese father’s death. She went to Mount Doom, an extinct volcano in Japan, where Japanese go to mourn their dead. There she met a Buddhist priest:

He was an extraordinary character — a sort of severe and serious, eccentric character — who told me with great pride that his nickname, when he had been in the monastery for 20 years was Darth Vader. …

I told him about my meditation training. And I told him how irritated I was to have to sit there for three hours, how irritated I was … because I had thought that if I wanted to understand anything about Buddhism and what Buddhism had to offer, I thought I was supposed to read sutras and texts and, you know, think — like what I did in college. And he said, “Oh, you Westerners … You always want to know why you have to do something before you do it.” And he said, “In Japan, we make you do something, and then you learn ‘why’ afterward. … Sometimes, you just need to do something and learn the lesson later.” Which is perhaps a healthier way to live, because you can’t always know why you’re doing what you’re doing. Sometimes you simply have to go through and experience.

Yes, I thought, that’s exactly how it is. And it’s how it is in Orthodox Christianity. Maybe this is what the friend at St. Seraphim Cathedral in Dallas meant when she told Julie and me, upon our entering the Orthodox church, “It will take you ten years to become Orthodox.” She meant “to begin to think like an Orthodox Christian.” I thought at the time that was a strange thing to say, but in the past year or two, I’ve come to appreciate the truth of it. If you surrender to the rituals, to the liturgical prayers, to the Psalms and all the rest, you begin to see things about yourself and the world that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise, and to experience the world in a new way.

In the newest Mars Hill Audio Journal, Ken Myers talks with a couple of theologians about art and theology, and how it is that visual art and music can convey religious truths that cannot adequately be captured in formal propositions. Listening to those interviews, I thought of the Commedia, and how Dante struggles in his verse to convey the experience of Paradise:

Once there we shall behold what we hold true

through faith, not proven but self-evident:

a primal truth, incontrovertible.

Words cannot capture the reality of what the soul experiences there. Here he writes of seeing Beatrice’s smile near the summit of Heaven:

The beauty I saw there goes far beyond

all mortal reach; I think that only He

Who made it knows the full joy of its being.

 

At this point I admit to my defeat:

no poet, comic or tragic, was

more outdone by his theme than I am now;

 

for as sunlight does to the weakest eyes,

so did the mere thought of her lovely smile

strike every recognition from my mind.

Yes. Yes! In Dante, to know God is not to philosophize about God, to reason about God, but to see God, and to love the sight with all your heart. Perception perceives love, and love is essential to knowing. How different that is from the way we in the West today perceive things. In one of his interviews, Ken Myers observes that the difference between the modern age and what preceded it is that in the pre-modern era (that gave birth to Dante, and that more or less died with Dante), people believed that the point of life was to conform the soul to Reality — to harmonize with a cosmic order that exists independently of the soul, but that can be known. In the modern era, man regards what he once saw as cosmos as, instead, inert matter that can and should be manipulated and shaped according to man’s will and genius.

I think what my friend meant when she said it would take a decade to become Orthodox is that to think as an Orthodox Christian means shedding seven centuries of the Western habit of mind characteristic of modernity. This is why I found Dante to be so resonant with Orthodox Christianity. Dante was fully Catholic, obviously, but the culture in which Dante lived was pre-modern, thus enchanted. The experience of Orthodoxy today is, to my perception, far more “enchanted” than the experience of Catholicism, except on occasions like the mass I attended at the Benedictine monastery in Norcia. That doesn’t make Orthodoxy more true than Catholicism, in the propositional sense, but I do think it means that in this time and place, the Orthodox vision helps modern people to see divine truths more clearly than Westerners (like me) whose inner eye is occluded by 700 years of teaching ourselves not to see the things that are.

I ordered a thin book after listening to the current Mars Hill Audio Journal, calledA Little Manual for Knowing. Its author is Esther Lightcap Meek, a philosopher interviewed in this edition of the Journal. The book is a practical manual of epistemology. In the introduction, which I read yesterday after the book came in, Meek writes:

Many people don’t think much about how we know because we take it for granted. But we tacitly presume some things about knowing. We tend to think knowledge is information, facts, bits of data, “content,” true statements — true statement justified by other true statements. And while this isn’t exactly false, we tend to have a vision of knowledge as being only this. We conclude that gaining knowledge is collecting information — and we’re done — educated, trained, expert, certain.

This is a philosophical orientation, an unexamined one. It has a lot of appeal, because it is quantifiable, measurable, assessable, and commodifiable. It offers control and power. But we’ll see that the knowledge-as-information vision is actually defective and damaging. It distorts reality and humanness, and it gets in the way of good knowing.

This is what the experience of Orthodoxy, especially these past two years, has taught me: to dwell constantly in an analytic, critical mode of being, as I tend to do, is to buffer myself against “good knowing.” My priest played a key role in healing me from my depression and physical illness by teaching me, through a prayer rule, how to disconnect from analytical engagement with the world, and to just be still in it. Believe me, I still struggle with this, constantly, but I have experienced the wisdom and truth of this method. Similarly, imaginative engagement with the art of Dante Alighieri led me to a healing experience of God in great beauty, and taught me that knowing God with the mind is important, but it cannot substitute for knowing Him with the heart. As the Yale Dantist Giuseppe Mazzotta says, in the end, the Commedia teaches us that true conversion cannot be other than a conversion of the heart; everything else must follow from that.

I recently read Patrick Leigh Fermor’s book A Time to Keep Silence, a slim volume of reflections on his stays in monasteries. Leigh Fermor was a religious unbeliever, but he did believe in the power of monasteries to purify the vision. Here he is describing the experience of growing accustomed to the Benedictine abbey of St. Wandrille, to which he had retreated from Paris, seeking an atmosphere conducive to writing:

The period during which normal standards recede and the strange new world becomes reality is slow, and, at first, acutely painful.

To begin with, I slept badly at night and fell asleep during the day, felt restless alone in my cell and depressed by the lack of alcohol, the disappearance of which had caused a sudden halt in the customary monsoon. The most remarkable preliminary symptoms were the variations of my need of sleep. After initial spells of insomnia, nightmare and falling asleep by day, I found that my capacity for sleep was becoming more and more remarkable: till the house I spent in or on my bed vastly outnumbered the hours I spent awake; and my sleep was so profound that I might have been under the influence of some hypnotic drug. For two days, meals and the offices in the church — Mass, Vespers and Compline — were almost my only lucid moments. Then began an extraordinary transformation: this extreme lassitude dwindled to nothing; night shrank to five hours of light, dreamless and perfect sleep, followed by awakenings full of energy  and limpid freshness. The explanation is simple enough: the desire for talk, movement and nervous expression that I had transported from Paris found, in this silent place, no response or foil, evoked no single echo; after miserably gesticulating for a while in a vacuum, it languished and finally died for lack of any stimulus or nourishment. Then the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries, broke loose and swamped everything. No demands, once I had emerged from that flood of sleep, were made upon my nervous energy: there were no automatic drains, such as conversation at meals, small talk, catching trains, or the hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life. Even the major causes of guilt and anxiety had slid away into some distant limbo and not only failed to emerge in the small hours as tormentors but appeared to have lost their dragonish validity. This new dispensation left nineteen hours a day of god-like freedom. Work became easier every moment; and, when I was not working, I was either exploring the Abbey and the neighbouring countryside, or reading. The Abbey became the reverse of a tome — not, indeed, a Thelema or Nepenthe, but a silent university, a country house, a castle hanging in mid-air beyond the reach of ordinary troubles and vexations. A verse from the office of Compline expresses the same thought; and it was no doubt an unconscious memory of it that prompted me to put it down: Altissismum posuisti refugium tuum …. non accedet ad te malum et flagellum non appropinquabit tabernaculo tuo. [Thou hast made the Most High thy refuge ... no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling. -- RD]

Last night, about an hour before bedtime, my sons asked me if I wanted to take a walk around the neighborhood. No, actually, I did not; I don’t like going outside much. But I knew I should want to, so I did. It took about twenty minutes to make a loop through the neighborhood, a small subdivision out in the country. The houses are not close together; the night sky is clear from light pollution. After we had walked for a few minutes in the cool night air, I observed the canopy of stars above, and thought, look, how marvelous. I don’t know when was the last time that I had truly seen the stars. We passed by the house of a neighbor down the street, who was sleeping. A massive, Entish oak tree anchors the front yard. It was dark, and I was struck by the bigness of the living thing. I pass that oak every day, but last night, I saw it differently. It looked as if it dwelled in mystery, as if it were hiding a secret.

I think it was. Is.

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Attention Dante Readers!

I just saw that Bill Cook & Ron Herzman’s fantastic audio course on the Divine Comedy is 70 percent off.  I can’t recommend this highly enough. If you are thinking of reading the Commedia this year, and/or buying my book, I strongly urge you to buy and download this course.

And don’t put it off. Y’all convinced me last week to try Prof. Robert Greenberg’s How To Listen To Music course, which I bookmarked the other day to buy (it was also on sale at 70 percent off). I went to buy it and download it just now, but it’s back to full price, and I can’t afford it. Don’t delay on the Dante course, people. Seriously, you will thank me for this later.

Here’s a link to all the courses on sale. I notice that Elizabeth Vandiver’s terrific course on the Odyssey is there. There are some other Greenberg music courses there, but I’m going to wait for the basic one to cycle back to the sale page.

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The Happy Marriage of Duck & Dante

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In a discursive blog post on high culture and low culture, inspired by my “Duck Dynasty vs. Dante” piece, John Mark Reynolds, who has devoted his career to teaching Great Books, identifies three things that are true, but that he sometimes wishes were not. Among them, that there is great good in pop culture, and that there is danger in cutting oneself off from it entirely. More:

And against these are three other trues that are easier for me:

Aristocratic culture is needed to check popular culture.

The men and women of Duck Dynasty are saved from narrowness by their connection to global church ministry (missions!) and a great work of literature (the Bible). They go to churches that start schools, confess their faults, and are aware of culture tides. The very presence of the men of Duck Dynasty on television, learning from media experts on mainstream networks, proves they are not reactionaries, but educable.

The question is are the aristocrats of media educable by them?

Humans must live small lives.

We are, as Gandalf, would point out small beings. God is great and we are not. Part of “know thyself” is to know that I am not such a much. Sheldon Vanauken, professor and author, lived a rich life, but with few material possessions. He thought large and lived small.

The dialectic is not optional. 

You can choose to read Harry Potter or not. You can decide you do not like Styx or Maroon 5. You can give up on Doctor Who (as I mostly did after David Tennant left).

You cannot be fully human and ignore the way of the mind: the dialectic. We must discuss, we must not assume, we must live examined lives. This is obvious, but nobody, urban or rural, educated or uneducated, is safe from having lazy intellects. Certainly I am not safe, especially from the lazy assumption that finding the truth is impossible!

Read the whole thing (and don’t miss the part where Reynolds, who has read my forthcoming Dante book, says, “I look forward to the rest of you finding in Dreher’s new book on Dante the wit, wisdom, and application of the great poem to a small life”).

The point of my essay is that it’s a false choice to say you can either have Duck Dynasty or you can have Dante — but it’s a choice that many of us accept as realistic. We’re classical education people, but when we had satellite TV, we watched Duck Dynasty in our house. I’ve written in defense of the show many times in this space, and I even took the kids on a pop-culture pilgrimage to the Duck mothership in West Monroe. As Reynolds points out, an authentic life is one that makes use of all the things within it, discerning things of worth from the worthless, keeping the good and throwing out the bad, and creating something new in the process.

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The Left’s Crush on Islamism

Fantastic essay by Michael Walzer in Dissent magazine, questioning his own side — the Left — on its bizarre unwillingness to confront radical Islam. He says the concept of “Islamophobia” is a left-wing way to shut down critical discussion about Islam — a discussion that the Left is perfectly willing to have about other religions. Excerpts:

For myself, I live with a generalized fear of every form of religious militancy. I am afraid of Hindutva zealots in India, of messianic Zionists in Israel, and of rampaging Buddhist monks in Myanmar. But I admit that I am most afraid of Islamist zealots because the Islamic world at this moment in time (not always, not forever) is especially feverish and fervent. Indeed, the politically engaged Islamist zealots can best be understood as today’s crusaders.

Is this an anti-Muslim position, not a fear but a phobia—and a phobia that grows out of prejudice and hostility? Consider a rough analogy (all analogies are rough): if I say that Christianity in the eleventh century was a crusading religion and that it was dangerous to Jews and Muslims, who were rightly fearful (and some of them phobic)—would that make me anti-Christian? I know that crusading fervor isn’t essential to the Christian religion; it is historically contingent, and the crusading moment in Christian history came and, after two hundred years or so, went. Saladin helped bring it to an end, but it would have ended on its own. I know that many Christians opposed the Crusades; today we would call them Christian “moderates.” And, of course, most eleventh-century Christians weren’t interested in crusading warfare; they listened to sermons urging them to march to Jerusalem and they went home. Still, it is true without a doubt that in the eleventh century, much of the physical, material, and intellectual resources of Christendom were focused on the Crusades.

The Christian Crusades have sometimes been described as the first example of Islamophobia in the history of the West. The crusaders were driven by an irrational fear of Islam. I suppose that’s right; they were also driven by an even more irrational fear of Judaism. They were fierce and frightening religious “extremists,” and that assertion is not anti-Christian.

He’s right about that. As I’ve said here in the past, if I were a Jew in medieval Europe, the argument that anti-Jewish persecution isn’t “true Christianity” might be abstractly true, but it would also be completely useless. The news would not have reached my Christian neighbors, or the Church. Similarly, even if it were true that waging jihad on infidels is not “true Islam,” of what use is that to the infidels in the way of ISIS, and Boko Haram? More Walzer:

There are perfectly legitimate criticisms that can be made not only of Islamist zealots but also of Islam itself—as of any other religion. Pascal Bruckner argues that the term “Islamophobia” was “a clever invention because it amounts to making Islam a subject that one cannot touch without being accused of racism.” The term was first used, he claims, to condemn Kate Millett for calling upon Iranian women to take off their chadors. I don’t know who “invented” Islamophobia, but it is worth repeating Bruckner’s key point: there has to be room for feminists like Millett and for all the militant atheists and philosophical skeptics to say their piece about Islam—and also about Christianity and Judaism—and to find an audience if they can. Call them to account for bad arguments, but their critical work should be welcome in a free society.

Also true. Just because somebody criticizes Christianity doesn’t make them anti-Christian. They may in fact be bigoted against Christianity, but criticism alone doesn’t prove that. Same with Islam. One more Walzer bit:

The left has always had difficulty recognizing the power of religion. Aren’t all religions the ideological tools of the ruling class? And aren’t all millenialist and messianic uprisings the ideologically distorted response of subaltern groups to material oppression? Religious zealotry is a superstructural phenomenon and can only be explained by reference to the economic base. These ancient convictions are particularly obfuscating today. Parvez Ahmed, a Florida professor who is fully cognizant of the “scourge” of Boko Haram, provides a typical example in a recent blog. He argues that “much of the violence [committed] in the name of Islam is less motivated by faith and more so by poverty and desperation.” Similarly, Kathleen Cavanaugh from the National University of Ireland, writing on the Dissent website, insists that “the violent and oppressive actions [of ISIS] have little to do with religion per se,” but rather are “underpinned” by material interests. But is this right? Why don’t poverty, desperation, and material interests produce a leftist rather than an Islamist mobilization? In fact, the religious revival, not only among Muslims but around the world, among Jews and Christians, Hindus and Buddhists, has enlisted supporters from all social classes, and the driving motive of revivalist activity seems, incredibly, to be religious faith (Fawaz Gerges’s Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy provides ample evidence of religion’s power).

This is quite true. I find that most people on the secular Left simply do not understand how religion works.

Read the whole thing. 

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Walker Percy Bleg 2015

Readers, I am meeting today with a couple of co-organizers of the Walker Percy Weekend 2015, set for June 5-7 in St. Francisville. We are going to finalize the programming. I’d like to know if any of you would be able and willing to participate in any of the following panels. Note well that at this point, we can’t pay an honorarium; we can only comp your hotel and meals. You’d be coming out of love for Percy and Southern literature, and also because the beer is cold, the food is great, and so is the company.

This year, we are going to have two Percy-focused panels, and two panels that have to do with Southern literature in the broadly Percyan orbit. We have not settled on any one panel topic yet; we are just talking about them now, but we have to decide very soon. Things we’re thinking about for this year are:

1. Stoicism, Christianity, and the Religion of the South. Percy observed that Christianity in the South was heavily informed by Stoicism, and indeed was in some cases more Stoic than Christian. Percy wrote a memorable essay about how the South’s more Stoic form of Christianity crippled its response to the civil rights movement. We’d like this panel to talk about what Percy meant by the South being more Stoic than Christian, and the extent to which that still remains the case in an America that Percy (rightly, I think) called “post-Christian.”

2. Walker Percy & David Foster Wallace. We will definitely do a Percy/DFW panel, but we’re not sure quite how to approach it. One idea is to compare the themes in The Moviegoer and Infinite Jest — that is, how both of them discuss entertainment (specifically, moviegoing) as a way to buffer oneself from the experience of life. Another one is to compare Walker Percy’s view of life with David Foster Wallace’s, as expressed in DFW’s famous commencement address, “This Is Water.” DFW killed himself; Percy, a member of a family prone to suicide, died a natural death, and wrote in praise of the “ex-suicide.” This blog post from 2013 encapsulates the discussion I would love for us to have at the panel. 

3. Wendell Berry and the Work of Local Culture. A discussion of the sense of place in Berry, and what we rootless moderns can learn from it. Or (and?), comparing Percy’s ideas about place and authenticity with Berry’s.

4. Why Flannery O’Connor Still Matters To the Modern South. Basically I want the great Ralph Wood, who was one of our most popular speakers, last year, to come back and talk about his wonderful book. It would be nice to have one or two speakers to respond to a Wood presentation.

5. Shelby Foote & the Civil War. This year marks the 150th year of the end of the Civil War. I don’t know the historian (and dear friend of Percy’s) Shelby Foote’s work, but it seems right to attempt to put together a discussion of it this year. Ideas? Nota bene, we are not looking for a general discussion of the Civil War, but one tied directly to Foote’s historical writing on the topic.

Any other ideas? I mean, ideas for panel discussions, and for speakers? E-mail me at rod (at) amconmag.com if you’d rather not respond in the comments section.

 

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American Dream to American Nightmare

The Washington Post has a piece today on how a Prince George’s County family, Ghanaian immigrants, went from living the American dream to being bankrupt, via their mortgage. Excerpt:

A decade ago, Comfort and Kofi were at the apex of an astonishing journey they had made from Ghana in 1997, when they had won a visa lottery to come to America. They did not know it at the time, but they were also at the midpoint in their odyssey from American Dream to American Nightmare.

Today, they struggle under nearly $1 million in debt that they will never be able to repay on the 3,292-square-foot, six-bedroom, red-brick Colonial they bought for $617,055 in 2005. The Boatengs have not made a mortgage payment in 2,322 days — more than six years — according to their most recent mortgage statement. Their plight illustrates how some of the people swallowed up by the easy credit era of the previous decade have yet to reemerge years later.

When they moved into the house in November 2005, Kofi was earning $82,740 as an IT consultant for a government contractor, and Comfort, then 43, was making $30,000 as an administrative assistant. But in the overheated mortgage market of the time, they said everyone told them that they could buy a $600,000 house.

They made a $60,000 down payment and all their mortgage payments for more than 2½ years — through September 2008. But the house was financed with subprime loans, which reset to higher rates after short time periods, creating what are known as “shock payments.” The Boatengs said they could not make their new higher payment, and, in the middle of the 2008 mortgage crisis, they could not refinance.

“I think the hardest part was the beginning,” said Kofi, now 55. “It was when I realized we really lost something. . . . Initially, we were arguing. But I guess it was because we were blaming each other for a mistake we both made.”

More:

“I don’t think we really understood everything,” Comfort said. “It’s very difficult to deal with everything, especially when you’re dealing with this huge document that you don’t really understand. We didn’t take it too hard that this was going to be a problem. We thought we’d be able to manage it.”

If you read the whole thing, you may think: what kind of morons allow themselves to be suckered into a trap like this? It all seems so obvious now. But as someone who bought a house at the same time as the Boatengs, I have some sympathy for them.

Julie and I are naturally scared sh*tless conservative about going into debt, and our fear meant that we were not going to do what it seemed like everyone else was doing back then, which was to “buy as much house as you can.” We bought a modest house in a transitional neighborhood. It was as much house as we needed, and we could easily afford it. Yet five years later, trying to sell it after the crash, we ended up losing about $50,000 on it — and were incredibly grateful to have gotten it off our hands. We were living in Philly then, and paying apartment rent and a Dallas mortgage. The loss ate a huge chunk of our nest egg, but we were lucky. One of my Templeton colleagues had to sell a house in the DC suburbs when he took a job at the foundation; he and his wife lost over $200,000 on the deal.

If not for our fear — and thank God for it — Julie and I could have easily been led into getting ourselves into a situation not too far removed from the Boatengs’. Understand, I don’t think they were innocent victims; nobody held a gun to their heads and made them build a $600,000 house. The point is, it should not have been so easy for them to borrow money. They were dazzled by their dreams, and told by the system that this size house was affordable. Let me emphasize: the Boatengs are ultimately responsible for their own choices. But they are not alone; the government and the banking industry created a system that made it easy for people to fall into this trap.

A real estate agent in Dallas told me back in 2005 that everything was bound to crash. She was trying to steer people to houses they could afford, but many, many of them — especially minorities — demanded to see more luxurious houses. The banks were throwing money at these buyers. “A lot of these people are one paycheck away from not being able to make their mortgage payments,” she said. “But the lenders are still approving them.”

I remember sitting at the closing of my Dallas house, as well as the house in Louisiana that we bought last summer, thinking about how little I understood what was in those contracts. I mean, I’m not a dummy, yet the world of real estate and financing is utterly opaque to me. We put ourselves wholly into the hands of our agent, and other representatives of the system. Even if one’s agent is a responsible, upright person, he is only a person, and is subject to the same kinds of groupthink pressures as everybody else.

When we were going through the process of buying our current house — and by the way, on our income, and with our credit record, we could have been approved for a significantly more expensive house — I remembered how it felt to sweat out those six months in Philly until we sold the Dallas house. I recalled the cold fear as I watched our savings drop with each passing month that the house hadn’t sold. That was the time that I first became sick with mono, though it wouldn’t be diagnosed for two more years. Within three months, I had moved across the country, started a new job, learned that my sister was dying of cancer, and had to sit there watching our savings evaporate as we paid that Dallas mortgage in the depth of the bust, with the real prospect that we would not be able to sell the place. The stress of all that made me physically sick. I never, ever want to be in that position again, if I can help it.

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Small Is Delicious

Great Raft Brewing, Shreveport. Beer from here. (Photo by Shreveport-Bossier Convention & Visitors Bureau/Flickr)
Great Raft Brewing, Shreveport. Beer from here. (Photo by Shreveport-Bossier Convention & Visitors Bureau/Flickr)

Tim Wu explores niches in our economy in which mass producers can’t compete. Why do craft brewers succeed, even though their beer is significantly more expensive than mass-produced beer? Wu:

Their beers were not better advertised and certainly not better priced. Rather, the crafts went after an enormous blind spot for the big breweries—namely, flavor. I don’t entirely mean to be snide; more precisely, craft beer succeeded by opting not to compete directly, instead pursuing what can be called a “true differentiation” strategy. That means they established a product that, in the mind of the consumer, is markedly and undeniably different (as opposed to “false differentiation,” which is more or less the same thing with different packaging). True differentiation, if it works, actually changes consumer preferences. The dedicated craft-beer drinker, once he’s hooked, no longer cares if Coors Light costs three dollars less. Today there are once again thousands of breweries in the United States (more than 3,000, in fact).

You can see the strategy of true differentiation at work in other areas of the economy as well. Farmers who sell, say, organic or free-range foods, cannot hope to compete based on price. Instead, they try to create consumers who won’t eat chicken produced by big companies for moral, health, or aesthetic reasons. As Jaime Rogers, the owner of Pushcart, a small chain of coffee shops in New York, put it to me, “We compete with Starbucks by selling to people who don’t want to go to Starbucks.” Independent bookstores (whose sales are actually rising) can’t beat Amazon on price or selection. But they can curate intensely and make the act of browsing for books an enjoyable experience that cannot be matched online. True, the differentiated product is often more expensive, but a craft beer or a fancy coffee, unlike, say, a Lamborghini, is not beyond the reach of the middle class.

On the beer thing, that’s definitely true. If the only beer available in a particular situation is Coors, Bud, or Miller, I’ll drink Coke Zero instead. It’s not a snob thing; it’s that once you’ve accustomed yourself to the taste of the real thing, the pale imitation cannot satisfy, only irritate.

Regarding bookstores, Eighth Day Books in Wichita is a perfect example of what Wu’s talking about. I can’t think of another bookstore where you go in and discover books that you didn’t know you wanted, precisely because the experience of shopping there has been so well curated by owner Warren Farha. It’s not an all-purpose bookstore, but a bookstore aimed at people who are serious about Christianity (e.g., they don’t sell masscult Christian books), literature, philosophy, and the arts. If I weren’t a Christian, I would haunt that bookstore if I lived in Wichita, because its selection of books on poetry, art, and philosophy is so rich. Aside from what you can buy there, Eighth Day offers an experience of a bookstore that you rarely find anywhere nowadays. It feels like a destination. The reason it can’t be franchised is that there’s only one Warren Farha.

I think about where we bought wine when we lived in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn: Heights Chateau. It was a neighborhood wine store where the selection was excellent, and the staff knew your tastes, and so could be helpful when you came in not knowing what you wanted. You can’t get that buying wine at Costco — and you can’t always get it from a small wine shop, if the staff is brusque. Shopping at Heights Chateau was such a pleasure that they probably ended up selling me more wine than I would otherwise have bought, simply because they knew what I liked, and when I would walk in would suggest that I try this or that bottle that I never would have discovered on my own. I learned a lot about wine from this ordinary commercial relationship, because it was, to use Wu’s word, so well-curated.

Another, more cynical way of looking at this is to say that these merchants do a much more sophisticated job of doing what all marketers do: make you want things you didn’t want before. At one level, that’s true. But here’s the difference: coming to desire things like unfamiliar books or wine is not only about satisfaction, but about learning. When I would shop at the Brooklyn wine store, I never got the feeling that they were trying to move the merch, and snooker me into buying things. It was rather a relationship in which the staff knew that I was a novice about wine, and curious to know more, and they saw it as their business to further my education, within my limited budget. What they had was a passion for wine, and they were eager to share that passion with their customers. You could treat it as a mere exchange of money for goods, and they would be fine with that. But if you wanted more, there it was, and nowhere else in the neighborhood at that time. Same deal with Eighth Day. You go there for the books, but you keep coming back for the experience of learning more about the world of ideas and the pleasure of words, provided by someone who loves them as much or more than you do.

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Crunchy Cons: Not Dead Yet

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It has been nine years since Crunchy Cons was published, and the thing still has legs. From an op-ed in New Statesman by Nigel Dodds, an MP from Belfast:

Justin Welby rebuts the idea “that if we fix the economy, the fixing of human beings will follow. This is a lie,” he starkly says. When opponents of this truth contend the churches shouldn’t “poke their noses into politics”, I, as a politician, say politics has done a lot of poking over the years and everyone else should feel free to poke back. A capitalism that conservative-minded Christians can live with is one that Rod Dreher, the American advocate of “Crunchy Conservatism”, has summed up very well. We’ve got to call greed to account; we’ve got to be as sceptical of big business as we are of big government; and all our hopes for any economic system should be rooted in humility and restraint. Mrs Thatcher, as she was in some other matters, was wrong about the Good Samaritan. What mattered was not that he had hard cash but that he had good intentions. The Archbishops have them too and conservatives of every stripe should listen and learn.

Thank you, Nigel Dodds! Yesterday I received this letter from a new reader of the book. I post it with his permission:

Hello, Rod. I don’t know how often you get mail from someone who has just discovered Crunchy Cons after all these years, but I just finished reading the book last night and wanted to thank you so much for a marvelous piece of writing.

I have been reading your stuff the last couple of years and have seen Crunchy Cons mentioned by others numerous times. My reaction was always, “Oh, that looks good; I should read it sometime.” Of course I never got around to it. But lately I’ve been doing a lot of reading on distributism and Catholic social teaching, and at some point it hit me – “This is what Rod Dreher must’ve been talking about in Crunchy Cons!” And so I read it, and not only did I find that it resonated perfectly with the ideas of distributism that I’ve been learning about, but also with my own lifetime intellectual and spiritual trajectory.

I was raised in a rural, middle class home in Kentucky just one generation removed from agrarian poverty. My parents (a factory worker and school teacher) were Baptists and New Deal liberals. I grew up with their values, except that in high school I took on a much more radical stance after reading Gandhi’s autobiography and encountering Charles Reich’s book, The Greening of America. By the time I entered college I was probably the youngest card-carrying member of the Democratic Socialists of America, and spent a lot of time involved in various kinds of campus activitism. This was the late 1980s and early 90s.

My particular brand of socialism was extremely communitarian, even though I didn’t have that word to describe it at the time, or to articulate why the Left’s obsession with identity politics and the ever-expanding welfare state left me a bit cold. Their solutions were simultaneously too ideological and too technical. There wasn’t nearly enough of MLK’s “beloved community” in that kind of political milieu.

After going to work as a teacher in public schools in my mid-20s, I became thoroughly disenchanted with big government solutions to our social ills, and my politics veered off in a decidedly libertarian direction. I liked to celebrate the linkages between some of the anarchist and other socialist radicals of the early 20th century, and the idea of creating meaningful (and more just) social structures through local, voluntary action rather than the coercive power of government.

Along the way I become a convert to Catholicism, but at first I held a very postmodern, cafeteria-style approach to my faith. It was after my wife and I started a family (our kids are 5 and 2) that I got much more serious about my faith life, and have come to really appreciate the wisdom and discipline of traditional Christian doctrine and liturgy. I started to think of myself as a conservative in the more classical, T.S. Eliot/Russell Kirk sort of way. The exuberant, life-is-all-about-personal-fulfillment ethos that my libertarian friends celebrate seems more of a grave threat to the way I’m trying to raise my children and lead my family.

The Obama years have led me to a place of real disenchantment with politics. This regime has demonstrated the outright hostility the modern Democratic party has for traditional values, and for genuine democratic processes, for that matter. The Tea Party has brought a kind of anti-establishment spirit that resonates for me, but still leaves me dissatisfied. My own senator, Rand Paul, says many things that I like but I can’t help but feel that Tea Party pseudo-libertarianism is still rooted in the same Lockean anthropology of political rights that feeds the narcissistic individualism of both the Big Government Left and the Big Business Right.

And then here we have the crunchy cons. It was so terrific to be affirmed in the things I’ve been struggling with and yearning for in recent years. Along with the distributist writers I’ve been studying, I can now see a logical and necessary connection between the kind of communitarian radicalism of my youth and the religious and cultural traditionalism I’ve embraced in my 40s. My intellectual and spiritual world has a coherence that I couldn’t recognize in the polarized, hysterical world defined by Fox News and MSNBC.

I’m trying to apply some of these concepts in my professional life as well as my personal life. These days I train teachers who aspire to be administrators in public schools. This is an awkward place to be since I’ve become extremely dissatisfied with traditional pedagogical methods that still predominate in both public and parochial schools. I’ve come to have a radical confidence in families and the communities they voluntarily populate to shape the learning experiences of their children, and I write about this sometimes on my blog: http://schoolleader.typepad.com.

For me personally this means that I’ll probably be sending my kids to the local Catholic school, at least while they are still young, but I’m also constantly reflecting on the possibilities of homeschooling them at some point, and how I could do that effectively, and that what means for someone who works within the institutions of traditional schooling. I don’t know if what I’m doing really qualifies as the Benedict Option, since I remain deeply immersed in the world of public schools, but it feels nevetheless a kind of prophetic calling to be in this world, but not of it, and witness to a different set of values and assumptions.

Sorry for the long message. I just want to say thanks for the book, and for the ministry of your writing in general. I feel like I know you and your family through your public writing and have a great appreciation that you have shared so much of your own personal journey with the rest of the world so that we might be blessed by it and find echoes of our own stories.

May God richly bless you and whatever comes next in your journey. I look forward to reading about it.

Gary W. Houchens, PhD

Dr. Houchens, your senator, Rand Paul, self-identifies as a crunchy con. He seems to believe that a crunchy con is a conservative who loves the great outdoors. It’s a lot more than that, but I’m happy to have Sen. Paul sign on.

How gratifying it is that the vision of that book still reaches people. Have you read it yet? Here’s a link to the Kindle edition.

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Juno Open Thread

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Hey readers in the Northeast, if you have power, check in here and tell the rest of us what’s going on with the blizzard at your place. Send photos if you like (rod – at – amconmag.com), and I’ll post them if I can. I’m going to be out of pocket much of Tuesday on business, but I’ll update the blog when I can.

UPDATE: That’s an image of Providence, RI, that Chris sent.

UPDATE.2: 

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The reader writes:

We are in South shore of Long Island, NY. We haven’t gotten anywhere near as much as anticipated. But it’s still a healthy amount of snow. With any luck we won’t lose power and the wind will die down enough for the kids to play outside a bit.

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The reader writes:

It’s 15 degrees and snowing sideways with 24 m.p.h. winds gusting to 32 here in my town (Agawam) in Western Massachusetts. With such high winds it’s hard to get a read on how much snow has fallen but the picture is of a small table on my patio with a standard 750ml wine bottle placed for perspective. The storm started later than expected but it’s been steady throughout the night and all this morning. My flight to Ft. Lauderdale (scheduled last month) leaves at 8:05 Saturday morning.

KIMG0008 KIMG0008

The reader, from near Boston, writes:

Hey Rod, Here is the view from my 2nd floor front porch.

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How Stable Is Saudi Arabia?

Crown Prince Salman, left, confers with King Abdullah in 2012. Now Salman is the Saudi king (Photo: Tribes of the World/Flickr)
Crown Prince Salman, left, confers with King Abdullah in 2012. Now Salman is the Saudi king (Photo: Tribes of the World/Flickr)

King Salman inherits a mess, says the WaPo:

No king of Saudi Arabia has ascended the throne amid more regional turmoil than King Salman, who was crowned Friday upon the death of his brother King Abdullah.

With war raging in Syria and tensions with Iran increasing, Saudi Arabia is threatened by a disintegration of the national government in Yemen across its southern border and by the Islamic State militants who are dominating the Iraqi desert just over its northern border.

Salman indirectly mentioned the threat of rising violence and regional instability on Friday in his first speech to the Saudi people, saying that “the Arab and Islamic nation is in dire need today to be united and maintain solidarity.”

Militants have staged four attacks inside the kingdom in the past six months, resulting in the deaths of eight civilians, 11 police or border guards and 13 militants, according to Saudi officials.

As in the recent attacks in Paris on the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper and a kosher supermarket, most of the Saudi attacks have been carried out by homegrown radicals influenced or trained by the Islamic State, al-Qaeda or other extremist groups. Saudi authorities said that they have arrested 293 people in connection with the incidents and that 260 of them are Saudi nationals.

Germany has reportedly just ceased selling hundreds of billions of dollars worth of arms to Saudi Arabia:

Germany has decided to stop arms exports to Saudi Arabia because of “instability in the region,” German daily Bild reported on Sunday.

Weapons orders from Saudi Arabia have either been “rejected, pure and simple,” or deferred for further consideration, the newspaper said, adding that the information has not been officially confirmed.

The decision was taken on Wednesday by the national security council, a government body that includes Chancellor Angela Merkel, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and seven other ministers, it said.

“According to government sources, the situation in the region is too unstable to ship arms there,” added the daily.

Military analyst John Robb continues to argue that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a lot more vulnerable than many of us seem to think. Excerpt:

  • ISIS is an aggressively expansionist fundamentalist jihad.  It kills, enslaves, or routs unbelievers, moderates, apostates, etc. wherever it finds them, which is the ultimate manifestation of Wahhabi fundamentalism.

  • Unfortunately for the KSA, this is the same belief system underlying the legitimacy of the House of Saud and the same fundamentalism the Kingdom has spent the last century beating into the heads of their subjects.

  • This means that ISIS is moral kryptonite.  A kryptonite built specifically to kill the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  A kryptonite that breaks down the moral cohesion that binds the KSA together.  A kryptonite that creates competitive centers of gravity that will rip the country apart.

    Did you know that half the Saudi population is 25 or younger? Did you know that the youth unemployment rate in the Kingdom is staggeringly high, with little realistic prospect of that changing? You can buy people off for a while, but they’re not going to be willing to live like that forever. It’s insane, of course, to think that an ISIS-ruled Saudi Arabia would be better for people than the fundamentalist al-Saud regime, but people don’t think rationally in these situations.

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