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Dreher’s Crunchy Cons and Paleoconservatism

In Crunchy Cons, [Rod] Dreher reports on the amazing depth and scope of this phenomenon, which is redefining the taxonomy of America’s political and cultural landscape. At a time when the Republican party, and the conservative movement in general, is bitterly divided over what it means to be a conservative, Dreher introduces us to people who are pioneering a way back to the future by reclaiming what’s best in conservativism—people who believe that being a truly committed conservative today means protecting the environment, standing against the depredations of big business, returning to traditional religion, and living out conservative godfather Russell Kirk’s teaching that the family is the institution most necessary to preserve.

The thesis of this book was apparently the topic of some extended intra-NRO squabbling three years ago. Normally I would say, along with the Tsarist from Darkness at Noon, “The wolves are devouring each other!” But with the forthcoming release of Mr. Dreher’s book, his idea of “crunchy cons” might deserve some more sympathetic consideration.

Of course, when I hear the word “crunchy” in a political context, I think of it the way that I have seen the English use it. I happen to know that Mr. Dreher does not mean the same thing–his crunchiness refers to, I am not kidding, granola. In political chatter, “crunchy” is usually something more liberal and “wet” sorts say about their curmudgeonish, vaguely reactionary neighbours, which is to say normal people. I think Viktor Orban, leader of the center-right Fidesz and former prime minister of Hungary, was once described by The Economist as “crunchy,” and I was pretty sure this was not intended as a compliment.

Here is a “manifesto” from the book description:

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.

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.”

Sound familiar? Granola aside, Mr. Dreher’s “crunchiness” refers to some sort of traditional, humane conservatism. The manifesto listed in the book description would go over much better with a roomful of paleos than with a lot of Mr. Dreher’s colleagues at The Corner. Indeed, the very idea of “crunchy cons” has had Jonah Goldberg tying himself in knots–this has got to be proof that Mr. Dreher is doing something right. The 2002 article that began this inside-baseball furore, continued by Jonah “Lie for a Just Cause” Goldberg, is here.

Mr. Dreher should be applauded for recognising and praising conservatives who love the small and particular and treasure authenticity and the Beautiful, and also for being one. It is fascinating that someone who understands conservatism in this way still hangs on at NR, if only because it is such an unexpected thing. If Mr. Goldberg cannot quite grasp what Mr. Dreher is saying, perhaps he should look in the mirror or glance over FoxNews or the Standard to see the lock-step fanaticism that passes for conservatism in the “mainstream.”

(I had an encounter with a liberal friend of mine similar to one that Mr. Dreher described in his article, where my friend assured me that I must be against historic preservation, presumably because I tended to be against government regulation. He was quite astonished for some reason to find that I, an aspiring historian, put store by preserving historic buildings.)

In one sense, Mr. Goldberg has been right: there is nothing new about the “crunchy cons” (not that Dreher said that there was), at least not as far as their more general principles are concerned. Particular eccentricities of taste and habit are neither here nor there (I don’t much care for vegetables, organic and fresh or not), and it would be a stupid mistake (one that Goldberg makes) to think that any one particularity of Mr. Dreher’s “crunchy cons” constitutes some sort of philosophical claim–rather each different habit represents a commitment to smallness and particularity to which, I suspect, Mr. Goldberg is simply allergic.

Except for the fact that I doubt that paleos could ever actually have a “manifesto” with positions, the manifesto of crunchiness accords pretty well with what I believe, as far as it goes, and might not be entirely out of place in the pages of Chronicles. The gentlemen there have been preaching for a great many years that small is beautiful, that the natural world should be preserved in responsible, “homocentric” stewardship as God has ordained, that corporations are often the bane of local communities and humane life and that the crass practise of consumerism and debased popular culture were rotting America out from the inside. They have said all this and more, and have long represented the non-ideological, humane conservatism Mr. Dreher hints at, but it is good that Mr. Dreher has begun writing about some of the same sorts of things.

Consider Mr. Dreher’s description of himself and his family:

It never occurred to me that eating organic vegetables was a political act, but my colleague’s comment got me to thinking about other ways my family’s lifestyle is countercultural. Julie is a stay-at-home mom who is beginning to homeschool our young son. We worship at an “ethnic” Catholic church because we can’t take the Wonder Bread liturgy at the Roman parish down the street. We are as suspicious of big business as we are of big government. We rarely watch TV, disdain modern architecture and suburban sprawl, avoid shopping malls, and spend our money on good food we prepare at home. My wife even makes her own granola.

In other words, everything that is fake, hollow and dangerous about modernity appears fake, hollow and dangerous to Mr. Dreher and his family. Perhaps before long Mr. Dreher will start singing the praises of agrarianism–okay, let’s not get carried away. His disdain for “Wonder Bread liturgy” shows an intuitive drive for meaningful, traditional religion, and his suspicion of big business is both perfectly sane in itself and the natural response of the lover of the local, the community, the personal, the normal and the good. Home-schooling is the normal and natural thing to do. Naturally, Goldberg chastises him on this score and calls home-schooling a “retreat.” A retreat from what? Trying to rehabilitate a far-gone school system that is dedicated to alienated our children from everything that is theirs and teaches them to despise their own history and people?

Elsewhere he says, “we are citizens before we are consumers.” Who else has said that? Oh, yes–Pat Buchanan. That is what really gets Goldberg’s goat–Rod Dreher has started preaching Russell Kirk-style conservatism and a sort of paleo-lite, and I think Goldberg is shocked to find that sort of thing back in the pages of NR after he and his have done their best to get rid of it. What is more, Mr. Dreher seems to have reached his views through living what seems to him to be the most sane, humane and normal way of life possible. Perhaps the lesson is that a sane life will lead you to believe many of the same things that paleos believe, for the simple reason that we derive our understanding from the broad sweep of Western tradition, have gleaned its wisdom for humane and sane living and endeavour to follow it. Except for the apparent preoccupation with granola (who likes granola?), this makes a lot of sense. That it can no longer really make a lot of sense to Goldberg et al. is not surprising–Kirk’s “permanent things” rank pretty far down their list of priorities these days, if they were ever on it.

What Goldberg and his ilk presumably cannot grasp is how far removed “mainstream” conservatism and a great many “conservatives” are from Mr. Dreher’s sort of conservatism. He can whine that conservatives have always been diverse, and they’ve always believed this or that from Mr. Dreher’s article, so Mr. Dreher’s ‘discovery’ is not important or new, but this misses the point entirely. Contrary to Goldberg, what Mr. Dreher is talking about has nothing to do with the left–his target audience is pretty clearly self-styled conservatives, crunchy and otherwise, because he finds, quite correctly, that the non-crunchy sorts really have fallen prey to vapid, ideological thinking in large numbers.

Thus Mr. Dreher writes in a different article:

I could give you lots of examples like that from my own experience, and those of people I hear from. The point is that too many conservatives, consciously or not, behave as if conservatism were synonymous with unrestricted capitalism. Of course, free-market capitalism is the most dynamic and revolutionary force in the world, which can be both a good and a bad thing. As Jonah points out, it’s not exactly news that there are and have always been conservatives critical of the destruction capitalism wreaks on institutions. But that is not the impression you would get from the media (for obvious reasons), and that is certainly not the impression I think many rank-and-file conservatives have about the movement. Conservatives can be quite politically correct within their own circles.

And again:

Again, I think Jonah doesn’t appreciate the gap between theory and the way conservatism is actually lived in this country. Tell me, where can we find the conservatives who rail against the “world smudged by industrialism,” and who resist mass standardization when that mass standardization saves them some money at Wal-Mart? You will find them in the camp that calls itself “crunchy;” you will not find them among the broader channel of contemporary conservatism, many of whose members will cheer the construction of a polluting factory down the street, so they can get jobs there and make big money so that they can rush down to the mall to buy a big-screen TV and a satellite dish.

The only thing that strikes me as a bit odd is how Mr. Dreher, having said all that he has said, could still like Rush Limbaugh. Mr. Limbaugh is a living example of the very sort of lock-step GOP-led conformity Mr. Dreher’s crunchy folk reject–he went from amusing radio entertainer and a sort of moderate GOP populist to an unabashed tool of the forces that gutted and destroyed whatever was good in the conservative movement. Possessed of some of the instincts of Middle America, he became one of many East Coast talking heads whose views changed to match his new status. As my father has observed, he went from being entertaining and genuinely quite funny to deadly serious and morosely party-line.

But if Mr. Dreher has received the impression that contemporary “conservatives” are rigidly ideological, mindlessly loyal to party and sell-outs to the corporate-government condominium it is because Mr. Goldberg and legions of Mr. Bush’s supporters have given him that impression. If Mr. Dreher makes his article an opposition between “crunchy cons” and Republicans, it is because most non-crunchy types accept whatever is good for the GOP and define their beliefs accordingly. They may not be so cynical about it, but over time “mainstream conservatives” have reinvented conservatism to suit GOP designs to the point where the humane and thinking conservative, such as Mr. Dreher’s “crunchy cons” seem to be, finds that he cannot desire good order while agreeing with the propositions the GOP endorses.

Mr. Dreher says again:

There are four basic areas that are touchstones for crunchy conservatives: Religion, the Natural World, Beauty, and Family.

If he has not already done so, Mr. Dreher might profit from consulting the latest Chronicles, “The Beauty of Holiness: Building for Eternity” (I am especially keen on Claude Polin’s brilliant essay, “Conservatism as Medicine”) or look over any one of dozens of Chilton Williamson’s columns on life in the West (or his new book) with its frequent descriptions of nature and the natural beauty of the West written with what seems to me to be deep veneration. As for traditional religion (namely Christianity) and family, the constant and frequent affirmations of both in Chronicles are too numerous to mention and compare favourably with any other self-styled conservative magazine or journal of any type.

This is not just to put in a good word for Chronicles (which many, if not all, of my regular readers already read), but to make the point that there is a magazine to which the “crunchy cons” can turn for far more congenial, thoughtful, serious and humane conservative writing that they are likely to find at NR or at any of the other flagship magazines and journals. They will discover that in many of their rather ‘odd’ views they have tapped into a broad tradition of moral sanity that offends both the “conservative movement” of today and the left because it is deemed to be regressive and of no practical use.

Especially on the topic of religion I find Mr. Dreher’s “crunchy cons” very familiar. Indeed, I seem to be one without having known it. Here is Dreher again:

As you talk to religious crunchy cons, you find a surprising number who are religious converts of one sort or another, many of them to traditional Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. What they have in common is a craving for an older, more demanding kind of religion, a faith with backbone that stands against the softness of bourgeois Christianity.

As a convert to Orthodoxy for almost three years now, I suppose I must fit into the template of the “crunchy con” in at least this respect. Is it simply taking religion seriously that makes someone crunchy, or is it converting and taking it seriously that makes someone crunchy? I’m a bit unclear on that, but no matter. It is not even so much a question of seeking a “more demanding kind of religion,” as if we were approaching religion as if it were a kind of exercise, but one that is true and authoritative. There is, in fact, a certain lightness and ease of the burden in the life of the “demanding” churches, because the burden in question is a natural one–it is enduring dreadful Christian pop and sing-alongs that pass for worship that I would find far more demanding and taxing. The increased demands and greater “backbone” are a function of accepting and embracing the Truth and the richness of the Tradition.

Update: There is, as there had to be, a CrunchyCon blog.

I am very late in catching on to this development (avoiding NR like the plague does have its drawbacks), as I see that our friends at Caelum et Terra already commented on it some time ago.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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