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Spengler Takes on an Anti-Crunchy

Meilaender relishes the moment of eating junk food while talking about sports on television. Bread and circuses! Babylon! Pfui pfui!

Shame on this Pharisee, this Philistine! The “I’m all right Jack” response to Dreher’s criticism of American culture bespeaks the sort of intellectual coma that one finds in comic characters out of Coen brothers film. I can hear Meilaender chortle, “You betcha!” His denomination is disappearing because (as Dave Shiflett wrote in his fine book Exodus) Americans are seeking stronger doses of spirituality.

I don’t agree with Dreher about any number of things, but he is right to ring the alarm bell and — as I said in my review of his book — stand athwart the Conservative movement shouting, “Get a life!” Dreher, as I mentioned in my review, is at the top of my lists of authors worth having dinner with (his taste in food being a factor). Never will I dine with the tastless Meilaender. ~Spengler [1]

Via Rod Dreher [2]

In case anyone needed confirmation that the average anti-crunchy critique is as shallow and vapid as, well, the “mainstream conservative” mind that creates it, read the citation from Meilaender’s First Things review of Crunchy Cons (sorry, not online) in Spengler’s post. The Meilaender citation might as well have been acclamations, “Hail, ESPN the community-maker! Hail, Burger King the Deliverer! Go, Indians!” Does anyone now doubt that “mainstream conservatives” of the type Rod described exist? Does anyone doubt that they (and, to the extent that we all participate in these bad habits, we) are very far removed from the conservative vision of order?

Just consider the language Meilaender used to describe his veritable pilgrimage to the shrine of the Burger King: he wanted something “quick, inexpensive and good.” In other words, everything Rod was saying about family meals, communion, sacramentality is completely lost on this man who thinks that eating is about getting things quickly and cheaply and who mistakes Burger King fare for something good. It may be necessary, and it may have its uses in a crunch (no pun intended, really) on the road, but it is not “good” in any meaningful sense. But there was more–he wants it “his way,” as noble a consumer sentiment as there is, and he glories in the fact Burger King caters to his yearning for “choice.” When it comes to self-indulgence, he is a “pro-choice” man. There is no sense of anything at all amiss, from a specifically conservative perspective, in this preoccupation with choice and self-satisfaction.

Evidently there is no anxiety that consumerism is perhaps not exactly what contributes to eudaimonia, nor is there an inkling that eating glop while being entertained by modern circus factions might be in the least politically and morally enervating or that, if it were, conservatives should take a dim view of it. I have been known to enjoy watching professional sports as much as the next guy, but I am also aware of the entirely passive, addictive quality of such spectator sports and the vain and trivial passions they arouse over basically meaningless contests. There is a real problem with it, and the fact that I may find it satisfying suggests that there is something wrong with me and with the entire arrangement. It does not mean that I have discovered a little bit of heaven at the roadside Burger King talking about a pro baseball game with complete strangers.

In fact, using the word community in connection with fellow supporters of a pro baseball team, with whose city you don’t even have a personal connection, suggests that you have no idea what “community” is. This is not Meilaender’s problem alone. Entire generations of “conservatives” have grown up in rootless America not knowing what community really is, or grew up believing that the common good had something to do with Hillary Clinton trying to socialise health care, which is why they both virulently reject any attempt to promote community even as they lamely grasp onto whatever shreds of it they can find, because I suspect they know the desperate truth that man is not meant to live as so many of us do, but they have no idea how to change.

Men like choice, but one of the fundamental things that conservatives need to relearn is that choice is unnatural. We were not created with choice, a choosing will. We were created with free will, and the difference between the two is all-important. Our choosing, deliberative will is not only a product of our fallen state, but the source of our continuing waywardness. Prizing choice is like prizing doubt and uncertainty. It is not something to be prized, but something to be restrained and mortified.

Having options is all very well and good, and all things being equal everyone usually likes to have some selection (whether we should pursue what we like seems to be a basic divide here), but Mr. Meilaender has all but proudly declared that choice, speed, efficiency and low cost are the priorities in how he makes decisions in life. This is how a lot of people live, including a lot of conservatives. That is part of our present reality, and there are some conservatives who think that being conservative is affirming whatever the present reality is, provided that taxes continue to go lower. How would they know any better, when their “intellectual” and political leadership have been telling them as much for a generation or more? These, of course, are real problems in a traditional conservative vision and they are some of the main points of the book.

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6 Comments To "Spengler Takes on an Anti-Crunchy"

#1 Comment By JohnT On May 2, 2006 @ 12:41 am

First I couldn’t agree more. I’ve noticed that many fellow conservatives hear the language of the materialist left when they here our point of view. It will take time to show them that we are really on the same page. It is true that I’ve used terms like fascist corporations, because I work for one, and it really makes them bristle. I could choose better words, but if the shoe fits . . .

I don’t blame most conservatives for their views. The word community is almost a pejorative to some cons. Sure they like efficiency and it has its place. I read an article on Godspy about how modern city planning is anti-liturgical. Modern design is totally on a machine scale. There is not much in it for the individual. Again great post, and I will be back.

#2 Comment By Lee On May 2, 2006 @ 11:44 am

I’m sympathetic to the crunchy con outlook (see here: [3]; though I’m probably not as conservative as Dreher on some things), but I think this is unfair to Meilaender’s review as well as his larger body of work.

For starters, “Spengler” is wrong in identifying M. as some kind of decadent liberal Protestant. He is, I believe, a LCMS Lutheran, not a liberal ELCAer (like, say, me). Secondly Meilaender has done more than just about any contemporary Christian ethicist I can think of to fight the good fight against the tyranny of “choice” in the areas of bioethics. See, his books on bioethics, his writing for The New Atlantis as well as his work on the President’s bioethics council. Much of this work has been aimed at resisting our society’s desire to reduce human life itself to a commodity. I don’t think he can fairly be characterized as someone who thinks “choice” should be the organizing principle of life.

What I think Meilaender was getting at in his Crunchy Con reivew is that there are, after all, some things that are adiaphoria in the life of virtue. And even imperfect, mass-produced cultural artifacts can be vehicles of community and grace. I don’t see why those things can’t have their place in a good human life even if they don’t and shouldn’t make up the larger part of it (a point with which I’m sure Meilaender would agree).

#3 Comment By Daniel Larison On May 2, 2006 @ 12:53 pm

Thanks to you both for your comments. Obviously, I am working from an excerpt of the review, so I may have been too hasty in drawing very broad conclusions about Mr. Meilaender’s entire view. But if Mr. Meilaender is critical of the role of “choice” in bioethics, which is very good, why does this same criticism not extend to other things? Spengler could well be wrong about Mr. Meilaender’s Lutheranism, and that was not part of the post that I was going to take up and carry any farther.

There are indifferent things. There are not indifferent inclinations of the will. That is the main dispute that crunchies and critics seem to be having: the critics see criticisms of habits as criticisms of the things being used and conclude that we are neo-Puritans come to take away their Big Macs, rather than seeing them as criticisms of the effect using these things has on the life of the people in question.

It is not the things that are flawed or vicious (as part of the created order, we can even say that they are good), as the things themselves are not endowed with moral qualities, but they can create problems because of the passions they incite in us (which they are often designed to incite) and can become stumblingblocks to the extent that they lend themselves to vicious uses. We appreciate this to some degree with respect to visual culture, and even with respect to literary culture, but somehow when it comes to other areas excess and abuse seem much less troubling, or not troubling at all, to some conservatives.

The core of this dispute is that the critics seem to take it as given that food and domestic life, among other things, are basically meaningless things that have no symbolic weight or importance, which is a very odd view. In most traditional societies, these are the things invested with some the greatest significance. But since the critics adopt the view that they are essentially meaningless, value-neutral things, they are not only irrelevant to ethical life, but it is downright offensive for anyone to suggest that there is meaning attached to these things.

There is also the objection that these are differences of taste only, and that the entire project has been a valorisation of certain people’s tastes over those of others. Leave aside for a moment that a good sense of taste and discretion are worthwhile virtues that civilised people ought to want to to cultivate.

What is strange about this criticism is that conservative writers have been idiosyncratically “baptising” the most implausible things as conservative, finding some tiny redeeming feature in the work of writers, philosophers or artists that (surprise, surprise) reveals them to have actually been conservative and no one ever knew it. In the last two decades younger conservatives have gone even further, taking the quest to find the conservative message and moral in every bad movie and trashy TV series around. This is not to find true value where it actually resides, but to legitimise vehicles of cultural degeneracy. When it comes to mass media and music, conservatives tend to much more aware of the garbage we and our kids are swallowing when we partake of these media products. Some respond by opting for “wholesome” programming (like the ever-more ridiculous Seventh Heaven) or by supporting the depressingly bad alternative of Christian pop music, others by throwing out the tube, but a great many by shrugging their shoulders and accepting the norms being handed down to them. But at least with mass media there is a sense that there is something dangerous out there. With every other form of mass consumption, the caution and wariness seem to recede out of sight.

It is possible for anything in the created order to convey God’s energies and grace, but I don’t think it is a strange claim to say that some things obstruct our proper view more than others. Some things incite the passions more than others; there is need for discernment. And I would still insist that “communing” with fellow baseball fans at a Burger King by the highway is not anything like real community. A community must go beyond shared enthusiasms to some sort of shared life. This is why the near-ubiquitous use of the term community to describe sectors of society (“the business community,” “the civil rights community,” “the academic community,” etc.) is so distorting. There is the impression that if you are engaged in the same line of work, or share some general political views, you are in a community. But you aren’t. To be in a community, there has to be some level of familiarity and personal relationship. If we don’t hold on to certain basic definitions, we might as well concede that rock concerts are little communities in themselves.

If it possible to find “community” of some kind in expressions of common interest in sporting events, we would have to credit blogging as a sort of republic of the mind, which strikes me as very hard to credit (especially given the very low quality of most blog discussion). Blogging is what the alienated individual does to make some vain attempt to connect with people on an allegedly intellectual level, even as it avoids all real human contact and further isolates the individual. When we blog, for instance, we are not participating in real “community,” but have settled for a cheap knock-off version because we either believe we cannot or do not want to find the real thing around us. I understand attempts to find lasting meaning in the ephemera of modern mass life, but for the most part trying to find meaning in such artless things is probably an attempt to rationalise our own acceptance of a deeply disordered way of life.

If I saw the entire review, I might not have taken Meilaender to task quite so much, but his preference in the excerpt for the language of choice and efficiency and his invocation of the faux community of Indians fans points to a real problem in his response to the book. It suggests the same kind of visceral response crunchies have been getting since day one that can find its defense only in language that endorses “having it my way.” You can have it your way–you can be a libertarian. Being conservative has something to do with putting quite a few things ahead of “having it my way.” If we conservatives cannot all affirm at least that much together, conservatism is in sorrier shape than I thought.

#4 Comment By Victoria On May 3, 2006 @ 7:09 pm

Daniel,
This is an insightful post; I especially appreciate your analysis of blogging as I am a newbie at it and am curious to find out what lies behind the phenomenon.
In regard to the response of some to the crunchie view: I suspect that a lot of it is simply a reaction to the impression that they are being nagged. “For heaven’s sake, Mom, I know Burger King’s not good for me but would you please just leave me alone!” If guys can’t go and pick up a burger without being driven to a discussion of First and Last Things they will become discouraged. Practically speaking it is just too exhausting to fight battles on every front. Some choose to ignore the bad aspects of modern eating habits, or of movies, or what-have-you. But, as was pointed out previously, they may be doing very good work in another field.

#5 Comment By Daniel Larison On May 4, 2006 @ 12:20 am

I appreciate that there is a visceral response to feeling nagged behind some of the criticism, but feeling put upon is not a philosophical argument. If I had the impression that a lot of these critics embraced the substance of the critique and understood the need to examine their own lives in light of eternal verities, I would be thrilled. As I was trying to say, there may be occasions when grabbing a burger might be necessary on a busy day or unavoidable out on the road, but that we should acknowledge that there is something awry with this kind of life and our way of life could probably stand to be reformed.

Yes, there are only so many hours in the day, and you can’t do everything you might want to do to live a more humane life (and it is living a humane life of flourishing, of which virtue is a significant component but is not the only one, that is the goal), but what continues to escape me is why calling people to recognise the incompatibility of certain parts of modern life to which they have become indifferent or even inured with a humane life is so deeply offensive to so many. It is nothing that conservative writers have not done before (though I daresay few of them are doing this today), yet Rod’s particular expression of the same sentiments has ignited a kind of indignation normally reserved for communists. There may be people who are doing other “good work” and have paid much less attention to these aspects of life, but I would submit that our society will usually be better off with fewer activists pushing a particular policy change and fewer high-earners and more intact, healthy families.

What we should definitely not do is come up with clever arguments justifying the eating of the burger and backslapping about professional sports as sources of goodness and community, when I don’t think any reasonable conservative thinker in our tradition would look on these things with equanimity, much less the enthusiasm and self-justification that some lend to these habits. The problem with so many of the critics is not that they don’t like Rod’s prescriptions or that they don’t agree with everything he writes in the book (I, for one, do not share his alarm at the prospect of climate change), but that they are profoundly outraged that he has even thought to make a criticism of how other conservatives live (even though all social conservatives have been doing this for the country at large for decades).

#6 Comment By tedschan On September 8, 2006 @ 8:20 pm

Mr. Meilaender’s review is now available:
[4]