Since writing this review, I have become more familiar with Russell Kirk, to whom reference is often made in Crunchy Cons, and I think it is advisable, for the sake of readers who will be approaching this review already possessing such familiarity, to note that when I made critical reference to traditionalism, I was by no means criticizing the value of tradition as I perceive Kirk to have thought of it: that is, an established body of practice, of ways of doing things, that reflect much practical experience with the nature of man and the recognition of immutable, especially Divine, truth. Rather, when referring critically to traditionalism, I had in mind the unnecessary investment of authority in etablished ways of doing things, even if those ways of doing things made no sense or were outright contradictory to Holy Writ. One might think of Jesus' observation that the Pharisees were substituting the traditions of men for the commands of God to get a good grasp of the sort of traditionalism of which I am critical.
With that small explanation, I think the remainder of my thinking in this review is largely unchanged since the original writing.
The full subtitle wouldn't fit in Blogger's title box. The whole title and subtitle are: 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 countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party)
Back in the days (pre-Marine Corps, of course!) when I sported hair down to my shoulders, a bandana 'round my head, and jeans with holes in the knees, I had a conversation with my father--a Republican of many decades' standing--wherein I said that, yes, I was quite conservative politically. This seemed to throw him a bit, and he asked how I reconciled my politics with my appearance.
All I could think was, "Reconcile? What's to reconcile? What do my politics have to do with the length of my hair?" Many years later, though I have come to think that long hair generally does look unkempt and unnatural on men, I still don't see that hair length has anything to do with whether a person is conservative or not. I've had similar experiences with a small host of issues, interests or attitudes I've had, things that drew strange looks or intimations that I couldn't possibly be as conservative as I maintain that I am. Sometimes people seemed to think that some interest or other of mine was incongruous with a generally conservative Christian worldview, as when one Emergent blogger seemed surprised at my considerable interest in martial arts. On other occasions, it's been my perusal of The Mother Earth News, or Organic Gardening. Some might think it odd, but I've gotten the "look" over homeschooling our children! Many times I've wondered whether it was that the person I was getting the "look" from didn't understand the subject or whether it was that he was confusing certain elements of our culture with conservatism or Christianity. Once I remarked to our pastor that we ought to change things in the church just for change's sake from time to time; otherwise, people tend to confuse what we've always done with what is scriptural--and they ain't necessarily the same!
For many years, things like this had me identifying myself as a political Independent rather than as a Republican. Republicans, I thought, too often embrace a "conservatism" that isn't so much conservative as it is a collection of attitudes--sometimes platitudes--wrapped up in a supply-side-economics, strong-national-defense box ( I suppose it would be wise to interject that I do, in fact, support supply-side economics and a strong national defense!), that they might readily jettison things that are really, eternally important as long as taxes, deficits, and spending were low. I thought that too many Republicans sported a "conservativism" that privately lamented the "takeover" of their party by "religious zealots" whilst publicly welcoming money and votes from those religious zealots in the most self-serving way imaginable. I thought that too many Republicans really don't understand the true religious and philosophical moorings of their political positions and are hence like children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine. I thought that too many Republicans, even evangelical Republicans, are satisfied with merely political results and would be happy to have a country wherein homosexuality was outlawed in every state, but might not consider that just because homosexuality was illegal didn't mean that the people weren't still going straight to Hell. Republicans, I thought, might be fooled into accepting a country that looked moral instead of continuing to seek the salvation of souls. And they would all consider themselves "conservative" every step of the way.
Shoot, I still think that. I changed my registration to "Republican" only because it looks like the primaries are gonna be so cotton-pickin' critical for the foreseeable future. But I digress. I am apparently not the only conservative to experience "the look." Rod Dreher recounts part of his story:
A few summers ago, in the National Review offices on the east side of Manhattan, I told my editor that I was leaving work early so I could pick up my family's weekly delivery of fruits and vegetables from the neighborhood organic co-op to which we belonged.That incident--one of seemingly innumerable vignettes drawn both from Mr. Dreher's life and the lives of other "crunchy conservatives"--led to a piece in the National Review titled "Crunchy Cons", which led in turn to Mr. Dreher being contacted by quite a host of people from around the country, people who identified themselves as conservatives, usually voted Republican, and yet who sported lifestyles and attitudes often associated with--well, not with allegedly conservative Republicans, I guess.
"Ewww, that's so lefty," she said, and made the kind of face I'd have expected if I'd informed her I was headed off to hear Peter, Paul and Mary warble at a fund-raiser for cross-dressing El Salvadoran hemp farmers....
Now, it had never occurred to me, except in a jokey way, that eating organic vegetables was a political act, but my editor's snarky remark got me to thinking about other ways my family's lifestyle was countercultural, and why, though we were thoroughly conservative in our morals and our politics, we weren't a good fit on either the mainstream left or right.
Crunchy Cons is simultaneously an exploration of the opinions and attitudes of such conservatives and a beginning attempt to state what "crunchy cons" believe. That is a fairly arduous task, and in my opinion, Mr. Dreher succeeds only partially. He succeeds in the places where he drives home the point that real conservatism has less to do with material prosperity or certain cultural norms than with spiritual fidelity and thinking based on eternal, immutable principles; he fails in the places--and there are more than a few--where, it seems to me, he does not quite appreciate the full implications of what he has said or where he has confused or conflated traditionalism with conservatism. At times, he brilliantly articulates and expounds the principle that man does not live by bread--material prosperity--alone, and that a conservatism that is not more concerned with what is good and what is right than with what is economically efficient is not real conservatism at all.
Too many of us today, in our freedom and prosperity, have become alienated from the virtues that made that prosperity possible and sustainable over the generations. Crunchy conservatism draws on the religious, philosophical, and literary heritage of conservative thought and practice to cobble together a practical, commonsense, and fruitful way to live amid the empty consumerist prosperity of what Henry Miller called "the air-conditioned nightmare."At other times, he manages to articulate in no uncertain terms parts of what one might term essential elements of "crunchy con" thinking. As I mentioned in a previous post, the book is a gold mine of quotes, many of them remarkably insightful. It would be easy to just go chapter by chapter through the book as he touches on "consumerism," "food," "home," "education," "the environment," and "religion," just pulling out quotes. I enjoyed much of the material, and found that I was frequently inspired to seek out material by some of the authors he mentions (in particular, you hear the name "Russell Kirk" about a bajillion times in the first few chapters). Some of the material Mr. Dreher covered was familiar to me--I was familiar with many of the issues covered in the chapter on food, for example, and obviously we share an interest in homeschooling--and some was not.
That chapter on food will be an eye-opener for some people, both for the information about how food--meat, specifically--is raised (one is almost tempted to say that "manufactured" would be a better word) and for one observation which I found particularly interesting: that many large corporations actually have a vested interest in keeping an onerous regulatory environment, in that the burden of coping with excessive regulation can freeze out smaller competitors. Mr. Dreher explains:
Slow Food...(has) its chapters worldwide work to help farmers and small producers navigate the regulatory maze that puts the little guy at a significant disadvantage to big agribusiness.Here, as elsewhere throughout the book, Mr. Dreher forcefully makes the point that the rich and powerful are not necessarily free-market conservatives. It can be a capital mistake to assume that corporate America is on the side of the free marketeer. True, they often present themselves as though they are, but the prudent citizen will be on the lookout.
This is a big deal. Distrust of big government is in the DNA of contemporary conservatives, and to see how state and federal regulatory bureaucracies put the hurt on small farmers, all to the advantage of big business, should be enough to send grassroots right-wingers to the barricades.
Several years ago, in covering this story for National Review,, I talked to Jenny Drake, a former state health inspector turned organic livestock farmer. Drake, a feisty conservative, wanted to raise her chickens and beef cattle without using hormones and antibiotics, which are ubiquitous in factory farming. Those healthy chickens of hers were a problem, though. The state of Tennessee, where she and her husband live and farm, refuses to let any chicken be sold there unless the USDA inspects the processing facilities. Alas, there are no custom-kill processing plants for chickens in the entire American Southeast. Drake told me that to build a small processing facility to meet federal guidelines would cost her about $150,000.
"The Americans with Disabilities Act, for example, means a small producer has to put in restrooms that are handicapped-accessible," she told me then. "I'd have to build an office for the inspector. That office has to have its own phone line. I'd have to put in a paved parking lot. We have to meet the same physical standards as a Tyson's"--the industrial chicken megaproducer--"and we just can't do it."
I also spoke at the time to Joel Salatin, an evangelical Christian crunchy con who runs Polyface Farm in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. Salatin is well known on the international small-scale sustainable farming circuit. He's had similar problems battling idiotic regulations (e.g., the government wanted him to build changing-room lockers for his employees, even though he has no employees on his family-run farm).
"A lot of [this] is being done under the guise of protecting the general welfare and guaranteeing clean food," he told me. "But what it really does is protect big agribusiness from rural independent competition."
Put simply, it does this by writing health regulations that only relatively large companies can afford to abide by. Economist Edward Hudgins told me that it's often the case that big companies willingly absorb the cost of extra regulation because those rules "have the effect of killing off the competition."
In terms of negatives, there are many places throughout the book where I found myself thinking, "Yes, but...", places where I understood the point that Mr. Dreher was trying to make but nevertheless thought that he had gotten a definition wrong, or misplaced an emphasis, failed to understand how a conservative principle is applied to a given situation, or--and this was frequent, in my opinion--confused traditionalism with conservatism. It is in dealing with these places that doing the review is hardest, for I could spend hours and hours quoting Mr. Dreher's text and responding to it. I don't want to do that. It would take too long, be boring, and would, I fear, lead the reader to believe that I disagree with the larger point of Mr. Dreher's book. Instead, I will confine myself to just one example, one that typifies the sort of errors to which I most vehemently object in Mr. Dreher's book. It is found in the very first chapter.
One day, I got a shock when I picked up my copy of the Dallas Morning News. There on the front page was a story about the Kimbers, a family we knew from our Catholic homeschool group. They're as conservative, hardworking, and traditional a family as you could hope to find. Greg Kimber ran the family's small moving business, and when Joan wasn't busy homeschooling their kids, she helped out. The recession in the early part of this decade hit north Texas hard, and the Kimbers' business began to suffer. They had to put their kids into the state's Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), which provided supplemental medical and dental insurance for the children of the working poor. State cutbacks in CHIP, led by the Republican legislature, forced the Kimbers to choose between filling their children's teeth or their bellies. The News account told their story.I was surprised at Mr. Dreher's surprise. I understand his concern about his friends and the traditional family unit. I share it. But it seems to me that here, he had entirely misdiagnosed the situation and its appropriate remedy--possibly out of the immediateness of his emotional upset--and quite unjustifiably dumped all over his fellow conservatives. To complain of their response seems almost shocking. To explain more fully, let me remind you: the Kimbers were experiencing hardships because of the recession and could not afford the dental care they desired for their children. Recessions are caused largely by excessive government, overtaxation, and poor governmental fiscal policy. Governmental involvement drives up the cost of medical and dental care for everyone. Conservatives, therefore, would prescribe less taxation and spending, not out of cheapness or ill-will, but as the only appropriate remedy! The national experience since the implementation of the Great Society programs is not, to say the least, that governmental aid strengthens families, but rather, that it destroys them. Many would argue that at least two generations of black families have been lost to this very sort of thing.To turn around and lambaste conservatives for refusing to make the problem--the underlying problem, not the immediate problem--worse seems almost incomprehensible.
I was poleaxed by the news. The Kimbers are proud people, and hadn't let any of us know what they were going through. My wife called Joan and offered to help financially, but Joan kindly said no, that they were going to find ways to handle it themselves. She was going to go to work. The kids would be entering public school (given the rather modest neighborhood the Kimbers live in, the school was not, shall we say, an altogether pleasant place to send your kids). In the meantime, I wrote a scathing column in the News, ripping the GOP legislature for the CHIP cuts, which yanked the rug out from under this traditional Republican family. I got in touch with my inner Russell Kirk, and thundered that in case the Republicans didn't realize it, the family is the institution most necessary to conserve. Their willingness to see families like the Kimbers suffer rather than raise taxes even the
tiniest bit (Texas has no state income tax) showed where their values really were.
Well. Little did I know that I was a socialist and the Kimbers were welfare layabouts, until some of my fellow Texas Republicans pointed that out in a fusillade of stinging e-mails. I expected people to disagree with me, but I was not prepared for the contempt, the unshirted spite, that conservatives rained down on my head. I felt like my friend Mike, the guy who had his very existence as a conservative questioned because he spoke from conservative principle against a developer's plan. It was appalling to me, but quite instructive, to learn that for quite a few of my fellow Republicans, almost nothing matters more than keeping taxes low. If the economic structure we live under threatens the traditional family, well, too dadgum bad. You get the idea that for lots of these folks, "traditional family values" means nothing more than "keep the queers from getting hitched."
Furthermore, Mr. Dreher doesn't seem to have fully appreciated that his apparent proposed solution--higher taxes for the sake of the Medicaid program--amounted to requiring everybody else to sacrifice their property and liberty (liberty to dispose of their property as they see fit, instead of as the government, in this case in the person of Mr. Dreher, sees fit) to subsidize the Kimbers' chosen lifestyle. Let me hasten to point out that I don't disapprove of their lifestyle. Far from it! I am a homeschooling father myself. However, I don't think it would be right to tax those who do not share that distinction for the sake of making it easier for me to homeschool. 'Course, I also don't think that it's right that I be taxed so other parents can abdicate their responsibility for their kids' education to the government. The situation can quickly grow complicated. But you get the point: it's hard to call taxing other people so you can indulge your chosen lifestyle a conservative position. Government is divinely ordained by God as His minister for justice, not wealth redistribution, or the plundering of one citizen to benefit another.
This is the sort of thing I found throughout the book. Mr. Dreher will beautifully articulate an important point--that too many people are focused principally on filling increasingly large, cookie-cutter McMansions with an ever-increasing collection of vapid, useless toys and ignoring the really important things in life, and calling encouraging such spendthrift habits conservative, when it is anything but, for example--and then undermine it somehow. It might be via a mis-drawn application of principles, a mis-identification of the principles involved in a particular example, or possibly through failing to appreciate that someone else might find the very thing he finds problematic a hallmark of conservative success. For example, Mr. Dreher spends a whole chapter decrying what he calls consumerism, which he seems to identify as the encouragement of pointless, wasteful spending habits that I mentioned earlier. But other people identify consumerism as
...the best and fairest way to bring goods and services to a large number of people at prices they can afford.One can't help but get the feeling from a number of Mr. Dreher's passages that something makes him uncomfortable about the free market's effect of making abundance affordable to the masses. I rather doubt he'd articulate it that way, possibly he might even deny it, but it is an inescapable feeling nonetheless. I got the feeling, particularly in the chapter on the environment, that Mr. Dreher had given insufficient consideration to other possible ways of seeing the same set of circumstances. I found myself thinking of Victor Davis Hanson saying, in Mexifornia: A State of Becoming:
To go from trying to stay alive while crossing the border, to enjoying the bounty of Kmart and Burger King, to joining the Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club is a complex task requiring more than a single generation...What happens when all that assiduous effort to recycle trash, block power-plant construction and try to ban internal combustion engines butts up against the real needs of millions of the desperate who first want the warmth of four walls, a flush toilet and basic appliances?As much sympathy as I have for many of Mr. Dreher's concerns, I have a hard time seeing that his answers (where provided; sometimes he is just raising the questions) will actually go very far toward dealing with those concerns.
Still, despite such caveats, the book's overall point is well-taken and much overdue: real conservatism is less about low taxes and material abundance than it is about first principles, specifically principles rooted in the fact that
...that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights...Real conservatism's economic successes, which are so frequently held up as the end goal of conservatism, are actually the by-product of the consistent application of those first principles, the outgrowth of, as I wrote elsewhere of capitalism,
...liberty, the freedom of men and women to work and to determine what to do with the fruits of their labor themselves, the freedom not to have their assets plundered, the freedom to crawl up out of poverty without having to have the good fortune of being born into a privileged class or to lick the hands of those above them.a liberty which is the recognition of man's God-endowed rights. Attempts to conflate real conservatism with a materialistic lifestyle, or reduce it to merely the maintenance of a low-tax environment, or confuse it with special privileges for big business, or the acceptance of cultural norms which are not clearly necessitated by first principles are not merely misguided, they are actively harmful and much resented by those whom Mr. Dreher has labeled "crunchy cons." So, while disagreeing vehemently with some of Mr. Dreher's specifics and recommending that you read thoughtfully and discerningly, I still recommend the book. It appears to be the opening salvo in a needed discussion.