EDITOR’S NOTE: There are times when a writer must address the most pressing issues of the day — important and weighty subjects that affect us all. This, my friends, is not one of those times. Rather, today’s column is about a profoundly parochial and internecine conflict within the ranks of a very small number of people. If you don’t care about such intramural squabbling, I don’t blame you and I don’t expect more than a handful of you to get through the whole thing. But that’s what today’s G-File is about, so please spare me the complaints. Tune in tomorrow for more regular fare.
In the most recent issue of The Nation, Eric Alterman writes:
Call them “Blue Blazer Liberals.” Contrary to what you might expect from people with progressive politics, these dedicated Democrats are devoted to their children, care deeply about their careers and are determined to make a good living. BBLs go to church regularly and, afterwards, they might even eat a hamburger or two — real ones! Not tofu! — at a cookout….They are as comfortable in the worlds of business and high finance as any conservative Republican.
Okay, I’m lying. Alterman never wrote any of this. But something very similar recently appeared in the pages — and on the cover — of National Review. Rod Dreher — a man I like and respect a great deal — wrote an ode to what he calls “crunchy cons.” The article claimed to pull back the curtain on a whole world of conservatives who, we are told, don’t toe the line of the Republican party and who read a wide array of books, not all of them conservative. Indeed, there are enough of these eclectic bibliophile crunchy cons who enjoy “good food” they “prepare at home” that Rod can draw only one conclusion: “Clearly, there are a number of thoughtful, imaginative, eclectic conservatives who fly below the radar of the media and Republican politicos.”
In fact, I could swear that this had been the complaint of conservatives since, well, long before I was born. Conservatives have been protesting about how we are caricatured for decades, at least. Today, there are whole organizations — the Media Research Center for example — dedicated to rebutting the steady stream of slanders and calumnies that paint conservatives as humorless racists and prudes with no joy for anything in life without a dollar sign attached to it. Indeed, conservative media criticism — all too often if you ask me — has been reduced to a single though entirely accurate insight: The mainstream media is unfair to conservatives (for the best recent take on this see Charles Krauthammer’s “No Respect Politics“).
And since I know that Rod must be aware of all of this, I was fairly shocked that he seemed surprised that conservatives are a culturally richer and more complicated bunch than the reigning stereotypes suggest. I was further surprised when, after Rod wrote his first installment on crunchy cons for NRO, my friend Mike Potemra announced in the Corner:
ROD DREHER’S MARVELOUS COLUMN [Mike Potemra]
I just got around to reading Rod’s disquisition on “granola conservatism,” and I think it’s a very important contribution. Conservatism is not supposed to be a high-schoolish in-group club where everyone parrots mindless slogans and shares the same lock-step tastes. Rod’s saying, let’s leave shallow conformity to the lefties; and I say, hurrah for him and everyone like him….
Again, I was aware that many on the left and in the media thought conservatism was an in-group that parroted mindless slogans and enjoyed lock-step tastes. I was simply unaware that there were significant numbers of NR readers, writers, or editors — judging from e-mail and various Corner posts — who agreed with the folks at the New York Times and The Village Voice about how severe this problem is on the right.
Now, I’m not saying that Rod and Mike and the many others who applaud their efforts are entirely off-base when they complain that some conservatives and Republicans can be too ideological or too knee-jerk in their attitudes. Of course that’s true. It’s also true of every other cause and movement on the planet from baseball fans to Islamist extremists and it is probably less true of conservatives than most other ideological denominations. It is simply human nature for people who are passionate about large causes to try to reduce their beliefs to simple rules and slogans. There is nothing in itself wrong with this tendency so long as you don’t let a slogan or label substitute for serious thinking. The Ten Commandments, after all, are a pretty simple list of rules.
And if this crunchy-con stuff were simply a warning against the perils of ideological overkill on the right, I’d be fine with it. In fact, if I had a dime for every time I invoked H. Stuart Hughes’s observation that “conservatism is the negation of ideology” in one column or another, I might not feel the need to hector the suits for a raise all the time.
But not only do I read this Granola Conservatism thing as something of an insult to conservatives. I read it as a significantly misleading and inaccurate one.
Explaining how he and his wife became emblematic crunchy conservatives, Rod writes:
Much of our crunchy conservatism comes from simply being carried along by the tide of our lives, and discovering by trial and error things that work well. But it’s also grounded in the basic attitudes we’ve long held. That, generally speaking, small and local and particular and old are better. That beauty in all its forms is important to the good life. That the bright glare of television and the cacophony of media culture make it too hard to discern the call of truth and wisdom. That we are citizens before we are consumers.
And most important of all, that faith and family are the point of life. We agree with Russell Kirk, who observed, “The best way to rear up a new generation of friends of the Permanent Things is to beget children, and read to them o’ evenings, and teach them what is worthy of praise: the wise parent is the conservator of ancient truths. As Edmund Burke put it, ‘We learn to love the little platoon we belong to in society.’ The institution most essential to conserve is the family.”
Now, it’s worth pointing out that none of this — none of it — has anything to do with being “crunchy.” Moreover it has everything to do with being a conservative. Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Permanent Things, faith, family, etc.: This has been the stuff of conservatives who wear open-toed shoes and conservatives who wear penny loafers alike for generations. Indeed, when you read Rod’s articles there are very few indications that “crunchy conservatives” are intellectually distinguishable from any other kind of conservative, broadly speaking, except perhaps for the fact that crunchy cons take environmentalism more seriously and that they home school (more on that in a moment).
We are told that “The crunchy-con bookshelf — and because they eschew television, they have lots of bookshelves — sags with works by conservatives like G. K. Chesterton, Richard Weaver, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, the Southern Agrarians, and Michael Oakeshott.” The problem here should be obvious. With the possible exception of Tolkien, these books should be on any conservative’s shelf. One need not enjoy cereals that taste like kitty litter to appreciate Richard Weaver and you need not have read a word of Richard Weaver to enjoy your kitty-litter breakfast. In short, the two have nothing to do with each other. Identifying conservatives by what they eat or wear is fine I suppose, if you want to sell clothes or food to conservatives. But I’m at a loss to understand why conservatives will benefit from looking at themselves through the eyes of direct-mail marketers.
One small example: Rod writes, “The crunchy cons, religious or not, share a belief that something has gone seriously wrong in contemporary mass society, and are grasping for “authenticity” (a word you hear often from this group) amid a raging flood of media-driven consumer culture.” Rod is an excellent reporter, so I am sure this is true. But wouldn’t it be more accurate to simply drop the “crunchy” from that sentence and simply note that conservatives believe there’s a problem with contemporary mass society? Indeed, Russell Kirk — certainly no crunchy con despite the reverence crunchy cons hold for him — lamented in The Conservative Mind, “a world smudged by industrialism, standardized by the masses, consolidated by government.” In other words, crunchy cons aren’t worried about such things because they are crunchy, they’re worried about such things because they’re conservatives.
What we as conservatives should also be worried about is that the crunchy ones among us are, according to Rod, looking for “authenticity” in such superficial things as organic foods and loose-fitting casual wear (a subject I’ve addressed before). This points to the internal contradiction within much of this crunchy-con stuff. Rod insists that crunchy cons are different from the leftists who impose profound ideological meaning on their consumer choice because crunchy cons enjoy organic food simply because it tastes better (taste tests have never demonstrated this, by the way).
Well, if that’s the case, who cares? Some conservatives, I’m sure, love French food and other conservatives prefer Thai. But we do not divide rich philosophical movements according to such criteria. Do we really want to say that there is an ideologically coherent and distinct group of conservatives who enjoy better-tasting food? If we do, what’s to stop future NR cover stories about that rogue fifth column of conservatives who “actually enjoy sex”?
And, if this is not the case, if there are conservatives who are looking to find “authenticity” in what they buy and what they wear, that is serious stuff — serious in a bad way. Because, it means that these conservatives cannot find meaning in the Permanent Things after all. Rather, their search for meaning is a tale largely told in their credit-card receipts.
THE REAL SPLIT
I’m not saying that Rod hasn’t stumbled onto something real and significant. But, like the old joke about the blindfolded men who touch different parts of the same elephant and describe completely different animals, I think Rod has gotten snagged on a very minor part of a larger and older story.
He writes, “For crunchy cons, the quest to live ‘the Good, the True, and the Beautiful’ is not just a nice idea — and because of this, they don’t always line up with Republican orthodoxy.” He then quotes a crunchy con who says, “I’m always explicit with people that I’m a conservative, not a Republican.” Indeed, if you read closely, about 90 percent of the attitudes attributed to crunchy cons point to their hostility toward the Republican party, not with conservatism. “Crunchy cons wish their fellow Republicans would show tolerance for diversity within their own ranks,” Rod laments.
Well, if that’s what’s going on here, the ranks of crunchy cons are swelling indeed. “Republican” and “conservative” are not now and never have been particularly synonymous. Conservatives have always had an uneasy relationship with the Republican party. And if you read any good history of the conservative movement you’ll find plenty of non-crunchy conservatives — especially the ones on that sagging crunchy-con bookshelf — who were explicit that they were conservatives but not necessarily Republicans.
There is nothing new to the fact that some conservatives think the Republican party is too beholden to Wall Street and the free market. Indeed, there are plenty of conservatives who will tell you that real conservatives have never liked the free market very much. The fact that many of these crunchy cons don’t like Republican or libertarian environmental policies has nothing to do with the fact they shop at Fresh Fields and everything to do with the fact they don’t like Republican or libertarian environmental policies. The fact these people homeschool is immensely significant because homeschooling is immensely significant. That some homeschoolers wear Grateful Dead T-shirts is a trivial fact at best. And, to the extent it’s not trivial, we might question how great it is that conservatives adopt the sloth fashion of the 60s counterculture.
MY REAL PROBLEM
I really do feel very awkward going after Rod’s writing, Mike’s applause for it, and Rich’s decision to float this idea on the cover of National Review in the first place. I like and respect all of these guys a great deal (indeed, I owe my career almost entirely to Rich). But at the same time, I think this crunchy-conservatism stuff represents a terrible tendency among conservatives to buy into the assumptions of the Left.
Conservatism is only a partial philosophy of life. I admit it is less incomplete than, say, libertarianism (which can’t persuasively answer what a society should do about children and foreign policy — two pretty big shortcomings for a political movement), but conservatism doesn’t necessarily tell us what our tastes should be. It doesn’t hold that politics should ooze into every nook and cranny of life. When Mike cheers that Rod is fighting against the conservatism of “mindless slogans” and “lock-step tastes” he is in effect stipulating that that is what conservatism is really about today. And that’s simply not true.
Indeed, this crunchy-con stuff smacks, to me, of a mixture of Stockholm syndrome and Clintonesque triangulation. The Stockholm syndrome refers to the desperate need among many conservatives (and I do not mean Rod here) to prove to their liberal captors that they’re really “okay.” See! I like Elvis Costello and the Indigo Girls! I’m not one of those conservatives. I’m like you! The Left is winning too many battles as it is — homeschooling, for example, is nothing but a strategic retreat from the battlefield — without conservatives surrendering so much territory without a fight. I’m not immune to this temptation myself — how could any conservative who makes so many women’s-prison-movie jokes claim otherwise? But, in my defense, I use that sort of humor in part to persuade hostile readers that they’re wrong in their assumptions about conservatives. I don’t do it in order to denigrate conservatism generally.
And that’s where the Clintonian triangulation comes in. Crunchy conservatism reeks with the implication that mainstream conservatives really are the caricatures and stereotypes the left claims. Again, I don’t think it was Rod’s intent, but I can see many young and overly iconoclastic conservatives buying into this entirely superficial distinction between “crunchy” cons and “normal” cons and thereby join the chorus of critics who say conservatism is really just a bunch of slogans and lock-step tastes. And I think it was a mistake for National Review to make their job any easier.