Nearly 50 years ago, Whittaker Chambers famously “read” Ayn Rand out of the conservative movement. His most famous, though not really his most constructive, passage was his assertion that “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To a gas chamber–go!’” Now, I’m no Whittaker Chambers, nor have I been granted the power to excommunicate anybody, but there are times where Rod Dreher is simply begging for the Rand treatment. And not just because from almost any page of Crunchy Cons, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To your local organic food co-op–go!”
There are other times when Rod is insightful, endearing, and even quite persuasive. Rod updates a very old (and, frankly, common) critique within conservatism: that the market cannot provide answers to what we should do with our wealth. The good life and the prosperous life can–and often do–overlap, but there is nothing which requires that they do. Indeed, there are times when the pursuit of wealth can be idolatrous, seducing us down a false path. To the extent that Rod’s project is to encourage people to understand this elemental point of the conservative worldview, I think he’s making an important contribution, particularly among those otherwise immune to the conservative message.
Hey, You Mean I’m Not a Stuart Smalley Caricature?!
The problem is this: Rod engulfs this useful, nay vital, baby within a lagoon of intellectually murky bathwater. Plenty of other writers have pointed to what is good about Rod’s book. Here on National Review Online, we even have a blog entirely dedicated to it, in which most of the contributors seem committed to finding new and exciting ways to illustrate the genius of the book and the insights of its author. My own contributions to the blog amount to standing athwart crunchy conservatism yelling “Stop!” Regardless, I hope readers and Rod alike understand that I’m focusing on what’s wrong about Rod’s book in part because others have stated eloquently what’s right about it.
I’m also partly focusing on what’s wrong with crunchy conservatism because, well, I find it insulting.
Crunchy conservatism strikes me now–as it did back when I first heard about it–as a journalistic invention, a confabulation fit for some snarking liberal reporter at the Washington Post “Style” section. It plays upon the Left’s stereotype of conservatives and adopts it as its own. To Rod’s credit, he doesn’t claim that “mainstream conservatives” are racists; but he does claim that they are uptight, blue blazered, two-dimensional men motivated by greed. They are Godless materialists, unthinking dupes of Madison Avenue, with no connection to spirituality or religion unless, that is, you think being an idolatrous votary of the free market counts as being religious.
For example, Rod writes on page 15 of the book:
You don’t have to be a religious believer in the formal sense to be a crunchy conservative, but you do have to believe that accumulating wealth and power is not the point of life. Now, if you took a poll, ninety-nine out of a hundred conservatives would deny that they subscribed to that vulgar credo. But that’s not how they live–even if they profess to be religious.[emphasis mine]
How is one supposed to read this as anything but an invidious slap at conservatism? Not only is Rod saying here that non-crunchy conservatives are grotesque materialists concerned only with “wealth and power,” not only is he questioning the sincerity of their religious convictions, but he is also saying that these conservatives are fools, suffering from a kind of Marxist false consciousness, if they deny that they are only concerned with wealth and power. Because, you see, “that’s not how they live”–because Rod says so.
On page after page, Rod attributes Republican and “mainstream conservative” adulation of the free market to greed and envy. Mainstream conservatives “believe that a merchant or a manufacturer owes no loyalty to his community, nor the community to the manufacturer.” Other motivations for support of the free market–say, liberty, or skepticism in the government’s ability to glean the “better way”–are given little to no serious consideration. In the CCblog, Rod is giddy with excitement at the prospect that some liberal will read his book and discover that “Frankenesque”–as in Al Franken–conservative stereotypes aren’t true and that there are in fact “honorable conservatives” out there. Which conservatives are those? Why, crunchy conservatives of course.
Yes, yes, often Rod offers caveats about how capitalism is preferable to other systems, how he’s not a socialist, that wealth and prosperity are important tools for fixing social problems and the like. But when he does this, he describes these insights and convictions as “crunchy” insights. “Mainstream conservatives,” meanwhile, are never given the benefit of the doubt. Rod is committing the ageless sin of the self-hating conservative, bee-bopping and scatting all over fellow conservatives so as to sound better, nicer, and more humane, as if to say, “I’m not one of those conservatives.” Indeed, one could go through the entire book and simply scratch out the phrase “crunchy conservatives” and replace it with “good conservatives” and Rod’s meaning would rarely, if ever, change. Because, you see, crunchy cons are the ones who “get it,” they are in the know on the Gnostic insight to the good life. Everyone else has blinders on. Rod even writes that he “doesn’t expect conventional liberals and conservatives to get crunchy conservatism.”
Many self-described crunchy cons use this noxious form of argumentation as a shield to protect themselves from criticism. After all, there is no rejoinder to “you just don’t get it.”
Huh? What’s that now?
Nonetheless, there is a lot I don’t get about crunchy conservatism. But, in my own defense, I don’t think this is because I have failed to turn my face to the warm beam of God’s enlightenment, radiantly glowing forth from inside the cellophane oyster shell of a Whole Foods couscous platter. I think my failure is more prosaic than that. I don’t “get” crunchy conservatism because, often, I simply don’t know what the hell Rod is talking about.
Maybe we’re not reading the same newspapers, but I could swear conservatives–and not primarily the crunchy ones–have been making a quite a fuss about issues which offend their sense of spirituality, morality, and community for quite some time. Let’s start 20 years ago. In 1987 there was the fight over Robert Bork. Free-market economics were a pretty minor part of that fight. Ditto Clarence Thomas. Then there was Dan Quayle versus Murphy Brown. The early 1990s were largely consumed with debates over illegitimacy, affirmative action, flag-burning, and gays in the military. Bill Clinton’s character, including his draft status, came up a few times too. The Heritage Foundation–which surely must qualify as the stygian heart of Mordor in Rod’s worldview–dedicated itself back then to a restoration of civil society. In the late 1990s, we were informed by Andrew Sullivan and everyone to his left that the GOP had been taken over by “scolds” and Cotton Mathers. More recently, conservatives have expended a great deal of time and effort on gay marriage, abortion, public displays of the Ten Commandments, and other issues hard to pigeonhole into Milton Friedman’s worldview. The Republican-controlled Congress went ass-over-tea-kettle about Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube, not over imposing a flat tax. Indeed, most of us conservatives have spent the last decade arguing primarily about social and cultural issues, not economic ones.
The same holds true for conservative intellectuals. Conservative and rightwing publications–National Review, The Weekly Standard, First Things, The Public Interest, Policy Review, Crisis, The Claremont Review of Books, The American Conservative, and even The American Enterprise and Reason–have probably dedicated more pages to cultural (or let us say non-free market) arguments and issues by, I would guess, an order of 10 to 1. Two groups of intellectuals have been charged with “taking over” the conservative movement in the last 30years: Neoconservatives and Christian conservatives. Neither of these factions have invoked free-market economics as their north star. On domestic policy, neither faction could in any serious way be described as libertarian or even classically liberal when it comes to economic issues. And, a third group, the so-called paleoconservatives (Buchananite is a far more accurate label) who have been trying to mount a counter-offensive are even less free-market than either the neocons or the Christian right.
Rod would have us believe all of these battles in the culture war took place in some parallel universe. Or, to be more fair, he would have us believe that they are trivial, irrelevant, or that conservatives don’t really mean what they say. To bring up these examples is proof that I don’t get it. Or, he might say–with considerable merit–that these battles constitute symptoms of the larger problem of modern alienation. Until we order our characters properly–by, duh, adopting the crunchy-con sensibility–we will continue debating these symbolic or secondary battles. This, I think, is a very, very strong point, and it is one Rod makes artfully and humanely. But it doesn’t help his cause nearly as much as he thinks.
Just for a moment, imagine how a dedicated pro-lifer would greet this assertion. He would read Crunchy Cons with its poetic perambulations through the world of organic food and comfortable shoes, its odes to home cooking, family meals, and a prayerful life, and its denunciations of shopping-mall idolatry, and he would probably nod along to much of it. But if you were to suggest that Rod’s fundamentally statist prescriptions for agriculture and the environment (which, by the way, would reap hardship and misery on millions) should take precedence over, say, saving millions of unborn babies, he’d say “You’re nuts. Sure we can fight for the right to eat organic chevre wrapped in a fig leaf later, but first we’re going to save babies.”
Of course, Rod is not explicitly arguing that pro-lifers should drop their cause in favor of his, and I’m sure he would reject the insinuation. But that is the upshot of his depiction of the political landscape. Politics is about picking your battles; governing is about making choices. The millions of non-crunchy cons who also believe that man doesn’t live by bread alone, who believe that religion and transcendence should inform both their politics and daily lives, have picked a different battle than Rod has. But they have picked one. Rod weirdly chooses to ignore it and calls them all market-idolators.
Indeed, there’s much else that is similarly otherworldly in Rod’s description of America. Until recently, the conventional view of political America was that it is divided between “red states” and “blue states,” with the former brimming with anti-abortion and anti-gay-rights voters. Save for the crunchy ones, these people are largely invisible in Rod’s world. Not only that, they’re persecuted by free-market zealots. “It’s hard for conservative journalists and activists who live in [blue state cities like New York and Washington] to appreciate how difficult it can be for conservatives in the Red America heartland…to dissent from the Republican Party mainstream.” This statement segues into Rod’s Golden Anecdote about his friend Mike who raised concerns about too much development while serving on his town’s “smart growth” committee. Mike was verbally roughed up by some developers on the committee who questioned his conservatism because he wasn’t “free market” enough. This anecdote carries much of the freight for Rod’s claim that traditional conservatives who are skeptical of the free market are culturally oppressed in the libertarian state of nature known as Red State America. Maybe it’s just me, but as flawed as the stereotype of Red State America as a land of snake-handling bible-thumpers surely is, I need a bit more data than the dark tale of Mike’s journey into Smart Growth Committee Hell before I buy Rod’s version of middle-America as the Hong Kong of the prairies.
But perhaps the weirdest oversight is Rod’s complete avoidance of “compassionate conservatism” (if he mentions the phrase anywhere in the book, I missed it). Here is an idea, quite serious when it was in the hands of Marvin Olasky and others, which was a religiously informed, socially conservative, rejection of conventional free-market economics and limited state conservatism–and it’s not mentioned in this book. “Compassionate conservatism” not only shares the same initials as crunchy conservatism, it even buys into the exact same insulting assumption that adjective-free conservatism is somehow inhumane or uncompassionate. George W. Bush invested both financial and political capital in compassionate conservatism, and if you don’t focus on Birkenstocks and granola, it’s hard to see how he isn’t a crunchy con. He talks about how “When somebody hurts, the government has to move.” He wants to help religious charities. He spends money on marriage counseling and talks about how Jesus was his favorite political philosopher. Meanwhile, libertarians and small-government types are so mad they might spontaneously combust, and here comes Rod saying the pro-life, compassionate conservative, religiously inspired GOP is too beholden to the Cato Institute. That’s just weird, man, really, really weird.
Who’s A Materialist?
But Rod almost has no choice but to describe this phantasmagorical America, because that’s where his assumptions force him to go. I believe it was Tom Sowell who first suggested that the person who walks into a room and immediately starts counting how many blacks are in the room is the real racist. Sowell’s point was that liberals who fixate on the category of race are bound by the category of race. We see this sort of thing all the time. Racial leftists attribute all bad actions to racism. Marxists assume that all bad people operate on the basis of greed. Feminists blame sexism whenever they hit a bump in the road. When presented with evidence that this narrowly totalizing vision doesn’t explain reality, they dismiss it as trivial or a mirage distracting us from the larger structural reality. And Rod’s Manichean assumption that people who don’t agree with crunchy conservatism are materialists forces him into making a materialist critique of everything.
Rod’s problem is that he has essentially bought into a Christian Marxist worldview. Now, I don’t like using the word Marxist much because too many conservatives throw it around promiscuously (Social Security isn’t Marxist, for example). But all of his talk about alienation and worker exploitation, his contempt for bourgeois careerism, and his relentless abuse of the word “materialistic” all point in that direction. The fact that he also favorably invokes Marxist activists, scholars, arguments, and movements, while ignoring, say, Robert Nisbet’s work on community, is also a bad sign. And then there’s this whopper of a statement: “Adam Smith and Karl Marx are two sides of the same coin: they define man as primarily economic man.”
Putting aside the grotesque slander to Smith, who was one of the great moral philosophers of the last three centuries, it’s simply untrue that the free-market is rooted in materialism or that Smith’s intellectual descendants define man in economic terms. Classical liberals root their case for laissez-faire in the autonomy of the individual, the primacy of freedom, the faith that virtue not freely chosen isn’t virtuous, and in a deeply religious conception of the individual conscience (another sorely missing voice in Rod’s book is Michael Novak, the world’s leading authority on the intersection of market economics and Catholicism). Save for a few Randians (heh), the only people who really think the free market is based on a materialist vision in an intellectually serious way are themselves Marxist materialists, in much the same way that the only people who see white racism behind every black problem are people convinced of the primacy of race.
Besides, we don’t even get the sort of metaphysical materialism Rod talks about from Marx, or even from economics. We get it from Darwin and Malthus. Marx wanted to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin, and Darwin believed his theory of evolution was merely an application of Malthusian ideas to the natural world. And it was Malthus who believed that humans should be seen demographically, as masses of rutting automatons overtaking the natural environment. This led to socialist and eugenicist panic about Mass Man. Rod’s discussions about oil and the environment, and to a lesser extent culture, are straight out of the Malthusian tradition (Jimmy Carter is the book’s most heroic president). Not only does Rod not appreciate this, he overlooks the fact that non-crunchy conservatives have been battling Darwinian materialism quite a bit over the last couple decades. Regardless of the merits of that very mixed effort, it certainly contradicts the notion that conservatives are institutionally wedded to materialism.
And from here confusion begets confusion. On the one hand, Rod denounces consumerism as the whisper of Satan in your ear. On the other hand, buying the right expensive foods for the right reason is not only a politically redeeming act, it is in fact a religiously “sacramental” deed. Buying yummy food–preferably locally grown organic food–and sharing it over wine with smart friends is a means and an end to personal and social transformation, redounding outward and inward in a virtuous spiral of catholic goodness in opposition to the malignant “cult of efficiency” destroying our society. But, Rod confesses, “Would I stand by the little guy if doing so meant paying premium prices for second-rate products? Nope.” Well, so much for all that.
The reader is informed again and again that the free market cannot satisfy the spiritual and communal needs of the society–except that is, when it can. Whole Foods–something of a cathedral of crunchy conservatism–is growing like kudzu across the United States, forcing even conventional grocery stores to stock up on the more sacramental organic foods. This trend, and trends like it, is direct proof that “crunchy conservatism” is spreading across the United States. And as Rod concedes, “There is no more powerful force for social change than the consumer dollar.” So if the market is providing these things, why exactly do we need an anti-market movement to provide them?
Rod denounces, simultaneously, rent-seeking, influence-buying, and corporate welfare, which allows big business to collude with government to crush the little guy–particularly the small farmer–while at the same time complaining that we have a libertarian free-market economy. Well, these are two diametrically opposed predicaments and, at the end of the day, the only way truly to eliminate the former is to create the latter, not lament its fictional tyranny.
I could go on and on and on (and some will no doubt complain I already have). I’m sure Rod and his defenders will respond that I don’t get it, that crunchy conservatism is merely a sentiment or a sensibility, not a program or a philosophy (I know they will because they already have). And to a certain extent that’s fine. I am being honest when I say there are some legitimately moving and useful parts to this book. Rod is quite gifted at conveying a sense of loss and alienation with mainstream culture I think most conservatives either share or should have sympathy for. Technology and capitalism are inherently destabilizing of tradition and community.
But the basic problem with crunchy conservatism–much like Andrew Sullivan’s various attempts to create some new political movement out of his own random collection of biases and convictions–is that it is narcissistic. Rod extrapolates from his personal preferences and priorities an entire branch of conservatism. When he hears from other confused readers that they too like whole grain bread and home schooling, he assumes he’s found a new trend. Thus he casts about for, and finds, a bunch of social conservatives who live crunchy lifestyles and assumes they are intellectually distinct from other social conservatives (and he overlooks the fact that many, many “crunchy” rightwingers are in fact libertarians). Crunchy cons vote Republican, read traditional conservative books, even listen to Rush Limbaugh, but because they live according to Rod’s personal definition of the good life, they must represent something different and intellectually unique. Well, they are only unique if you think footwear and eating habits are very, very important, or if you think “Frankenesque” stereotypes are valid. I don’t.
Rod frets over mass man like a Fabian socialist, tut-tutting their wants and poo-pooing their desires. He buys into the Malthusian fetish of scarcity. He embraces the environmentalism of the left and–at least by implication–the condescending aesthetics of the anti-globalization movement. (If traditional cultures are as wonderful as Rod thinks, one wonders why millions of those living in them are voting with their feet as they cross our borders, while so few of us are opting for a life where we have to carry the well water home everyday). He sounds like Al Gore in Earth in the Balance when he talks about modernity, and he lavishes praise on Hillary Clinton’s view that it takes a village to raise a child (a somewhat odd view for someone so passionate about the glories of homeschooling). He claims Russell Kirk as his hero, but he often sounds like Jean-Jacques Rousseau in a Russell Kirk mask. Again and again and again, Rod buys into leftist categories of thinking and thinks that by merely calling them “crunchy” they will suddenly become conservative.
This is unsustainable. I think Rod’s a conservative–and great many conservatives I know admire this book (and him) a great deal. So he’ll stay in the family, and we’ll debate what it means that another marketing slogan has been slapped on conservatism, creating yet another intellectual fad and all the rest. But I can’t shake the suspicion that while nobody is going to say, from painful necessity, “To the Left, Go!” that sometime in the next decade or so Rod will gamely proclaim “To the Left, Here I Come.”