May 9, 2005

"Crunchy Conservatives"

Marc Comtois

In an attempt to dispel any notions of conservatives marching in lockstep, I'd point everyone to Rod Dreher. In a 2002 piece, he described how he and his wife found themselves rather quirkily with one foot in the conservative camp and the other in the crunchy camp. "There are four basic areas that are touchstones for crunchy conservatives: Religion, the Natural World, Beauty, and Family." (For more, see the extended entry to this post). Now, Dreher has just completed a book on the topic. It should be an interesting read. In some ways, this is similar to the idea of a so-called "Purple America" that has been proposed more recently. In short, it is possible to be politically conservative, enjoy the "fine things" (like wine, opera, classical music, art, literature, etc.) and not "buy" all the way into free-market capitalism and consumerism. In all things there is an appropriate balance and the quality of a conservative's life is often more important than the quantity of goods one can buy at the right price.

Excerpts from Rod Dreher's "Crunch Cons"

Kim Anderson (not her real name) lives with her petroleum-engineer husband and their eight homeschooled children in Midland, Tex., the hometown of President Bush. They are serious Calvinists who get their crunchy-con marching orders from the first principle of the Westminster Catechism: The purpose of a man's life is "to glorify God and enjoy Him forever." Says Anderson, "That enjoyment of God is not just for when we get to heaven. What are we to do with ourselves while we're here? We don't have a longing to return to the Fifties, or some past era. We just long for God and His ways, and are trying to figure out how to live our lives to go along with that."

For the Andersons, taking faith seriously means living and raising children in a more radical way than most churchgoers. It is no accident that they are converts to a more rigorous form of Presbyterianism. 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. . .

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. . .

A view of the material world as fundamentally flawed but fundamentally good, and therefore to be revered, embraced, and celebrated within limits, is a key crunchy-right concept. Crunchy cons, even the non- religious ones, take this sacramental idea seriously, which leads them to beliefs and attitudes (stereo)typically associated with liberals.

Take the environment. Crunchy cons tend to look at the world through the eyes of Tolkien's Sam Gamgee, returned from the war to his beloved shire, only to find the land despoiled by industrial "progress." While they reject the anti-scientific utopianism of hysterical mainstream environmentalism, crunchy cons are skeptical that the Republican party can be trusted as stewards of the natural world. . .

. . .American Enterprise Institute pollster Karlyn Bowman says that while the environment isn't a big political issue nationally, it is "very important at the state and local levels," particularly in populous, environmentally conscious swing states like California and Florida. AEI's Steven Hayward has studied these issues, and says that the GOP's bad rap on the environment is somewhat deserved. "It's the flip side of what defense policy is for the Democrats. Republicans don't like it, they don't study it very hard, and they tend to do a lousy job with it," he says. "Conservatives tend to belittle environmental concerns, or issue blanket condemnations of all environmentalists."

A closely related flashpoint is suburban sprawl, which is more of an aesthetic issue. Greer, a lifelong small-town Republican, says he would worry about conservatives' running his town's government, out of fear they would let developers gut the historic town center and call it another triumph of the free market. . .

In the crunchy-con view, right-wing indifference to natural beauty extends to the man-made world. Today's conservatives don't say enough about the importance of aesthetic standards. Ugly suburban architecture, lousy food, chain restaurants, bad beer, and scorn for the arts are defended by many rank-and-file Republicans as signs of populist authenticity, as opposed to the "elitist" notion that aesthetics matter. In previous generations, it was taken for granted among conservatives that cultivating taste was a worthwhile, even necessary pursuit in building civilization. Nowadays, talking like that in front of a number of right-wingers will get you denounced as a snob. . .

Though they share with many liberals a critical interest in aesthetics and the environment, a key difference between crunchy cons and the Left is the emphasis placed on these issues. Leftists tend to absolutize their tastes and convictions, look upon people who don't share them as morally deficient, and seek to impose them on an unwilling community. Crunchy cons, on the other hand, are more inclined to think simply that they've found a neat way to live, and want only to propose it to others.

Judy Warner, a rural Marylander who works in conservative fundraising, nicely captures the distinction in talking about the organic-farming, home-canning, composting, dulcimer-playing lifestyle she shares with her ex-Marine husband. "I'm a red-diaper baby and the conservative black sheep in my unreformed family. Here's the difference between my siblings and me: I do this as part of my life, a part I think is important and pleasurable, but not the most important. For them, it is the meaning of their life. It is their religion."

While crunchy cons would stop well short of imputing moral inferiority to those who don't share their own tastes in architecture, trees, or foodstuff, they would also say that it's a serious mistake to think of these issues as mere matters of taste. A child who grows up in a neighborhood built for human beings, not cars, may think of man's relation to his world differently from one raised amid the throwaway utilitarianism of strip-mall architecture. One's sensitivity to and desire for beauty, and its edifying qualities of order, harmony, "sweetness and light," has consequences for the character of individuals and ultimately for civilization. It's perilous to forget that.

You may be saying, "God save us from these Brie-eating bobos, who have the money to indulge their snobbish tastes and want to inflict them on the rest of us." But most crunchy cons are different from bobos David Brooks's bourgeois bohemians in part because they tend not to have a lot of money. Which brings us to the fourth big area that sets crunchy cons apart: their ideas about family.

Many religious crunchy cons have large families because they believe large families are a positive good. This usually means the mother, who is often highly educated, forgoes a career to stay home with the children and possibly even homeschools them. . .

One does find that most crunchy cons are at least uneasy being fully open with both right-wing and left-wing friends. Some say they avoid talking about politics with liberal friends, because sooner or later someone will say, "How could a nice fellow like you be such a fascist?" On the other hand, to discuss the case for regulating sprawl or the deep pleasures of Humboldt Fog cheese around many conservatives is to set yourself up for knee-jerk mockery. Crunchy cons wish their fellow Republicans would show tolerance for diversity within their own ranks.

"I don't want a McExistence bought in a strip mall and a mega-mart, but that doesn't mean I disparage those who like the comfort and regularity of suburbia. The problem is many GOPers view anything not embraced by the GOP mainstream as suspect," says Kerry Hardy, 33, a D.C. libertarian. "Western civilization is not threatened by people eating tofu or wearing tie-dye, and if the GOP mouthpieces stopped acting as if it were and stopped a priori judging those who do to be liberals, they might find that many of them are on their side."

And not only on their side, but ready with something to teach them about ways to live more fully within the conservative tradition. . .

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Long Live the Crunchies!

A few comments, however:

> they reject the anti-scientific utopianism of hysterical
> mainstream environmentalism,

Where, oh WHERE, is the anti-scientific utopianism of mainstream
environmentalism? My biggest beef with mainstream environmentalism
is that they have been sucked too far into rationalism.
Environmentalism *should* be a religion! And the religion should
include a critique of science. Science is one of the beasts that
got us into this mess. Science can be used well, adjunctively to
religion, but it is tricky. Only in the context of right religion
can science be used well.

"Anti-scientific utopianism" does not represent anything that I
can see in the broad green/enviro movement, except rarely
somewhere on its fringes (which I would like to see expand).

And as for "hysterical mainstream environmentalism" -- I wish
the author would be specific, and point to an example.

> Judy Warner, a rural Marylander who works in conservative
> fundraising, nicely captures the distinction in talking about the
> organic-farming, home-canning, composting, dulcimer-playing
> lifestyle she shares with her ex-Marine husband. "I'm a red-diaper
> baby and the conservative black sheep in my unreformed family.
> Here's the difference between my siblings and me: I do this as
> part of my life, a part I think is important and pleasurable, but
> not the most important. For them, it is the meaning of their life.
> It is their religion."

What is the matter with it being the meaning of their life,
rather than just a pleasant passtime? Why the allergy to
religion? To me, the religious aspect is the most important.
Why bother doing things if they do not reflect the meaning
of your life? That, too, is one of the beasts that got us
into this mess.

> Leftists tend to absolutize their tastes and convictions, look
> upon people who don't share them as morally deficient, and seek to
> impose them on an unwilling community.

That is much more true of the right than the left -- obviously, in
my view. Leftists tend NOT to absolutize their tastes and
convictions, viewing things more from a post-modern, relativistic
stance ("everyone has their perspective, and each has value"). I
would prefer it if not the left, but the broad Green/enviro
movement, would start doing a bit more absolutizing, approaching
what they are doing with more religious fervor. Gimmee that Old
Time Religion! :-)

> A child who grows up in a neighborhood built for human beings, not
> cars, may think of man's relation to his world differently from
> one raised amid the throwaway utilitarianism of strip-mall
> architecture. One's sensitivity to and desire for beauty, and its
> edifying qualities of order, harmony, "sweetness and light," has
> consequences for the character of individuals and ultimately for
> civilization. It's perilous to forget that.

Indeed it is perilous to forget that. And it seems ridiculous that
we would require scientific studies to remind us of those
axiomatic truths. But it seems that we do -- and now we have them,
compliments of Kuo and Sullivan (U of Illinois):
http://www.herl.uiuc.edu/

(Next stop: the right denounces Kuo and Sullivan as tree-hugging
liberal socialist weenies and egalitarian bolsheviks, hell bent on
imposing an alien way of life on everyone else.)

> While crunchy cons would stop well short of imputing moral
> inferiority to those who don't share their own tastes in
> architecture, trees, or foodstuff, they would also say...

Not moral inferiority, but aesthetic inferiority, and aesthetics
IN TURN IMPACT MORALS. Adherents to true religion, it seems, used
to understand this. And environmentalists (generally) understand
this. Why can't the broad right understand this?

> Many religious crunchy cons have large families because they
> believe large families are a positive good. This usually means the
> mother, who is often highly educated, forgoes a career to stay
> home with the children - and possibly even homeschools them. . .

This is where the crunchies fall down. Quantity is not a positive
good, but QUALITY is. But Three Cheers for the mothers' devotion,
for the homeschooling, etc.

Alan


PS: The kind of "anti-science" critique the
greens need MORE of, not less:

SNIPPET:

http://www.thechristianactivist.com/Vol%207/V7Sherrard.htm

A Journal of Orthodox Opinion

Modern Science and the Dehumanization of Man

BY PHILLIP SHERRARD

We have to remember that the "clear" and "distinct" notions that
form the basis of modern science are not clear and distinct in and
for themselves, but only in the context of a certain set of
concepts and axioms. Men like Galileo and Descartes did not simply
have to replace one set of theories by a better set. They had to
destroy one world and replace it by another. They had to destroy
one conceptual framework of the mind and replace it by another.

Modern science presupposes a radical reshaping of our whole mental
outlook. It involves a new approach to being, a new approach to
nature, in short, a new philosophy. Borne over the last few
centuries on the wave of the excitement of formulating and
applying this new philosophy, we have tended to take it for
granted that it represents a great break-through, a marvelous
advance on the part of mankind, even a sign of our coming of age.
Now that we begin to see the consequences of our capitulation to
it -- and we are only now beginning to see these consequences --
we are not so sure. But even so it is difficult for us to admit
that, far from being an advance, the whole modern scientific
experiment may be a ghastly failure. Yet there is no reason why it
should not be. One has to judge things by their fruits. And one of
the fruits of modern science, clear for all to see, and implicit
in the philosophy on which it is based, is the dehumanization both
of man and of the society that he has built in its name.

Posted by: Alan at August 4, 2005 10:50 AM