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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Something to Chew On

I haven't read Rod Dreher's new book on "crunchy conservatives," but I'm familiar with the article which originally inspired it, and the great discussions which Dreher's thesis has prompted on the new blog which National Review has launched for it, as well as on some of my favorite blogs, including Verbum Ipsum and Caelum et Terra. Both of those posts express sympathy, or at least interest, in the crunchy con idea--nicely summed up by Dreher's long subtitle to his book: "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)"--but both express some doubt as to the usefulness of the term itself. (Daniel Larison and Amy Welborn are somewhat dubious too.) For my part, I see something of real substance and importance in Dreher's word choice, though it certainly isn't anything close to what he actually had in mind.

For Dreher, it all begins with granola. Over the past decade or two, his personal political and religious journey has led him to embrace, wherever he could find it, the local, the authentic, the organic, the rural and ethnic. In other words, he became a traditionalist--but he did it by way of a realization that big corporations and suburban sprawl and all the tropes of growth-maximizing capitalism did a terrible job at conserving culinary or artistic or religion or family traditions. And so, as he did seek out these things--by, among other things, buying vegetables at a local organic co-op--he found himself associating more and more with the sort of people that he'd always previously identified as "hippies," the sort of countercultural radicals that the Republican party has politically benefited so much from demonizing (by no means always inaccurately) for the better part of 40 years. Gradually, he realized that he had a lot of sympathy for that counterculture, and that, amongst his home-schooling and subsistence-farming friends, such sympathy was actually pretty deep. So when he takes on contemporary conservatism--with a manifesto that includes such statements as "modern conservatism has become too focused on money, power, and the accumulation of stuff"; "big business deserves as much skepticism as big government"; "beauty is more important than efficiency"; and my favorite, "Small, Local, Old, and Particular are almost always better than Big, Global, New, and Abstract"--he does it by way of invoking this kind of "hip" traditionalism, the resistance to American consumerism which was at least as much a product of the communes and the "drop out" mentality of the 60s and 70s as any kind of informed, serious devotion to older religious and social traditions. Hence, "crunchy" cons--conservatives that eat granola, who aren't that into the smooth, streamlined, stainless steel suburban world that actually consists of most of the Republican party's current base.

Some of those who are otherwise wholly in favor of Dreher's vision--even if they doubt the likelihood of being able to reform the Republican party from within--take issue with his crunchy language because they think the very idea of being "countercultural" can't ever be more than a hip affectation; what is needed is the recovery of real culture, not the pose of standing aside from it. Caleb Stegall, of The New Pantagruel, makes this point brilliantly: authenticity and virtue, he writes, are better conserved through the "quiet romanticism still to be had [by] living a life closely rooted to the ground" rather than through the overt (and thus actually rather individualistic) rejectionism practiced by the hippies. I think he's right, at least insofar as Dreher's original inspiration goes. But I'll still defend "crunchiness," because what I see in that term is an opening to make a philosophical point, one which can tell us something about what it means to make culture substantive, authoritative, chewy you might say, in our otherwise mostly quicksilver, superficial, transactional world.

I've written a lot before about the need for some sense of authority, for a spiritual seriousness, to undergird progressive politics. This is something which Wilfred McClay recently commented on, in connection with early Progressivism and the New Deal coalition and how dependent both of those liberal moments were on church-goers, on evangelicals and Catholics, on the moral and intellectual resources and arguments that naturally went along with a certain localized and "parochial" feeling of egalitarian and religious belonging (and, thus, also obligation). This is how I put it in a very long post a year and a half ago:

It is affection, specifically that which arises from and depends upon a shared life, a defined (and therefore somewhat limited) life, that makes possible real social concern, a concern which is not restricted to a needs-tested distribution of a few select goods (which at best can only result in the just treatment of those who accept the terms of choice which the market--and those who are lucky/hard-working/well-connected enough to dominate it--consciously or unconsciously impose), but which actually seeks make the production of goods a component of one's participation in the community. Not for nothing did late 19th-century populism easily merge with socialism, and not for nothing are social democrats today often the most responsive to the diverse demands of local communities, whether in neighborhood design, public schooling, welfare provision, or a dozen other areas. To talk about populist justice means to talk about "the people" not in the abstract, whether behind a veil of ignorance (John Rawls) or as individual choosers confident in their holdings (Robert Nozick), but to begin where they live, in their (often religious) communities.

The granola "crunchiness" of most of those who either actually lived in or at least admired various countercultural and communal socio-economic living arrangements had very little to do with any of this; they were not, for the most part, thinking hard about how to realize something meaningful through populist or local action. But nonetheless, such activities can give us access to ways of life which can be productively understood in light of Hegel's notion of Sittlichkeit, or "ethical life." What makes for a meaningful life, Hegel argued contra the liberal universalism of Kant (a universalism that is clearly echoed in both the individualistic liberalism of both Rawls and Nozick), was the realization of the movements of history and "Spirit" in actual lived localities, practices, and institutions. Hegel was an idealist, and found the empiricism that lays behind most modern construals of human liberty to be politically shallow and ontologically flawed. However, following the path laid down by romantics like J.G. Herder, Hegel insisted that our apprehension of and progression through ideas couldn't happen in any other way except through an attendance to the forms and rituals and organizations and groups that make up everyday life. One doesn't have to embrace every iota of Hegel's ambitious (some would say totalizing) logical systematizing of philosophy--I certainly don't!--to appreciate that it is this insight which makes the original Marxist argument so powerful. Marx was able to present something more than ideas whose normative force might arise entirely from our independent agreement with them; he gave us an argument for egalitarian arrangements that obliged us to see our economies, our families, our communities as implicating us in the very terms of the struggle. That doesn't mean, I think, that outcomes are fated--the socialism of Marx's Communist Manifesto was, I think, was far less materially deterministic than his later writings would indicate--but it does mean that the struggle over of what kind of ethic, what kind of "spirit," will guide our lives, demands more than some ex post liberal calculations about how to distribute and balance all our wants. Such calculations--as Rawls makes clear with his clean, uncomplicated description of the difference principle--can be reduced to easily whipped up and swallowed formula; Hegel and Marx, by contrast, make such moral concerns substantive: make them, again, tough and well-rooted and chewy.

Non-liberal leftists--or rather, leftists for whom being liberal involves a personal attitude, not moral accounting--can't avoid reflecting on the fact that Marx knew well the ethical force of that which emergent industrial capitalism was destroying; in the Communist Manifesto, he was able to describe the uprooting of communities and the impoverishment of families in a language that sounds like no one else so much as Burke. I don't mean to get too abstractly philosophical (too late, you say!); admittedly, the parallels I'm drawing here are anything but perfect. But still, there is a sense in which certain progressives--like myself--have always been aware of the need to ground our socialist goals in a spiritual, moral, substantive, actually lived world, whereas so many others--liberals like Rawls--think the whole point is to defend the self's ability to pick themselves up and live wherever and however they like. And, of course, to the extent that most American conservatives today are liberals too, believing more in economic liberty (and the "creative destruction" and mobility and meritocracy which comes along with such) than in commonality, they offer relatively little resistance to what I think are liberalism's worst consequences: a devaluing of what Dreher rightly called the Small, Local, Old, and Particular. And so, in my own admittedly idiosyncratic way, I like any kind of argument for crunchiness, whatever its origin and intention: in my view, such helps remind us that what is at stake here isn't just granola, but also the whole question of what, in the long run, modernity will leave undigested, allowing us, the people, to locally and collectively chew it over.

Insofar as my own preferences go, I obviously realize that serious Christian socialists are practically non-existent in today's world, and perhaps there's a reason for this; perhaps there is a deep tension between the two worldviews that obliges one to inevitably be sacrificed to the other. But I still have hope. Indeed, I think we have to hope for such: without the contribution which such progressive and egalitarian concerns can make to traditionalism, the whole crunchy conservative movement will fall, I suspect, before the obvious response: namely, how do you afford in today's world to live a more or less enclosed and localized life? It's not for no reason that many ordinary conservatives end up defending Wal-Mart and Sam's Club and dismissing Whole Foods: the latter is more expensive, and often drenched in a liberal and urban elitism which will have the likely result of leading any conservatism (even a crunchy one!) that cannot or will not talk about class to simply dismiss the concern for authenticity entirely. (Ross Douthat understands this, though not quite enough, I think.) Such may well be the fate of Dreher's argument. But in the meantime, I'm envious: thanks to Dreher's book, what we have here are conservatives having a serious conversation about getting crunchy, throwing some fruits and nuts and culture into the mix. I can only wait--perhaps in vain--for the day when progressives get around to noticing that it wouldn't be a bad idea for them to do the same.

(For a Mormon angle on all this, see here. And for a follow-up to this post, see here.)

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