Friday, October 14, 2005

The Crunchy Con

By Mitchell

Rod Dreher started quite a commotion at NRO a while back, with the idea of the "Crunchy Con." This shorthand referred to conservatives who identified with aspects of areas traditionally identified with the liberal provence: things like natural foods (the "Crunchy" part of the equation came from granola, hardly the kind of red meat conservatives are said to prefer), environmentalism, or an appreciation for nature and distrust for the suburbs. The Crunchy Con might enjoy hiking or organic vegetables; they might be drawn to the arts rather than money-making ventures; they may look with distain on unbridled consumerism. And, Dreher says, there's something else about Crunchy Cons:

The Granola Conservatives I know tend not to be wealthy, but labor in the creative and intellectual vineyards as writers, professors, and artists. They also tend to be religious. It's foolish to go too far in metaphysicalizing questions of taste, but a big part of it, at least for those of us who are part of older Christian traditions, comes from learning to see the world sacramentally. In the sacramental vision, which is shared by Catholics and the Orthodox, the spirit world is mediated through the material world, which is another way of saying we experience God in creation. To someone imbued with a sacramental vision, qualities inherent in things — from the food we eat to the buildings we live in — matter in profoundly spiritual ways.

Now, a lot of these things might be unpopular in conservative circles. As I've mentioned in the past, one of the great joys of no longer being active in politics is that you don't have to be so careful in choosing your friends. Back then being too chummy with a liberal could turn you into a political leper. Nowadays it might just mean that you share common interests other than politics. (Of course, to the dedicated politico, the idea that anything exists outside of politics is just too much to comprehend.)

Point is that Dreher has a book coming out about this soon, and I'm really looking forward to reading it. Dreher today alluded to his hunch "that this book, while not a religious book, primarily will appeal to readers who have a religious sensibility." I think it's going to be a very provocative piece, not the least because it will present, to some liberals, a radically different conception of what conservatism is, and it will be interesting to see how they react to it. One friend of Dreher's who's been reading the proofs talks of "the points it raises about the way we live our lives, and how we might live differently to be more truthful to our conservative ideals."

Take materialism and consumerism, for example. Having nice things isn't inherently a sin: we have a few things I'd like to think are nice, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. But Dreher is right on the money when he says that "the moral, spiritual, and political challenges posed by the consumerist ethic affect us all", and I'm afraid that's something a lot of conservatives just don't get.

Or urban sprawl. Around here them's fightin' words, because Myron Orfield, the former Minnesota state legislator, made a cottage industry out of urban sprawl as a political issue. When I was involved in politics I thought of Orfield's positions as almost socialist in nature. (As one friend of mine put it, what the guy really wants to do is dictate everything to us, from where we can live to what we can do to where we can go.) Orfield makes the classic liberal mistake of thinking government can mandate certain types of behavior and thought through laws and regulation. (Dreher is much, much closer to the truth in thinking that the conversion has to come from within us, rather than being forced on us by the government.)

And yet I've found that there is something to what Orfield says, especially when he talks of the importance of a strong inner city to the overall economic and societal success of an entire region. And while I think it's insane to talk, as some do, of eliminating suburbs altogether, there's no question that their effect on our society and culture can be debated long and hard.

I think another of Dreher's correspondents put it very well:

To put it another way: the Crunchy Con thing, to me, is not about commands (if you're going to be a Crunchy Con, you've got to do this! and you mustn't do that!) but about articulating and defending alternative choices and views. It's about the fact that I don't have to like Wal-Mart just because I'm a political conservative; nor do I have to be a lefty because I sometimes shop at EarthFare. (This latter point needs to be made to both liberals and conservatives, by the way.) It's about defending taste and craftsmanship and all manner of things that are humane and small-scale against the excesses of modernism and technologism and corporatism and gigantism. It's about bringing the likes of Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford back into the discussion, instead of turning our physical environment completely over to developers who give us big-box stores and clusters of McMansions, and then telling ourselves that we've got to like it because we're conservatives and there's no other way. It's about allowing us to debate the good and bad effects of technology, to make a conscientious effort to define and separate them out, to be able to argue that some forms of "progress" we would best do without, without being forced to accept the label of Luddite, or be caricatured as people who are "against science" or "don't believe in

Not everyone agrees with this (certainly not most of The Corner, where they might even scoff at it), but it sure rings true to me, and perhaps that's one reason why I'm not involved in politics anymore. "There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy," Shakespeare put it. The same applies to the conservative movement. Rod Dreher has shone a much-needed light on those other things, and I can't wait to see where it leads us.

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