The Traditionalist Moment
For a book that aches to be regarded as sane and sensible, Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons has inspired a disproportionate amount of contempt. Since its publication in February 2006, simply to utter the book’s title without also mocking it has been enough to send certain right-wing bloggers and commentators into a venomous frenzy of rage. National Review Online’s John Podhoretz, for example, espied in Dreher’s work the return of the Old Right, shorn—and how cleverly!—of its “anti-republican, pro-Confederate, anti-Semitic” baggage. Podhoretz also sensed in Dreher’s work the presence of a “disturbing anti-Americanism”; he wasn’t the only one to lodge that complaint. In a creepier vein, with Crunchy Cons Dreher has even earned his own internet stalker, a fellow who calls himself the “Contra Crunchy” and has set up his own blog by that name to prove it.
Why the book has met with such a reaction is a bit puzzling. Entrenched movement conservatives apparently find it threatening, perhaps because it challenges the tendentious portraits of (some of) the movement’s sainted founders they regularly trot out for public display. Others, driven rightward some thirty or forty years ago by what they perceived as the hippies’ unjustifiable disdain for convention, authority, and country, are understandably resentful of any argument that finds among the old long-haired set redeeming qualities of a conservative nature. A third group identifies conservatism with unquestioning commitment to America’s “free-market” economic system and the concomitant glories of liberal modernity; a sophisticated subset of this group, composed primarily of those who make their living in academia, has grown so tired of their colleagues’ self-serving whining about American philistinism that they have become deeply suspicious of all critiques of consumerism and materialism—even though these critiques have long formed important aspects of the genuinely conservative objection to the rise of mass man (who is not the same as the proverbial “common man”).
In the face of all this, one feels obligated to note that Dreher isn’t exactly the second coming of Edward Abbey, lobbing bombs into the fetid political mainstream just for the joy of observing the reaction. It would be more fun if he were, but he’s not. Rod Dreher is an earnest journalist and sensitive guy originally from Louisiana who, after doing a stint in New York as a writer at National Review, moved to Dallas with his wife and child a few years back to take a position at the Dallas Morning News. While at National Review, suddenly realizing that—to borrow John Lukacs’s formulation—his comrades were more anti-leftist than they were pro-conservative, he seems to have discovered the half-forgotten canon of traditionalist thought (especially the work of Russell Kirk) and its contemporary expositors (especially Lukacs, Wendell Berry, and Alasdair MacIntyre). Crunchy Cons is a kind of breathless field report on the results of Dreher’s excavation of traditionalist arguments—and how their application to the real world seems to deviate in troubling ways from the policies championed by today’s conservative intellectuals, pundits, and politicians.
Does this not seem like news to you? But then, you already knew quite a bit about Chesterton and Kirk and Weaver and the rest of the old tradcons, didn’t you? You and I—and now Dreher—are, however, part of a small minority. Dreher, in his rather charming naïveté, seems to have thought that our minority wouldn’t have to be so small if only more people knew about the traditionalist side of American conservatism and the ways in which some men and women had shaped their lives according to its tenets. That is the reason why—and the spirit in which—he wrote this book.
Let’s deal with the title first. It’s dopey. In fact, it started out as nothing but a jokey headline. It was under the “Crunchy Cons” rubric that Dreher first wrote a National Review article on the subject in 2002. Of course, it’s also the kind of title that a publisher with grand sales ambitions latches onto with a death grip. Then there is the long subtitle, which is apparently meant to signal that the book isn’t too heavy for the casual reader. And yet the book is nothing if not serious (although it is also, like the title, a bit dopey in its presentation). But let us not judge a book by its title. Dreher’s goal is simply to show that a commitment to sustainability, conservation, and the responsible stewardship of natural resources is perfectly compatible with—in fact, finds its natural home within—traditionalist conservatism.
The book begins with a brief “Crunchy-Con Manifesto,” a list of the ten canons of crunchiness. These are not profound, but they have the advantage of being true, and they are certainly imbued with the spirit (and phrasing) of Russell Kirk’s traditionalism (Kirk’s name appears twice; the phrase “Permanent Things,” three times). In essence, the crunchy con rejects materialism, is skeptical of the large, centralized institutions of business and government, prefers the local and particular to the distant and abstract, believes that beauty is “not a luxury, but key to the good life,” is a friend of the traditional family, and places much more than the usually minimal American emphasis on human limitation. “A conservatism that does not recognize the need for restraint, for limits, and for humility is neither helpful to individuals and society nor, ultimately, conservative. This is particularly true with respect to the natural world.”
So much for pages 1–2. For the next eight chapters and 250-odd pages, Crunchy Cons operates on two levels. At the first, it is a piece of reportage, a dispatch from the front: there are people out there, Dreher tells us, who are intentionally living locally oriented, back-to-the-landish lives, and hence would usually be regarded as latter-day hippies, but in fact they tend also to be religiously orthodox, socially and culturally traditional, pro-family militants. These are the crunchy cons. We meet folks like Robert Hutchins, an organic chicken farmer who lives near Greenville, Texas, with his wife and kids. In Dreher’s account, the evangelical Hutchins clan exercises a great deal of critical intelligence in operating a successful, humane, and ecologically aware farming operation while also homeschooling the kids. Dreher also profiles people like Maclin Horton, one of the founders of the defunct localist/green/orthodox Catholic journal Caelum et Terra (which was far ahead of its time), and lawyer-writer-farmer Caleb Stegall, one of the founding editors of the New Pantagruel, an online Christian journal that examined issues concerning family, place, and the land. Learning about these admirable Americans makes for light but enjoyable reading.
Among this group Dreher tentatively—and self-consciously—locates he and his wife. This is where the book works least well. Dreher is too new to all of this not to come off, at times, as a bit preachy and defensive. Ideally, it would have been better for him to have written this book several years from now, to have let the conversion take hold, allowing himself time to become comfortable outside the gates of official conservativedom. As it is, he pulls too many punches. Hence, when he writes, “To the extent that I can be called a conservative, it’s because I want to conserve the wisdom and humane traditions taught by and celebrated in Catholicism,” he immediately feels it necessary to add, in italics, “even if that puts me at odds with contemporary Republicans.” Well, of course. That doesn’t exactly make one a modern-day Martin Luther. Furthermore, because he is not yet entirely comfortable with shedding all the myths held dear by the contemporary right, after justly praising the guts showed by President Carter in making his too-honest 1979 “malaise” speech, Dreher assures his reader that he nevertheless appreciates Reagan “for restoring optimism, confidence, and vigor to America.” But it’s not so easy to have it both ways. As a handful of other conservatives, including Andrew Bacevich, are starting to realize, one can’t praise Carter while simultaneously letting Reagan off the hook by invoking hoary clichés about optimism. Not with oil prices inching higher by the day.
Aside from the deficiencies of the book as memoir, as reportage Dreher’s book is fairly successful. By simply giving a name—if, admittedly, a lame one—to a phenomenon that undoubtedly exists, he has inserted a wedge into the consciousness of many self-identified conservatives. For some folks, that wedge may eventually lodge itself firmly enough to make the resulting cognitive dissonance unbearable. And that would be bad news for the John Podhoretzes of the world.
At the second level, Dreher’s book is an exercise in theoretical analysis. His goal is to show that the crunchy cons ought not to be regarded as inexplicable freaks caught up in a web of philosophical contradictions, but rather as the practical heirs of the traditionalist conservative mind. Here, Dreher’s work might be best described as incomplete. He is at his best when he is meditative and reflective rather than bluntly assertive. It is not that he is wrong that crunchies are—at least at their best—authentic traditionalists, but that there is much more to be said and worked out than he is willing or able to do in this book. Kirk as the proto–crunchy con: excellent. By Dreher’s criteria, Kirk was crunchy, indeed. But is a crunchy sensibility what lies at the foundation of his traditionalism? Obviously not, as Dreher himself realizes. Crunchiness is ephiphenomenal, a surface manifestation of something deeper. So what is that something deeper?
I think that that something deeper is the traditionalist’s profound belief in the reality of human limitation (canon five in the crunchy-con manifesto). That is why, though the traditionalist may be crunchy, it would be more precise to say that he—ideally—attempts not to live beyond the limits of his love and knowledge, care and affection. He seeks to do no harm: to himself, his family, his community, his country, his world. He rejects both the boisterous heroism of the pagans and the equally boisterous anti-heroism of the moderns, preferring the quieter, particularist, less damaging and more heroic heroism of the Christians. That is the first principle, he thinks, of doing good in social and political life. He therefore tries to focus—against every contemporary prejudice and temptation—on the things that are near, and only reluctantly to look outward from there.
Thanks to many of those cited or profiled in Dreher’s book, and despite superficial appearances to the contrary, the truth of this traditionalist teaching is again becoming recognized. In fact, the publication of Dreher’s book signals a cultural shift that is as important as it is unmistakable: the intellectual energy in conservatism has been transferred from its institutional spokesmen to a new generation of traditionalist writers and thinkers. It is as a popular symbol of this shift, I think, that Dreher’s book has real significance.
Jeremy Beer is Editor in Chief of ISI Books and coeditor, with Bruce Frohnen and Jeffrey Nelson, of American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia.
Posted: December 24, 2007
Grounding the Life of the Mind
Matthew A. Rarey