How Crunchy Is Too Crunchy?

There’s some very interesting debate going on at National Review Online on the subject of conservatism and “crunchiness” based on Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons book on the subject. Dreher makes an interesting argument that living a more “authentic” life is more attune to the first principles of conservative political philosophy. At the same time, many of the writers of National Review are deeply skeptical of Dreher’s premise. This morning, James Lileks also weighs in:

The second wad ‘o material came from the crunchycon blog, which I had been reading with ever-vaulting amounts of exasperation; as Jonah Goldberg put it in his remarks about the idea – not so much of an evisceration as a mummification, because the Egyptian doctors pulled the brain out through the nose – I don’t know what the hell they are talking about. Crunchyism is everything and nothing and this and that, and mostly what they like; at the end of reading two weeks of entries I concluded it was nonsense on stilts – and hand-made, locally-produced, organic wood stilts at that.

I’m with the skeptics here. Dreher’s at least partially right – there’s nothing intrinsically “unconservative” about wishing for a more “authentic” life – but that doesn’t rise to the level of a coherent political philosophy. The left holds as a maxim the idea that the “personal is political” – that everything somehow relates back to politics. My biggest beef with the whole “crunchy cons” idea is that it tries to make matters of personal choice and taste somehow relate to some broad and overarching political philosophy – making too things which should and do exist in entirely separate domains and trying to mash them together into one. Conservative political philosophy doesn’t have any relevance to the choices you make in your own personal domain – because that’s none of society’s business so long as your shopping doesn’t include taking five-finger discounts at your neighbor’s house. Whether you buy your groceries at Wal-Mart or Whole Foods or dig them out of your garden is a personal choice made in your own personal domain, and conservatism doesn’t have the audacity to argue which one is best.

The root of the objections to the whole “crunchy con” idea seems to be in the way that it mixes the personal and the political domains. The talk of taxing short-term stock sales strikes me as deeply unconservative. The whole point of conservatism is that using the power of the state to enforce any kind of way of life on the people is just A Bad Idea™. Society should grow and develop organically. People don’t shop at Wal-Mart or Target or IKEA because someone puts a gun to their heads, they do so because convenience matters. There’s nothing wrong with appreciating the value of a hand-crafted table or growing one’s own food in one’s own garden – but at the point where someone says that the power of the state should be used to force people towards that direction they’ve abrogated their claims to true conservatism.

But here’s where Dreher really loses me:

The fact is that there are lots of conservatives who are traditionalists, and who take the kinds of ideas championed by Russell Kirk and his circle seriously, and who are actually interested in participating in conservative conversations about first principles and the way we live today, versus the usual Republican jibber-jabber about how awful the liberals are. There should always be conservatives asking what it means to live an authentically conservative life, and beyond that, what it means to live an authentically human life in a mass consumer society where it’s harder than ever to hold on to tradition. (It’s telling too that I’m getting e-mails from a few liberals who say that they’ve been thinking the same thing, and are disappointed that the Left is ignoring these same basic questions.) I think it says something about where the conservative movement in America is today that some can’t bring themselves to mount much more than frat-boy sneering at the kinds of ideas, concerns and questions that used to be front and center for our tribe.

Yes, the value of tradition is paramount to society. Conservatives can and should defend the first principles of our philosophy. At the same time, the libertarian side of me bristles at the whole idea that anyone has the right to dictate what an “authentic” life really is. Yes, it may be nice to life a more simple life in the country and read Russell Kirk. But the tendency for the “crunchy cons” to inflict their Holier-Than-Thou attitude on those who don’t share their personal lifestyle choices is both deeply off-putting and a violation of the separation of the personal from the political. If I want to live in a big city, have an occasional Big Mac, and shop at IKEA, that doesn’t make me any less of a conservative or any less in tune with the first principles of conservative thought. If being a “crunchy con” equates to arguing that conservatives have to embrace one particular kind of lifestyle to be truly “authentic”, then that’s one VW microbus that I’ve little interest in jumping aboard. By trying to equate choices that rightly belong in the personal domain with the good of society, Dreher makes the same mistake that socialists and other utopians do – and that is more “crunchy” than conservative.

3 thoughts on “How Crunchy Is Too Crunchy?

  1. Well spoken, Jay.

    CrunchCon deserves some respect; we need people to remind us that conservatism isn’t synonymous with the Republican Party — my God, no — or with free trade, the stock market or the economy. In fact, conservatism is a set of principles that exist at a higher level than any particular political or economic policy.

    Those principles involve accepting that humans are inherently fallible, that institutions become addicted to power and ends in themselves if not checked, that individuals or voluntary groups of individuals are the source of creativity, and that government is necessary for certain tasks but is an inherently blunt instrument unsuited for the more subtle and delicate challenges of life.

    The mental evolution that a person goes through to arrive at conservative principles for himself is also likely to be associated with certain private values. A philosophical conservative, as a corollary, is more likely to have some form of spiritual outlook, to see the downside of government trying to solve people’s problems for them, to find meaning in the mind and heart rather than acquisition of goods beyond a certain point.

    But those are qualities that spring from the inner life. They can’t be imposed by an ideology, including a supposely conservative ideology. Demanding that conservatives prove their “crunchiness” through outward signs just contributes to the widespread view, much beloeved by the state-centered, that the personal is political.

  2. I’ve been following this “Crunchy Con” conversation, on various blogs (especially National Review and Reason) with a great deal of interest. One remarkable similarity I see (and I don’t know if this is brought up at all in “Crunchy Cons”) is with the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor and his “Ethics of Authenticity”. The amusing part is that Taylor is a self-described liberal, communitarian, and most definitely a statist. (Which isn’t to say that his philosophy is of no value; I find some of his ethical concepts, such as that of “hypergoods”, very useful for sorting through political issues.)

    But yes, “the personal as political” is probably the thing I dislike most about the so-called American “left”. Since when does the fact that I’m a non-Christian, part of a counterculture, and like to shop at Whole Paycheck (err… Foods) make me a socialist? Because of my free market tendencies, and my tendency to defend people who I disagree with, I’m frequently referred to as a “conservative” by my fellows, when I’m not any kind of a conservative. On the other hand, I have friends from rural South Dakota who are churchgoers with closets full of guns who would likely punch you in the nose if you called them a Republican. The “culture war” rhetoric has just been the GOP’s way of adopting “the personal as political” into their own tactical vocabulary; and, from what I can tell, it’s a load of nonsense.

  3. Jay, Rod Dreher once made a statement to the effect that conservatism is, by definition, a “counterculture” philosophy and that it should take all measures to stay that way.

    I guess this is what happens when you win: You have some folks hankerin’ for “good old days” that really weren’t. There’s nothing wrong with conformity, Rod Dreher. You might find that your family will like the predictability of it:)

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