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Sing-Song Conservatism

This review by Florence King appears in the July/August 2006 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, click here.

Crunchy Cons
by Rod Dreher
(Crown, 259 pages, $24)

The complete title of this book is Crunchy Cons: 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).

Makes you wish for She by H. Rider Haggard, doesn’t it? Or better yet, It by Elinor Glyn.

It takes an unusual writer to confuse his readers before they even finish the title, but Rod Dreher, as we shall see presently, is never at a loss for confusion. He has written a book about conservatives with hippie tastes, so knowing that Birkenstocks are hippie sandals, I thought “crunchy” had to do with granola. But no; “crunchy” is slang for “earthy,” he states, and leaves it at that. The reader is left to assume that he means “earthy” in the agrarian sense of “the good earth”; he couldn’t possibly mean earthy as in blunt speech in view of his rapture-on-every-page tendency to cascading wordfalls. I tried two dictionaries and a thesaurus but all of them relate “crunchy” to loud chewing or grinding, or to accounting, as in numbers crunching. Dreher never does explain, so we will have to conclude that his dictionary is not as other dictionaries, which wouldn’t surprise me a bit.

Now an editor with the Dallas Morning News, Dreher used to work for National Review, where he was teased about his practice of buying organic vegetables from a co-op. A co-worker called him a “lefty,” while the other customers at the co-op did a double-take when he loaded his vegetables into his National Review tote bag. Feeling misunderstood all around, he wrote an article called “Birkenstock Burkeans” to prove his contention that true conservatives are countercultural. The piece drew hundreds of enthusiastic letters from the kind of readers National Review never knew they had: a pro-life vegetarian Buddhist Republican; a couple, both engineers, who not only baked their own bread but ground the wheat themselves; and a woman who used to think she was the only person in the world who owned a copy of The Moosewood Cookbook until she discovered that Dreher owned the other one.

His thesis is that conservatives ought to conserve something, but that all too many of them would pave over the Garden of Eden and fill it with shopping malls and McMansions in their kneejerk obeisance to growth, progress, and the free market’s sacrosanct law of supply and demand. What passes for conservatism today is actually destructionism: Agribusiness is destroying the family farm, suburbia is destroying old urban neighborhoods, the car culture is destroying the air we breathe, and television is destroying everything.

He blames the Reagan era for promoting the kind of conservatism that holds environmentalism in contempt, and for popularizing mockery of environmentalists as “tree-hugging kooks” as a means of proving one’s right-wing bona fides. Just as the Democrats are the “Party of Lust” who refuse to limit sexual freedom, Republicans are the “Party of Greed” who refuse to limit economic freedom. Both parties are driven by materialist ideologies in the sense that both stand for “the multiplication of wants and the intensification of desire” that have brought Americans to our present state of “empty consumerist prosperity.”

IF THIS ALL SOUNDS FAMILIAR, it is. Except for its hosannas to homeschooling as a means of strengthening the family, Crunchy Cons is a back-to-the-future trip to the 1950s when similar books were all the rage. Reading Dreher is like re-reading The Organization Man, The Lonely Crowd, The Affluent Society, and all the various Split-Level-this and Two-Car-that alienation scenarios that poured off the presses during the Eisenhower years. The only one it does not resemble is The Crack in the Picture Window, which was mordantly funny.

The earnest Dreher, by contrast, is prone to unintentional humor (“Cheap chicken is not worth a compromised conscience”), and describes his every emotion and experience with such lyrical excess that he seems to be ever on the verge of groaning “Oh, the aching wonder of it all.” Shopping at the farmers market is almost too much for him to bear:

…when you’ve seen the face of the woman who planted it, and shaken the hand of the man who harvested it, you become aware of the intimate human connection between you, the farmer, and the earth. To do so is to become aware of the radical giftedness of our lives….Learning the names of the small farmers, and coming to appreciate what they do, is to reverse the sweeping process of alienation from the earth and from each other that the industrialized agriculture and mass production of foodstuffs has wrought.

This kind of sing-song bliss quickly becomes hypnotic. The moment you come across one of his launch words you know the rest will follow, and you start to sway… authenticity, stability, spirituality, connectedness, instinctive, traditional… Stand by, here come some more… timeless, preservation, nature, richer and fuller, living and breathing, enhancing, treasuring, and above all, community.

All of his crunchy con friends talk the same way. Said one: “There is a wisdom that comes into a culture when many of its people have a direct connection to the land and to life, to the living cycles. I see many of the political agendas today as being a total failure to understand life, seasons, accountability, and the connections of life and people to our community. There’s just no connection….”

Even his wife’s explanation of why she chose to get pregnant — “…this instinct welled up in me: We should be bearing fruit” — took on the same undulating rhythm, like a ripe pear tree yielding to an insistent wind. Only a pithy classical sentence could break the spell, a polished maxim by someone who understood the rigorous use of language, i.e., someone Dreher does not know personally. Only one such sentence is to be found in the entire book, when, miraculously, he quotes St. Thomas Aquinas: “Wine may lawfully be drunk utque ad hilaritatem” (to the point of cheerfulness).

DESPITE THE VERBAL ECSTASY squirting out of him like ink from a squid, cheerfulness is not Dreher’s long suit. In between affirming ‘n’ connecting to a richer ‘n’ fuller meetedness, he takes obvious pleasure in describing in lurid detail the slaughtering techniques at agribusiness holding pens. Making people feel guilty is the liberal’s specialty, and it sounds as if he’s turning into one.

He sometimes seems to suspect it himself, and falls into the trap of protesting too much. He has decided that Jimmy Carter got it right in his famous “Malaise speech” and regrets that ignorance and ideology blinded him to it for so long. “Don’t get me wrong,” he hastens to add; he’s grateful to Reagan for restoring optimism and confidence, but now we need to change the culture to “reclaim a way of life that’s — [sway alert] — richer, more satisfying, more grounded, more sustainable, more meaningful and, in the end, more authentically joyful.”

How? Take to the hills, he advises, except that he classes it up with the story of St. Benedict, who in the late Roman Empire urged citizens of collapsing Roman cities to leave and establish monasteries in the countryside. It would be so easy to do nowadays, Dreher rhapsodizes, because of — the Internet! Thanks to broadband, everybody can now work at home, making it possible for crunchy cons to form virtual monastic communities.

How do you like them unsprayed, unwaxed apples? After spending an entire book condemning heartless modern innovations that zap us with so much alienation and unconnectedness that we can’t tell life’s aching wonders from a hole in the ground, he now wants to build his brave new world on the device that keeps more people glued to more screens for more hours than television ever did.

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