Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The conservative movement in America has fallen prey to a materialism that reduces everything to market values, Rod Dreher argues in “Crunchy Cons,” a new book whose lengthy subtitle summarizes his case: “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).”

A Louisiana native and now a columnist for the Dallas Morning News, Mr. Dreher has worked for the New York Post, The Washington Times and National Review. The following are excerpts of an e-mail interview with Mr. Dreher, who lives in Dallas with his wife and two children:

Question: In your book, you say Hillary Rodham Clinton was right when she said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” You also praise Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “malaise” speech. Isn’t that pretty much career suicide for a conservative writer?

Answer: Well, let’s hope not. I was being intentionally provocative with those comparisons, because I think we on the Right (like the Left) fall into intellectual ruts that prevent us from seeing when the other side has a good idea, or at least something worth debating. If by “it takes a village” Mrs. Clinton meant “it takes more government programs,” well, count me out. But if by that she meant that parents can’t raise good children alone, that they need the support of a strong, healthy society, she’s right. …

When Carter proposed oil conservation as a patriotic duty, people jeered — and subsequent presidents learned from this. Defense hawks like Frank Gaffney and Jim Woolsey are now making the same kind of arguments a generation later that Carter made in that speech.

As much as I hate to say it, if we had taken Carter more seriously then, we might not be in the mess we’re in now.

Q: You also give “aid and comfort” to environmentalists. What’s up with that?

A: It drives me nuts that conservatives have ceded environmentalism — or as I prefer to say, conservation — to the Left. We ought to be concerned, as postwar conservative intellectuals like Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver were, with treating the land God has given us with a sense of piety, which includes good stewardship.

I reject the absolutism of mainstream environmentalists, who never met a tree they didn’t want to hug. But I also recoil from the attitude too many on the Right have, which is to make fun of environmentalists, and to see the natural world as something merely to be exploited. … I grew up in a rural culture where men hunted, and I tell you, some of the most committed conservationists I’ve ever known are hunters. …

Q: Why do you view the home-schooling movement as a countercultural force in America today?

A: Because home-schoolers by and large are giving their kids a grounding in history, theology, ethics, literature, you name it, that public schools and many private schools just cannot or will not give them. And as we know, ideas have consequences.

My kids are young yet, but we hope to home-school them, in part because my wife and I don’t want them to be socialized to the prevailing norms in many government schools. But mostly because we want them to learn about Western civilization and its sources — and to therefore be ready to defend their cultural, religious and intellectual heritage against the deracinating forces of our postmodern market society.

Q: “Crunchy Cons” is very critical of consumerism, individualism and free-market economics. Isn’t it possible to have economic freedom without the kind of ostentatious, brand-conscious tackiness that has come to characterize the American consumer lifestyle?

A: Sure it is, but it requires a level of vigilance and thoughtfulness that’s hard to pull off consistently. I interviewed a Presbyterian wife and mother who at the time was living with her family in Midland, Texas. … She told me that it was jarring to her that they lived in the most Christian and Republican place they’d ever been in, and yet she couldn’t see how political and religious conservatism made much difference in their everyday lives. They were still buying their kids all the video games, the expensive sneakers and the stuff that everybody else’s kids had. …

The answer is not to pass laws forbidding ostentation, of course, but for us as free individuals and families to choose to limit ourselves, to be sensible about our spending and our consumption, and not let it take over our lives. …

Q: I’m writing these interview questions from my home in the mountains 75 miles from Washington. You’re answering via e-mail from Dallas. Doesn’t technology and prosperity produced by free markets really help enable the “Crunchy Cons” lifestyle?

A: Yep, and in my ideal world, I’d work from home via broadband connection, and be available to my kids throughout the day. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against technology per se, only against letting it master one’s life. We need to figure out how to make technology work to serve the family’s needs instead of becoming the family’s need, if you follow me.

I well remember taking a break in the winter of 1993 between jobs at The Washington Times, and spending that winter living in a big house out in the country. No TV, no computer, only a radio. The silence drove me crazy for about the first week, but then I got into the rhythm of that kind of life. I could suddenly hear myself think. I read a lot, and prayed a lot more. My inner life was so rich; I hadn’t realized how the busyness of life in a techno-driven world had affected my intellectual and spiritual development for the worse.

The problem with us Americans is we have a naively optimistic view of technology, and tend to accept it all uncritically. We shouldn’t.

Q: You’ve gotten a lot of criticism from Republicans for your opinions. Does the ugliness of the GOP’s infighting surprise you?

A: Yes, sometimes. We on the Right love to crack on the Left for political correctness, but we do the same thing. I talk in the book about how a solidly conservative friend who works for one of the most conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives got denounced as a fake conservative because he objected in public to a Wal-Mart project some developers wanted to build.

Mind you, my friend has forgotten more conservative political theory than those mindless morons ever learned, but they had no respect for his point of view. These narrow little orthodoxies can be so stifling, and they can lead us into dead ends. Instead of trying to read people out of conservatism for having views that deviate two ticks from the mainstream, the conservative movement — and, I dare say, the country — would gain from revisiting our first principles in light of experience.

And we do ourselves no good at all by giving in to sneering, obdurate groupthink, which we find so obnoxious and off-putting when we see it among liberals.

Q: The Jack Abramoff scandal, President Bush’s “guest worker” plan, out-of-control entitlements, pork-barrel spending, “nation-building” in Iraq — is this the conservative movement you signed up for?

A: No, no, no. … I think it’s pretty clear to every conservative with a brain in his or her head that the GOP has lost its way. I will confess that I was a gung-ho supporter of the Iraq war and the democratization project, against my better judgment. … Now that we’re there, I can’t see that we can pull out now, but I do wish that the administration’s crusading Wilsonianism would end. …

Q: You’re best known in Washington for your years at National Review. Recently, you’ve written for the American Conservative, a so-called “paleoconservative” journal. Does this represent a shift in your political views?

A: The American Conservative bought an excerpt from “Crunchy Cons.” I was proud to have them run my piece, and I’d be willing to write for them in the future, but I don’t know that my political views have changed all that much.

My conservatism has always been primarily cultural and religious, and there is more of an emphasis on that at the American Conservative than at National Review. But I am pretty broad church as regards the conservative movement. … I’d guess that I’m more sympathetic to the paleos’ concerns than most of my NR friends, but I really don’t have much interest in right-wing tribalism.

Q: As you survey the various candidates mentioned as possible contenders for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, are there any who strike you as “crunchy?”

A: I believe that the institution most important to conserve is the family, and to that end, I think Sen. Rick Santorum gets that more than most — especially how the free market can serve to undermine the family. But I wouldn’t call him crunchy, and frankly, I expect national security to be the primary issue for the rest of my lifetime. I could be happy with a [Sen. John] McCain-Santorum ticket in ‘08. Real happy, as a matter of fact.

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