- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 18, 2006

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)

By Rod Dreher

Crown Forum, $24, 272 pages

Reviewed By: A.G. GANCARSKI

A few years back, conservative journalist Rod Dreher ended his day at National Review

with an offhand comment that he was going, after work, to pick up his week’s supply of organic vegetables from a local food co-op. This seemingly innocuous comment triggered a response from his editor that challenged Mr. Dreher to outline the conservative case for organic foods and a simplified lifestyle, as he did in a story for NR about “crunchy cons.”

To the writer’s surprise, this article struck a chord with readers like nothing else he had written before — from all across the country, attaboy emails poured in, crediting him with identifying a sensibility very much like their own. Predictably given the volume and the passion of the response Mr. Dreher received, a book emerged in an attempt to expand the ideas of that essay into a larger, cohesive whole. If only that book had succeeded.

On the surface, there is much to like about “Crunchy Cons.” Mr. Dreher is one of the more engaging writers on the right, with a natural skill for discussing elevated topics with a conversational tone. That skill has served him well in many essays and articles over the years, and it occasionally animates the volume presently under discussion.

Which is a good thing, as Mr. Dreher’s style here distracts from a book that substantially is weighed down by self-referentialism and a worrying tendency towards self-congratulation, both of which are perhaps best exemplified by Mr. Dreher’s curious and repeated defenses of an apparently personally vexing decision to not only own but wear hippie-preferred Birkenstock sandals.

What ultimately is on offer here is a muddled book which uses what Mr. Dreher calls the “crunchy conservative sensibility” as a somewhat arbitrary launching pad for a variety of fairly tepid critiques against mainstream conservatism and the modern world.

The 10-point “Crunchy Con Manifesto”, on both the back cover and in the first two pages of the text itself, delineates a sort of working creed of the nascent quasi-ideology, and gives the reader clues about how the book is intended by the author to be read. Crunchy conservatives, according to Dreher, are “conservatives who stand outside the conservative movement” and who therefore “can see things that matter more clearly.”

This false sense of exceptionalism permeates the rest of the Manifesto, and the book itself. Mr. Dreher frets that “media driven pop culture” and “Big Business”, among other villains, have deadened our ability to value the enduring virtues — localism, community, fraternity, and family. Crunchy conservatives, it follows, are intended to take America back in their forthright opposition to a “conservatism that does not practice restraint, humility, and good stewardship — especially of the natural world.” Will they succeed in their reinvention of 21st-century conservatism?

Entirely doubtful.

And it seems that Mr. Dreher is aware of that fact. Early in the book, a certain authorial defensiveness surfaces — “I don’t expect mainstream liberals or conservatives to get crunchy conservatism” — that is nothing so much as a giant red flag, signalling a hedging of bets. If the “mainstream” doesn’t get it, one can assume that is not the author’s worry, so much as an indication of the failings of the culture itself.

There is a faint whiff of elevated self-regard here, one not appreciably belied by annoying devices here and there [the begging of certain rhetorical questions, and what often seem like Molly Ivins-esque forced folksy-populist cadences, such as when Mr. Dreher asks “C’mon y’all, can I get an Amen?”].

Even early on, there is too much unnecessary restatement of the book’s central contention — that materialism has corrupted Americans and conservatives. This is a powerful idea, but the authorial tendency to repeat it suggests that Mr. Dreher is trying to convince himself that the ideas in “Crunchy Cons” are admissible to the conservative big tent.

Likewise problematic is the book’s occasional embrace of forced taxonomies; when Mr. Dreher asserts that “crunchy cons try to address [American life being in crisis] by putting truth and beauty first”, the reader would be forgiven for wondering where the conservatives are who place a similar value on mendacity and ugliness.

Perhaps it is because the book attempts to create a political movement where there really is not one, but it was hard to get around the central paradox of Mr Dreher’s “crunchy conservatism.” When people make the decision to renounce materialism and the fruits of mass-production, it generally is an existential decision, made on an individual basis for personal reasons.

Though “crunchy cons” share a political sensibility, it is hard for me to imagine them forming a cohesive voting bloc. And if they were to vote en masse, it is by no means certain that they would vote Republican. Throughout the book, Mr. Dreher makes it clear that, on many fronts, “crunchy conservatives” find their most natural allies on the left.

On issues like local historical preservation, described as “almost a spiritual calling,” Mr. Dreher asserts that crunchy cons are willing to make common cause with liberals against fatcat developer types to maintain the integrity of their neighborhoods. Fair enough.

But what to make of Mr. Dreher professing being “ashamed” of being “manipulated into supporting the [Iraq] war”? Or of Mr. Dreher’s assertion that “crunchy cons” could go Democrat, if only the party softened its hardline pro-abortion position?

Mr. Dreher positions his book as an attempt to “save conservatism from the Republican Party” and “the GOP from itself,” but what does any of that actually mean? Though the book flows from a promising premise, and aspires to speak to an emergent political consensus, or position, or “sensibility,” it never quite gets where it wants to go.

A.G. Gancarski writes from Jacksonville, Fla.

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