A couple of months ago, I happened across an unusual book called Crunchy Cons or, as author Rod Dreher explains in his subtitle: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribes of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party).
For those of us on the left-hand side of the political dial who have been wondering how so-called conservatives can justify policies that trash the planet — not to mention traditional values of modesty, taste and community — this chatty, personable, well-written book comes as an unexpected delight.
Dreher is a young conservative, formerly of the far-right National Review, but when it comes to Wal-Martization of the nation for the sake of a quick buck, he pulls no punches.
On food, he writes: “To be frank, becoming an amateur home cook is what taught me, as a conservative, to mistrust and, at times, to loathe American industrial farming.”
Dreher and his wife, Julie, are orthodox Catholics, and practice a natural form of birth control that requires careful regulation of his wife’s hormonal cycle. But this proved impossible when they ate like most Americans — as conveniently, as cheaply and as efficiently as possible.
They began going to their local farmers market. After they started eating natural foods in a slow, loving, sacramental manner for a time, they noticed they felt much better. When Dreher went on to investigate food production and discovered some of the horrors of American agriculture today, they went organic.
Dreher admits this shocked some of his cohorts at the National Review. One editor told him “Ew, that’s so lefty” when he admitted he was going to a farmer’s market. But he and his family have stuck to it. They’re not rich, but Dreher points out that the difference between an organic chicken and a factory chicken is really not that great — about the cost of one fancy latte at a coffee shop.
When it comes to global warming, Dreher is even tougher on the right. “Despite the presence of ideologically-driven junk science, the evidence for global warming is so overwhelming that conservative columnist John Leo likens right-wing deniers to tobacco company executives who claim there’s no solid link between smoking and lung cancer. Even if the evidence were inconclusive, the catastrophic results of a global temperature rise … would compel the prudent conservative (which used to be a redundant phrase) to act as if the worst was likely. The price of being wrong is incalculable,” he writes.
I contacted Dreher and arranged an interview, via e-mail, to which Dreher agreed. At first it went well:
You wrote in the essay that launched this book, “Birkenstocked Burkeans,” that to be a conservative today “means accepting bad beer, Top-40 radio, strip malls and all popular manifestations of cheapness and ugliness.” Whatever happened to the old-fashioned bow-tied conservative who didn’t buy into popular American culture?
Gone with the ’60s, I suspect … That’s when cultural issues, not economic ones, became the chief dividing line between parties and politics in America. The conservatives went populist, for better and for worse … One of the worst things you can say about anybody in the country today is that he is an “elitist.” That’s too bad. If one is an elitist for the right reasons — like, say, for the sake of excellence — then what’s the problem?
Has “conservative” become a code word for “popular” and “liberal” a codeword for “snob?”
Oh, absolutely, depending, I guess on the circles in which you travel. The left loves to imagine itself as in touch with ordinary people, but that hasn’t been true for ages … [while] the problem with the right is that too many of us have fallen into the trap of believing that just because something is popular, that makes it worth defending.
You write that, “Too often, the Democrats act like the Party of Lust, and the Republicans the Party of Green,” and you point out that “Jesus had as much or more to say about greed as he did about lust. But you will not find most American religious conservatives worrying overmuch about greed.” Why not?
I suppose it could be laid to our Protestant heritage, and the view that material gain is a sign of divine favor. There is, in American society, an inability to think critically about wealth and its potential for spiritual and moral corruption — which is amazing when you think about it in light of how often Jesus talks about this.
Things seemed to be going swimmingly, and I had about 10 more questions — about whether the GOP really is conservative these days, about the adequacy of the Bush administration’s response to global warming, about the regrets Dreher expressed in allowing himself to be “manipulated” into supporting the war in Iraq. But then Dreher stopped responding to my queries, despite repeated attempts.
Was it something I said?
True to tell, I can’t know if I offended him or if (like so many folks these days) he simply had to move on to the next urgent task. Perhaps this truncated interview is a sign of our times (that is, the difficulty that the left hand side of our political spectrum has communicating with the right, and vice versa). Or perhaps not.
Regardless, Crunchy Cons is a wonderful book. It suggests that true conservatives have a lot to learn from hippies and even that hippies might have something to learn from religious conservatives. More please, Mr. Dreher!