Sunday, June 24, 2007

Rod Dreher's "Crunchy Cons"; A Review

Readers may remember that quite some time ago I mentioned that I was reading Rod Dreher's Crunchy Cons, and that I planned to write a review on the book when I had finished reading it.

One thing I've learned is not to make such an announcement so prematurely. My long silence on the subject may have caused some people to think that the book is a difficult read, or that I didn't have anything to say about it. Nothing could be further from the truth; when a homeschooling mom decides to do something like this, though, especially when it involves reading a nonfiction work and taking extensive notes while doing so, she should avoid talking about it until she's finished, or nearly finished. Our lives are states of constant interruption, aren't they?

Now for the review.

Upton Sinclair, Jr., was the author of The Jungle, a novel that was intended to show the injustices of capitalism and move the public toward socialism, which Sinclair thought would be the only way to combat the evils inherent in a capitalist economy. His book utterly failed to do this, but his horrific descriptions of the meat packing industry eventually led to the formation of what is now the FDA. Sinclair is famously quoted as having said of this experience, "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach."

The chief concern I have with Crunchy Cons is that, like Sinclair, Rod Dreher is aiming for the public's heart, but Dreher's book may also score an accidental hit, not on the public's stomach, but on its taste in footwear and its penchant for organic produce.

Part of this is due to Dreher's writing style, which manages at one and the same time to be endearingly discursive yet conversationally disorganized; this isn't a fault, really, since it makes the book easy and pleasant to read, but it does make it hard sometimes to isolate the kernel of some of his ideas. For example, there are at least five different places in the book where Dreher begins to give the definitive description/manifesto of what it means to be a crunchy conservative, yet the one place where in my opinion he most brilliantly succeeds in doing this is not identified by him as a definition at all: "Every one of us can refuse, at some level, to participate in the system that makes us materially rich but impoverishes us spiritually, morally, and aesthetically. We cannot change society, at least not overnight, but we can change ourselves and our families." (p. 23)*

Had Dreher begun the book with that (to me) ringing definition of what it means to be both crunchy and conservative, the structure of the book would, I believe, have flowed much more naturally than it does. As it is, though, Dreher's way of writing about these things frequently, and most unfortunately, tends toward giving the impression that he and a handful of other people have figured things out, and that they alone truly know the "right" way to live. To be fair, I really, really don't believe he means to create this impression; but it is easy to see why some of his harshest critics have faulted him for the perceived inconsistencies between his ideas as stated in this book, and his publicly admitted fondness for such things as Sonic burgers, diet soft drinks, and his ipod (which was a gift to him).

Following the first, somewhat nebulous chapter, Dreher launches into a discussion of six different areas where people can chose to live apart from the mainstream in some way: consumerism, food, home, education, the environment, and religion. The scope of this review doesn't allow me to discuss each of these areas in the detail I'd like, but I'm at least going to touch on them.

The "Consumerism" chapter was a little disappointing to me, only because I think this whole topic is vitally important, and was hoping for some concrete suggestions regarding ways to bypass the prevailing consumer culture. In some ways, this section reads more like an extended feature article about E.F. Schumacher and his ideas than a discussion of the practical ways that crunchy-inclined people can limit their contact with the shop-o-rama circus of modern American society. There were two particular questions I wished Dreher might have answered: What about people who simply cannot afford to bypass the big box stores? And how do we ensure that we're really rejecting the "paper or plastic" of modern consumerism, or merely replacing it with a reusable organic cotton canvas tote bag so that "it feels better" when we shop? Those readers familiar with my concern that it's just as materialistic to shop with a focus on "quality" as it is to shop with a focus on "quantity" will especially understand why I want Dreher to answer this question.

The chapter on "Food" had some points I really agreed with, and some I found easy to disagree with. Readers of this blog know that my family hasn't eaten beef for years owing to our concerns about the safety of our country's beef supply, so Dreher's discussion of the issues surrounding factory farming, food safety, health, and related issues resonated with me; in fact, I think we need to have a national conversation about these issues, and come up with realistic ways to regulate factory farms without punishing the small family farmer. Most of our legislation does the opposite, benefiting factory farms while pushing the family farmer to the brink of nonexistence, and that has to change for the safety of our food and the security of our nation.

But in other areas of this chapter, I found myself having concerns again. For one thing, the people who shop at chain grocery stores or big box stores rarely do so in the context of having dozens of other feasible options; and despite Dreher's sanguinity, not all of us have farmer's markets close enough to where we live to justify the gas money and pollution it would take for us to get to them. It's easy to forget that when you live in a city that has a weekly farmer's market, but in plenty of places in America fresh-grown produce isn't all that available.

A bigger concern for me is that Dreher sometimes seems to confuse substance with accidents: it isn't the organic ingredients or the fine wine that makes hospitality; it's the desire to share your home and food with friends and family. Food isn't sacramental; the meal is.

This concern continued into the next chapter, "Home," where Dreher once again seems to focus on the type of home, or age of home, instead of on the family itself within it. It is the fellowship of the family, not the Craftsman creds of the cottage, that make the home. Otherwise, even the crunchiest dwelling can be an empty, soul-killing domicile, just like the largest McMansion can be.

This doesn't mean that I like McMansions, of course. But as a case in point, my family lives in a modern suburban house because my husband's military service qualifies us for the VA home loan program, which means that we can buy a house without a down payment (and no PMI). There's just one catch: the VA inspectors have to approve the home, and they're not too keen about approving hundred-year-old bungalows in need of repair. Does this mean that our house can't be a home? Not at all; it's more important that we buy what we can afford on one income so I can stay home with, and teach, the children than it would be for us to work day and night to be able to afford a house like the Dreher's house, which judging by the book's hints cost considerably more than our house did--and then required work! The point is that different families may have to make different choices here; even apartment dwellers can try to create a home for themselves, if that is the only financially available dwelling for them. Again, I really do think Dreher realizes this; I admit to believing that he's often unaware how forceful his writing really is.

I tended to agree with much of the "Education" chapter, though unfortunately I think that the Drehers may, at this point, have mainly encountered the view of homeschooling which sees it as designed to produce super overachiever kids as its natural result. I'll be quite happy if my girls can read, write, spell, and do basic calculation, thank you very much; if I thought homeschooling was about filling our schedules with enrichment activities beginning with learning Arabic and ending with Zydeco lessons, I'd probably quit. To be fair, Dreher has talked about his son's learning disabilities that made the Drehers decide not to homeschool him after all; I know there are lots of moms out there homeschooling special needs children, and I applaud them all for the strength of their commitment, but I'd never say that someone has to choose to go that route; family circumstances can vary quite a lot, after all. The chapter contains a long digression in which Dreher recounts a conversation with his wife about being a stay-at-home mom; though not unpleasant, it doesn't seem to belong here, and probably should have been further edited for length and adherence to the chapter's theme. Another option would be for a chapter specifically focusing on traditional families, because I think a lot of people would agree that you have to be at least a little crunchy to choose to live in a traditional family that involves one stay-at-home parent; here, Mrs. Dreher's observations would be invaluable, and a chapter hashing out what it means to try to adopt a consciously traditional lifestyle would probably prove interesting.

Chapter six is the "Environmental" chapter, and my only concern here is that Dreher doesn't point out why it's so hard for conservatives to get involved in environmental causes, which is that it's pretty hard to find common ground with people who believe that having children is a form of pollution. That said, his reminders of the notions of stewardship and conservation are timely ones, and if we do manage to find common ground with the left on these issues it will be by taking this sort of approach. I did think, though, that what Dreher was trying to articulate here was the notion that utilitarian capitalism can't be trusted to do the right thing when it comes to the environment, only the efficient, cheapest, or most profit-producing thing. It can be important for those of us on the right to remember that capitalism is ordered towards its own ends, and those ends aren't necessarily conservative.

The most difficult chapter for me to read was the chapter on "Religion." Dreher was still nominally Catholic at the time he was writing this, but his anger over the Scandal and his growing discontent with his local church was pulling him away, and that fragmentation is all too visible here, in such out-of-line quotes as, "If the only contact a typical American Catholic has with Catholic teaching and thought is what he hears at mass (sic), he will remain a self-satisfied ignoramus." (p. 183)* Setting aside the lack of charity in such a statement, one can clearly see that Dreher is no longer in a position to be completely objective about Catholicism, a point driven home by the fact that in the mini-featurettes about individual believers only the Catholic is negative and depressed about life in his church; this is thrown into sharp contrast by the story of the Orthodox believer, who is quite happy but is also a convert of only five years' standing. I'd have found it more balanced if Dreher had managed to find someone who's been Orthodox a bit longer to talk to, who has moved beyond the "rose-colored glasses" state of conversion. And there is this odd quote: "Yet their (Orthodoxy's) numbers are fast increasing through the conversion of other Christians, especially evangelicals, who want the historical well as the lavish liturgy and intense sacramentality, without buying into Roman Catholic doctrine and ecclesiology." (pp. 204-205, emphasis mine)* I think that phrase may betray a bit of a consumer approach to religion. To be fair, I don't think you can separate this chapter from the very real pain Dreher was in at the time, as he stood at the crossroads of a decision to leave Catholicism; but it was difficult, as a Catholic, to see so much bitterness between the lines.

Of course, reading about Dreher's own initial conversion to Catholicism was somewhat helpful to me; it would appear that he may in some senses have a more emotional approach to religion than even he may realize, and he further seems, sometimes, to write in such a way that it appears that to him purpose of religion is often to restrain people from their bad impulses and make them behave. Perhaps his current Orthodox parish, with its focus on individual holiness and the life of prayer, will be truly beneficial to him.

The final chapter in the book is titled "Waiting for Benedict" and outlines the ideas Dreher is working on for his next book, a book about actually withdrawing from the mainstream and prevailing culture to form intentional communities. To me, there is a vast difference between forming intentional communities, and forming the intention to live and behave as though you're already part of a community; but I'll admit my few experience with community-esque Catholic "apostolates" may cause me to take a rather negative view.

In summary, I think that Crunchy Cons was an interesting read, but I'm not sure that it accomplished what its author set out to achieve. More people on the right may buy and wear Birkenstocks as a result of this book, or be less afraid to venture into the world of organic food, but if too many of them act as though the underlying notion behind the book is that Crunchy Conservatism is really just Crunchy Consumerism, a niche market to be exploited by cynical companies who are only too willing to pander to the American habit of defining ourselves by what we buy, then in the end its principled and caring author may be groaning over its misfire with all the rueful passion of Upton Sinclair Jr.

* all quotes from Crunchy Cons: The New Conservative Counterculture and Its Return to Roots
c. 2006 by Rod Dreher, Three Rivers Press, first paperback edition.


Christine said...

Thank you for visiting my blog and commenting. It's my turn now. :-)

I read Crunchy Cons either last summer, or the summer before (don't the days and weeks just run together when you are a busy home schooling mom?). I thoroughly enjoyed it at the time, and I admit that if I could afford to live more like Mr. Dreher's family does, I would. As you have stated, there are those of us who cannot afford to bypass the "big box stores." I do try to avoid the W store whenever possible, but there at times when it is unavoidable.

I appreciate your insight into this book. I think you read it much more deeply than I did.

I must say that I thought Mr. Dreher's chapter about home had some valid points. I like the idea of living in a neighborhood that is like the "leave it to Beaver" neighborhoods of a bygone era. Unfortunatley, most of those types of neighborhoods (at least in the state I am in) are run down at best, and frequently full of drugs and gangs at worst.

I myself really have no interest in forming little communities, though, I can see how the security of such a community might be nice. Of course, we all desire utopia to some extent, but some of us just know that Jesus has heaven waiting if only we can get there. Heaven beats an artificial utopia any day.

AnnonyMouse said...

I have not read this book I would like to comment.
Our purchases are driven by practicality. So we do not JUST shop at X stores or W stores. Every chance I get try to support the local stores but it is not always possible. We are replacing our floors before we sell our home. We found that L & H stores were more expensive than the locally based store F so we are going with F and hiring our own contractor for some of the work. But we still buy from the L & H stores because they are closer thus less gas.
One thing about buying clothes that always irritated me is that sometimes you THINK you are getting a good deal or discount when in fact that is about the value of the clothes. That drives me crazy! My dear MIL tries to help us by buying somethings at a particular retail store B and ranting on HOW MUCH she saved us! when in fact, the shirt or whatever is cheap and ends up falling apart or holding stains, etc. So we could buy at J retail store when there is a sale and get something a little more expensive but it is of better quality. We have T H polo that was my husbands and now we have passed it on to our son. It is still in good condition. But by NO MEANS do I mean that is all we buy...that is the only T H polo we have but if I were presented with cheapo polo $7.00 at B store and good polo for $9.50 at J store I would probably buy the $9.50 just so I am not throwing it away 2 months down the road.
Also, have you heard of the Ave Maria town they are building in Florida? It is supposed to be a Catholic town. On one hand it seems ideal especially if you have young children because the exposure to pornography/contraception and other things would be down.

I guess what it boils down to is where we are, what is here, and what is the best for our family financially.

That would mean I am all over the board...but I am striving to be more holy...not more crunchy...:0)

AnnonyMouse said...

I wanted to say thank you for jarring our heads! We forgot that we qualify for a VA mortgage!!!! We are in the process of getting preapproval and the ball rolling. Thanks.

One more note on the clothes/there are stores I absolutely will not buy from and it is not the W stores or such, it is stores like AmberCrombie and Fitch that are DISGUSTING! b/c they cater to kids looking like sex objects. Disgusting. Even if they were giving it away I would say NO THANKS.

Red Cardigan said...

Glad to help on the mortgage question! Isn't it funny how we can overlook things like that? :)

I like what you said about "More holy...not more crunchy." I may have to blog about that eventually.

And I totally agree on the "stores we *don't* shop at" thing; I'm always amazed by people I know shopping at Victoria's Secret, because to me they exploit women and present them as sex objects, not to mention being a great source of temptation/occasion of sin to men and especially teenage boys. I try not to judge where other people are coming from on that, but for myself, I've called their company when a catalog showed up in my mailbox and explained in great detail why I don't shop from them and don't appreciate what they do.

Great comments!

AnnonyMouse said...

I wanted to say one thing about Victoria Secrets. Our son when we are walking in the mall and happen to go by the shop will shield his eyes! I have not prompted him to do this. His first reaction was God Lord they need to get some clothes on!! Last Sunday when we were all out together I noticed that not only did our son shield his eyes but hubby turned away as we walked by. All I can say is we need to do this more often/turn away and shield eyes and make phone calls/to let "them" know this ain't ok.
Way to go.

Crimson Wife said...

Great post! I read "Crunchy Cons" when it first came out and had some of the same reactions. Of course, this was before his public conversion so I didn't read the religion chapter with the same critical eye I would now. I tend to look more charitably on Catholics who grouse about things in Catholicism than non-Catholics, KWIM?

On the whole, I liked "Crunchy Cons" and I recognized a lot of myself in the book.