Why I am not a crunchy con

Posted: Mar 16, 2006 12:05 AM

Rod Dreher has just released "Crunchy Cons," which is not a book, but a manifesto, an attempt to create a new current in American political conversation.

It's less a sweeping call for a new movement than a plaintive plea for inclusion in the old conservative movement, which Dreher views as overly market-oriented and, so, disdainful of crunchy values.

If you want the key to Rod and his fellow crunchy cons, I think it is in statements like, "Beauty is more important than efficiency." Well, gee sure, but only if you live in a society where the great public health threat to the poor is obesity. This level of affluence is what allows educated women to stay home, throw organic dinner parties, and home school their children instead of spending time at the hard labor of spinning wool, churning butter and chicken-farming. Rod knows this, of course.

But in his restless, dissatisfied search for Something More, Rod appears to me as less a traditionalist than a fellow postmodern, rootless, cosmopolitan American desperately seeking an identity group where he can believe and belong.

This is not his fault. Whether we like it or not, this is the American condition. We live in a society where ultimately our sense of who we are is self-created, not something that can be given at birth. This produces both an exhilarating sense of freedom and terrifying intuition of the lightness of our very being. If my identity is just something I chose one day and can unchoose another, how can I believe my self is real?

There is something movingly pathetic in watching the Drehers drive through different religious identities, for example, searching for one that "fits." Worshipping at a Lebanese Maronite (Catholic) Church, for example, because they like the taste of ancient tradition, even if they are neither Lebanese nor Maronite. Tradition itself becomes a kind of consumption item, to be produced and consumed by crunchy cons.

A true traditionalism would not be represented by people who move to Dallas, buy a nice bungalow and invite friends over for tasty organic cooked food. It would be led by people who advocate returning to the place you were born, where your kith and kin also live, because that is really where you belong, the thing in which your very self is rooted.

One reason Rod cannot do this, by his own account, is that he doesn't have any such native tradition. He can't share old family recipes with his children, for example, because his mom didn't have any. She was enamored with the new '50s conveniences -- TV dinners and precut veggies in a can! This the pathos of American traditionalism: They have to create their own.

Is there room at the great conservative table for people who love God, family, Arts and Crafts architecture, ancient liturgy, Birkenstocks and organic chickens?

Sure, Rod, I'll dine with you anytime. But is this really a very important question?

The real American tradition, for better or worse, was captured in the 1985 novella, "The Man Who Loved Levittown." Tommy DiMaria, World War II vet, retired Grumman aircraft worker, describes his first glimpse of his own personal paradise, carved out of Long Island potato fields: "Down the street is a Quonset hut with a long line of men waiting out front, half of them still in uniform. Waiting for jobs, I figure, like in the Depression ... here we go again." Finally it dawns on him: "What these men are lined up for isn't work, it's homes!" But 32 years later, the wife is dead and the kids are gone to find their own Levittown: maybe a McMansion in Arlington, Va., or maybe a Dallas Arts and Crafts bungalow.

As far as I can tell, that's the only available American way. At least, nothing in "Crunchy Cons" suggests otherwise.