instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Friday, March 31, 2006

More con than pro

As the Crunchy Con blogsite winds up, I can say that my opinion about the project has evolved from one of curiosity -- I am generally sympathetic to romantic calls to traditional life -- to frustration -- it wasn't at all clear just what they were really advocating (the manifesto? a place at the G.O.P. table? a reflection on an interesting cultural phenomenon?) -- and is settling into disappointment.

I am more convinced than ever that "Crunchy Conservatism" isn't so much "a sensibility" as Rod Dreher's sensibility, and that Rod Dreher's sensibility is essentially driven by his emotions. Although he has in the past shown a willingness to pass moral judgment on those who fail to share his emotions, "What Would Rod Feel?" is not a sound guiding principle for living a virtuous life.

I had held out some hope that, as the discussion reached the book's final chapter, "Waiting for Benedict," it would finally move beyond raising personal preferences to virtues, which seemed to constitute the bulk of the nonanecdotal discussion. Unfortunately, what Rod calls "the St. Benedict Option" consists in giving up society as a lost cause and constructing "new forms of community within which the moral life [can] be sustained." (The quoted words are from Alisdair MacIntyre.)

This is unfortunate for several reasons, not least being that, once again, Rod is thinking along these lines because that's where his emotions take him. 9/11, Katrina, EMPs, suitcase nukes: recent tough history convinces him tougher history is just around the corner. His concerns appear less philosophical than MacIntyre's, and more practical. Sustaining the moral life would be great, but the primary benefit of new forms of community would be sustaining physical life, when (today? next Thursday?) the United States goes feral.

Certainly your prudential judgment on how to achieve the good life will adopt a distinct character if you feel "the wheels are coming off." But if that's really where we're headed, then maybe now isn't the time to discuss whether the Republican mainstream sufficiently appreciates the humanizing qualities of the Arts and Crafts movement.

The attempt to present Crunchy Conservatism as something broader than Rod's sensibility wasn't helped by the fact that the other bloggers were generally reluctant to self-identify as Crunchy Cons. It may also be noted that the one most eager, Caleb Stegall, was also most critical of Rod's own positions, often posting to agree with points raised in critical emails.

In Caleb's case, I think it can be said, the problem is that Rod isn't countercultural enough -- and in fact, it takes a lot more than wearing Birkenstocks and opposing factory farming to make a man who works eleven hour days as an editor at the tenth largest newspaper in the country "countercultural" in any real sense.

The book and the blog seem to have caught Rod in motion. He feels very strongly that certain things are right and certain things are wrong, but he has not yet worked out and accepted all the implications. Hence the back-and-forth, "suburbs are bad, except when they're not," "I'm not saying it's wrong to do these things I've said are dehumanizing" kind of thing.

Caleb, who seems to have spent a lot more time thinking about his principles, is far more willing to issue blanket condemnations. Whether Rod will continue to move in that direction, winding up as Director of Propaganda for the Agrarian Monarchist Party for the 2016 election, remains to be seen.

To put all this in the context of my posts this week on tradition, I was hoping to find in the Crunchy Con discussion an argument that it constitutes an integrated pattern for living a good life. The discussion, though, was noticeably dis-integrated, the more so the closer it kept to the book's outline.

This is not to say the people interviewed in the book, or who have otherwise responded positively to it, have not formed for themselves integrated patterns for living good lives. But the attempt to synthesize these personal patterns into some larger cultural pattern has failed, as far as I can see.

The failure shows whenever something is declared "crunchy" simply because it is virtuous. The "Crunchy Con Manifesto" doesn't manifest crunchiness, particularly, and if as they sometimes say they really mean "traditionalism," they're left with a choice between the Scylla of traditionalism narrowly defined -- leading them to condemn many perfectly fine traditions -- and the Charybdis of traditionalism broadly defined -- making all the fuss over organic farming and liturgical cities irrelevant.

Can I write a post this long without making note of the, at time stunningly high, level of self-justified moralizing that attended the discussion from start to finish? Not quite.

Finally, I'll repeat that I am not a political conservative, and so I leave it to others to take up the question of what "true conservatism" is, and whether Rod's characterizations of "mainstream conservatives" are accurate, and the degree to which the Republican Party sacrifices families to the free market.