Not so crunchy after all

When Rod Dreher first started espousing the idea of "crunchy conservatives," I was rather convinced that I was numbered among them. After all, I like my Birkenstocks and fancy coffee, home-grown produce and tight-knit communities. (I'll admit that I have yet to read his book, but I'm quite familiar with the ideas therein from his blogs (here and here) and the numerous discussions spawned by his ideas on and off the Internet.) The latest issue of First Things, however, has got me thinking that perhaps my self-identification was a bit hasty. In it, Gilbert Meilaender has a withering review of Dreher's book (not yet online), with which I cannot find a thing to quibble.

Meilaender does not take issue, for the most part, with the cultural characteristics of crunchy cons, but rather, with their misidentification of personal preference with moral good. An example:

One of the most basic flaws–indeed, one of the vices–of Dreher's book generally is an inability to distinguish between what one dislikes and what is morally wrong.

For example, speaking as one who moved (within the same town) from one house to another a couple of years ago, and who did so motivated in large part by the desire for an attached garage, I perked up when one of the crunchy cons interviewed by Dreher comments about his own "cozy neighborhood": "We're close. The on-street parking. People want to have their garages, but if you have that, you pull in and never have to see your neighbors. That's so isolating. I think the detached garage has led as much to the collapse of civilization as Janet Jackson baring her breast."

That's pure nonsense (the views of the man quoted). Civilization was collapsing long before Janet Jackson or attached garages; the loss of community has more to do with loss of communal faith than it does with modern conveniences. But, our culture is far from gone: Meilaender relates a counter-example of stopping at a Burger King (the horror!) for a Whopper (full of trans fat) and finding common ground with a family there (who probably have an attached garage and shop at Wal-Mart) due to a common love of Cleveland Indians baseball (professional sports being emblematic of our decadent culture). He uses this example to show that what may underlie much of crunchy con thought is a subtle elitism, a snobbery that looks down on those who are not refined enough to see the evils of our consumer society. Oddly, though, if you think about it, crunchy con culture is just as saddled with consumerism, just of a conservationist bent.

This review dropped the scales from my eyes, as it were. My "refined" tastes are still tastes, and nothing more. If I'm not careful, those sentiments could end up soaked with a lack of humility. There are millions of people, who believe every bit as strongly as I do in the truth of Christianity and Catholicism, who nonetheless are forced by circumstance and/or their own benign preferences to reject the "crunchy" lifestyle. What matters is that we are each called to holiness; if being "crunchy" magnifies this, then I'm all for it. One can, however, be holy without being crunchy, and the self-gratification that can come from such refined tastes could make being so an impediment to sanctity.

As C.S. Lewis described in The Screwtape Letters, self-denial and modesty can become idols. The mother of the subject of Wormwood's temptation is anxious to not consume too much toast (I think–I don't have the book with me), or be too much of a bother, but ends up being so picky about the little bit she does want that she loses the whole point. How much do we all fall into the same trap?

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7 Responses to “Not so crunchy after all”


  1. 1 jeff April 24, 2006 at 4:05 pm

    i read this and concur w/what you said…another good book (my wife read, actua1lly) is Bobo’s in Paradise, and while it does not really deal with conservatives per se, it does deal with the sort of person who get off on driving Subaru Outbacks..wait…what do you drive?

  2. 2 Theocoid April 24, 2006 at 6:00 pm

    “He uses this example to show that what may underlie much of crunchy con thought is a subtle elitism, a snobbery that looks down on those who are not refined enough to see the evils of our consumer society. Oddly, though, if you think about it, crunchy con culture is just as saddled with consumerism, just of a conservationist bent.”

    Okay, let’s dissect this statement. “Consumer” here is being used in two ways. You have people who consume things, which all of us do, and you have mass consumerism—the mindless pursuit of acquiring and consuming material goods—which is what conservationists are reacting against. To equate them in this manner is a cute little bit of sophistry. They have a word in common, but the two activities can be quite different.

    Of course we all consume things, but there are more and less ethical reasons for making one choice over another. There are legitimate reasons not to buy at Wal*Mart that are not simply “benign preferences.” There are excellent reasons to avoid fast food, not the least of which are diet and health concerns. There are reasons for people to reject professional sports—the outrageous salaries some performers make, the rotten examples some of the same people often set for young admirers, and the disproprtionate amount of money that winds up supporting the sports industry.

    It’s not elitist to want to examine purchasing decisions and make them based upon moral principles rather than mere acquisitiveness, or to want to eat better (more healthy) food, or to want to engage with people in your immediate neighborhood based upon community interests.

    That said, if someone identifies with the “crunchy con” status, then perhaps their decisions are being made for a different set of reasons (the snob factor).

  3. 3 Edmund C. April 24, 2006 at 6:34 pm

    To equate them in this manner is a cute little bit of sophistry.

    No, not at all. I am explicitly using consumerism in the “mass consumerism” sense for both “crunchy con culture” and the prevailing American culture. It’s the difference between organic co-ops and Subaru Outbacks vs. Wal-Marts and SUV’s. I see no difference under the surface.

    As for Burger King, Wal-Mart, etc., the people I am concerned about are those who genuinely cannot afford, or perhaps understand how, to examine their purchasing decisions in this way.

  4. 4 Bekah S. April 24, 2006 at 6:47 pm

    It’s not elitist to want to examine purchasing decisions and make them based upon moral principles rather than mere acquisitiveness, or to want to eat better (more healthy) food, or to want to engage with people in your immediate neighborhood based upon community interests.

    No, it’s not elitist to make these choices. It is, however, elitist to look down one’s nose on other people’s decisions without taking into consideration why they have made them.

    Because of my interests in home birth, cloth diapering, homeschooling and midwifery, I have run into many different categories of ‘crunchy’ folks. Some are able to inspire others to make more healthful decisions based on their optimistic and nonjudgemental lifestyles. Others, however, tend to be very holier-than-thou, perhaps even without realizing it. I think it is this latter category that Chad is reacting against, as well as those individuals who make the decision to be ‘crunchy’ simply as a faddish choice, ala mass consumerism.

    I must be honest, though, I’d be far more crunchy if money weren’t an object. To that end, one’s ‘crunchiness’ could also be considered an indicator of status. Now, since I have not read the book or many of the other articles regarding it, I’ll shut up. LOL

  5. 5 Theocoid April 24, 2006 at 7:42 pm

    “No, it’s not elitist to make these choices. It is, however, elitist to look down one’s nose on other people’s decisions without taking into consideration why they have made them. ”

    I agree, and there are crunchy cons and liberals who do tend to bash others with their moral superiority over such things. If that was Ed’s point, then I concur.

  6. 6 Edmund C. April 24, 2006 at 7:45 pm

    That was my point; I wish I had made it so succinctly.

  7. 7 dcs April 25, 2006 at 9:49 am

    I must be honest, though, I’d be far more crunchy if money weren’t an object.

    I certainly identify with the so-called “crunchy cons” but not with the label. What does that make me? 😉 I haven’t found that being “crunchy” is any more expensive than not being “crunchy”; one saves a lot of money by not eating fast food (not that eating fast food is wrong — try telling that to the people who work at fast food restaurants! — just that it can get expensive) and this makes up for the additional money one might spend by not shopping at Wal-mart or Target.

    By the way, we don’t shop at Wal-mart or Target not because we hate Big Bad Evil Box Stores ™ but because we don’t generally like what they sell. We’re not too interested in pop culture and their clothing — especially their girls’ clothing — strikes us as immodest.


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