[Click here to read an excerpt from Crunchy Cons]
GODSPY: Rod, if you had to reduce Crunchy Conservatism to a few sound bites, what would you say?
ROD DREHER: I'd say that Crunchy Conservatism is nothing new. It's a rediscovery of the kind of traditionalism espoused by and and others in the 1940s and 1950s. It's a conservatism that values religion, family, and culture more than individual freedom and the free market. I'd also say it finds the overemphasis on individual freedom and economic liberty in contemporary conservatism inimical to much that we conservatives claim to treasure.
In terms of sound bites, I'd turn to the Crunchy Conservative manifesto on the back cover of the book: The institution most essential to conserve is the family. Beauty is more important than efficiency. Small, local, old and particular are almost always better than big, global, new and abstract. I'd also add that we've gotten to a point in our politics today where the left and the right are too quick to slap a negative label on a challenging or unfamiliar idea, so they don't have to deal with it. For too many of us on the right, calling something liberal and making fun of it is a way of avoiding having to question our own prejudices.
In other words, if liberals like it, we hate it?
Yeah. It's reactionary. Liberals are the same way—checking any new idea against their knee-jerk ideological sense, and rejecting it out of hand, often based on superficial reasons. That's why I use Birkenstock sandals as a symbol for Crunchy Cons.
I tell a story in the book about how, a few years ago when we lived in New York, I was complaining about how my feet hurt from walking on city sidewalks. And my wife Julie said, "You ought to try a pair of ." I looked at her and said,"Those hippy shoes? I'm not going to wear a pair of hippy shoes." She said, "Come on, just put them on. Just indulge me here." Well, I put them on and she was right—they were probably the most comfortable shoes I'd ever worn. I still have that same pair. Now, shoes are not political, and you don't have to wear Birkenstocks to be a conservative, but I use that as a symbol of how my own silly ideological prejudices almost kept me from trying on shoes that felt great, and were useful to me.
But couldn't you easily imagine a libertarian conservative like wearing hippy shoes like Birkenstocks? Isn't the more controversial part of the Crunchy Con philosophy about community—the emphasis on the common good rather than individual liberty?
Well, to answer that I have to bring in the philosopher , who I mention in the book. He's said that all debates in America are among radical liberals, liberal liberals and conservative liberals. I think what he means is that Americans are descendents of the Enlightenment, with its exaltation of reason, its exile of religion from public life, and the idea that the individual is the center of everything, that individual rights are the summum bonum of existence.
Listen to how conservatives talk; we always talk about freedom, expanding freedom—it's a staple of conservative rhetoric. Well, freedom for what? I think the unexamined premise of American politics, even on the political right, is that there is no such thing as transcendental truth, only opinions. I think that if we fall into thinking that individual freedom, individual choice, is the highest good, then we fall into dead ends.
I've always found it ironic that certain conservatives will label someone an "elitist liberal" just because they criticize what comes from the free market. Isn't it crazy—given the tradition—for conservatives to criticize elitism?
Sure. As conservatives, we're supposed to be about truth and virtue and goodness and excellence, but it's sad and even scary how so much conservative rhetoric these days has given itself over to a facile populism—whatever the people want. It's pandering. If we should know anything as conservatives, it's to be suspicious of the mob, and mass man. , the conservative historian, wrote a book last year warning that when conservatism gives itself over to populism, we're in a pretty dangerous political place.
Expanding freedom is a staple of conservative rhetoric. Well, freedom for what?
A guy I write about in my book is a Catholic friend in Louisiana who was put on the planning commission of his city, the smart growth committee, because he's a conservative. One of the first things they were considering was the issuing of a permit to put a in a certain neighborhood, and my friend made a very conservative argument for the integrity of the neighborhood, and why Wal-Mart shouldn't be allowed to build in a particular spot. And the head of the committee looked over at him with scorn and said, "You call yourself a free-market conservative?", as if the defining character of a conservative is supporting the free market. That would have struck Edmund Burke and many conservatives of the past as strange—the exaltation of the market above all other things, because let's face it, the free market is a wonderful tool, but if left unchecked it manages to erode a lot of institutions conservatives are supposed to like and defend.
Before you wrote your article in National Review, did you have any idea that the response to the Crunchy Con position would be so positive and so strong?
Oh, Lord no. I wrote that first Crunchy Con essay in the summer of 2002 for National Review Online, kind of as a tossed off thing. As I said in the book, I was just walking out to pick up our organic vegetables, and Kathryn Lopez said "Oh, that's so lefty," and I started to think about all the ways that Julie and I lived, as conservatives and Catholics, that put us off the Republican reservation. I came in the next day and wrote a little short article about it, and I literally heard from hundreds of people all over the country who totally identified with this sensibility, who thought they were the only ones. They knew they were conservatives but they felt alienated from the Republican mainstream. Frankly, I think I got my book contract in part by showing my publisher how heartfelt and enthusiastic and intelligent a lot of these emails were.
I think what most of these conservatives feel is that beyond all the partisan rhetoric there's something that's gone deeply wrong with our society, and that the Republican party is not only not part of the solution, in many ways it's part of the problem. They just loved the idea that somebody was finally saying this. Every now and then I'll run across a blog where someone will have written, "I finally figured out what I am, I'm a Crunchy Conservative." I just provided a label for people—it's kind of a silly phrase, Crunchy Conservatives—but it is a definite sensibility, and I think we'll probably see, depending on how the book does, how deeply it goes.
There are a lot of people out there who don't fit into left-right categories. Robert Hutchins, one of the Christian farmers I wrote about, told me that he sometimes feels that he and his family have more in common with hippy organic farmers than with Republicans living in the suburbs ... and Robert is very Republican. There's a lot of diversity that exists among conservatives that the media hasn't reported on, in part because there's an advantage to seeing us all as cartoons.
In your book, you draw upon Matthew Scully's book, , which makes a very rational argument on behalf, not of animal rights, but respect for the dignity of animals. That's a balanced argument I think most people would agree with.
That book turned me around on this whole issue, because when we lived in Brooklyn, there was a woman, an animal rights nut, who'd be out on Montague Street every Saturday, and she'd see people walking by with kids, and she'd scream, "breeders, breeders, your ruining the world for the animals." That was my view of people who stood up for animal welfare.
The exaltation of the free market would have struck Edmund Burke and other conservatives of the past as strange.
Then Matthew Scully's book Dominion came across my desk at National Review, and I said, wait, I know him, he used to work here. Matt's an honorable man and a conservative, and I was willing to listen to him, and he made a very conservative, very persuasive case for animal welfare. He turned me around. God did give man dominion over animals, but he didn't intend for us to turn these creatures into widgets. That's what's so foul about factory farming. There was nothing liberal about that book, but again my own determination to stick by political labels kept me, for a long time, from taking the case for animal welfare seriously.
What would you say to someone reading this now, who's wondering what Crunchy Conservatism has to do with their Catholic faith? Why is it relevant?
I interviewed a woman for the book who lived with her family in Midland, Texas. She and her husband were Presbyterians, and they were church planters there, and they had eight kids, and they were home schooling, and they ate a lot of natural food, and no TV, the whole magilla, and you know she told me, "It's the weirdest thing, we're living in the most Christian, most Republican place we've ever lived, and we look around and we can't see how people's faith affects the way they live their lives at all. They're all captives to the consumer culture. They're all buying their kids the most expensive new things. She said that's not how Christians are supposed to live; that's not how conservatives are supposed to live. They've sold out to the values of the world, and think that as long as they profess to hold the beliefs of the Christian faith, that that's enough.
As Catholics we know that spiritual truth is mediated through material things. And I think what this implies is that there are no empty gestures, that everything counts and everything is connected in ways that we don't always appreciate.
I can make this practical. When Julie and I got married we started to practice , in accordance with Church teaching, but when you do that you begin to realize how much the food you eat affects your body, so we sought out healthier food to make it easier in part to obey the Church's teaching. When we eventually had our first child, Matthew, Julie breastfed him, so we had to eat well, and then seeking out good food led us to join an organic food co-op that brought to our neighborhood in Brooklyn vegetables grown by farmers in rural New York State. Julie and I liked supporting the agrarian life of these farm families with our money, and we liked being able to talk to the farmers about the food they grew, so we started to become aware in a real concrete way of the interconnectedness of all these things, and how our little family was a part of a whole. We began to realize we weren't these atomized consumers, we were part of a community, and the choices we made weren't matters of indifference but had direct bearing on our convictions as Catholics and conservatives.
Is this a point of convergence with secular Crunchies? Why is the Crunchy Con approach a way to happiness for them?
That's precisely the point of convergence. You know I've been so pleased to hear from liberals who have read my writing on this, and have said, wow, I didn't know that conservatives believed that, well, you know this is a type of conservatism that has always been there but has been pushed to the margins in the last fifty years. and E.F. Schumacher, two great Christian thinkers, pointed out how so many of the basic truths of the Christian faith are reflected in the great wisdom traditions of the world. For instance look at Taoism. Whether you're religious or not you will benefit if you live a more thoughtful, altruistic life. In the book I quote Schumacher, who said the essence of civilization is not the multiplication of wants but the purification of human character. When he wrote that he was influenced by Buddhism, he later became a Catholic. But the truth is the same. That's an ethical statement you don't need to be religious to affirm. There's a lot in the book that secular liberals can agree with. It's about living the virtue Romans called pietas, a natural respect for one's place in the world, a sense of limits, a healthy reverence for all that is greater than we are. It's a form of humility.
I don’t want people to think—oh, I’ve got to run out now and get a Prius, and junk the mini-van.
What few, simple steps would you recommend to someone who's living an average, everyday life, in a big city, to start on the Crunchy Con path?
The first thing is to realize that this is a sensibility, not an ideology. I still shop at Wal-Mart when I need to, and I don't feel guilty about it. I don't want people to think—oh, I've got to run out now and get a Prius, and junk the mini-van.
The first important first step, I would say, is turn off the TV. You can consider it fasting. My family spent an entire Lent not watching TV at all, and pretty soon, if you do that, you realize how great it feels to have a house where people talk to each other, or spend their time reading or listening to good music. A good idea is to stop and think about how your family's media diet, including time on the computer—as my wife Julie constantly reminds me—cuts into family time, and make the necessary changes.
The next thing I'd do is work on the family's diet. Organic food can be expensive, but you'd be surprised how much you can save, to spend on quality food, by cutting down on all the processed food most people have around the house. I can't afford to eat organic vegetables from the supermarket, but Julie and I feel pretty strongly about not eating meat that's raised on factory farms. So what a lot of people can do is check into the local farm situation. We live in downtown Dallas, but we get our meat from Christian farmers who live out in the countryside, who raise their livestock without antibiotics, ranging freely, because they believe that's what God would have them do. We love their food, and we love the fact that our dollars are supporting these large, home-schooling Christian farm families. So those are two small things that people can do, and you'll find others once you start....
What about dealing with consumerism?
I think a good approach is to stop and be aware of how much of our time is devoted to spend, spend, spend, and how the messages are coming at us all the time that we can't be happy unless we spend.
I have to tell you, it was offensive to me and maybe to you too, right after 9/11 when President Bush said that Americans should keep shopping.
Yeah, I remember thinking how strange that sounded...
Now, I can understand how you wouldn't want to see the economy collapse, but at the same time, we were all ready to do something selfless and heroic, and that's all they could come back with, was spend.
I think one thing Julie became very aware of was how our economy is so geared to making our kids a target market. There's a science to all this, with companies trying to communicate their brands to kids when they're pre-conscious. You don't want to be a paranoid crank about it, but it's happening all the time. What we try to do with our kids is teach them the tools they need to spot when they're being manipulated. If parents don't see their role to be actively countercultural—not passively countercultural—then they're going to lose. We see people losing all the time, good conservative people who don't see how the messages of mass consumer marketing work against their values.
This leads into an issue you address in your book-how the pattern of suburban living that's arisen in the past sixty-five years sets us up for consumerism by isolating us from each other...
Well, we sometimes consider our time when we lived in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn as a kind of a paradise. We would spend our evenings there going out, walking to go get an Italian ice, see who we saw on the street. Stop in a bookstore, maybe. We can't do that now. We live in an old neighborhood in Dallas; there are no stores, no street life. I love our neighborhood, but I think this is how most of America lives. You become isolated at night.
The biggest difference between Crunchy Cons and Crunchy liberals has to do with sex and religion.
But I think that's starting to change. You see the new patterns of building that are trying to recover that kind of street life, the new towns David Brooks has written about. People are starting to realize there is something really great about having a community where you can get out and meet people and walk around ... I love it and that is the wave of the future. It's a way to re-organize our physical space to facilitate family and community life, and it's worth cheering about.
In your book you talk about how Crunchy Cons are sometimes considered "cranks." When you live outside the American mainstream—organic food, avoiding consumerism, being open to having a large family, home schooling—how do you avoid falling into a cranky mentality, where it's you against the world?
That's hard for me, and I struggle with that a lot, because I tend to have a pessimistic view of humanity. I read once that liberals love humanity but hate individual people, and with conservatives it's the other way around. I don't hate anybody, but that characterization makes intuitive sense to me. But one thing that keeps me grounded is that I do work in the mainstream media, with people who I don't have a lot in common with, culturally or otherwise. But they're good people, who are struggling to make sense of life, just like I am, and I'm confronted with their humanity every day, and they with mine. I like and respect them, and hope they feel the same way about me, despite my right-wing crankiness. I like people who are cheerful pagans a lot more than I like some of my fellow Christians. I think what you have to do is constantly remind yourself not to take yourself so seriously. You need to laugh, especially at human imperfection and folly. That's one thing I like about being from the south, from South Louisiana. I took my wife who's from Texas to meet my family in southern Louisiana, and to meet the people in my small town, and she said "I thought you were making all this stuff up, but it's real." We celebrate the eccentric down there. I think you need to listen to good music, and conversation, and good food, and basically get in touch with your inner Italian.
I won't argue with that.
There's a phrase of W.H. Auden's that I've always loved—"Stagger Onward Rejoicing." I've always used that as a kind of guiding principle of my life. You can pick up the paper every day, and things are pretty crummy all over, but as Russell Kirk said, the world remains sunlit despite all its vices. We can't ever lose sight of that. Miserablism is not much of a philosophy to live on, not only because it sucks the life out of you, but because it's just not true.
Do Christians have an advantage here, versus secular Crunchy Cons, because of our eschatological view—the hope that comes from knowing there's a better world to come? And also, because we're called to see the image and likeness of God in every person?
You can't pick up and read the Gospel and see how our Lord treated sinners, and flagrant public sinners, you can't read that and have a high and mighty view of yourself. And you never know what kind of battles others are fighting. A New York friend who read an advance copy of "Crunchy Cons" couldn't believe I said something nice about a particular merchant in our old neighborhood. The guy is such a jerk, my friend said. I told my friend that the merchant wasn't always like that. He's been in constant pain since slipping in the store one day before my friend moved to Brooklyn, and injuring his back. Little things like that remind me to be merciful. I have become fond of the Jesus Prayer of the Orthodox Christians: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Charity begins with mercy.
It's also true that as Christians, we know that our suffering has meaning, and that helps you endure. You can't give in to despair, because God has a reason for allowing things to happen the way they do, and I'm often tempted to despair, especially with things going in the Church, and the sex abuse scandal. The fact that there is a lot of darkness can't possibly take away from all the beauty that we're surrounded with. I think you learn to love to small things. I can't do anything about the war in Iraq and other bad stuff going on in the world, but when I come home, like I came home from work tonight, and I stuck my key in the door and I heard my two-year-old say, Dad! Little joys like that. I think that as Christians we know that the world is filled with God's presence and everything is given to us as a gift, and perhaps that's the secret to joy—being grateful for everything and taking joy in small things, and realizing through a sacramental mentality that this is how the Lord shows himself to us, through these little things, and we should rejoice in it.
And doesn't the humility that comes from a genuine religious perspective help inoculate the Crunchy Con lifestyle from charges of creeping elitism?
Some people have mistakenly thought that, well, this Crunchy Con stuff, you're telling people they're not as good if they don't eat organic, or if they don't live in the right kind of house, or wear the right kind of clothes, and I tell them, boy, you have the wrong idea. Like I said, my wife and I shop at Wal-Mart when we need to; this is not an ideology. This is about living out the call to holiness in every possible way. We do the best we can to put God and our family first, and in the book I've identified some ways I think of doing that, from a conservative point of view, but these are means, not ends in themselves.
This is about living out the call to holiness in every possible way.
So would it be safe to say you're proposing what Wendell Berry called 'Sales Resistance"—to be aware of the trends and forces in society that can lead us away from what's important?
Yes. Be thoughtful. Be thoughtful in everything, and try to be aware of how we get manipulated, how we get distracted from what's important,
Is there a difference between a Crunchy Conservative and a Crunchy Liberal?
Oh yeah, I think generally speaking it has to do with sex and religion, two contentious points of American life. Crunchy liberals tend to be sexual libertines, and Crunchy Cons don't. I think Crunchy Cons tend to put God at the center of everything, whereas Crunchy Liberals tend to prefer their way of life for other reasons, such as respect for the planet as the absolute telos of life. Also, Crunchy Liberals tend to view man as completely good while Crunchy Cons tend to believe in original sin and the imperfectability of man in this life.
Do you think some Crunchy Liberals reject Christianity because they have a false view of it? Because they think it denigrates nature and sexuality?
Yeah, I think that's a valid point. In conservative Catholic circles there is a tendency for many of us to idealize the 1950s, and I always say that if the 1950s was such a golden age it wouldn't have fallen apart so quickly in the 1960s. I'm a Catholic convert; I was raised Protestant, then lost my faith as a teenager, and began to read, when I was in college, what the Catholic faith really taught and I was surprised by it. This wasn't what was being taught to the people in the pews. The fullness of the faith, the radical beauty, the beauty of the theology of the body, for example, which Pope John Paul taught, and an incredible sacramental vision that's so rich and deep. Too often our churches have become places where they go for the lowest common denominator. There is so much more to the Catholic understanding of reality than what you get from reading the debates between left-wing and right-wing Catholics today, and I would just encourage Catholics and people who are encouraged by Catholicism to step back from the current polemics over liturgy and other things and investigate the deep storehouse of treasures that the faith has...
I always urge my Traditionalist Catholic friends to spend more time promoting the beauty of the Latin Mass, to attracting people to it, rather than always bitterly denouncing the new Novus Ordo Mass.
That's one of the most discouraging things about a lot of folks who love the Latin Mass—I'm not really a Tridentine mass guy myself, although I wish we had it everywhere for people who like it—but so many Trads tend to be so focused on their anger about what's happened to the Church. Look, I share a lot of their anger, but at the same time you can't live on that.
That seems like good advice for Crunchy Cons as well—attract people to the good, rather than criticize the houses people are living in, or the things they're buying....
That's what's discouraging and off-putting about a lot of liberals who are such scolds about organic living or the environment. I'm in favor of celebrating life, enjoying life, and feasting. The initial decision to eat organic food was not based on a deep moral conviction that we had to do this—the stuff just tasted good, and we could afford it and it tasted better. I think when we were in New York we were responding more to the fact that it was fresh-picked, rather than it being organic, but down here in Dallas we started buying meat from local farmers, Christian farmers, who raise livestock free-range, and I tell you this was the best chicken we'd ever eaten. And later, the morality followed, as we began to learn more about factory farming.
The point is though that if you're going to attract people to a way of life, you've got to show them not only that it honors God and our conservative convictions, but that it's joyful, it's a fun way to live. And I really do think that if you live by the principles I outline in Crunchy Cons, where you place your faith and your family at the center of everything, and you learn how to value things like food and wine, and aesthetic things, beauty as the expression of the divine, then life becomes a lot more colorful and interesting and passionate.
That's the philosophy of Carlo Petrini, the Italian communist who founded the Slow Food movement to preserve local foods and food traditions. He believed that you couldn't scold and shame people out of eating at McDonalds; rather, you had to show them that there was a much better and more pleasurable way of eating. That's how I feel about Crunchy Conservatism. Crunchy Cons are not, or should not be, miserablists.
Some secular people reading this would probably be surprised to hear that religion is about living a more fully human life. Their stereotype would be that it's completely other-worldly, all about the afterlife, not this life...
Well, we have to be fair and admit that some forms of religion are like that. Earlier you mentioned Jansenism. And some forms of Protestantism are puritanical, and excessively ascetic. Of course, there is a place for asceticism, but I think that as Christians we understand that to live a truly human life is to rightly order our bodies, and our physical lives, in line with spiritual truths ... it's not to deny the body all the time, but to use it for its right purposes, to use it for God's purposes, and what God created it for.
You call the Democrats the party of lust and the Republicans the party of greed.
The Republicans focus on economic liberty and the Democrats focus on sexual liberty—both of them are materialist-oriented. The quest for happiness is either through sex or the pursuit of riches. They presume that human happiness will be satisfied through material gain. But when Jesus said that man does not live by bread alone, it wasn't just a nice moral thought. He was telling an anthropological truth. We, as conservatives and as Christians, know that we are ensouled creatures and our souls are restless until they rest in God.
has written pretty movingly about how liberals and conservatives work today to enrich themselves by exploiting the basest of material desires, and this works to destroy the community. I think there are an awful lot of conservative business people getting rich off the spiritual destruction of individuals and communities in part by encouraging people to believe that fulfilling their desire for material satisfaction is not only their right, but their salvation. This is a lie. I do look forward to the day when honorable liberals and conservatives can come together to work on a civic republican ethic and sense of community. We have to stop seeing people as merely the sum of their sexual desires and consumer impulses. That is a radical thing to say in this society, and something I can agree with liberals on wholeheartedly.
The wife of a colleague of mine at the paper is a full-throated liberal, and she wrote a column for us one Christmas season a couple of years ago when she was at the mall about how Victoria's Secret had a really sleazy window display, and she wrote, "my kids shouldn't have to be exposed to that. Where is the public ethic that keeps that away from my kid?" Everything she said, a conservative could agree with, except a free-market conservative who would say the market is the measure of all things.
I want to let that liberal lady know I'm on her side and maybe we can work together.
Is money—big donors on both the Democratic and Republican side—the source of the problem? Is that the reason our political system won't address this?
Well, I think you see this on an issue like immigration. A lot of the open border stuff is being driven by big business' desire for cheap labor. Now, I want to be careful here, because I don't want to blame immigrants, but here in Texas, I tell you, immigration is really out of control, and it's screwing up neighborhoods, and nobody wants to talk about it because they can be labeled racist. The pressure of so many newcomers coming in is pushing the community apart. I'm completely against anybody who is a racist, and wants to keep these people out for those reasons, but you can't deny that this is having harmful effects on communities. And it's a big business thing.
Yes, it's a sensitive issue, but when you look at it as more than an immigration problem, but a problem of economic dislocation caused by globalization, then it takes on a different cast...
I can tell you about Mexico—I tell this story in the book. I was at an editorial board meeting at the Dallas Morning News, and some people came in from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, accompanied by ambassadors from several Central American countries. And they were all talking about a new trade pact, and how it was going to bring all these benefits, but one of the sticking points was the Mexican farmers, and how they weren't going along with it. But the Chamber of Commerce guy said "We think we're going to be able to overcome them, we'll take care of that and everything will be fine." And I was thinking, "Wait a minute, what is he talking about? He's looking at these people as specks in a map, people who are getting in the way of his big economic plans, but having grown up out in the country I know there is an organic entity there, there is a community. These farmers have been living that way for who knows how many generations. And it could be the best thing for them to move on, to find something else to do, but the fact is that nobody thought about it. All these people could think about was efficiency. They don't see how families will be broken up, how ways of life can end that a lot of people find valuable. That's the thing I object to—the farm life on Mexico is not a sacred cow. It may be time for that to change, but the fact is that nobody thought to ask these farmers. These farmers are just an obstacle to efficiency. That's what I object to, and I think conservatives ought to object to it.
It's change enacted from the top down to maximize profits without any regard for people. That doesn't seem very conservative, or Christian.
There's an excellent book by Roger Scruton, the philosopher, called The West and the Rest. It's about globalism. Having come back from the Middle East, I have a pretty hard-nosed view of the Moslem world and how it needs to change. But Scruton talks about how these people went from being a Bedouin society to super-rich in just a couple of decades. And now, with the advent of media, they're experiencing rapid cultural change in just a few years that we had in this country spread out over fifty years, with social institutions that are much more rigid and unable to handle it. So we should not be surprised that things are breaking up over there.
Watching the Grammy Awards the other night reminded me of how conservatives always think that the problem of quality in the media, or in music, or in art, can always be solved through more freedom and more consumer choice. They've lost any sense of the need for legitimate cultural authority.
I think you're right. Consider the blogosphere. Now, as somebody who works in the mainstream media, I join my fellow conservatives in rejoicing at the smashing of MSM hegemony, something that has been largely led by the blogosphere. It's mostly a healthy thing, certainly for the MSM, which has in many cases grown arrogant and out of touch. On the other hand, there is a temptation among conservatives to only believe what they want to believe, and to grant cultural authority to sources that have not earned it. Whatever the sins and failings of the MSM, most people who work in it are trained professionals who really are trying to do their best, and who, at their best, have skills that many wiseacre bloggers don't have. There's some despair in my profession because we get the idea that the public cares less about quality and reliability in their information, and more about sensation, about being told what they want to hear. Don't get me wrong: it's a great thing that The New York Times version of truth is being challenged. But the danger is that people will think that their own opinion is as good as anybody else's. Which is nonsense. It's a short slide from that place to deciding that quality is whatever I like, and truth is whatever feels right to me. Conservatives should know better. Anyway, when cultural authority becomes atomized and individualized, social cohesion becomes all but impossible.
For instance, I was at a media conference at Dubai in December, the Saudi prince, Alwaleed bin Talal, a billionaire media investor, he was giving a talk there, and he was saying that the free press in Iraq is the worst thing going for that country right now, and that offended me, but he explained himself, he said right now we need unity in Iraq more than anything else, and the free press now is making money by appealing to people's lowest impulses, to sectarianism, and ethnic and tribal identity, and that is driving the country apart. He said, I'm all in favor of a free press, but after we establish a common culture and unity there to keep the country from falling apart. And it makes sense to me. In our country the same thing is happening. I have the papers I read, and the blogs I read, and the danger there is of becoming an echo chamber where you only talk with the people who agree with you.
So spreading freedom is not, in itself, going to necessarily save the world?
Right, it's not a panacea. Recently I ran a really good piece by the liberal writer Jim Sleeper in the Sunday commentary section of the Dallas Morning News, which I edit, where he made an impassioned case for liberals to get over their fetishization of free speech because, what he called "the pornification of the public square" is destroying any kind of civic republicanism and public ethos, and making it a dangerous place to raise kids. And all of this I agree with. He ended up by saying "if we liberals don't figure out how to do this, we're going to end up losing to the religious fundamentalists who will be the only ones with the wherewithal to resist." I say more power to Jim Sleeper, but I think he's not going to see his dreams realized via liberalism, because I think only religious faith has the power to resist our very powerful commercial culture.
His comment about losing out to the fundamentalists is all the more important, given what's happening in Muslim countries. We have to avoid driving moderate Moslems to the extremists...
Well, when I was at that same media conference in Dubai, the most interesting thing I saw there weren't the sessions on terrorism, or anything like that. I went to a small, poorly attended session about the entertainment media in the Arab world, and on the panel there were two Arab TV producers, and there was a guy from MTV there as well, and they were going on and on and on about what a great and wonderful thing all the choice they're bringing to the Arab world is now, with satellite TV, and it seemed almost tragically naïve to me, because I come from a culture where there is complete freedom of choice, and the culture is fragmenting and becoming coarser and coarser, and you can look at Arab culture and you can say they do need to loosen up, they do need more freedom, but at the same time this naïve exaltation of freedom of choice—I know where this is going to go.
After that session I was talking to a Muslim woman who lives in Great Britain, who works in one of the big media firms there, and she said, you know, I live in London with my husband, we're Muslims, we're not extremists at all, we're just trying to get on with our lives, and we're afraid of losing our children to fundamentalism, and she said but at the same time you look at what's on offer in Britain, it's secularity, it's very lurid sexually, and it's terrifying. And so, I looked at my daughter one day and I said, honey, this is where we live, but this is not who we are, and I looked at her and said you know my wife and I are Catholics, and we feel the same way.
What's happening in the Arab world is we're bringing in American individualism and freedom and the fundamentalists can point to all the lurid stuff on American TV and American-style TV coming out of Lebanon and say this is what the West promises, this degradation, this sacrilege, and well, yeah, they're right.
I had a friend once who said he's happy to see the Muslim world become as pornified as we are because then they'll be so busy consuming and having sex that they won't be a threat to us, and I thought, man, that's a pretty sorry vision, to hope that they'll become just as decadent as we are.
The tragedy is that, as you say, there is a need for more liberalization, but these cultures are going from one extreme to the other, from one system of repression, and total lack of freedom, to another system of complete freedom, and decadence.
Yes. The only content there is individual desire, and so it all comes down to individual choice, which is another way of saying that there's no such thing as morality, and I think that's what too many American conservatives forget when we talk about moral values, that there has to be some sort of reference to the transcendent, a reference to God, or it all becomes a matter of personal choice, and ultimately a matter of power-might makes right.
In the early nineties feminists and religious folks came together to try to fight pornography. I think it was a laudable thing that they put aside their differences to try to fight pornography. Well, technology got the best of them, and now I'm sitting here in my house at my computer, and if my kids knew how to do it, they could find the most vile pornography in a matter of minutes.
The late Neil Postman talked about this, about how with electronic media childhood ceases to exist, because when any child can have, by turning on the radio and the TV, access to all the knowledge that adults have, especially about sexuality and violence, without mediating institutions to initiate him into that, childhood ceases to exist. And I think we're in that sort of world now, with the internet. Unfortunately, law now is almost powerless to stop it. The only way to combat it now is to encourage individual virtue.
How do you rebuild cultural authority? Can you put the toothpaste back into the tube? Is it going to take forming creative communities, as Pope Benedict emphasizes? Or is it a matter of the agenda items you suggest in your book?
Well, Crunchy Cons is not primarily a book about policy; yes I have a few policy changes I'd like to see. I'd like to see laws passed to make it easier for families to homeschool, for families to start small farms and small businesses, but ultimately Crunchy Conservatism is about what Vaclav Havel called anti-political politics. And what he meant was the idea that the only way to rebuild society after the horrors of communism was through individual ethical choices and collective ethical choices made every single day, and I think that's the answer to your question about getting the toothpaste back into the tube ... I don't think that electing more Republicans is going to be the answer to what ails us.
I think Alasdair McIntyre is right when he says that our culture has fragmented so much we can't even agree on what right and wrong is as a community anymore. That can cause us to despair, but we need to look to what St. Benedict did when the Roman Empire broke down, retire to whatever our modern equivalent of monasteries are and try to rebuild culture, to not only preserve our religious, cultural and moral values, but keep them alive for a time when there is more cohesion in the culture.
I have no illusions that I'm going to be able to change America by what I believe, but I can change my family. I can change my parish. I can change what Edmund Burke called the "little platoons" of which I am a part. And I think that's enough. That's got to be enough because that's what I have control over. And maybe other people will see by the examples we live—I'm not talking about withdrawing and becoming neo-Amish—but by making these small changes, by living a good, virtuous life every single day, we can effect a more lasting change, a change that comes from deep within.
You embrace what may have been Jimmy Carter's single most politically unpopular gesture for conservatives, his "malaise" speech—how do you think conservatives will react?
It's going to be a flashpoint of the book, along with my saying that Hillary Clinton got a bum rap for saying it takes a village to raise a child. About Hillary, if she meant that it takes more government programs to raise a child, of course, I think that's absurd. But I think conservatives were so quick to make fun of her that they missed the larger point, that it's not enough for parents to be good on their own, you need a social context to raise kids. The movie critic Michael Medved said as much when he said it doesn't matter how good you and your spouse are at raising your kids if all the other parents on your block are doing a terrible job—it's going to undermine much of what you've done. That's what I meant by Hillary got a bum rap.
And as far as Carter goes ... I was 12 or 13 when he made that speech, and the problem was that he came off like a loser, but when you read the speech on paper, yes, it's depressing at the start, but if you didn't hear it in Carter's voice, you'd say here's a guy who's speaking to a real loss of purpose in American life, that was there then, a real malaise. I think Carter wasn't the man to lead us out of that vale of tears. Reagan was. But Carter was not a bad diagnostician.
What I liked looking back at the malaise speech was the energy part of it, about how Americans need to stop wasting energy as a moral act, as a patriotic act. We make our country stronger when we stop using so much energy and quit being so dependent on the Middle East. Well, that went over like a lead balloon, and then Reagan came in and he was Reagan and he did a lot of great things, and I was thrilled when he was elected.
But the conservative military historian Andy Bacevich pointed out in his book last year, The New American Militarism, that the Carter doctrine proclaimed that America will do everything it must to protect Middle Eastern oil. This was after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Every single president since then has re-affirmed this, because it's what the American people want, and because they saw what happened to Carter when he preached austerity and conservation, they saw that he paid a big price for doing it. For Americans it's our right to do whatever we damned well please, and I think it's a big reason why right now we have our troops sitting in Iraq.
I say to people who say, well no blood for oil, well that's a nice sentiment, but what happens when you're freezing on the unemployment line, because the Islamic radicals have got control of the oil supply and have cut us off. If we had listened to Carter and had done a better job of conserving, we might not be in the shape we're in today having to be over there fighting these people.
What did you think of President Bush's state of the union speech, and the focus on exporting democracy around the world?
Well, we've seen since Bush went on this crusade to spread democracy to the Arab world that Islamic fundamentalists have been swept into power everywhere there have been free elections. I think that's what would happen in Eqypt and Saudi Arabia as well. I think what you see behind this American rhetoric is a failure to understand that democracy is just a tool, and that culture is the determining factor in how that tool is used by a people. What we want is liberal democracy—the rule of law, respect for individual rights—but even then you see what's happened in our country, and what liberal democracy has devolved into...
...and what, for instance, The Netherlands has devolved into—a content-free democracy that has allowed Islamic fundamentalists to take root...
Yeah, this is what multiculturalism and "tolerance" comes down to, ultimately. It's a form of national suicide. You mention The Netherlands; that's a country I know a lot about because I've gone there a lot. I have a lot of friends there. The only thing people there seem to believe in is personal freedom. And it has worked for them for a while because there is still within them a very strong Calvinist, bourgeois ethic that keeps everything together. But now it's breaking down, and you go and you realize—and I love Holland, and I hope they can pull out of this—you realize that these people have no idea about the power of faith, and Islam is on the rise there because Godless, wealthy secularism doesn't reproduce itself.
George Weigel said that Europe is now living through a grand experiment to see whether civilization can survive luxury. And I think we're not that far behind Europe.
What I'm hoping to do with Crunchy Conservatism is for people to think more deeply about what conservatism means, and what we have to do to preserve our culture. Because if we just ride the wave of consumerism, and uncritically embrace everything the free market does, we're going to lose everything we value.