Readings Outside the Box

A joint book review of Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons and Bill Kauffman’s Look Homeward, America

Over a decade has passed since the fall of Soviet Communism, but in America, the two political parties essentially defined by their approach to the Cold War continue to dominate. Increasingly, on the “conservative” side, traditionalists, free-market traders, religious believers, nationalists, and industrial capitalists who united under the Republican Party banner to combat communism are noticing that without that shared foe they perhaps have little in common.

Cold War politics indeed made strange bedfellows, and some conservatives are increasingly disturbed to discover with whom they have been sleeping. Regret over this conservative marriage of convenience has simmered for years, but in 2006 some “divorce” papers have been filed as two new books outline potentially irreconcilable differences. Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons and Bill Kauffman’s Look Homeward, America both seek to analyze what it means to be “conservative” in the 21st century. The primary disconnect both address is the conservative allegiance to the free market (and un-defined “progress”) in light of the fact that industrial capitalism has undermined family stability, healthy stewardship of the earth, limited government, and religious consciousness (all things that rank far higher with traditional conservatives than making a buck).

The simpler of the two books is Crunchy Cons and is the place to start for those unaware that serious divisions have arisen within conservatism. With Crunchy Cons, Dallas Morning News editor Dreher seeks to both describe and launch a new political movement. While this shifting tone can be distracting, his newspaper background serves to familiarize the uninitiated. Readers looking for a sophisticated philosophical treatment of re-emerging traditional conservatism will have to look elsewhere, but Crunchy Cons does work well as a primer. Pointing to more important books on specific subjects arguably ignored in conservative circles, each chapter addresses a specific cultural arena through Dreher’s summarizing of works such as Neil Postman’s critique of technology, Matthew Scully’s call for animal stewardship, E.F. Schumacher’s consideration of scale, and Eric Schlosser’s exposé on food production. Dreher rarely missteps bibliographically and at his best leads readers to broad and timeless works on culture and civilization by authors such as T.S. Eliot, Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk and Wendell Berry.

Though philosophically limited, many readers will appreciate that after identifying a problem, Dreher quickly offers practical suggestions of things (large and small) that a concerned reader could actually do. Dreher’s original contribution is found primarily here through the interviews he recounts with varied conservatives who have altered their lifestyles to better adhere to their convictions. As for Dreher’s linguistic contribution, on behalf of the philosophically sympathetic, I hope that the insipid “crunchy cons” will not have lasting cache. Though arguably petty, it remains strikingly odd that a book explaining a philosophy that takes aesthetics seriously would rely on inane packaging. Nevertheless, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, so by all means burn the dust jacket but read by the firelight.

Those already aware of modern conservatism’s contradictions and especially those already annoyed with the paucity of true political diversity in America can skip immediately to Bill Kaufmann’s Look Homeward, America. In this his fifth book, Kaufmann offers quite simply a delight; something ideal for the beach yet not summer slop. Kaufmann combines an acerbic wit with an encyclopedic knowledge of ignored American characters to create enchanting allusions and flat-out rants that may remind readers of comedian Dennis Miller. The crucial difference being that unlike Miller, Kaufmann has a point.

Extended quotes are not ideal for short book reviews, but it is the best way to convey Kaufmann’s magic. In his introduction, Kauffman recounts his crestfallenness when his visit to Columbus, Mississippi, falls tragically short of his romantic expectations:

…. We entered the diner and were seated behind four ladies with mellifluous Mississippi accents. They spent the next half-hour recounting the plot of the previous night’s episode of Friends, that vulgar and witless NBC sitcom by which archeologists will someday condemn our civilization.

I wanted to confront them, plead with them: Look. Here you are, citizens of the economically poorest yet culturally richest state in the union, the state that gave us Eudora Welty, the Delta Blues, William Faulkner, Muddy Waters, Shelby Foote, and yet you not only consume but crave packaged products of cocaine-addled East/West Coast greedheads who despise you as ignorant rednecks and stupid crackers. Get off your knees, Mississippi!

Well, I didn’t say that, checked as I am by that Upstate New York reserve. But I meant every word I didn’t say….

By any reasonable reckoning these lines alone should send you to Walden’s.

“In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists,” the subtitle of Kauffman’s book, captures precisely the trip offered. Kauffman introduces his readers to a menagerie of characters sadly omitted from textbook treatments of American history. From Mother Jones (known today “as the name of a magazine for consumerist liberals whose idea of a radical act is selling their R.J. Reynolds stock and buying Starbucks”) to Dorothy Day (“…the compleat anarchist:the perfect harmonizing of the best features of ‘left’ and ‘right’.”) Kauffman’s book roars coast to coast celebrating the accomplishments (and short-comings) of those whose convictions place them firmly outside of today’s “tidy Manichean division” of politics. Upon completing the tour, one ends the book perhaps convinced that a political restructuring is necessary, but undoubtedly saddened by today’s arid political times for though Kauffman’s players are not all of high character they are certainly all characters; these personalities contrast dramatically with today, when political handlers ensure blandness rules regardless of which party is in power.

As these authors recognize, political parties benefit from blind allegiance not citizens. Worse than the generic unexamined life, the unexamined political life is not only pointless but dangerous. Both Dreher and Kauffman have produced worthwhile calls to the examined political life; and though criticism can be leveled at particular notes struck, those of the “Old Right” (and “Old Left”) should particularly enjoy the sound of their bugles.

About Jason R. Edwards

Dr. Jason R. Edwards is a research fellow with the Institute for Faith and Freedom and a professor of history at Grove City College. If you would like to reach Dr. Jason R. Edwards for comment, please contact him at [email protected]

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