February 2, 2006
Is there a 'conservative style' for America?By J.R. Dunn
I'd like to take this opportunity to put in a word for the Ramones Conservatives. You've heard of them —— those Conservatives who walk in the footsteps of Johnny Ramone, the late and lamented guitarist for the eponymous pioneering punk—rock band.
Johnny was a lifelong Republican who idolized Ronald Reagan. Despite his appearance, he had a deep understanding of conservative ideas and how they related to the issues of the moment, topics on which he was willing to expound in any company and under all circumstances to the endless annoyance of his bandmates, music industry nabobs, and the rock press. Few have been more forthright in their defense of this country's values than Johnny Ramone. So it's heartening to see thousands of Republicans, young and old, living up to his example in their torn jeans, biker jackets, and black sneakers, while banging away on the cheapest guitars they can find....
Okay, it's absurd. But no more so than two recent columns by notable conservative voices, both laying down the law concerning what the Conservative Way of Life should be, and both coming to diametrically opposed conclusions —— apart from the fact that, if either concept was ever actually put into effect, they'd gut the movement as we know it. The first (going by the order read) is Rod Dreher's 'Mr. & Mrs Crunchy', the second,' Right Wingtips' by Mark Gauvreau Judge.
Rod Dreher is a writer whose work I followed regularly before he vanished from a favorite website into the boundless spaces of Texas and the antique pages of the Dallas Morning News a few years ago. Dreher's vision goes under the label of 'Crunchy Con.' ('...a new political buzzword in America' says the London Times. I don't think so.)
Crunchies embody a conservatism that has adapted the beliefs, attitudes, and mores of the environmentalist Greens. Crunchy Cons eat organic food, believe in recycling, and dress in the customary sandal and corduroy mode. They shop at coops and read E.F. Shumacher's Small is Beautiful. I'm sure there's more to it, but the rest will presumably be revealed when Dreher's book appears in several days.
Dreher sees this as the new wave, and takes it quite seriously — seriously enough to have worn Birkenstocks in Manhattan, a place with more threats to the pedal extremities than any other town in America. It's hard for me to find sympathy with this vision. I was growing up in the 70s when the organic thing was first setting in, and my word for it has always been 'precious.' Greens brought out the worst in me —— nothing pleased me more than to annoy and aggravate them without end. Their sanctimony, their inverted arrogance, and their self—righteousness played a large part in driving me rightward, which I suspect is true of many of us.
If Dreher has found happiness in this way of life, who am I to deny it? But as a new image of American conservatism....
Let's hold that thought while we move on to Mr. Judge. His idea of a New Conservatism is something he calls the 'metrocon', a combination of metrosexual and conservative (somehow I knew that was coming). But that's not really what he has in mind. A metrosexual, as is commonly understood —— though nowhere mentioned in Judge's essay —— is a heterosexual male who has adapted homosexual styles and maybe values. What Judge is actually referring to is yet another revival of 'the old guys knew best' — that is, Judge wants a return, in every possible mode of living, to the pre—60s paleoconservative golden age.
As opposed to what? As opposed to the great mass of Republican Wal—Mart shoppers, country—music listeners, and NASCAR fans, whom Judge finds disgusting and believes conservatives would do far better without. (Does he understand that they have the vote, I wonder?) Instead, conservatives should wear WASP couture (epitomized by Brooks Brothers), slap Polo on their faces, listen to swing, and, oh yes, subscribe to the New Criterion.
Except for that last item, this list makes it obvious that Judge is not thinking of a plausible future of any sort, but is indulging in a kind of fantasy nostalgia — an idea of the 50s as they should have been. The key characteristic of this type of nostalgia is that it's arbitrary, dependant on individual taste and nothing else. Why Brooks? Why not a cutaway and striped pants? Why not an Edwardian waistcoat and plus fours? (Not as rhetorical as it sounds — I actually know somebody who dresses like a Wodehouse character.)
The striking thing about these proposals — apart from how far they diverge from the same initial premise — is that neither has anything to do with conservatism per se. The Green formula is bourgeois leftist and will never overcome its origins, and the WASP lifestyle goes in and out of fashion among wildly contrasting groups about once a decade. (I myself own a dozen Brooks shirts — forty bucks a pop, and they last fifteen years. You can't beat 'em.) But above and beyond that, what Dreher and Judge are talking about is the wrapper.
They like conservatism — appearances aside, they probably both like the same things — but they don't like the current packaging. Which reduces their arguments to nullity, since conservatism is not about packaging, or fashion, or what kind of footwear you slip on in the morning. It's about principle, a framework of ideas and concepts that are expressed in various ways and constantly debated but which boil down to the contention that 'novelty must always be examined under the presumption of error'. If you believe that, you're a conservative. If you don't, a copy of every New Criterion ever printed is not going to help you.
The other thing that leaps from these proposals is their elitism. Both essays make large play of Wal—Mart and the kind of people who shop there. I don't think I have to explain what's wrong with this. Conservatism emerged from cult status in the mid—60s by embracing the common values of this country. Either of these proposals would collapse it back into culthood so fast you'd never hear the bang.
The politics of exclusion has no place in our thought and practice. Long may that continue. (Another annoying point is that both writers appeal to Catholic thinkers to back their theses, Dietrich von Hildebrand in Judge's case, Peter Kreeft in Dreher's. It's clear to this bad Catholic that the actual teachings of the Christ who walked with publicans and sinners have been lost sight of somewhere along the line.)
It's an oddly dualistic world we're invited into here — there's only Brooks Brothers and Wal—Mart, the Coop and... wherever Dreher thinks the Boomers shop, one side allied with the angels, the other sloping into the abyss. What this country has taught the world is that there's no single pattern. There are a thousand ways to live, as long as one abides by the principles acknowledged by all free men. They don't do things in Alaska the same as they do in Florida, or among the Mennonites as among the Hopi. A fighter pilot doesn't dress or behave the same as a bond trader, an artist like a techie, an athlete like a teacher. We don't expect them to and it would be foolish to force them to try. To undercut this state of affairs is to undercut any serious notion of a living conservatism, and renders you of one mind with the social engineers.
So wear some socks with those Birkenstocks, Rod... it's cold outside. And Mark, loosen that bow tie a little. Sit back, relax, drop the ideology... and I think we'll all get along.
Among many other things, J.R. Dunn was the editor of the International Military Encyclopedia for twelve years.