Saturday, March 04, 2006

More Thoughts on the Crunchy Con Debate

Having followed the crunchy con debate, I'd like to record some of my thoughts. These are going to be mostly critical, not because I think the Crunchy Cons are all wrong, but because I think they are really putting their worst foot forward in the debate.

1) One thing that really bothers me is the seemingly universal master narrative in which once upon a time thought patterns supposedly existed that made ordinary life sacramental, and now they have disappeared and we are left in the ruins. It's not true, people! I don't like to "pull rank," but really, take it from me, a professional historian, dividing all history into befores and afters is a guaranteed to be factually incorrect. Guys like Foucault will come along every once in a while and announce a big before and after story, like "Childhood didn't exist before the Romantic movement" or "Romance was invented by troubadours". But they will always be shot down sooner or later.

Does that mean the past has no good ideas? Of course not! That would be just another before and after story (before bad, after good). But what it does mean is that every good idea and practice of the past is all mixed up with bad ideas and practices of the past. That life is much less coherent than you are taking it to be. That there is no Archimedean point, no thought pattern one can grasp (such as becoming spiritual, converting to Christianity, rejecting nominalism, turning your back on consumerism, recovering the sacramental vision, whatever) that will then effectively result in the resolution of the evils of this life.

Read Ecclesiastes, now! Please! And remember what J.I. Packer said about it, that this is a book written not for hopeless pre-Christians, but for new "white-hot," "on fire for the Lord" (or for a new vision of holistic living, or what have you) Christians, to tell them that being a Christian does not give you a oracular vision into the motherboard of reality.

Christian readers have no excuse for forgetting that there is only one before and after story of loss and exile, and that story happened long before recorded history.

2) "Over tacos and quesadillas, we talked about electromagnetism and gravitation, and how both the left and the right, in the main, seem to be out of good ideas on how to create a unified field theory." Is this a problem? That neither Ted Kennedy and Noam Chomsky, nor George Bush and Pat Buchanan can figure out how to unite gravitation with the other three fundamental forces? No? Why not? Because "left" and "right" are political concepts, and hence applicable to people working in the political field, and we don't expect politicians to have solutions to problems in advanced physics.

Well, what Rod Dreher was really talking about was restoring "America’s lost sense of community." (Side note: OK, the idea that America once had a sense of community, and then lost it, that's the kind of just plain wrong before and after story I'm talking about). He noted that this liberal urban developer had lots of great ideas about urban development. Is this a surprise? Why shouldn't liberal architects, for example, have good ideas about architecture? And why should we be disappointed that the left and right politicians don't have very good ideas about how architecture can anchor healthy communities? As Thomas Sowell sometimes says, no algebra textbook has any essential vitamins and minerals -- and is that a problem? A reason to criticize algebra textbook sellers? To insist that algebra textbooks be fortified with iron and niacin?

Let's expect from politics and politicians the things they can give us, which is not "a sense of community" (whether lost, or merely suffering one of its periodic downswings), but reasonably good courts, fair property tax assessments, etc.

3) I guess this brings me into my third point which is that just as all history can't be divided into before and after, so too all the people out there can't be divided into us and them. Rod Dreher quotes Russell Kirk:

The great line of demarcation in modern politics, Eric Voegelin used to point out, is not a division between liberals on one side and totalitarians on the other. No, on one side of that line are all those men and women who fancy that the temporal order is the only order, and that material needs are their only needs, and that they may do as they like with the human patrimony. On the other side of that line are all those people who recognize an enduring moral order in the universe, a constant human nature, and high duties toward the order spiritual and the order temporal.

In other words, the real political line is between philosophical materialists, and religious people (in the broad sense, including Platonists, Jews, Christians, etc.)

OK, is this supposed to be an empirical observation? If it is, then as Willmoore Kendall pointed out long ago, it is just plain false: at no point in American history (and I would venture to generalize in human history either), have all the devotees of permanent things been on one side and all the mere materialists been on the other.

Or is this supposed to be some kind of normative vision, some demand that the conservative movement expell the non-religious among them? If so, it's a dog, but let's let that slide. Let's assume one can actually form a political movement on this basis. If all the religious people are supposed to be on one political side, and all the materialists on the other, then I'm sorry to point it out to you, but that's the same as saying if that all the religious people are required by their religion to be on one political side. How is saying "Only idolators who worship stock speculation could oppose a tax on short term stock sales" different from saying "Only envious liberals who think 'Thou shalt not steal' doesn't apply to them could oppose a capital gains tax break"? Of course, this is not surprising: if we really have an "integrated view of life", well then, church and political party will be integrated, won't they?

When I first heard the "Crunchy Con" idea of life I liked it because it was going to dis-integrate our view of life, that is, show us how, just because I am a (fairly mainstream) conservative in politics, that says nothing about how I dress, how I eat, the friends I have at work and how we get along. Unfortunately, that's not how some people are playing it (and Rod Dreher seems really to be a lot better than many of his buddies on this score). Rather after first lamenting that "The existing political party lines put all us good religious people into different parties," what they are really proposing is that "We need to readjust our political party lines so that all religious people can feel comfortable supporting one party." What will follow on that? Well, go to some "Justice Sunday" "Moral Majority" church, switch around the issues a bit and you'll see. The same old lifestyle righteousness and the same old "vote how you pray" line. Count me out.

So no, don't quote Russell Kirk or Eric Voegelin to me on that. They're just plain wrong. Wrong on the facts, and even more wrong on their normative principles. Economic and political life is mostly about trade-offs and knowing the really permanent things gives little guidance there. Solomon was wiser than either of them when he said, "For who knows what is good for a man in life, during the few and meaningless days he passes through like a shadow? Who can tell him what will happen under the sun after he is gone?" And if that's so, let's cut each other some slack -- and that holds, whether it's the mainstreamers who need to cut the crunchies some slack, or the crunchies who need to cut the mainstreamers some slack.

4) All this talk about "reining in the market" and how that might be too strong medicine for the mainstream conservatives out there: to me it seems like pretty weak tea. Rod Dreher asks what we should do about the pornification of life? I have a great idea: throw pornographers in jail and don't allow their products to be transmitted through the mails or the data lines. If you want to do it and have the political will, it can be done. Not perfectly, of course, but as well as we prohibit bad checks or credit card fraud. And when that sort of thing is being done, who is out there on the frontlines? The much-maligned Christian right, that's who. But leaving that aside, let's not fool ourselves that "reining in the market" in general, and "critiquing the excesses of capitalism," let alone "recovering a spirit of community" is going to have anything more than marginal impact on pornography (or abortion, or divorce, or other social ills). Moral reform, absent direct legal measures, won't do the job. (Of course neither will legal measures absent moral reform.) So please don't sell it as if it will.

In short, I think the biggest problem with the Crunchy Con vision is the misapprehension that it is a new vision linking the political to the religious to the personal. As such it will fail to succeed and fail even if it succeeds to implement its aims, as such it will produce a kind of "new monasticism," and as such it will degrade religion into a new version of visible advertising and branding. But if the Crunchy Con vision is that politics and religion and the personal should be disconnected, that one should approach each in its own separate integrity, and not try to fuse them, then it will be helpful and salutary.

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