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September 21, 2002

Crunchy Cons, Reredux


I got around to checking out the on-line version of "Granola Conservatives" by the National Review’s Rod Dreher which you recommended. I agree that it is quite interesting and I'd like to respond to it. For those of you who haven't read it, Dreher’s main thesis is that despite being a conservative, in some respects his life and values have "more in common with left-wing counterculturalists than with many garden-variety conservatives.”

Garden Variety Conservatives?

I have little to argue with Dreher's somewhat obvious (but true) point that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in anybody’s philosophy, and his more subtle suggestion that one should always look closely at what you can learn from your intellectual opponents. After all, these people spend a lot of time engaged with exactly the same issues that engage you--they're bound to dig up something you should think about.

But Dreher takes his argument further, using two examples where he thinks lefties have a point that conservatives are not taking. The first is that capitalism, with its emphasis on economic growth, can be bad for the environment, and that conservatives often fail to support environmentally-friendly policies or will even actively oppose them. The second is that modern capitalist society creates a sort of relentless, debased, lowest-common denominator culture, leaving Dreher little choice but to--eeek!--seek relief from National Public Radio and PBS. (The horror!)

Regarding the environment, I can only analyze my own feelings about this in detail. I would be lying if I denied that I constantly feel suspicious of environmentalism. Why? To be honest, it bothers me that the environmental "movement" is so clearly just a new vessel that has been filled with the same old anti-capitalist wine that used to slosh around in the socialist/communist winesack. I don't think it is unnatural to be suspicious of a movement that seems so frankly opportunistic and disingenuous about its arguments, if constant in its goals. But this is a sort of ad hominen argument; forgetting environmentalism, what of the environment itself? As a father and a link in a genetic chain that I hope will still be going strong many generations in the future, I think one would have to be insane to be indifferent to the fate of the environment. However, I still have reservations about the ways and means of current-day left-wing 'command and control' environmentalism.

Let me give a real-world example of why I have these reservations. There is a land use dispute taking place in my home town. A large (3,000 home) residential development, backed by a major savings & loan, is stalled because of the presence of an endangered animal. Now, I live in a neighborhood which is in the next valley over and just as environmentally un-friendly as the proposed development but which got built before the Endangered Species Act was passed. Nobody in my neighborhood gives a damn about the threat to this endangered animal or pretends to; they oppose this development because it will cause monumental traffic problems. But that little critter is useful as a bargaining chip with the developers. Frankly, this sort of thing makes me wary of contemporary environmentalism; using endangered species as a lever in a lifestyle-based land use dispute is pretty bogus, to say the least. When I look at lack of transparency, the back room dealing, the special-interest politics, slimy-insider deals, I find it hard to think that the end product is really likely to "protect" the environment in any very serious way.

I am also critical of much contemporary enviromental "protection" on grounds of equity--of who must bear the costs of environmental protection. The places where a lot of people live aren't expected to restrict their development or commercial activities, while relatively empty places are often tied up legally or politically so urban people like Dreher can visit it on their vacations. Dreher himself remarks on how nice it was that the lefties kept the land along the California coast undeveloped so he can enjoy the view while driving on the Pacific Coast Highway. This "tourist's" approach to parceling out the pain of wilderness conservation is fairly laughable, a kind of reverse version of “locals only” surfing beaches.

Locals Only sign.jpg
Left Wing Development Policy

However, holding one's nose and being terribly affronted when confronted with the corruption of everyday "regulatory" politics is not exactly an adequate response to a serious issue. So what is to be done by conservatives on the environment? To devise a non-statist approach to environmental regulation, one must first acknowledge that this appears to be a market failure problem. It appears to me that it is the classic case of the "commons," in which communally owned pasture constantly gets overgrazed. The wilderness gets trashed because nobody “owns” it, and thus nobody protects it. If an individual developer grabs some wild land and puts up a shopping center or housing tract, he can make a lot of dough personally while shoving the downsides associated with the loss of wild nature onto the community at large. While it may not be trivial to put a price on open land, on wild plants and animals, on ecosystem functionality, and other such goods, conservatives serious about the environment must undertake this labor. Until this happens and until management of this resource passes into enlightened (i.e., private) hands, the wilderness cannot be properly managed in the context of a free market economy.

Dreher's second challenge for conservatives is that they won't admit that mass market culture tends to reward debased, watered-down, sexed-up, copy-cat forms of culture sold via an ever-more intense marketing barrage. Let's face it, he's got a point. I like popular music, and it is painful to me to realize that Britney Spears has made far more money shaking her money-maker(s) than Louis Armstrong or Hank Williams ever did from their infinitely greater talents, no matter how much faith I put in “the market.”

Louis, Britney & Hank--"Who Do You Love?"

Nonetheless, I tend to shake my head and say "the market must rule" with pop culture--at least that way Britney's fans can enjoy her music, and I know I can find more sophisticated, more sincere, or more witty music, films, books, etc., if I work at it. But I'd be kidding if I said I was totally happy with the result. And the situation is perhaps even more dispiriting when I look to “high” art forms--for which admittedly limited, but fairly sophisticated audiences exist. Sadly, despite the existence of these audiences, American classical music doesn’t seem to be throwing off many Mozarts or Beethovens, American painters aren’t routinely producing Sistine Chapel-quality work, and the American theater isn’t routinely presenting new playwrights of the caliber of Shakespeare or Chekhov.

What’s the problem? I'd love to say that I've got this all worked out, but I can't. But let me raise at least one possible explanation: high culture seems largely dependent on the world-view of a key group of people, and America does not currently seem to be producing what is needed in this regard. I am not, by the way, talking about artists here; I mean the people who will become their elite audiences and/or patrons. Looking at various cultural “golden ages,” it seems to me that artists will rise to meet the expectations of these patrons and/or elite audiences, if this key group possesses a sense of what Peter Hall describes in his book, "Cities in Civilization," as living in "a time of huge and surging excitement in human affairs." He goes gives as one of many examples the German city of Wittenberg of the early sixteenth century:

...everything--the perception of nature and of reality, the character of experience, the relation of individuals to each other, their feelings about the supernatural--was in a state of turmoil. The city in which [the Northern Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach] ended his days...was that same city where in 1517 Luther nailed his famous theses to the cathedral door, to usher in the Reformation.

The funny thing about "golden age" environments is that greatness of the arts was not what contemporaries would have mentioned if you asked them what was afoot. In the Classical Athens of Pericles, they would have discussed the growing power and wealth of Athens after its victory in the Second Persian War, its dominance of the Delian League and its challenge to Spartan hegemony of Greece. In the Florence of the Renaissance, the talk would be of the birth of international finance, in which families such as the Medici were prospering mightily. In the Rome of Pope Julius II talk would have been of the revival of the temporal power of the Church. In the London of Elizabeth I you would have heard of the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the development of Britain's overseas trade.

Pericles.jpg Julius II.jpg
Were Pericles and Julius II the missing link?

The U.S. in the 30 or so years of my adulthood has lacked such a positive world view held by an intellectually dominant, culturally influential elite. Regrettably, I can't imagine the American left offering one up, given what I view as the "internal contradictions" in its view of the world and America's place in it. But neither has the Right stepped forward to provide such a view. In part I suspect that this is because right wing people haven't overcome their defensiveness about having a cultural worldview that is at odds with virtually everything taught in a modern university education and produced by the dominant intellectual class. Feeling themselves exiled from the intellectual establishment and horrified by the pomposity and cultural emptiness of the self-styled leftist elite, most right wing individuals do react by, in Deher's words, accepting "bad beer, lousy coffee, Top-40 radio, strip malls, and all popular manifestations of cheapness and ugliness as proof that One Is Not an Effete Liberal." But if the American right wants to embrace culture (and have it embrace us back) I suspect we'll have to (in the words of the famous Marian Barry of Washington D.C.) "get over" these feelings.



posted by Friedrich at September 21, 2002


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