The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

July 25, 2014

The Traditionalist Counterculture
Jesse Walker - 02/04/08

Review of Rod Dreher, Crunchy Cons: The New Conservative Counterculture and Its Return to Roots (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006), 288 pp. $13.95.

National Review didn’t pay much attention to the Summer of Love as it actually transpired in the middle months of 1967. The flagship journal of the conservative movement ran a rather addled essay that August comparing the flower children to the Adamites, an early Christian sect that believed it had reclaimed the sinless innocence of the first man. The magazine then stayed mostly mum until November, when an unsigned article wrote off the hippies as a dying fad. “For many the affair ended with the first cold wave,” the author declared. “For others, the irredeemable ones, it goes on, a hazy romance of poverty and degradation vainly seeking the lower depths of a society which permits all. When the last hippie dies, he will have been loved to death.”

The world must need more love, because the last hippie has yet to die. Forty years after that editorial appeared, we still have hippies and we still have National Review. We also have Rod Dreher, the former National Review writer best known for the cult hit Crunchy Cons. A jeremiad against the materialism and consumerism of the modern Right, Dreher’s book is a manifesto for—to quote its original subtitle—“Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives.” (Sorry, no Adamites.) In a series of profiles and personal stories, Dreher describes a few of the places, from the Slow Food movement to the revolt against modern architecture, where cultural conservatism and countercultural rebellion can coalesce after all.

It’s not as though the original Summer of Love was devoid of right-wingers. It’s just that, at a time when the Right was usually divided into “libertarian” and “traditionalist” tribes, it was the libertarians who were prone to wear their hair long and don beads. You didn’t have to be a hippie to be a libertarian, of course, but if you were a hippie, you were much more likely to be a lib than a trad. In A Generation Divided, her 1999 study of the ’60s Left and Right, the sociologist Rebecca Klatch notes that in the conservative Young Americans for Freedom, a “common joke” had it “that traditionalists wore colorless ties, sat straight, and prayed while libertarians wore necklaces and slurped their soup.” A few of the trads in Klatch’s study had some kind words for the dropouts—Alan MacKay, who would go on to serve on the board of Howard Phillips’s Conservative Caucus, said he agreed with the hippies about the “hypocrisy in American institutions”—but an overwhelming majority hated the love generation. By contrast, when Ayn Rand tried to disassociate herself from the libertarian movement, she derided them as “hippies of the right.” She never said anything like that about Russell Kirk.

But it is Kirk, the traditionalist who once wrote that “the devil was the original libertarian,” whom Dreher taps as “the pater-familias of all crunchy cons.” The most interesting thing about Dreher’s volume is not that it combines conservatism with the counterculture. It’s that it combines traditionalism with the counterculture, marrying two trends that seemed as they emerged in the postwar era to be opposites. What’s more, it does this in a way that makes sociological sense. His crunchy cons might not be dropping acid or living in communes, but those aren’t the only legacies of the hippies. When Dreher writes that “Small and Local and Old and Particular are to be preferred over Big and Global and New and Abstract,” he could be quoting Kirk. He could also be quoting the liner notes of a dusty Dylan LP.

Dreher didn’t invent this social category. He put a label on something that has been evolving for a while. American subcultures tend to bleed into each other, influencing one another in unexpected ways, even if they initially seem to be antagonists. And then, like other married couples, they start to look alike: They can peer back at their youthful selves and suddenly see resemblances that were invisible at the time.

The hippies, like the conservatives, can be divided into libertarian and traditionalist tendencies. The libertarians said things like “follow your bliss,” “do your own thing,” and “we are as gods and might as well get good at it.” At the same time, from the folk music revival of the ’50s and early ’60s to the rural bohemia of the ’70s—a stronghold of homeschooling, homesteading, and other activities celebrated in Dreher’s book—there always was a strain in the counterculture that wanted to preserve the past and restore lost traditions. By 1970 or so, the paradigmatic hippies were not urban runaways eating acid at a lightshow but a troupe of would-be farmers heading to the countryside. On their soundtrack, instead of some endless psychedelic jam, you could hear a series of country-rock songs by Dylan, the Byrds, the Band. Granted, many of those farmers might never manage to get anything to grow. But that was true of some of the Right’s traditionalists, too. Call them hi-fi agrarians.

Indeed, by 1975, in Up from Communism, the historian John Patrick Diggins could casually cap off a discussion of the I’ll Take My Stand crowd by saying “it was not the Old Left but the young student New Left, with its pastoral idyll of small self-sufficient communities pursuing happiness through the joys of soil labor and craftsmanship, that would raise again the questions of decentralization that had occupied the Agrarians. Technology’s children would find in rock music and drugs what the older conservatives had claimed for poetry—imagination, mystery, and the inviolability of consciousness against the threat of science.” Diggins may use the phrase “New Left,” but the picture he paints is more Whole Earth Catalog than SDS. Over the next couple of decades, as the dilettantes moved back to the city and the serious homesteaders learned to live off the soil, the people in that picture would intermingle with the antimodernists of the Right. Both found increasingly similar ways to reject industrial food, industrial education, and industrial medicine. (I am reminded of a conversation with a friend who was studying to be a midwife. Her study group, she told me, included three Protestant fundamentalists, one Catholic, one Orthodox Jew—and three pagans. They got along reasonably well, at least until one of the goddess-worshippers casually mentioned that she’d had three abortions.)

The libertarian and traditionalist wings of the hippie movement engaged in a similar interplay. The Whole Earth Catalog, for example, managed to reflect both sensibilities simultaneously, invoking the archetypes of both the cowboy (mobile, individualistic, settling a new frontier) and the Indian (rooted, communal, respectful of his ancestors). The Catalog readers’ revolt against the centralized, bureaucratic segments of society was driven both by an individualist interest in shaping their own fate and a desire to strengthen the little platoons that rely on convention and cooperation rather than compulsion. (Just to confuse matters further, the Stanford historian Fred Turner makes a compelling case in 2006’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture that the Catalog and its ethos were heavily influenced by the very technocratic Cold War institutions that both the libertarians and the traditionalists were rebelling against.)

Dreher doesn’t explore this history, but as he profiles his fellow crunchies you can glimpse it in the background. In a chapter on religion, an Eastern Orthodox crunchy con tells Dreher that “Orthodoxy attracts a tremendous number of what you might call ‘alternative-lifestyle’ people. We see a lot of former hippies.” Apparently, the same spiritual seeking that led young hipsters to Westernized Buddhism, the Jesus Movement, or est sometimes brought them to traditional faiths as well. Another figure in Dreher’s book, this one an Orthodox Jew, sums up the last path: “When you see that the world as presented by pop culture can’t add up to anything worthwhile, the logical next step is to look into the wealth of a religious or spiritual tradition. And you know what? It might as well be a real one.”

Another recent book, the libertarian Brink Lindsey’s The Age of Abundance, suggests another connection between hippies and conservatives. Both the counterculture and the evangelical movement, Lindsey writes,

sought firsthand spiritual experience; both believed that such experience could set them free and change their lives; both favored emotional intensity over intellectual rigor; both saw their spiritual lives as a refuge from a corrupt and corrupting world. That last point, of course, was subject to radically different interpretations. Aquarians rejected the world of the “establishment” because of its supposedly suffocating restrictions, while the evangelicals condemned its licentious, decadent anarchy. Even here, however, there was similarity. Both the antinomians of the left and the dogmatists of the right were united in their disaffection from the postwar liberal consensus—and, by extension, from the older form of therapeutic religiosity, the wan “faith in faith” that supported that consensus.

Lindsey turns Dreher on his head. The surge in spirituality, he argues, was a product of mass affluence: Where Dreher sees materialism crowding out religious commitment, Lindsey suggests that people whose material needs are met are more likely to look for something deeper and transcendent. Like Dreher, he sees a link between dynamic markets and dynamic social change; unlike Dreher, he thinks their combined effect is positive.

But if Lindsey and Dreher have opposing views, Lindsey’s analysis helps explain where Dreher’s countercultural conservatives came from. For Dreher, the culture Lindsey celebrates is too individualist, too prone to overvalue choice and self-fulfillment. But crunchy conservatism is obviously rooted in a set of choices. And whether Dreher is arguing for disciplined religious orthodoxy or for fresh local food, he keeps coming back to the idea that the crunchy path is more fulfilling. (Interestingly, all but one of the people profiled in his religion chapter are converts. So is Dreher himself.)

Indeed, there are places in Crunchy Cons where crunchiness starts to look like a set of consumption choices for the bobos of the Right. At other moments, it looks like a radical call to secede from mass culture and build independent “monastic communities.” Now, as a libertarian myself, I’m used to defending both market niches and separatist subcultures. (I also keep expecting one to evolve into the other, so that a couple generations from now the Trekkies all live on self-sufficient windfarms while the Amish work office jobs and only wear their aprons at Anabaptist conventions.) But to judge from his comments in his book and elsewhere, Dreher isn’t comfortable with either fate, fearing cooptation on one hand, irrelevance on the other, and in both cases a failure to engage the larger culture.

Yet engaging the larger culture means listening as well as speaking. At a time when teenage drug abuse, crime, and out-of-wedlock births have been trending downward for years, it’s entirely possible that at least some of the cultural regeneration Dreher wants is already taking place, just not always in ways that are conventionally crunchy or conservative. Even in small and rooted communities, tradition constantly evolves, adapting itself to the present without losing its connection to the past. That makes it powerful and resilient, but it also means that any given convention could be contingent and short-lived. If a little platoon is filled with gay men wearing wedding rings, foul-mouthed hip hoppers, or suburbanites meeting in ultramodern megachurches, it might not seem particularly crunchy or conservative. But it doesn’t lose its status as a little platoon, and it might still have something to teach, and to learn from, the crunchier, connier communities next door.

Every substantial social trend can expect a little cooptation, and every radical critique can expect a little irrelevance. What allows them to transform a culture is when unexpected allies start to absorb them in unanticipated ways. Just ask the last hippie.

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