Archive for the ‘preservation’ Category

What it means to be a crunchy conservative

First published Oct. 3, 2016

There are many mansions in the American conservative house, and some of them are old and funky and smell like a pot of organic mustard greens cooking down on the stove.

— Rod Dreher, from “Crunchy Cons”

It wasn’t until I was 45 that I started to think of myself as a conservative.

At heart, I had always been one, even in my 20s, when I called myself a democratic socialist, traveled to Nicaragua, read Hunter Thompson and listened to Neil Young.

I still listen to Neil Young.

Like many of my contemporaries, I had the idea that to be a conservative meant to be a belligerent neocon on foreign policy, a self-centered libertarian on economics and a closed-minded culture warrior on social matters.

I was wrong.

Although I’ve never met him — and he’s several years younger than I am — Rod Dreher had a big influence on my thinking after I had left the Democratic Party over its ideological rigidity, joined an Anglican church and become the managing editor of a daily newspaper.

Dreher’s book that introduced me to a different way of understanding this venerable philosophy had a title that could have been a chapter: “Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-loving Organic Gardeners, Evangelical Free-range Farmers, Hip Homeschooling Mamas, Right-wing Nature Lovers, and Their Diverse Tribe of Countercultural Conservatives Plan to Save America (or at Least the Republican Party).”

Crunchy conservatism, Dreher explained, is not a political program, but rather a “practical sensibility” based on what the wisdom of tradition teaches is best for families and communities.

It is about conserving those things that are good and true.

This summer, I read the book again, and was struck by how much things have changed in the 10 years since it was written.

What a different time 2005 was. George W. Bush was president, Pope John Paul II was succeeded by the even more orthodox Benedict XVI, the Defense of Marriage Act was still the law of the land, legal recreational marijuana was a pipe dream, we were engaged in costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina demonstrated how inept big government could be, the housing market was soaring, fueled by bad loan practices, and almost no one could foresee the financial meltdown that was coming.

I’m convinced that if the Republican Party had gone in the direction that Dreher and others suggested, rather than toward the hard-line libertarianism and isolationism of the tea party movement, it would have been able to compete with the Democratic Party for the hearts and minds of younger Americans and could have made a positive difference in our society.

Dreher’s crunchy (read: earthy) conservatism is traditional Burkean conservatism for a new generation. Edmund Burke, an 18th century Dubliner and British statesman, rejected abstract Enlightenment reason and “natural law” as guiding lights. All of us, he wrote, are influenced by our cultural traditions, and while individual liberty is important, community is no less so. We belong to one another, and that affects who were are.

Burke wrote that the individual is foolish, but the species is wise. We must learn from those who have gone before us and not rely solely on ourselves. And we must rely on the greater wisdom of the Supreme Being as handed down through the ages.

Mainstream liberalism and conservatism are both essentially materialistic, Dreher argues, and we should not be surprised that neither has led to the improvement of our national character. He describes his book as a rebuke to both the economic individualism of the right and the moral individualism of the left. Its purpose is to explore ways to live out conservative values in a culture that seeks to separate us from our values, families and communities.

In less than 250 pages, “Crunchy Cons” uses Dreher’s own experiences as well as those of people across the country who are living countercultural lives that are socially, spiritually and physically healthier than the ways of the dominant culture. He looks at organic farming and the slow food movement, new urban planning, walkable neighborhoods and aesthetically pleasing architectural design such as bungalows, the attraction of liturgical Christianity to a generation bored with “relevant” contemporary worship, and the understanding that conservation is the essence of conservatism.

“Crunchy Cons” was not a bestseller and is now out of print. It won’t make a list of the most influential conservative tomes, like William Buckley’s “God and Man at Yale” or Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind.” But it influenced me more than any other book in my evolution into a conservative, and to see that I had been one all along. I recommend it to others.

You probably won’t be able to find it, though, unless you come across it at a secondhand bookstore or on Amazon, so in the weeks to come, I want to share a little more of it and hope it will stir your imagination, as it did mine.

Signs of change in Bardstown

Sept. 27, 2014

Giant purple gorillas.

Dancing stick people.

Millions of metallic streamers.

Signs stretching into the stratosphere.

Nicholasville Road was a freak show.

As editor of the weekly in Nicholasville, I was a relentless advocate for better planning, and what I had in mind for U.S. 27 was something like U.S. 31E and Ky. 245 in Bardstown — clean, uncluttered, classy.


Recently, a politician asked me why I had chosen Bardstown. Caught off guard, I said the work brought me here. And I liked the people and the place.

Later that day, I wished I had told him why I think our city is pleasant and prosperous.

In a word, it’s beauty.

When Rand McNally named our little burgh the Most Beautiful Small Town in America in 2012, it was only for a year, but we’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of it.

Aging gracefully means not neglecting the things that matter, so it’s fitting, especially during a local election year, to give thought to what makes our town beautiful and what it means for our future.

Although Bardstown is Kentucky’s second-oldest city, it doesn’t look old in the sense of being derelict. Our architectural heritage is meticulously preserved. Whether it’s Georgian townhouses from the early 19th century or Craftsman bungalows from the early 20th, the houses in the historic district are mostly well kept.

That wasn’t true in Winchester when I lived in an elegant old neighborhood that had seen better times. I’d call it “shabby genteel.” The difference is that in Bardstown, owners in the historic area are required to keep up their property and are given generous tax incentives to do so.

In Nicholasville, too, I lived in an area surrounded by buildings that dated back to about the time the county was founded in 1798. But right in the middle of it was a convenience store that stuck out like a red hoodie at a black tie affair. Maybe there’s a place for plastic displays, vinyl siding, LED lights and tall signs, but it wasn’t that place.

I was told by local officials then that a convenience store “is what it is,” and residents of that area needed one. But here in Bardstown, we have a Five Star on East Stephen Foster Avenue that blends in beautifully with its surroundings. The store is covered in brick that has a vintage look, there are no high signs, and it doesn’t clash with the historic homes and offices around it.

We’ve shown that even a filling station can look good.

Stringent requirements on building design and historic preservation make our city a better place for everyone, and make it more attractive to residents, customers and businesses wanting to locate in a place that has a good quality of life.

Our sign ordinance is also restrictive, for the same reason.

It’s always baffled me why car dealers in most towns think they must have those gawd-awful streamers and balloons. Like you can’t tell that the place with the rows of shiny F-150s is a Ford dealership? And why does a Wendy’s need a sign that’s so high it poses a hazard to low-flying aircraft? It doesn’t.

Sign clutter makes it harder, not easier, to find businesses, and it makes an area look trashy.

If we look hard enough, we can find regulations that are unnecessarily restrictive or outdated. I see nothing wrong, for example, with allowing downtown shops to have sandwich boards, if they’re tasteful, like the little wooden chalk board signs in front of businesses on Third Street. But big, bright yellow plastic A-frames on wheels with changeable plastic letters won’t do.

Likewise, electronic reader boards at the Walgreens on Ky. 145, where cars speed by on a four-lane highway a good distance away from the store might be appropriate, but putting the same kind of sign at Crume Drug Store on Flaget in the heart of the historic district shouldn’t be allowed.

Different situations require different regulations.

What we’ve been doing here in Bardstown in terms of planning and historic preservation is a model for our commonwealth and our country. We need to think hard about making changes to rules and standards that have served us well for many decades.

Unbridled freedom has unintended consequences.

June 2017
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