Jewish World Review April 1, 2003 / 1 Nisan II, 5763

Eve Tushnet

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Consumer Reports

Dollars and dissents | When protesters targeting the World Economic Forum rolled into New York City in February 2002, the blogger at Heretical Ideas had a few questions for them. Questions like, "If some people in El Salvador want to sell their fruit in a market in your town, should we make it more expensive with tariffs so fewer people buy it? If some people in El Salvador want to buy a tractor from an American company, should their government make it more expensive by adding tariffs? If economic sanctions mean that citizens in Iraq, for example, are impoverished and starving, doesn't that mean you support free trade with poor nations?"

But the simplest question would likely prove hardest for the anti-globalization protesters to answer: "What is a corporation?"

Corporations are the all-purpose villain of the economic left. "Multinational corporations" are the worst. From college groups like the Student Alliance to Reform Corporations to the recent PlayStation game "State of Emergency" (in which players battle a multinational corporation that has taken over America), exposes of particular corporate abuses--which almost always involve collusion with repressive governments--have morphed into attacks on all corporations and on free trade.

But there's a strong whiff of bad faith here, which Heretical Ideas' question is meant to draw out: Corporations that produce goods that anti-globalization protesters like must be ignored. The computers they used to organize their protests over the Internet, the stylish black clothes, the markers for the signs, the paint for the puppets, the books, the Xerox machines for the flyers, the Rage Against the Machine (signed to Sony) CDs--all are corporate products. All rely on the cheapness and convenience that corporations make possible.

So in some quarters the fight has shifted. Instead of attacking all corporations, this group attacks "corporate culture"--the culture of brand names, advertising, and logos. But as the savvier practicioners of this critique have noticed, anti-corporate culture has its own brands, ads, and logos. Starting as far back as Steal This Book (how many people who read it, stole it?), anti-logos became their own logos, fulfilling the same materialistic and conformist functions of grouping people into ready-made social categories based on their possessions. The English band Chumbawamba described the phenomenon in one sardonic song: "Come on baby, let's do the revolution/Six for the record, and seven for the t-shirt..." And contributors to the indie magazine The Baffler summarized the way major corporations had used the symbols of anti-corporate rebellion to seduce the youth in the title of their 1997 book, Commodify Your Dissent (published by... W.W. Norton).

Now a conservative dissent from corporate culture faces the same potential commodification and co-opting. Rod Dreher first gathered together the disparate elements of what he called "crunchy conservatism" in a 2002 cover story for National Review. "Crunchy conservatism" spans a range of beliefs--from fairly conventional right-leaning communitarianism, to vegetarian libertarians who follow Phish.

The least-compelling aspects of crunchy conservatism, in my view, are the ones that turn it into just another demographic: I'm a conservative, but I like French cheese! I'm a conservative, but I like Fassbinder and Fellini, just like those lefties I went to college with! This seems like a recipe for arrogance, for viewing oneself as defined by one's superior consumer pleasures (and defining others by their Velveeta and "Left Behind" tastes). Dreher has argued that the right has become, oddly, too anti-elitist, unwilling to say that some things are better than other things, and that crunchy cons are simply redressing the balance by pointing out that Velveeta and "Left Behind" really aren't as good as cheese and movies get. I agree with this, but it seems that the particular consumer goods the crunchy-cons champion are chosen at least as much in order to shape a "cool," superior self-image as to promote particular excellent aesthetic offerings. I doubt you'd hear a crunchy con point out the obvious truth that McDonalds fries are just incredibly delicious, for example; McDonalds isn't hip. Too many people like it for it to be useful in carving out one's identity-niche.

However, some of the crunchy-con rejection of consumerism is powerful. Dreher has described one of his son's first sentences: The kid saw an ad for a TV channel, and immediately supplied the correct slogan. I think we'd all prefer that our kids said something either more personal--"Want frog glass, daddy"--or more lasting in its importance--a prayer, for example. We want our children to know that the eternal things, the first things, are more important than corporate ephemera. This approach to "crunchy conservatism" not only avoids, but actively rejects the problems inherent in the "crunchy con as demographic" approach. It also rejects the analogous problem of the anti-corporate left, the "commodification of dissent." Rather than simply choosing less-popular consumer goods, this aspect of crunchy conservatism (which is ill reflected in the label Dreher has chosen) seeks an entirely different relationship to material goods.

It's no coincidence that many of the "crunchy cons" Dreher interviewed are strongly religious. It's much easier to reject defining oneself by one's consumer niche when one has a positive worldview to embrace; it's much easier to take a more distanced attitude toward even the best things of this life when one has a strong faith that this world is not our final destination. In this genuinely anti-materialist worldview, attempts to distance oneself emotionally from one's consumer goods are more than just masquerades. Despite the temptations to commodify all one's beliefs, it is both possible and necessary to be not just someone who prefers Gruyere to Velveeta, but someone who prepares to sacrifice even the best consumer goods for the sake of disciplining the will, raising children, and keeping in mind the evanescence of this world.

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02/21/03: For her own good: Sterilizing the poor
02/11/03: Behind the Masks: What horror movies tell us about our culture
01/28/03: Teens, homeschooling, and the lonely crowd
01/10/03: The Entrepreneurial Imagination
12/26/02: The Desire for Gender: The novelist who made me an ex-feminist
12/19/02: 'Tis the Season... For Bad Charities?
12/04/02: Miss Manners and the language of tradition
11/19/02: The Marriage Movement has a Sitcom!
11/07/02: Judgment Day: Time for the GOP to Make the Case for Sound Jurisprudence

© 2002, Eve Tushnet