Thanks to a good friend, I’m now up to speed on the phenomenon of “Rollin Coal,” which one commentator describes as “a new trend in which anti-environmentalist idiots with nothing better to do modify their diesel engined trucks to burn fuel less efficiently on demand and thus belch out toxic fumes onto innocent bystanders, Prius drivers, cyclists and anyone else they take a dislike to.” I’ll admit, part of me finds the videos absolutely mesmerizing. I mean, the notion that you would trick out your truck so that it was less efficient, utterly conspicuous, and infuriating to a good many others, plus that a whole subculture exists devoted to this, is just stunningly odd to me. And sort of hilarious.

It’s the “in your eye” aspect which is so compelling. These guys want to ride up next to a Prius and give it some throttle. They want to give the whole world (or what they perceive as the established world) a rude gesture, want to be yelled at, and want to laugh about it all the way home.

So much of our contemporary life feels like this, it seems to me. The uptight bobo, latte-drinker in their North Face fleece hovering around their expensive baby stroller on the way to a Spanish flash-card session for three-year olds yelling at the t-shirt wearing “Rollin Coaler” spinning donuts in the parking lot. One side clamping down with all sorts of rules and regulations while the other flouts them.

And yet a deep commonality binds them together, namely their antinomian streak.

In a recent, and brilliant, essay for First Things, R. R. Reno works through the metaphysical dream of what he terms the “Empire of Desire.” Borrowing from Richard Weaver, he notes that “every man participating in a culture has three levels of conscious reflection: his specific ideas about things, his general beliefs or convictions, and his metaphysical dream of the world.” In our own age, the first two levels are mainly pragmatic, although robust in their regulatory discipline, for disciplinary they are: “No smoking! Count your calories! Build your résumé! Save for retirement! Safe sex! Locally sourced food!”

At the third level, the metaphysical dream, lies a counter-tendency, not regulatory but antinomian: “We are trained to be suspicious of longstanding moral traditions; we are told to adopt a critical attitude toward inherited norms. That’s not just an academic habit of mind. It serves a moral conviction, widespread though often tacit: that human beings flourish to the degree that they’re free to satisfy their personal desires.”

As a result, those who are most tuned-in to our culture’s momentum are highly organized and self-controlled about education, safe-sex, health, marriage and divorce, financial savings and so on, even as they exercise this control to safeguard and prolong the mostly arbitrary whims and desires of how they define the good life, and for many, the good life becomes nothing much more than exercising those regulations. Think of the disdain exhibited yoga-panted, Land Rover driving, skim milk selective-college liberal arts grad on their way to Pilates as they’re passed by a Rollin Coal truck. The elite is not really sure what their life is for, but it’s theirs to do with as they wish, without much in the form of religious or cultural weight, and what life is for is driving your Land Rover to Pilates.

But the guy driving the truck? Is he different? He’s not accepting of the judgments on the first two levels of reflection, namely, specific ideas and general beliefs. On the Prius vs. the F-150 they differ, on what to drink, where to shop, the status of kale, for whom to vote, on all this perhaps they differ. And yet the metaphysical dream is the same, it is the Empire of Desire, on living life as you wish, for no reason more substantial than that you wish it.

At a recent long-weekend bar-b-que, two of my neighbors had an interesting exchange. A working class “local,” and a cosmopolitan “newbie” were in conversation. The “newbie” somewhat inexplicably went out of his way to say that he was a progressive, several times using this word. A friendly conversation ensued in which he mentioned also that he missed the gated community from which he just moved. The local wondered just how a progressive could live in a gated community, at which point it became clear that being a progressive didn’t mean exercising a preferential option for the poor or any such thing; it meant, rather, being against the tradition on religion and sex.

Turns out, of course, that a good many of the locals are also not so excited about traditional religion and sexual mores. They don’t like the panty-waists who live in gated communities or drive smart cars or watch soccer, but the point of their lives is still basically antinomian. The dwarves are for the dwarves!

So the Rollin Coal driver spouts a kind of devil-may-care libertarianism, both in his actions and his metaphysical dream, while the modern elite sneers at this as they follow an identical metaphysical dream. No one fights like cousins.

Meanwhile, largely ignored by both, thought mostly incomprehensible, are the adherents of a different metaphysical dream, one in which the world is charged with the grandeur of God, where nothing is small because everything carries a deep, even divine weight, and our freedom operates best in reverence, piety, and love. Those who value the empire of dust, of soil, of country.

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R. J. Snell lives and gardens (or at least watches his children garden) just outside of Philadelphia in Havertown, a place where Sinatra, baseball games, and cigar smoke waft from his neighbors' porches onto his own. If Philadelphia had colder and longer winters, as this Canadian thinks natural and fitting, it would be almost perfect. The fact that his four children and wife live there (almost) redeems the overly warm weather. He directs the philosophy program at Eastern University, in St. Davids, PA. He also co-directs the Agora Insitute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good, a research center devoted to understanding and sustaining the virtues and institutions of human flourishing. The author of Through a Glass Darkly: Bernard Lonergan and Richard Rorty on Knowing without a God's-Eye View, and the forthcoming (with Steve Cone) Authentic Cosmopolitanism, he writes and teaches on Thomas Aquinas and contemporary Thomism, Bernard Lonergan, natural law, decent life, and the liberal arts.


  1. Your article is full of projections based on numerous superficial factors. What can you really tell from the fact that someone buys coffee at Starbucks instead of Dunkin’Donuts or is wealthy enough and interested enough to buy a baby stroller or Spanish lessons for their children. You assume — apparently along with the “Rollin’ Coal” advocates that you criticize — that these superficial facts are meaningful and marks of a cohesive group. Antinomian? Have you never seen a Prius in church parking lot?

    The advocates of “Rollin’ Coal” are, by contrast, a cohesive social / political group — fueled by aggression. Like all aggressors, their actions inspire further aggression. Very sad. And very sad to see that you share their prejudices.

  2. Nonsense, Jim; while admitting some sympathy for the anti-prog tendencies of the rolling coal crowd, he nevertheless criticizes both them and those against whom they define themselves.

  3. Good article from what seems to me to be a measured perspective, in contrast to Jim’s commentary. I’ll be reading Reno’s essay as well. Thank you!

  4. Very good Weaverian meditation, but will the old potato-in-the-exhaust-pipe work on these coal-burners, too? We can hope.

  5. Ressentiment is a haughty wench, full of quixotic angst . The flock is easily enraged to do the dumbest things. Open Carry Meets Carbon Exhaust. May they kill each other as do some other enraged sectarians.

  6. Naw, it isn’t ressentiment–progressives are self-righteous little wieners. They’re our Pharisees. The Progs have no grace in their religion. This is the reason I smiled when I read this. (Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Pharisees actually did have a doctrine of grace.)

  7. I own a large SUV. Oddly perhaps, I think it is a great car for the city. I walk almost everywhere, but when we do need a car, we can fit all the kids/kids’ gear into it. Because I don’t drive it all that often, the poor gas mileage isn’t an issue and it gives you a great perch from which to navigate unpredictable city traffic. It’s also great for winter streets. If we drove substantially more than we do, we’d likely consider a different car. In the meant time, we love it.

    From neighbors in my building, to perfect strangers, we receive many un-asked for comments about the size of the car (as well as the size of the family). Perhaps this is the progressive version of Rollin’ Coal…

    • @ CLS: “Perhaps this is the progressive version of Rollin’ Coal…” Not really, because it doesn’t sound like you’re intentionally trying to be a d—–bag (unlike the coal-rollers); just practical. More power to you!

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