Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Defending Russell Kirk

I’m at Bethel College in or near St. Paul, Minnesota, typing on a computer that seems to have resisted successfully cutting and pasting. Nevertheless, if you go to the NRO page you will see some nice defenses (especially Jeff Nelson’s) of Russell Kirk from the venom of Alan Wolfe in his NEW REPUBLIC review article. Wolfe has been been disfiguring himself for a while into a gross caricature of a critic with extreme anti-theological and especially anti-Christian ire. Kirk really did like all kinds of people, was a champion of the underdog, didn’t have slaves or want any (despite having a large, wonderful family), was much more interested in making the world safe for bohemians like himself than for aristocrats, loved his country, took some public policy stands that today’s liberal would like, hated Nazism and all ideological thought and practice, was a man of tremendous erudition, was a prolific and graceful writer of both cultural analysis and fiction, and made one of the most serious and likely enduring contributions to American conservative thought. He was also far from perfect as a thinker and interpreter, and his life was surely too eccentric for him to be regarded as a model of human excellence. But his flaws, of course, are part of his charm. I certainly thought Wolfe’s article was shameful enough to ignore, but it could be that even some readers of NLT would actually believe some of his scattershot allegations.

Discussions - 14 Comments

The article is not available on-line except to subscribers. I went to the bookstore yesterday to buy it but the new TNR was not out yet. I am very curious to read it.

NRO may defend him. I am glad they are, but a person like Kirk would not be welcomed at NRO these days. He would be as persona non grata as Sobran or Brimelow. Perhaps the folks at NRO would do well to take a few clues from Kirk.

That's unwarranted speculation, Dan. If NR has room for Derbyshire I suspect they could squeeze in Kirk somewhere.

Dan, your claim that "a person like Kirk would not be welcomed at NRO thse days," and your claim that NRO takes no "clues from Kirk" are both pure ideological bile. You like Kirk and you hate NRO. Fair enough. But that doesn't mean NRO hates Kirk. Is this too complicated for you to process?

I think its safe to say that the Kirk prose style was not one which won him many admirers. I think it charming myself, but I know I'm in the minority in this.

The New Republic publishes lots of vicious stuff and has for some time.
It is losing its standing as a respectable magazine. It's sad to see Wolfe go so far in this direction. A grownup should be able to criticize Kirk or anyone else without talking about him as if he were a worthless human being. A 60-year-old (I'm guessing) who writes like a punk or a Communist party hack is a sorry sight indeed.

John, "truth is not concerned with how many it persuades." You cannot be a fan of Russell Kirk on the one hand, and, on the other, lament that most people wouldn't like his prose style. Such a test is unworthy of Kirk or of Kirk fan. That said, I've been irritated by his prose myself. But surely it's the lessons and perspective that Kirk offered -- so rare among American writers -- that are what matter. Kirk seems, unfortunately, to have been irreplaceable. The New Republic hit piece should be considered a badge of honor.

My favorite Russell Kirk quote: Neocons "mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States."

And unlike the left-wingers / neocons today, Kirk opposed the "civil rights" movement, and rightly so. Kirk said: “It would be reckless indeed to tamper with an institution as ancient as segregation.”

Kirk on miscegenation: “We have no right to tamper recklessly with human nature or with the delicate fabric of our civil social order.” And "miscegenation is contrary to the natural order of things." I agree with Kirk 100%. Miscegenation is wrong.

John, David

Would Kirk not be against the War? It is more likely that he would have been branded unpatriotic than be welcomed.

The list of people who have been purged by NR for being the wrong kind of conservatives is long.

I don't hate NR. NR is what it is, a formerly conservative magazine that now defends things it once would have branded as liberal/socialist. It erred from the beginning in embracing the unconservative position of foreign interventionism. It should have followed the Old Right and embraced non-intervention, but it was right on much. I think its decline is sad, actually.

I am less of an enthusiastic Kirk admirer than many paleos for a couple of reasons. I think his "politics of prudence" while often misinterpreted (or over interpreted) is part of the problem. Once things get beyond a certain point, a politics of reaction is needed. We are long past that point.

From the Jeffrey Nelson essay, here is a clue some people could take from Kirk.

If the last, and decidedly terrible century in many ways, taught us anything it was that using bayonets and bureaucracies to “remake” human nature leads to killing real men and women, when they fail to meet (or decline to cooperate with) the ideals of the men in power. This insight used to be common currency throughout not just the conservative movement, but also the anti-Communist Left — and has been reiterated by the likes of Milosz, Havel, and Sakharov, not to mention (to spare Wolfe’s sensibilities) Walesa and Wotyjla.

Kirk left National Review sometime in the 1980s; he did not like the neocon direction of the magazine. At the end of his life, he was only on the mastheads of Modern Age and Chronicles Magazine.

Dan Phillips.

Would Kirk not be against the War?

I don't know. And neither do you. The fact that he was opposed to GW1 doesn't tell us much.

The same rationale which Burke applied to opposing the French Revolution and which Kirk used in opposing Communism can be, and arguably should be, used against "Islamism", or whatever you want to call it.

Neither Burke nor Kirk were advocates of Taft style isolationism in their lifetimes. The question of what to do with respect to Iraq and Iran is one which must be answered with prudence and sound judgement as to what is in our best long term interests.

"The same rationale which Burke applied to opposing the French Revolution and which Kirk used in opposing Communism can be, and arguably should be, used against "Islamism", or whatever you want to call it."

Which would be an excellent point, had Iraq been run by theocratic "Islamists" rather than a secular nationalist dictator.

"The fact that he was opposed to GW1 doesn't tell us much."

The mere fact does not; his reasons, however, do:

If Ron Paul's talk of blowback and opposition to global-crusades-for-democracy make him spineless and unAmerican, then so was Kirk.

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