The Long Sneer

I should say at the outset of this post that I am not a particularly great admirer of Russell Kirk. The Conservative Mind was an important book because it was a useful and timely book: It made a plausible and accessible case that there existed, in Anglo-America, a conservative intellectual patrimony relevant to the politics of the contemporary United States, and did so at a moment when this was an unfashionable opinion (to say the least). For this achievement, contemporary conservatives owe Kirk a great debt, one that can be acknowledged while also acknowledging his limitations as a writer and thinker.

Since Alan Wolfe's hatchet job on Kirk appeared in TNR, I've had several people remark to me - as Matt remarked on his site yesterday - that they really liked Wolfe's essay, but of course haven't read any Kirk themselves. I could be snide about this, but in all honesty, were they to read him, I think they would find ample confirmation for some of the essay's judgments. Kirk is indeed repetitious and somewhat windy; he does tend to cite the same authors repeatedly; he is prone to caricaturing his opponents' ideas (though what intellectual isn't?); and there is something faintly irritating, to me at least, about his constant self-presentation as a humble landowner, "best content when planting little trees at Mecosta." It's the same thing that bugs me about Jedediah Purdy or a Wendell Berry: The romanticization of one's own authenticity, which in turn makes the authenticity seem faintly fraudulent. (Real hermits don't need to boast about being hermits.)

Nonetheless, Wolfe's essay is an intellectual embarrassment of the first order: Smug, dishonest, slipshod, ignorant, and willfully obtuse. Like much of what its author has produced of late, it's less interested in discrediting Kirk than in discrediting the political persuasion he represents, an American conservatism that Wolfe considers either "irrelevant in the face of history", borderline fascist, or (most likely) both. It's also about 6,000 words long, so I'm afraid no blog post can provide the thorough going-over that it deserves. But the following selections, I think, give the flavor of the thing.

To begin with, take this passage:

Kirk's decision to write both Gothic fiction and political philosophy tells you something about modern conservatism. For one thing, he was not alone; conservatives from J.R.R. Tolkien to Ayn Rand were also attracted to fantasy, and, in more recent times, two stalwarts of the Bush administration--Lynne Cheney and I. Lewis Libby--have written historical romances. (Should Newt Gingrich find himself in the White House, God forbid, we would have a fantasy-fiction writer as president.) Fantasy fiction gave Kirk the room to roam, to portray the world as an eternal struggle between good and evil in which the former's cause is not lost so long as it is faithful to everything that makes it good.

The comparison between Kirk's worldview and Tolkien's is apt enough, and the final sentence is tendentious but not entirely inaccurate; the middle chunk is pure rubbish, an "analysis" of the conservative mind that ought to embarrass a college freshman. Except in the most literal sense of the word, Ayn Rand did not write fantasy; the only thing that her doorstop-length novels-of-ideas have in common with Kirk's ghost stories or Tolkien's Middle-Earth saga is that they are not as realistic as, say, the works of Richard Ford. Nor does Atlas Shrugged have anything in common with Scooter Libby's highbrow historical novel The Apprentice, which in turn has almost nothing in common with Newt Gingrich's pulpy alternate-history books. You can learn about as much about the nature of "modern conservatism" from reading this hodgepodge of wildly different "fantasy" novels as you can learn about modern liberalism from parsing the literary efforts of Jimmy Carter and Gary Hart.

It's true that Kirk's interest in gothic fiction and fantasy tells you something about his particular strain of conservatism; it should also tell you a thing or two about the divisions within the modern Right, of which Wolfe seems entirely innocent. For instance, he writes:

Liberalism contains a feature identified by the political philosopher Mark Hulliung as "auto-critique." Rousseau's debt to liberalism, Hulliung believes, was to criticize the Enlightenment in the spirit of the Enlightenment, thus starting a tradition in which those committed to open inquiry would also inquire openly about themselves. Kirk, of course, will have nothing to do with Rousseau; he shares Burke's dismissal of him as "the insane secretary of the National Assembly." But Kirk is just as immune from criticizing conservatism in the name of conservatism. For if conservatism is all but synonymous with religion, then criticism becomes heresy. Besides, conservatism does not need criticism from within; its truths are both timeless and tested by experience, and therefore in no need of logic-chopping by narrow-minded academics.

This complaint is either meaningless, or else it is stupid. Russell Kirk, "immune for criticizing conservatism in the name of conservatism"? Would that be the same Russell Kirk who feuded bitterly with Frank Meyer over what the Right ought to stand for, opening the first great schism in postwar conservatism? The same Russell Kirk who opposed, in the name of conservatism, half the pet causes of the actual-existing American Right, from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki down through the Cold War "garrison state" (his phrase) to the first Gulf War? (Were Kirk alive today, I doubt that he would be a great admirer of George W. Bush - not that this would earn him any credit with Wolfe, to be sure.) It's true that Kirk never attacked his own premises, but this is an absurd standard to establish: Did Locke write An Attack On the Second Treatise of Government? Did Hobbes write Against Leviathan? (And of course plenty of other conservatives have gone on to attack Kirk's premises, which suggests that conservatism is perfectly capable of generating an "auto-critique.")

Meanwhile, no liberal hatchet job on a conservative writer would be complete without a flash of the race card. Thus this:

The aristocratic gentleman whom Kirk most admired lived a generation after the Framers. He was John Randolph of Roanoke, born in 1773 and died in 1833, a representative and then a senator from Virginia. A farmer, Randolph defended the agricultural way of life, which means that he defended a conservative way of life. Kirk's description of him is as romantic as anything in his Gothic tales: "He lived like a pre- Revolutionary Virginia gentleman, bumping over the wretched roads in his old-fashioned English coach, and his slaves rode blooded horses; but he inhabited a simple cabin and spent the greater part of each year in the oppressive routines of growing tobacco and grains." Randolph spoke on behalf of the old ways: a natural governing class, a suspicion toward federal power, a strict constitution, the planter way of life. All of it was doomed once industrialism and westward expansion became staples of American life, but Randolph's ideas, and those of the social class for whom he spoke, ought to be admired nonetheless: "They asked only to be left unmolested, allowed to buy and sell in a free market, not to be taxed for the benefit of other interests, not to be forced into another mode of life."

It all sounds so pure and Thoreauvian--until one remembers that the things Randolph wanted to buy and sell included those slaves whose horses were pulling his fine coach, and that the mode of life that he was fighting to retain was one that denied the fundamental equality of all human beings.

No slaveowners as intellectual heroes for our Mr. Wolfe! Which is an admirable principle, and one that explains why no contemporary liberal would dream of citing that notorious slaveowner, Thomas Jefferson, as an authority on any political question.

Were this a serious essay, this dig might be followed by a serious investigation of agrarian thought in the United States, and a serious argument - if this is indeed Wolfe's argument - for why the institution of slavery discredits agrarian thinkers. But Wolfe has not written a serious essay; he has written a 6,000-word sneer. So no such argument is forthcoming.

Naturally, given his affinity for long-dead racists, Kirk turns out to be a borderline anti-Semite as well. To begin with, he's insufficiently critical of the Holocaust.

Kirk admits of two possible exceptions to his insistence that ideology is a monopoly of the left, although each of them is cited to confirm his point. Nazism, too, is an ideology--but we should not forget that the Nazis, like all ideologues, held "that human nature and society may be perfected by mundane, secular means." Of all the crimes committed by the Nazis, the proclivity for human perfectibility is an odd one to choose; but it is Kirk's choice.

I'm curious: Exactly how do you "commit" a proclivity? You don't, of course: A proclivity isn't a crime, it's the thing that drives one to commit a crime. And of course the Nazi "proclivity for human perfectability" - which in their case took the form of a quest to nurture a master race, and eliminate threats to its mastery - was precisely the thing that they claimed as motivation for their crimes against the Jews, Slavs, gypsies, homosexuals, etc. Now one could argue that the belief in a master race was in some sense just window dressing for their primal, unreasoned anti-Semitism; this is a topic on which intelligent people can disagree. But again, Wolfe isn't interested in disagreement; he's interested in sneering.

And in imputing anti-Semitism, of course:

... when it comes to Judaism, Kirk has some exceedingly odd ideas. Without the legacy of ancient Israel, he wrote in a book published in 1974, "the American moral order could not have come into existence at all." But we should not conclude from Kirk's comment that he believes Judaism to have made an important contribution to American life. Quite the contrary: following Voegelin, Kirk believes that Judaism's role in history was simply to prepare the way for Christianity. The idea of a Chosen People, Kirk writes, was a necessary prelude to a time in which "God becomes known successively as Creator, as Lord and Judge of history, and as Redeemer." In this role the Jews were not alone; Platonism is another ancient religion that anticipated the coming of Jesus. "Neither the leap of Israel nor the leap of Hellas brought full knowledge of the transcendent order; it required the fusing of Jewish and Greek genius in Christianity for a leap still higher."

Dear me, what an "exceedingly odd idea," this notion that Judaism might have been a precursor to a fuller revelation of God's purposes. Why, it's almost as if Kirk were ... were ... a Christian.

Except that it is one of Wolfe's most telling points against Kirk that he supposedly wasn't a Christian, that he wasn't intellectually gutsy enough to actually pick a specific faith and stick with it:

With four religions unable to be called upon to gird the social order, one might think that Kirk's next step would be to identify the one that, to him, is best suited for the task. But this Kirk never does. He defends religion, but not any particular religion. One looks in vain for apologetics in Kirk's work, for some serious theological demonstration that the ideas associated with a particular tradition, because they are true, are the best ideas for holding society together. Lacking any such thing, Kirk's call for a "sacred patrimony" amounts to little more than Dwight Eisenhower's injunction on the importance of believing in something, whatever that something happens to be. It is really an uplifting form of philosophical indifference ... Against this vapidity, give me Father Neuhaus anytime: when he defends the need for religion in the public square, you are not left in doubt about which religion it is.

Various people have pointed out that Kirk did, in fact, choose a religion, converting to Roman Catholicism in 1964. To which Wolfe has retorted, in a reply to his critics:

I was not interested in, and did not talk about, Kirk's private faith; my point ... was that Kirk's refusal to identify one religion as the public faith whose principles were meant to guide our collective morality reflected a failure to think through his remarkably banal ideas about the importance of religion for the social order ... it was actually out of respect for Kirk's privacy that I did not discuss his personal religious preferences; I do not believe it is my business to talk about people's confessional beliefs.

How noble and high-minded! But this is all rubbish: Kirk does defend a particular religious tradition; he just doesn't defend a particular confession within that tradition. Like many modern conservatives, he suggests that the Western social order is founded on a common Judeo-Christian religious inheritance (a "Mere Judeo-Christianity," if you will) that undergirds our social order, a point of view that he shares, not incidentally, with none other than Richard John Neuhaus, who is despised by many right-wing Catholics precisely for his ecumenism. Perhaps this common tradition is just a figment of Kirk's and Neuhaus' and many other people's imagination; perhaps the contradictions between Judaism and Christianity, or between Catholicism and Protestantism, are too great to provide a common foundation for a social order; perhaps there is simply no middle ground between a purely secular society and a society grounded in, say, Catholic social teaching and nothing else. I think the experience of the United States suggests otherwise, but again, if Alan Wolfe wants to have that argument, by all means. Again, he doesn't; he just wants to sneer.

And sneer:

One final example of faith that fails to serve Kirk's purposes is the notion of a "civil religion," a term originally coined by "well-meaning folk" to call attention to the tendency of Americans to make something sacred out of the special providence of their country. "Such experiments of a secular character never have functioned satisfactorily," Kirk dourly points out. Mimicking Voegelin, Kirk jumps, without pause, from Robert Bellah to Adolf Hitler: "It is scarcely necessary for me to point out the perils of such an artificial creed, bound up with nationalism: the example of the ideology of the National Socialist Party in Germany, half a century ago, may suffice." If fascism can be found in an idea as harmless as that of civil religion, surely it can be found anywhere.

Now, Wolfe is correct that like many mid-century intellectuals (on the Left as well as the Right), Kirk was perhaps too inclined to see Hitlers lurking around every corner. Nonetheless, it's just a little bit much too be lectured on inapt Nazi analogies by a man who recently accused modern conservatives of being the intellectual disciples of the "fascist philosopher" Carl Schmitt. And while the reductio ad Hitlerum may be regrettable, Kirk's larger point about the potential dangers of civil religion is perfectly well-founded, whereas Wolfe's is hopelessly naive: The notion that that it's hard to imagine "an idea as harmless as civil religion" would be news to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the history of Europe between, say, 1789 and 1945.

But enough. I will leave unmolested Wolfe's willful misreading of John C. Calhoun's theory of the Constitution (which I do not agree with, but which certainly deserves more than caricature); his ridiculous claim, in his rejoinder to his critics, that Kirk's "reverence for the Constitution cannot be reconciled with the Constitution's separation of church and state, not, at least, when Kirk simultaneously insists that religion is a necessary prop of social order"; his insistence that only the Enlightenment offers philosophical grounds on which to oppose abortion and slavery; and a host of similarly dubious passages. Again, when Wolfe says that Kirk has severe deficiencies as a writer and thinker, I find myself in agreement with him. It just takes one to know one, apparently.