- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 22, 2004


By W. Wesley McDonald

University of Missouri Press, $44.95, 243 pages


I discovered Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind” 10 years after its publication in 1953. It is fair to say reading it changed a college-kid liberal into, well, something else. Now it is 10 years since the death of Russell Kirk and few, even within American conservatism, would pause to remember. A pity, but Wesley McDonald’s new book should help put matters aright.

The author’s analysis of Russell Kirk is not an easy read, nor is it meant to be. Kirk addressed serious questions in a serious way. He was concerned with ideas and their consequences. Although the sage of Mecosta, Mich., could unleash a polemic as well as anyone, it was “first things” that he brought to a tiny minority, a natural aristocracy that might preserve what was left of the Anglo-American tradition. Or so he hoped.

Kirk’s contribution, in fact, is enormous and Mr. McDonald, a professor of political science at Elizabethtown College, is up to the task of reminding us why. He argues that Kirk made postwar American conservatism intellectually respectable by launching a formidable riposte to a smug, but decadent, modern American liberalism.

True, Russell Kirk may be largely forgotten by many of today’s conservatives because, with few exceptions, he was not much interested in fashioning a programmatic conservatism. What he thought about tax cuts or getting the government out of the marketplace or foreign policy isn’t known, since he wasn’t much concerned.

A “Contract with America” he would find either amusing or alarming. This attitude led him to countless quarrels with others inside the conservative tent.

Kirk brooked no compromise, as the author repeatedly demonstrates. He pretty much lumped libertarian free-marketers with Benthamite utilitarians, and, by extension, modern-day liberals. In short, he did not worship at the shrine of unfettered capitalism.

If he were alive today, the Enron debacle would neither embarrass nor surprise him. He would only stop to remind us of man’s sinful nature and what is wrong with a culture that encourages individual greed over the needs of the community.

And that brings us to Edmund Burke. If Russell Kirk did nothing else, “The Conservative Mind” recovered Burke from the dustbin of liberal contempt. And that would be enough.

Rather than provide policy alternatives to the proponents of the modern-day welfare state, Kirk sought more. He knew that the underpinnings of American liberalism were weak and insubstantial, and that it could not hold off challenges from those who would be even more extreme.

How right he was, as we endured the tidal wave of New Age cant that was the hallmark of the 1960s and 1970s. There was then (and even now) little sense of Burke’s belief that the living form a compact with those who have passed on and those who are yet to come. A radical, generational break with the past, in brief, was opening the gates of hell.

So Kirk, pretty much single-handedly, revived interest in Burke, John Adams, John C. Calhoun, Irving Babbitt and others, thus giving some conservatives at least a patina of intellectual respectability.

Would Kirk be happy about this? Undoubtedly, but I suspect he would be hugely displeased over the direction much of conservatism is headed these days. Like liberals, social conservatives increasingly see the federal government, especially the federal courts, as a remedy to fix the ills on their agenda.

Not surprisingly, some conservatives were Kirk’s worst enemies. Anti-communists wanted him to be more anti-bolshevik. Free-traders were appalled at his favoring of tariffs to protect small family farmers. Some staunch libertarians like Frank Meyer could never understand why Kirk refused to engage in dialogue over conservative differences or even focus on what they had in common.

No wonder a young William F. Buckley Jr., nursing along an even younger National Review and a nascent conservative movement, was perplexed.

Was Russell Kirk more than a contrarian? Yes, I think so, and certainly Mr. McDonald does, although Kirk’s eccentricities — his intense dislike of the automobile, television, personal computers (why not the telephone and radio?) — make me wonder if he would have preferred living in an Amish community.

Probably not, and even suggesting it implies a trivialization of his contributions. One of these was his prescient attack on American higher education. Indeed, as early as 1945 Kirk was anticipating where an egalitarian and utilitarian university system would end up: in the phony reforms of the early 1970s that still plague it.

Kirk, in the end, would remind us that to be a conservative is more a matter of habits and disposition rather than a five-point plan for economic recovery or a nine-part approach to a “new foreign policy.” Those he would find mostly rubbish, particularly if their advocates lacked “moral imagination,” a phrase he plucked from Burke and which inspires an entire chapter of Mr. McDonald’s appreciation.

Above all, Russell Kirk helps us remember that conservatives without grounding in first things will become as dull and joyless as their utilitarian adversaries. Amen.

Roger Fontaine was a member of the National Security Council staff during the first Reagan administration.

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