POLITICS JULY 9, 2007
Russell Kirk, though once revered on the right as a crucial link in the synthesis that made twentieth-century conservatism a viable intellectual force, was, in retrospect, a shallow thinker who said little that was original and twisted himself into self-tied knots to avoid confronting the contradictions in his worldview. That, in the essence, was the argument of my TNR review ("Contempt," July 2). Now Kirk's defenders have rushed to set the record straight. Let's see if they have improved on the intellectual shallowness of their hero.
Here are eleven arguments I made against Kirk: (1) his decision to treat only left-wing ideas as ideological is itself ideological; (2) his characterization of leftwing ideology as marked by infallibility and universality stands in contradiction to his respect for Catholicism, which believes in both; (3) his 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; (4) his conviction that Southern slave-holders were virtuous men is difficult to square with their love for and defense of slavery; (5) his dismissal of the very notion of human rights would have made it difficult for him to find slavery a moral evil even had he bothered to discuss it; (6) his notion that conservatives are pragmatists contains no explanation of why pragmatists are generally liberal; (7) his defense of capitalism is in tension with his passion for tradition; (8) his case for religion is never accompanied by an argument on behalf of any particular religion, even though he does offer a discussion of why Judaism and Hellenism are inferior to Christianity; (9) his worship of John C. Calhoun's conservatism fails to appreciate how radical Calhoun was when he opted for slavery over country; (10) his sympathetic comments on Lionel Trilling conspicuously overlook the fact that Trilling was attacking him; and (11) his skepticism toward universalism gives him much in common with forms of multiculturalism today's conservatives say they oppose.
Eleven points--and how many responses? As far as the writers from National Review are concerned, the answer is one; that John Randolph, the slave owner Kirk admired, freed his slaves upon his death. Otherwise, these dedicated conservatives, like the radicals of the 1960s, believe that the personal is the political. Kirk, we are told at National Review Online, was not interested in wealth, was devoted to his wife and children, had a solid streak of decency, was rich in virtue, and offered his home to refugees.
I'll take their word for it, never having met the man. But my task was to write about his works, not his life. And since so few of these respondents even discuss, let alone refute, the inconsistencies that are so glaring in Kirk's writings, I take them to offer indirect evidence of the validity of the points I was making. Kirk borrowed his ideas from thinkers, such as Edmund Burke, more brilliant and nuanced than him. His defenders have no ideas to borrow, not even Kirk's recycled ones. I thought, when I wrote my essay, that I was dealing with the intellectual emptiness of a certain version of conservatism 50 years ago. In response I get an even emptier version of that same kind of contemptuous conservatism today. If this is what passes for paleo-conservatism, neo-conservatism and libertarianism have nothing to worry about.
Not only do Kirk's defenders fail to argue with my substantive points, they raise objections that are irrelevant to anything I wrote. One commentator, Daniel Larison, announced that he had not even bothered to read my essay before commenting on it; ignorant of anything I actually said, he accused me of failing to realize that Kirk was Catholic. But I was not interested in, and did not talk about, Kirk's private faith; my point, had Larison bothered to read it, 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.
Paul Gottfried, writing at Taki's Top Drawer did read my essay, and even had some positive things to say about it, but this does not prevent him from making the same meaningless point about Kirk's conversion to Catholicism. (For more on the irrepressive Taki, see here.) Gottfried, who spells my name incorrectly and wrongly identifies the university at which I teach, does, however, add something to the discussion, for he brings up to date what follows if, like Kirk, you proudly announce your indifference to human rights; you can blithely proclaim slavery no more evil than abortion, all the while ignoring the fact that if we do not recognize that human beings have rights, we have no basis for objecting either to slavery or to abortion.
Jeffrey Nelson, Kirk's son-in-law, wrote the longest response to my essay, and he too makes a point of Kirk's Catholicism. Nelson should realize that 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. But now that all these critics have brought it up, may I point out how they have made my argument even stronger? The idea that only liberals believe in infallibility and universality becomes even more absurd when the person making them belongs to a church that takes both seriously.
Of all the things that Kirk wrote, the one that I found most astonishing was his attempt to characterize the Nazi regime, not as a right-wing movement bent on exterminating the Jews, but as a left-wing venture in social planning. Nelson not only supports Kirk on this point, he goes even further, suggesting that Kirk "cut straight to the heart of the matter" when he discussed Nazism this way. He, too, thereby downplays the distinctive and unprecedented brutality of the Nazi regime in favor of a vague and pointless condemnation of the "ideal of transforming men into gods." That is not what the Nazis did. They transformed men, women, and children, most of whom happened to be Jewish, into corpses.
Kirk's defenders are dealing with the man. I dealt with his ideas. And his ideas, as the failure of his critics to defend them shows, are indefensible.
Alan Wolfe is a contributing editor at The New Republic.
By Alan Wolfe