Alan Wolfe: Russell Kirk's shallow defenders

Roundup: Talking About History

[Alan Wolfe, a political scientist, is a contributing editor at The New Republic.]

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....

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