The Corner

Re-Imagining Russell Kirk

Over at Books & Culture, Gerald Russello reviews Bradley Birzer’s biography of Russell Kirk. As conservatives wrestle with our identity in a new century, both Kirk and the problems he grappled with remain controversial, and important. A sample:

Kirk was creating a series of images, a narrative for the West to set against what he believed was the desiccated and doomed narrative of liberalism. Birzer homes in on this very point, which is critical to understanding what Kirk was trying to accomplish: “Liberalism in its modern forms—whether what one might call eighteenth century classical liberalism or twentieth century progressive liberalism—had never created anything… . [L]iberalism had become nothing but a whirligig of confusion, Kirk believed.” Moreover, because it had no stable defining principle, liberalism could not compel the imagination as a conservatism of tradition could. For if the defining principle of liberalism was liberation, what end did it serve but the individual will? If equality, where could that end but tyranny? Kirk believed that liberalism provided no coherent or compelling image. And indeed, seeing contemporary liberalism devolve, especially in the universities, to little more than the will to power and the assertion of an ever-changing “I” whose transient desires demand that the world moved to accommodate them, Kirk seems prescient.

But alas, as Birzer argues, conservatism too has lost its imaginative power. Since his death in 1994, Kirk has remained a respected but lesser-known figure in the conservative firmament. In part this is simply to be expected with the passage of time, but his relative neglect also speaks to the current state of conservative thought. Since September 9/11, conservative élites have promoted policies—including unrestricted immigration, free market ideology, and apparently unrestricted foreign intervention—that are deeply at odds with the localist conservatism of Kirk. Conservatism now speaks much of the same language as liberalism, and the evocative narrative Kirk tried to summon that links the generations has been all but lost. Kirk opposed most foreign intervention, initially from his experience in World War II, but also because he saw the dehumanizing effects of modern war on victim and victor alike. Nor was he an admirer of the unfettered free market if that market simply solemnizes a materialist philosophy closed to the transcendent. Birzer examines this through Kirk’s use of the word boredom, a spiritual malaise that afflicts even (perhaps especially) affluent societies when they turn from religion, tradition, and social order. Imagination rules the word, Kirk liked to say; if there is little imagination at work in conservatism currently, its cultural influence will be low.

Most Popular

Culture

Two NFL Apologies

So Drew Brees defended the American flag and all it stands for, said he didn’t agree with kneeling for the national anthem and correctly described this gesture of open disrespect as disrespect. "Is everything right with our country right now?" said the Saints' future Hall of Famer. "No, it is not. We still have ... Read More
Culture

Two NFL Apologies

So Drew Brees defended the American flag and all it stands for, said he didn’t agree with kneeling for the national anthem and correctly described this gesture of open disrespect as disrespect. "Is everything right with our country right now?" said the Saints' future Hall of Famer. "No, it is not. We still have ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Chesterton’s Cops

Conservatives are big on “Chesterton’s fence.” That’s G. K. Chesterton’s principle that you cannot reform what you do not understand, that you should not for the sake of convenience knock down a fence until you understand why it was put up in the first place. When encountering a fence in his way, ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Chesterton’s Cops

Conservatives are big on “Chesterton’s fence.” That’s G. K. Chesterton’s principle that you cannot reform what you do not understand, that you should not for the sake of convenience knock down a fence until you understand why it was put up in the first place. When encountering a fence in his way, ... Read More
Education

Destroy the ‘Public’ Education System

‘Public” schools have been a catastrophe for the United States. This certainly isn’t an original assertion, but as we watch thousands of authoritarian brats tearing down the legacies of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, it’s more apparent than ever. State-run schools have undercut two fundamental ... Read More
Education

Destroy the ‘Public’ Education System

‘Public” schools have been a catastrophe for the United States. This certainly isn’t an original assertion, but as we watch thousands of authoritarian brats tearing down the legacies of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, it’s more apparent than ever. State-run schools have undercut two fundamental ... Read More
Media

The Unrelenting Assault on President Trump

There has never been a presidential campaign in the United States where the administration was so massively opposed by the principal media outlets as in this election. Nor, in at least a century, have the national political media so widely and thoroughly discarded the traditional criterion for journalistic ... Read More
Media

The Unrelenting Assault on President Trump

There has never been a presidential campaign in the United States where the administration was so massively opposed by the principal media outlets as in this election. Nor, in at least a century, have the national political media so widely and thoroughly discarded the traditional criterion for journalistic ... Read More
Culture

Why Progressives Wage War on History

Princeton University’s decision to remove the name “Woodrow Wilson” from its School of Public and International Affairs is a big win for progressive activists, and the implications will extend far beyond the campus. It hardly surprises me, in today’s polarizing environment, that my alma mater caved to ... Read More
Culture

Why Progressives Wage War on History

Princeton University’s decision to remove the name “Woodrow Wilson” from its School of Public and International Affairs is a big win for progressive activists, and the implications will extend far beyond the campus. It hardly surprises me, in today’s polarizing environment, that my alma mater caved to ... Read More
Media

The Media’s War on Words

I recently ran across a piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer that lays out four racist words and phrases that should be banished from the English language. It begins like this: Editor’s note: Please be aware offensive terms are repeated here solely for the purpose of identifying and analyzing them honestly. ... Read More
Media

The Media’s War on Words

I recently ran across a piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer that lays out four racist words and phrases that should be banished from the English language. It begins like this: Editor’s note: Please be aware offensive terms are repeated here solely for the purpose of identifying and analyzing them honestly. ... Read More

Canceled, &c.

There was a headline last week: “Boeing Communications Chief Resigns Over Decades-Old Article on Women in Combat.” Find the story here. It explains that “Niel Golightly abruptly resigned on Thursday, following an employee’s complaint over an article the former U.S. military pilot wrote 33 years ago ... Read More

Canceled, &c.

There was a headline last week: “Boeing Communications Chief Resigns Over Decades-Old Article on Women in Combat.” Find the story here. It explains that “Niel Golightly abruptly resigned on Thursday, following an employee’s complaint over an article the former U.S. military pilot wrote 33 years ago ... Read More