The Reactionary Utopian
                    September 8, 2005

by Joe Sobran

     The late Russell Kirk was a conservative thinker of 
a breed you don't find much anymore. His 1953 classic THE 
CONSERVATIVE MIND did much to inspire the conservative 
intellectual movement -- which you also don't find much 
anymore. When I last spoke to Kirk, near the end of his 
life, he had grown disgusted by what was then passing for 

     Kirk's hero was the Anglo-Irish politician-author 
FRANCE, one of the great monuments of English prose and 
political wisdom. I'm only one of many readers who 
discovered Burke's nearly Shakespearean eloquence because 
of Kirk.

     Someone said of Burke that he chose his side like a 
fanatic but defended it like a philosopher. His visceral 
reaction against the French Revolution turned into 
profound thought after he was, as he put it, "alarmed 
into reflection." That was Kirk too.

     When I got to know Kirk personally, I found a kind 
and colorful man living like a country squire, with his 
lovely wife and their four teenaged daughters, in a 
marvelous old house in darkest Michigan (tiny Mecosta). 
By then I was writing for Bill Buckley's NATIONAL REVIEW, 
as Kirk had done since the magazine's founding in 1955. 
We were both to become disillusioned with it.

     In 1985 Kirk made a speech to the Heritage 
Foundation, a leading conservative think tank, in which 
he quipped that the neoconservatives -- who were then 
attaching themselves to the conservative movement -- 
seemed to think that the center of Western civilization 
was in Tel Aviv. This caused Midge Decter, the den mother 
of the neocons, to accuse Kirk of anti-Semitism.

     It was a crude smear. But to my amazement, NATIONAL 
REVIEW didn't defend Kirk, its oldest and most venerable 
contributor, against the vicious attack. In fact it 
didn't even report what Decter had said. This was to 
become a pattern as the neocons made similar charges 
against Patrick Buchanan, me, and others who were mildly 
critical of the state of Israel. This was my introduction 
to what you might call ostrich journalism: "If we ignore 
unpleasant news, our readers will be ne'er the wiser." 
Mustn't risk offending the neocons!

     Kirk must have been deeply hurt. I didn't have the 
heart to tell him that I'd urged Buckley to say something 
-- anything -- in his behalf, but he could hardly have 
failed to notice the loud silence when he needed friends. 
Ever since, the neocons have been able to count on 
NATIONAL REVIEW to play along with them. Today it hardly 
has an identity of its own; it seems just another neocon 
organ, forever urging war in the Middle East.

     The older conservatives who, with Kirk, had helped 
create NATIONAL REVIEW 50 years ago -- James Burnham, 
Frank Meyer, Willmoore Kendall, Willi Schlamm, Whittaker 
Chambers -- wouldn't recognize it today. Even the 
Buckleys must wince when they read it now. It was founded 
in order to oppose Eisenhower Republicanism; it currently 
supports a Republican president far to the left of 

     In Kirk's day, NATIONAL REVIEW was an exciting 
magazine, the only one seriously challenging the liberal 
consensus. Not content with debating liberals, it 
conducted lively debates among conservatives themselves 
over basic questions of political philosophy. It was 
magnetic. Its fearlessness in those days -- it defended 
Joe McCarthy and Southern segregation -- make a strange 
contrast to its timidity today.

     You could disagree with it (and its editors often 
violently disagreed with each other), but its vitality 
and wicked humor kept you reading. It once ran a featured 
article by the great screenwriter Morrie Ryskind called 
"The Dirtiest Word in the Language." How could you skip a 
piece with a title like that? (I'll save you the trouble 
of searching the archives: the "dirtiest word," said 
Ryskind, was "minority.")

     I'll never forget the date when I joined the staff: 
September 11, 1972. I was a very green 26; Bill Buckley 
was still in charge, Jim Burnham still guided the 
editorial section, and Kirk still wrote a regular column, 
but most of the other old-timers were long gone.

     Today, any traces of Burkean and Kirkean 
conservatism are long gone too. Instead of "standing 
athwart history yelling Stop!", as it once did, NATIONAL 
REVIEW has joined the revolution.


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