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The Reactionary Utopian

 Remembering Russell Kirk 

September 8, 2005 
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. Today's column is "Remembering Russell Kirk" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.When I last spoke to Kirk, near the end of his life, he had grown disgusted by what was then passing for conservatism.

Kirk’s hero was the Anglo-Irish politician-author Edmund Burke, author of Reflections on the Revolution in 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!

[Breaker quote for Remembering Russell Kirk: A target of neocon calumny]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 Eisenhower.

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.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2005 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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