The name of “Russell Kirk” is heard seldom, if ever, in conservative circles today. This is tragic, and maybe even a bit scandalous, for as William F. Buckley—a person whose name is well known—once said, it “is inconceivable even to imagine, let alone hope for, a dominant conservative movement in America without [Kirks’] labor.”
Given all of the current talk over the need for a reawakening to conservative “principles,” we are in need of Kirk’s guidance today more than ever.
The author of 32 books and legions of essays, this World War II veteran was a college educator, novelist, intellectual historian, and political theorist. At Buckley’s request, Kirk helped to found National Review, a publication to which he contributed for many years. He also founded his own magazine, Modern Age. Kirk gave over 60 lectures to the Heritage Foundation, where he was a Distinguished Fellow, and was very much involved with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. In 1989, five years before his illustrious life came to a close, Kirk was granted the Presidential Citizens Medal by President Ronald Reagan.
Conservatism, Kirk explained, is neither a doctrine nor a dogma, but “a way of looking at the civil social order.” Still, from looking at the “leading conservative writers and public men” from “the past two centuries,” Kirk gathered ten principles that distinguish conservatism as the intellectual tradition that it is.
First, there is “an enduring moral order” of both “the soul” and “the commonwealth.” It is at our peril, conservatives insist, that we ignore this order.
Second, “custom, convention, and continuity” constitute the glue that keeps us together.
Custom “enables people to live together peaceably,” convention helps us “to avoid perpetual disputes about rights and duties,” and continuity “is the means of linking generation to generation.”
Third, prescription—“things established by immemorial usage”—is the stuff of which a flourishing civil society is made.
Since we are not likely “to make any brave new discoveries in morals or politics,” since we are “dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see farther than [our] ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time,” we are best served by following the prescriptions of thousands of generations.
Fourth, prudence is a cardinal virtue.
Change is needed if society is to preserve itself, but prudence demands that we attend to it cautiously, and only after considerable reflection. “Sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery.”
Fifth, variety is both necessary and desirable.
Conservatives “feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life [.]” On the other hand, they abhor “the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems.”
The sixth principle is that of human imperfectability.
Because human beings suffer “irremediably from certain grave faults,” the best “that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk.”
Seventh, freedom and property are indissolubly linked.
“Upon the foundation of private property, great civilizations are built,” Kirk writes. He adds: “Separate property from private possession, and Leviathan [the government] becomes master of all.”
Eighth, “voluntary community” is as essential to the civil order as “involuntary collectivism” is destructive of it.
Duty and virtue are learned within our local communities—our “little platoons,” as “the patron saint” of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, famously called them. But when, “in the name of an abstract Democracy, the functions of community are transferred to distant political direction,” this centralization of authority and power proves “hostile to freedom and human dignity.”
Ninth, there must be “prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.”
Kirk notes that “political power” must be “balanced” so as to prevent both “anarchy” and “tyranny,” both the unbounded will of the individual and that of any group. To this end, “constitutional restrictions, political checks and balances, adequate enforcement of the laws,” and “the old intricate web of restraints upon will and appetite” are indispensable.
The tenth and final principle of the conservative attitude concerns the affirmation and harmonizing of “permanence and change” in “a vigorous society.”
Kirk succinctly summarizes this principle when he writes: “The conservative takes care that nothing in a society should ever be wholly old, and that nothing should ever be wholly new. This is the means of the conservation of a nation, quite as it is the means of conservation of a living organism.”
If today’s conservatives are serious about wanting to return to “the roots” of their tradition, then they have no option but to familiarize themselves with Russell Kirk.
No one waxes more indignantly over perceived infringements of their freedom of speech than media personalities and academics.
My thesis: Media figures and academics, taken as media figures and academics, may not have a right to speak as they do much, and even most, of the time.
Journalists, and the rest of us, assume that without freedom of speech, journalists would be incapable of enacting their role as “watchdogs” of the powerful. Academics, on the other hand, claim that in the absence of freedom of speech, they wouldn’t be able to engage, and engage their students, in the disinterested pursuit of truth and knowledge.
Notice something here: the freedom of speech prized by those in the media and their academic counterparts is not some abstract value. Rather, it derives its value from the purpose(s) that it serves. In the case of journalists, the purpose that invests freedom of speech with its value is that of safeguarding the liberties of citizens against abuses of (government) power. In the case of academics, free speech serves the purpose of pursuing and transmitting truth and knowledge.
What this implies is that the journalist’s and the academic’s freedom of speech is good only insofar as they are using it for the sake of their professions’ respective ends. But what happens when they are not serving those ends?
I submit that when the gatekeepers of civilization no longer exercise their speech for the purposes for which civilization granted them that freedom, then that speech is no longer free. It is no longer protected.
To be sure, as citizens, journalists and academics should have the same free speech rights as everyone else. Furthermore, as has already been said, insofar as they faithfully serve the purposes of their disciplines, society should indeed continue to bless them with the freedom of speech to do so.
Yet when media figures and academics betray their mission, when they stray beyond the boundaries of their vocations, then they have forfeited that right to freedom of speech.
For example, among the benefits to which the employee of a certain corporation is entitled is that of a free education: his employer will pay for him to attend college, if he so chooses. This right to a free education, though, is not unqualified.
First, if he decides to go to school, he does not have the right to pursue any old thing that he likes. Rather, employees of this corporation only have the right to enroll in those courses that will enable them to better further the purpose of the corporation that they serve. Second, if he betrays his corporation and is subsequently terminated, he will lose not just this right, but every other right (benefit) supplied by his former employer.
This analogy is instructive for two reasons. Just as the employee’s right to a free education isn’t free, journalists’ and academics’ right to free speech comes at a cost. In both instances, the right in question is contingent upon faithful service to the larger enterprise for the sake of which it has been granted. Moreover, in both instances, when the right-holder has failed to contribute to the enterprise to which he made a commitment in the first place, he forsakes that right.
Can anyone seriously doubt that, with relatively few exceptions, the so-called “mainstream media” has long ago turned itself into the bane-stream media? Self-styled journalists have displayed none of the skepticism toward Big Government that is essential to a free press for a free people. Just the opposite is the case. Of our two national parties, there is a reason why the party of the Jack Ass has earned for itself a reputation for being the most ardent champion of ever larger government. Yet this is just the party for which the media unfailingly runs interference. And at no time has this been truer than today, when media personalities have abused their free speech privileges to abet the agenda ofAmerica’s “first black president.”
As journalists, they do not have the right to use their speech for these ends. They are not free to speak thus.
Academia is just as politicized an environment—just as much a bastion of leftist ideology—if not more so, than that of the contemporary media. Yet, in theory, the academic’s freedom is even more narrowly constrained than that of the journalist’s. The academic is entrusted with the obligation to further truth and knowledge in his field of expertise. However, many academics are consumed with an animus toward the very civilization from which they derive what freedom they have. It is this animus in turn that provokes them to radically challenge the very notions of truth and knowledge.
Isn’t this the biggest betrayal of the academy’s historical mission?
In all fairness, there are plenty of academics who, while leftists, reject this post-modernist drivel. Still, even they do not resist the impulse to interject into their courses all manner of political speech that is not, or should not, be protected under the guise of academic freedom. This ideological language of theirs not infrequently falls outside of their discipline. As such, as academics, they are not free to use it.
It may be impossible to do anything much in the way of legal remedies about these betrayals of the journalist’s and the academic’s respective missions. For the time being, it is more important that we begin to take notice of what these missions are—and how their right to free speech relates to them.
The conservative movement is dying, if it isn’t already dead. But neither “the left” nor some rightist doctrine is the culprit. Rather, the movement is reaching the point of extinction because those of whom it is comprised, and its spokespersons particularly, have all but killed it.
And they’ve killed it by abandoning conservatism in favor of the ideology of their opponents.
The self-described conservative who listens routinely to talk radio and watches Fox News will no doubt have trouble making heads or tails of my diagnosis. Yet it is high time that he grasp that he has been had.
Today’s “conservative” spokespersons are faux conservatives. What amounts to the same thing, they are leftists of varying degrees.
The political clashes that we witness today are actually internecine conflicts between leftist factions. In other words, the not so grand stage of Broadway on the Potomac serves as the venue in which leftist Democrats and leftist Republicans enact their co-authored script—a script from which the bane-stream media in both of its conventional leftist and faux conservative guises then faithfully reads.
As for those actors who dare to deviate from the Script, who dare to defy the role into which they’ve been cast, the treatment they can expect is merciless. One of two things is guaranteed to happen. Upon having the full power of the bane-stream media brought down upon their heads, they either will be forced to grovel for forgiveness, or else they will be banished from the theatre all together. Sometimes, in fact, both fates await the person who dares to question the narrative.
Anyone in doubt about the existence of the Script need only consider the following facts.
The members of America’s conservative party, the GOP, claim to oppose abortion. Yet while they talk the talk, when have they ever walked the walk? Abortion remains as available today as it has ever been, and roughly the same number of people this year as every other year for the last several decades will avail themselves of it. Abortion became a constitutional right under a Republican president, Richard Nixon, and one of the conservative movement’s gods, Ronald Reagan, legalized it in California while governor there.
It is even worse than this, though, for when election time comes around and angry members of the base of the conservative movement threaten to abstain from voting because of a candidate’s checkered record on abortion, they are castigated by the movement’s (self-appointed) spokespersons for being “one issue” voters.
“Affirmative action” is a race and gender-based policy of discrimination aimed at privileging non-whites and women over white men. Conservatives claim to oppose all discrimination, regardless of who it is directed against. However, as in the case of abortion, while they pay lip service to equality under the law, they have done nothing to fight for it on this front.
In fact, they don’t even talk all that much about “affirmative action” anymore. If anything, faux conservatives have reinforced the politically correct Script by accusing their opponents of the very same sins—“racism,” “sexism,” etc.—of which they are routinely accused: Sarah Palin’s and Michele Bachmann’s critics, say, are “sexist,” while Herman Cain’s and Michael Steele’s are “racist.”
Immigration is but another case in point. The overwhelming majority of contemporary immigrants are under-skilled Third World Hispanics who, as Jay Leno recently quipped, are nothing more or less than “undocumented Democrats”—lovers of, not Big Government, but Gargantuan Government. But rather than fight like hell to reverse course here, faux conservative Republicans urge for their “pathway to citizenship”—translation: amnesty.
Of course, there is always insistence that “the border be controlled first.” But, mind you, this is coming from the very same faux conservatives who are otherwise constantly sounding the alarm against either the inability or the unwillingness of government to fulfill its constitutional duties.
There is no issue that puts the lie to the faux conservative’s commitment to smaller government than that of foreign policy. There is no war that he isn’t willing to wage in order to promote “human rights” and “Democracy” (traditionally, leftist buzzwords). Any proposed cut to defense spending, however infinitesimal, he treats as a move to “decimate” our military. Anyone who proposes these cuts he regards as “weak” on national defense. But Big Military is Big Government. You can’t have one without the other.
The federal government has continued to grow, continued to divest itself of its federal character, regardless of whether the Democratic left or the Republican left has presided over it. To repeat, whether it is Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush or Barack Obama, “liberal’ and “conservative” presidents alike have relegated whatever was left of the Founders’ America to the dustbin of history. From the perspective of, say, Thomas Jefferson, Reagan no less than Obama would appear as a partisan of the fundamental transformation of the country.
It is high time for the devotees of talk radio, Fox News, and other bane-stream media outlets of the faux conservative variety to realize that their movement, if it ever existed, was killed a long time ago by poseurs and opportunists who prefer the fame and the fortunes that “respectability” brings over an intellectual and moral tradition that the Script excludes.
Last week, while speaking with fellow Fox personality Megyn Kelly, Bill O’Reilly catapulted himself into the center of controversy when he asserted that the opponents of “gay marriage” do nothing but “thump the Bible.”
O’Reilly said that “the compelling argument was on the side of homosexuals [.]” The latter make “the compelling argument” that “‘We’re Americans. We just want to be treated like everybody else.” In meeting this tour de force, O’Reilly continued, “the other side hasn’t been able to do anything but thump the Bible.” Kelly agreed.
With lightning quick speed, O’Reilly’s remarks raised the ire of “the conservative movement”—both that of its base as well as that of some of its most notable representatives.
Admittedly, I am among those who O’Reilly rattled. But this has less to do with his use of the expression “thump the Bible” and more to do with his claim that the opponents of so-called “gay marriage” do nothing but thump the Bible. The latter just simply isn’t true.
O’Reilly must know this, in which case he speaks dishonestly. On the other hand, if, by some remote chance, he doesn’t know this, then he is woefully unqualified to even weigh in on the marriage issue, much less hold down a position as a very visible, and very audible, commentator.
In short, with respect to this issue, at any rate, it is either dishonesty or ignorance from which O’Reilly’s judgment springs.
I suspect that it is true that most (American) opponents of “gay marriage” are moved by biblical considerations. However, contra O’Reilly, it is most certainly not the case that they “thump the Bible.” While conscripting Fox News colleagues, Megyn Kelly, Laura Ingraham, and Charles Krauthammer in the service of damage control, O’Reilly explained that, in his estimation, to “thump” the Bible is to cite it without further ado.
Unfortunately for O’Reilly, by his own lights, there has been little to no Bible thumping on the part of the defenders of marriage.
The enemies of “gay marriage” have insisted that never in the history of the human race has “the definition” of marriage referred to the union of members of the same sex. They have leveled the slippery slope argument that once we “redefine” marriage to include homosexuals, we will then have no option but to permit polygamy and other morally troublesome marital arrangements. They have argued that “gay marriage” will divest “traditional marriage” of its time-honored position of privilege by reducing it to just another alternative.
Granted, (as this opponent of “gay marriage” has noted on more than one occasion) these are indeed bad arguments. But they are arguments. No Bible thumping here. In fact, there isn’t even any referencing of the Bible to be found in these lines of reason.
Anyone who is in the slightest informed about this marriage issue must know that O’Reilly’s remark about the argumentative strategy of the forces for “traditional marriage” is emphatically false.
So, why did he say it? I submit two theories that might answer this question.
First, O’Reilly may very well actually favor “gay marriage.” For all of his talk of the evils of “secular progressivism” and the virtues of “traditionalism”—i.e. “the folks”—this is not at all a stretch. After all, he did say that the proponents of “gay marriage” have, not just the stronger argument on their side, but “the compelling argument.” A compelling argument is impossible to intellectually resist.
O’Reilly may have had some other idea of “compelling” in mind. Yet he seemed to have been awfully impressed with the argument in question. Is it so unreasonable to think that it got to him? If it did, then perhaps he was engaging here in an all too common political strategy whereby one advances one’s own team by reducing its competitor to a one-dimensional straw man.
Second, to anyone who has watched O’Reilly for any length of time, it is painfully obvious that he aches to be viewed as a “respectable” journalist by the left. Toward this end, he not infrequently says things about those on the right that sound at once stupid and dishonest. It isn’t that the right, to say nothing of “the conservative movement,” is immune to legitimate criticism. Yet O’Reilly’s criticisms, far from sounding legitimate, almost always strike the ear as thoughtless.
His latest Bible thumping remarks dovetail seamlessly into this pattern.
Ultimately, though, it doesn’t much matter why O’Reilly said what he did. What matters is that his conservative critics understand why O’Reilly deserves their anger. What matters is that they understand that it isn’t his allegation that they “thump the Bible” that should upset them, but the wildly false allegation that they do nothing but thump the Bible while debating “gay marriage.”