Posts Tagged With: Russell Kirk

Guardians of the Word: Conservatism and Academic Freedom

Check out this journal article, “Guardians of the Word: Kirk, Buckley, and the Conservative Struggle with Academic Freedom,” in the new issue of Humanitas. I take a look at the views on academic freedom from two of the most prominent conservative intellectuals of the last century, William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk, and compare them, arguing that Kirk presents the opinion more consistent with traditionalist conservatism and that Buckley takes a position similar to his liberal detractors.

Buckley’s position on academic freedom is well-known–God and Man at Yale catapulted the twenty-five year old into the public spotlight—but Kirk’s position, as articulated in Academic Freedom: An Essay in Definition, is not. I think it’s a pity. He offers a fascinating take on academic freedom and demonstrates how the practice arose from humanity’s long search for truth. Kirk describes scholars as “Guardians of the Word,” seekers of truth who do not bow to political or social pressure. The role of the academy is to provide an environment conducive to this search. But unlike the unidirectional progressive argument which understands the above sentences only in terms of liberals and radicals challenging the status quo, Kirk explains the complexity of this search. He defends the role of liberals, those who challenge the prevailing view, and conservatives, those who work to preserve and pass on the enormous “bank and capital of nations and of ages.” Kirk writes,

[B]oth the conservative bent and the liberal bent should not only be tolerated, but encouraged. If there were no liberals, we should find it necessary to invent some; if there were no conservatives—but perish that thought. (AC, 159)

The dialectic between these two positions allows for true progress, the growth of tradition. It’s a nuanced argument and deserves a hearing.

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Hope, Change and the Staid President

My apologies to readers and fellow contributors to the blog; this is later in the day than I wanted to post. That being said, here it is.

Up to this post, our readers have been given advice (with one notable exception) to behave in a way that in practice results in a repudiation of the two-party system in which we participate. I do not think that voting third-party is an effective behavior; I think it is a radical behavior that is contrary to the tenets and the practice of conservatism. So, like Chuck O’Shea, I advocate the support of one of the major two-party candidates in this election. The candidate I support will be the one running against him. I believe that a conservative should support President Barack Obama for re-election in 2012.

This post is broken up into two sections: the first section will provide an anchor for the argument by way of description of a practical conceptualization of the kernel of conservatism as uncertainty; the second section will shift to a description of a case (through secondary sources) for why President Obama has governed as a conservative and why this should be sufficient to persuade conservatives to support him for re-election.

Part 1: Conservatism as Uncertainty

The arguments that have dominated this blog revolve around the definition of conservatism and the corollary of who and what qualifies as conservative today? Many of us on this blog have input time and energy into answering a question that pundits more important than we are
have dwelt. This suggests a broadness, perhaps more accurately and precisely, a foundational uncertainty to be the characteristic which is hallmark of conservatism. Conservatism, in a sense, is so dysfunctional and confused (or at least antifoundational) that a prominent conservative magazine is subjecting itself to an identical tortured process that we are conducting at the same time we are conducting it.

This uncertainty can be understood as an effect of a fluidity the vocabulary of the traditionalist-historicist conservative would recognize as the universal being expressed in the particular; further, in its vocabulary, it is what the rationalist would recognize as a fundamental abstract principle being applied to or filtered by and through reality: it is a cornerstone of a conservative case to support President Obama for re-election in 2012.

Part II: President Obama as Conservative, or the Prudence of Practice

Let me move to the second portion of this post, which lays out a case for the conservative support of President Obama by a brief examination of his policies in his first term.

Bruce Bartlett summarizes the case for Obama the conservative in the following bullet points (h/t to paul krugman

His stimulus bill was half the size that his advisers thought necessary;
He continued Bush’s war and national security policies without change and even retained Bush’s defense secretary;
He put forward a health plan almost identical to those that had been supported by Republicans such as Mitt Romney in the recent past, pointedly rejecting the single-payer option favored by liberals;
He caved to conservative demands that the Bush tax cuts be extended without getting any quid pro quo whatsoever;
And in the past few weeks he has supported deficit reductions that go far beyond those offered by Republicans.

I think that list makes a compelling case for the conservative to support President Obama for re-election in 2012. This is not about abstractions such as ideological purity, pro-life bona fides or any other conceptualization of conservatism whose essence exists outside of time and space; rather, this is about an on-the-ground, historically contingent conservatism which recognizes that history puts us in a set of circumstances in which liberal “big government” of the New Deal and Great Society are essential, defining characteristics of the relationship between a citizenry and its government; furthermore, that to recognize this relationship is to be cognizant of the historical concreteness that is, allegedly, at the core of conservatism. Such that this historical reality of post-New Deal and post-Great Society liberalism means that President Obama is the one conservative candidate running for President during this election. The other choices you have – which have been discussed on this blog – occupy positions on the ideological branches of the left and the right. When the pundits recognize a continuity between the two major parties’ candidates’ policies; and, when progressives recognize you to be a conservative and make a case against your candidacy for re-election, then you must be doing something right behind which conservatives (no pun intended) can throw their support.

If other conservatives want to make a convincing case that Obama is a liberal or a left-wing President of any type, then they will have to respond to the policies that he has implemented by effectively demonstrating how they represent a liberal rather than a conservative style of governance. References to a vague, amorphous, and essentially content-less notion of history or tradition will not be a strong foundation for a persuasive case against the conservative’s support for President Obama’s re-election. Nor will an effective case be made by attempting to demonstrate that his policies are contrary to certain principles (free-market, big government, etc) which are inherently conservative, at least not in an American sense of the term; nor is it sufficient to argue (however effectively one does make the argument), that in certain instances he has been an advocate, instigator or ally of policymakers or policy proposals that are contrary to alleged tenets of traditional culture (e.g., religious freedom or individual rights in the example of the health care reform bill): cherry picking is left for the fruit, it does not belong in a philosophically abstract or an empirical argument against a case for the re-election of President Obama.

The responses the economic crisis, the policies of reform, and the foreign policy that President Obama has pursued and implemented during his first term in office, point to a candidate for re-election who chooses to maintain a steady course and extract a limited amount from the circumstances given to him. That is to say, his presidency has been a conservative one. Stories of his past notwithstanding, he makes a poor example of a radical liberal, and an even poorer boogeyman of conservative critique, analysis and alarm. President Obama has governed with restraint; he has pursued policies with an eye toward the possible and not just purity of principle; he has behaved in a way that conservatives can and should recognize to be in resemblance to the doctrine, tenets and canons of conservatism. It is easy to understand why that is the case if one disregards the rhetoric and emotion that are expended in response to President Obama, and consider for a brief moment the policies he has actually pursued and realize that he is a conservative (or at least a run-of-the-mill Democrat, who is, nevertheless, probably more conservative – in a non-ideological understanding of the term – than most Republicans or self-described conservatives are at this point in our political history).

At the end of the day, the conservative is not left wondering why he should support President Obama in 2012; rather, he is left to wonder why he should not.

Categories: 2012, Ideology, Traditionalism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

On Conservatism and Ghostly Tales

I wish that I had seen this before Halloween. The University Bookman has published a review of Russell Kirk’s gothic novel Lord of the Hollow Dark. It’s one of my favorite gothic novels, admittedly, a genre with which I have limited experience. All Hallows Eve was one of Dr. Kirk’s favorite holidays. Like Christmas, today Halloween is very much a (ugh) consumerized holiday, “severed from its Catholic roots as a solemn day in honor of the saints and even from the earlier Celtic festival of Samhain, where the dead mingled with the living as newly departed souls traveled to the otherworld.” However, Kirk still believed that it was a time that could remind us that “there are more things in heaven and earth…than are dreamt of in [our] philosophy.”

Kirk, author of many short ghostly tales and three novels, was considered a master of the genre. No doubt quite a surprise to many readers of his political and cultural works. However, he understood the genre to be an excellent outlet for the exploration of what is more than mere materialism. He writes in his essay “A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale,”

[A]s the rising generation regains the awareness that ‘nature’ is something more than mere fleshly sensation, and that something may lie above human nature, and something below it—why, the divine and diabolical rise up again in serious literature.

Something like that, the author of the review thinks, could be happening now with the fascination with vampires and such in popular literature. We’ll see. The author presents the possibility but is as dubious as I am that these works actually “uplift humanity.” Kirk’s characters prevailed in his stories because of their “timeless virtues” and aid from sources more than natural, a lesson on the value of tradition in preserving salient virtues and the mystery of human existence. This is why, for Kirk, the ghost story is a peculiarly conservative genre. He writes,

[The writing of ghost stories] has been a skill innately conservative. As M. R. James wrote of Le Fanu, “The ghost story is in itself a slightly old-fashioned form; it needs some deliberateness in the telling; we listen to it the more readily if the narrator poses as elderly, or throws back his experience to ‘some thirty years ago.’” If faithless to this trust, the ghost-story writer will deserve to be hounded to his doom by the late James Thurber’s favorite monster, the Todal, “a creature of the Devil, sent to punish evil-doers for having done less evil than they should.”

Stories of ghosts, if Cicero was right that ghosts are the damned haunting the places of their evil deeds, are a reminder that “[T]enebrae ineluctably form part of the nature of things; nor should we complain, for without darkness there cannot be light.” This is why Kirk liked Halloween.

Kirk saw how occasions such as All Hallows Eve might serve as opportunities to take back the moral imagination from the diabolical. It is an occasion to remember saints who continue speaking through a legacy of lives that sought to push under the dark powers of their times.

That’s Kirk’s understanding of ghost stories. But I haven’t even discussed Lord of the Hollow Dark. Go and read the review. It’s a great book.

Categories: Cultural development, Traditionalism | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Paul Krugman and the Conservative Demarcation Problem

In his post making a case for the conservative’s (potentially) necessary acceptance of Paul Krugman, I think Kelse hits on a fundamental tension conservatism consistently confronts: how does the conservative determine who (or what) is and who (or what) is not conservative? What criteria or methods are employed in this process? It’s conservatism’s very own demarcation problem. And while Kelse stirs the pot which begins a potential food fight, this is just another iteration of a fundamental problem that conservatives have dealt with in various ways throughout the history of the movement (intellectual and otherwise). As I sat reading the quotes from Sullivan and others that Kelse had marshaled together, it occurred to me that in the 1950s and 1960s, those conservatives such as Kirk and Buckley engaged with other so-called conservatives in an a variety of internecine battles whose reverberations continue to be felt to this day; the case of Peter Viereck and his battles with the then “new conservatives” (represented by Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley and others); or the “reading out” of the conservative movement of the John Birch Society by the National Review are two of the more prominent examples of this attempt at self-definition and delimitation of the boundaries of conservatism. Can a figure such as Paul Krugman be drawn out of conservatism? I question whether he can. A conservatism that is averse to abstractions and rationalism I think will have a difficult time employing history or historicism for the job. Which leads me to think that maybe Krugman qualifies as a conservative. Maybe he meets the criteria. In which case, is conservatism worse off for it?

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Paul Krugman: Burkean?

Paul Krugman has a column up at the New York Times called “Death by Ideology.”

The column doesn’t take on the concept of “ideology” per se, like Russell Kirk or Michael Oakeshott might.  But it is becoming a recurring theme on the Left to emphasize how (1) conservatives are overcome by an extreme anti-government ideology, while (2) liberals just want to continue with all those venerable (and popular) American traditions like the New Deal and the supremacy of the federal government.

I think traditionalist conservatives tend to gloss over their similarities with the Left.  They fail to address the fact that, if tradition is our main guide, things like Social Security and Medicare are pretty huge parts of our American tradition.  And if traditionalists value states’ rights and localism–as many do–they fail to fully address that these haven’t been important values in America since the nineteenth century.  For these reasons, I don’t think that traditionalist arguments can sustain a critique against Obamacare or the evisceration of the Ninth and Tenth Amendments–only a libertarian, rationalist argument can.

But don’t take my word for it.  Here’s what some left-wing commentators have to say:

Continue reading

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