Kirk’s Forecasts

At long last, I’ve been able to get my hands on a copy of Russell Kirk’s Prospects for Conservatives (also known, in various editions, as A Program for Conservatives). The book is out of print and I never got around to ordering a used copy, but a colleague had one on hand — and now I do.

Several of the things Kirk says in the book apply very aptly to America’s world situation today:

In the present instance we contend, with an ingenuous provinciality, that all the world wants to be American. … Displaying an impatient perplexity which is wholly sincere, we decry as reactionary or conspiratorial or Russian-influence [today we might say Iran-influenced] anyone in foreign parts who dissents from The American Way. We manifest a yawning ignorance of the venerable principle that cultural form and substance cannot be transported intact from one people to another. We claim that everyone except feudal barons or Reds longs for tractors, Bob Hope, self-service laundries, direct primaries, clover-leaf intersections, high-school extracurricular activities, two evening newspapers, Coca-Cola, and a stylish burial at Memory Grove Cemetery.

Kirk was an early “unpatriotic conservative” — just look at what he says about the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the concept of “preventive war”:

A handful of individuals, some of them quite unused to moral responsibilities on such a scale, made it their business to extirpate the populations of Nagasaki and Hiroshima; we must make it our business to curtail the possibility of such snap decisions, taken simply on the assumptions of wordly wisdom. And the conservative can urge upon his nation a policy of patience and prudence. A “preventive” war, whether or not it might be successful in teh field–and that is a question much in doubt–would be morally ruinous to us. There are circumstances under which it is not only more honorable to lose than to win, but quite truly less harmful, in the ultimate providence of God.

He’s talking about the Cold War and a preventive attack on the Soviet Union, of course. But I think the application of his line of thinking to latter-day issues is plain enough.

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7 thoughts on “Kirk’s Forecasts

  1. R J Stove April 11, 2007 / 12:43 am

    Dan, what did Kirk think of Joe McCarthy? (Perhaps ISI’s newly printed Kirk anthology will tell me. Although I’ve bought a copy of it and am greatly looking forward to reading it, so far it hasn’t arrived here from the States. In the meantime I would be interested in your take on this question.)

  2. Daniel Larison April 11, 2007 / 4:11 am

    As I understand it, Kirk was a fairly strong defender of McCarthy, as were most NR folks at that time. His defending McCarthy was one of the things that convinced Viereck to go after Kirk so intensely. That, together with the embrace of Goldwater and his “Manchester liberalism,” was one of the main points Viereck made in Conservatism Revisited.

    Incidentally, we all await Dan’s promised Viereck post with anticipation, since he can tell us all about this aspect of their disagreement when he writes it.

  3. Daniel McCarthy April 11, 2007 / 4:52 am

    I’m at work on the Viereck thing at this moment. I’ll show up in print rather than on the web, at least at first, though.

  4. Gerald April 11, 2007 / 1:05 pm

    I agree with daniel. In an essay titled “conformity and legislative committees,” Kirk cautiously supported the right of the Congress to investigate “un-American activities” by suspected Communists. He criticized McCarthy himself, however, for being in “a long line of destructive critics in the American Congress whose function it is to bedevil the executive arm for good or ill.” He wrote that a country has the right to defend itself if attacked from within:
    Any ordered society has a right to protect its own existence, and, if the choice must be made, that right of society transcends the lesser right of individuals to follow their own humor to tamper with existing institutions after some predilection of their own. A people have the right, in consequence, to expect that their officers shall obey the established laws of the land …. A nation so “liberal” that it cannot bring itself to repress the fanatic and the energumen under any circumstances will be reduced to a condition thoroughly illiberal.

    I am not surwe on what grounds Viereck criticized this view, but I too am waiting to hear from Dan!

    Gerald Russello

  5. R J Stove April 11, 2007 / 1:20 pm

    Many thanks to all those who helped answer my question. I greatly look forward to Dan McCarthy’s analysis of Viereck.

  6. Daniel McCarthy April 11, 2007 / 2:42 pm

    I’m grateful for Gerald’s input — I was just about to email him about this and one other Kirk/Viereck question. As far as I could tell, Kirk really wasn’t such a big defender of Joe McCarthy, more an anti-anti-McCarthyite. That was enough to set off Viereck, however, who thought that Kirk should have denounced McCarthy.

    Of the Kirk books I’ve read (by no means all of them), the one that most directly relates to McCarthy and his time is Academic Freedom: An Essay In Definition, which happens to be one of my favorite Kirk books. Kirk takes a nuanced position: there’s no abstract right to be a Communist in higher ed, but “Americanism” as an ideology can also be a danger to genuine traditional academic freedom. (The book was not especially well-received at the time, at least on the right: Buckley, who is lightly criticized in the book, wrote a review — for the Freeman, I think — calling it “an essay in confusion.” And if I’m remembering correctly, Frank Meyer singled it out as an example of Kirk at his weakest.)

    The only reference to McCarthy in The Essential Russell Kirk occurs in the essay “Decadence and Renewal in Higher Education,” which was incorporated into Academic Freedom

    By the way, I have early early galleys of Gerald’s forthcoming book The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk on my desk. I had high expectations for it, and just from a quick glance at the galleys it looks like the book will exceed them. Between this and Wes McDonald’s book, Kirk has been very well served by his expositors. (And kudos to the University of Missouri Press for publishing both works.) Viereck should receive some justice in a couple of years’ time, too: I know of two books on him in the works, one a biography, the other an intellectual study.

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