Do Conservatives Hate Their Own Founder?

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Toward the end of his life, Russell Kirk, one of the great founders of American conservatism, became contemptuous of Republican militarism. Didn’t know that? Neither do most readers of National Review, for which Kirk wrote for so many years.

Kirk’s opposition to relentless war makes him a "liberal" in NR’s lexicon. Now it’d be kind of hard to describe the key founder of modern American conservatism as a liberal — harder even than NR’s task of making the obviously corrupt (and personally sleazy) former federal prosecutor Rudy Giuliani seem like something we should want in a U.S. president. So the whole Kirk problem is simply passed over in silence.

Young conservatives, take note: what you are about to encounter is the voice of the real thing, whose opinions are worth more than those of a million talk-show ignoramuses put together. That these views would never, ever get published in the typical "conservative" magazine today tells you all you need to know about the state of the "conservative movement": so remote is it from the genuine article that Kirk himself would be unwelcome.

The remarks from which I draw here are taken from a 1991 speech to the Heritage Foundation. What a difference a decade and a half can make: these opinions would never be permitted at Heritage today. Of that you can be sure.

Oh, once in a while you’ll still get tributes to the great Kirk, but his foreign-policy views will be ignored — or greeted with awkward smiles and a cough, if anyone is so discourteous as to break the silence on the subject.

Now remember, this is 1991, so Kirk is speaking of George H.W. Bush, not the current president, for whom these remarks could be amplified many times over.

"Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson were enthusiasts for American domination of the world," Kirk said in his speech. "Now George Bush appears to be emulating those eminent Democrats. When the Republicans, once upon a time, nominated for the presidency a u2018One World’ candidate, Wendell Willkie, they were sadly trounced. In general, Republicans throughout the twentieth century have been advocates of prudence and restraint in the conduct of foreign affairs."

President Bush, Kirk said, had embarked upon "a radical course of intervention in the region of the Persian Gulf. After carpet-bombing the Cradle of Civilization as no country ever had been bombed before, Mr. Bush sent in hundreds of thousands of soldiers to overrun the Iraqi bunkers — that were garrisoned by dead men, asphyxiated."

And why, exactly? "The Bush Administration found it difficult to answer that question clearly. In the beginning it was implied that the American national interest required low petroleum prices: therefore, if need be, smite and spare not!"

Kirk then recalled Edmund Burke’s rebuke to the Pitt ministry in 1795, when the British government seemed to be on the verge of going to war with France over the issue of navigation on the River Scheldt in the Netherlands. “A war for the Scheldt? A war for a chamber-pot!” Burke said. Today, said Kirk, one may as well say, "A war for Kuwait? A war for an oilcan!"

Since a war for an oilcan turned out to be not so popular, President Bush "turned moralist; he professed to be engaged in redeeming the blood of man; and his breaking of Iraq is to be the commencement of his beneficent New World Order." Kirk said Bush had embarked on what Herbert Butterfield called "the war for righteousness." “It has been held by technicians of politics in recent times," Butterfield wrote in Christianity, Diplomacy, and War, "that democracies can only be keyed up to modern war — only brought to the necessary degree of fervor — provided they are whipped into moral indignation and heated to fanaticism by the thought that they are engaged in a ‘war for righteousness.'”

"Now indubitably Saddam Hussein is unrighteous," said Kirk,

but so are nearly all the masters of the “emergent” African states (with the Ivory Coast as a rare exception), and so are the grim ideologues who rule China, and the hard men in the Kremlin, and a great many other public figures in various quarters of the world. Why, I fancy that there are some few unrighteous men, conceivably, in the domestic politics of the United States. Are we to saturation-bomb most of Africa and Asia into righteousness, freedom, and democracy? And, having accomplished that, however would we ensure persons yet more unrighteous might not rise up instead of the ogres we had swept away? Just that is what happened in the Congo, remember, three decades ago; and nowadays in Zaire, once called the Belgian Congo, we zealously uphold with American funds the dictator Mobutu, more blood-stained than Saddam. And have we forgotten Castro in Cuba?

And now Russell Kirk — conservative among conservatives — makes the obvious point that the loudmouths today ridicule and condemn: perpetrating large-scale violence can make people angry. Only Americans get angry when violence is committed against them — no one else!

Now here is Kirk: "We must expect to suffer during a very long period of widespread hostility toward the United States — even, or perhaps especially, from the people of certain states that America bribed or bullied into combining against Iraq. In Egypt, in Syria, in Pakistan, in Algeria, in Morocco, in all of the world of Islam, the masses now regard the United States as their arrogant adversary; while the Soviet Union, by virtue of its endeavors to mediate the quarrel in its later stages, may pose again as the friend of Moslem lands. Nor is this all: for now, in every continent, the United States is resented increasingly as the last and most formidable of imperial systems."

Well, away with Russell Kirk, then: he "blames America" for terrorism! To be sure, anyone who is both 1) truthful, and 2) has an IQ above 50, knows he’s done no such thing, but since our politicians and journalists do not distinguish themselves in either of these qualities, we can imagine their pretense of shock at the outrageous Kirk.

Oh, and what kind of leftist said the following? "Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace comes to pass in an era of Righteousness — that is, national or ideological self-righteousness in which the public is persuaded that u2018God is on our side,’ and that those who disagree should be brought here before the bar as war criminals."

The founder of American conservatism, that’s who.

These are the words of a civilized man. I have my differences with Kirk on important questions, to be sure, but this is a learned, serious thinker whose work and thought anyone can and should respect — which is more than can be said for the sloganeering Ministry of Propaganda that now dominates official conservative media.

So who plans to be first in line to denounce even the deceased Russell Kirk as an "unpatriotic conservative"?

Thanks to Chris Rhoades for bringing this particular speech to my attention.

Thomas E. Woods, Jr. [view his website; send him mail] is senior fellow in American history at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His books include How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (get a free chapter here), The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy (first-place winner in the 2006 Templeton Enterprise Awards), and the New York Times bestseller The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History.

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