Wolfe on Kirk

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This essay by Alan Wolfe disparaging conservative hero Russell Kirk has drawn praise and scorn around the web. I won't get too much into it, since outside of the first 30 or so pages of Kirk's biography of Edmund Burke which I checked out from the library recently, I'm not familiar with his work. There are a few glaring idiocies, however, that even an unstudied political layman like myself can ridule.

Kirk admits of two possible exceptions to his insistence that ideology is a monopoly of the left, although each of them is cited to confirm his point. Nazism, too, is an ideology--but we should not forget that the Nazis, like all ideologues, held "that human nature and society may be perfected by mundane, secular means." Of all the crimes committed by the Nazis, the proclivity for human perfectibility is an odd one to choose; but it is Kirk's choice.

What a stupid, stupid criticism. The entire Nazi program, from the idealization of blond, blue-eyed Aryans to exterminating Jews and the disabled, was an attempt to perfect the human race. It would be "odd" to choose to discuss the Nazis' desire to rule all of Europe as the master race, but only if you don't care about discerning and defeating bad ideology. The Nazi's didn't stand for "killing the Jews." That was just the worst of the heinous practices flowing from a truly vicious ideology of racial superiority. At the root of that ideology was the notion that human perfection was attainable through the elimination of the inferior. Had the Nazis had their way, Jews, slavs and the lame would have been just the first martyrs to that lie.

So though one may of course argue (wrongly) that simply believing humanity can be perfected is not so awful a thing, it was the cardinal sin of Nazis and Marxists alike in that it served as a justification for the spilling of blood and oppression of spirit those ideologies brought about. This is obviously Kirk's point, and though, as I said before, I've not read much Kirk, Wolfe's obtuseness on this, along with the rest of what follows, is enough to make one view Wolfe's essay with suspicion.

Anyone who believes that religion is essential to social order needs to answer the question of which religion it should be, since the truths taught by one are rarely the same as those taught by others.

Absolutely false. That Wolfe says this with a straight face and goes on to blather on for seven paragraphs about which religion Kirk could have/should have favored (without mentioning that Kirk was an adult convert to Catholicism!) is embarrassing. For a prominent American intellectual, Wolfe is clearly in over his head.

First of all, though it's not the case that any old religion will do (there are some really heinous religions out there that are incapable of forming the basis of a well-ordered society), it is the case that a society that does not have a common religious identity ends up with some form of civic religion, and that never ends well. Either the state will start to act like the god we've made it into with disastrous if not horrifying results, or the political body will dissolve and collapse upon itself. A state is not something to live or die for - community, family and religion are.

Second, Wolfe's depiction of Catholicism as ideological and therefore antithetical to Kirk's idea of conservatism conflates theology with political philosophy, a mistake I'm betting Kirk would not make. More basic than that, Wolfe never describes what exactly defined Kirk's conservatism. In one section, he opposes it to Kirk's idea of liberalism, but we get no description of what this thing is that Kirk defended. Wolfe describes Kirk's opinion that religion is the foundation of a good society, but that's not a political philosophy. Now, from the little I know about Kirk, I'd say he advocated adhering to our traditions, looking to them first when in need of wisdom, departing from them only when they were shown to be inadequate in the face of the challenges of the time and even then seeking to preserve those things that are good within them. That's a fine thing, and in fact seems to me to be the best way to organize a society, as opposed to the liberal tendency towards sweeping transformation which solves few problems and creates as many. Am I right about that? You will never know by reading Wolfe's essay, which let's remember, purports to be a critique of Kirk's political conservatism.

That's the problem: the essay is one long substanceless cheap shot. Nowhere does Wolfe quote Kirk at length and none of his ideas are treated with any depth. Wolfe's style of argument is: Kirk liked X; there are bad things about X; so Kirk is a fool. For example, read Wolfe, and all you'll know about Kirk's ideas on the Constitution is that he considered it a pillar of our society and that most of the framers were Christian. Wolfe deftly weaves those two facts into four paragraphs of ridicule.

And as if all this wasn't enough, after heaping 6500 words of meritless scorn on Kirk's grave, Wolfe hawks a loogy on it, by implying - and I'm not making this up - that Kirk was into pornography.

I simply can't fathom what Wolfe was trying to do with this hatchet job. Perhaps The New Republic is trying to flex its liberal creds by taking on a conservative icon, throwing red meat to liberals to remind them that the hawkish TNR differs from the allegedly Republican party in many ways. This article fails even at that; it's cheapness is so overt that even the commentors at liberal Matthew Yglesias's weblog are almost uniformly defending Kirk.

UPDATE: A somewhat relevant excerpt from Fr. Neuhaus' "The Public Square" column in the May 2007 issue of First Things:

“The biblical prohibition ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is a piece of naïveté compared with the seriousness of Life’s own ‘Thou shalt not’ issued to decadence: ‘Thou shalt not procreate!’—Life itself recognizes no solidarity, no ‘equal right,’ between the healthy and the degenerate parts of an organism. . . . Sympathy for the decadents, equal rights for the ill-constituted—that would be the profoundest immorality, that would be anti-nature itself as morality!” Thus spake Nietzsche. Of course, the statement is from the texts edited by his pro-Nazi sister. But, as Fr. Edward Oakes points out, similar statements are to be found in other writings. For instance, in Ecce Homo, one of the last books he sent to the publisher before he collapsed into insanity, there is this: “‘If we cast a look a century ahead and assume that my assassination of two thousand years of opposition to nature and of dishonoring humans succeeds, then that new party of life [!] will take in hand the greatest of all tasks—the higher breeding of humanity, including the unsparing destruction of all degenerates and parasites.’ The metaphysical and ethical continuity from these grim passages to Mein Kampf is seamless.”
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Good stuff, Chris.

Thanks, Bill! Hope all is well.


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This page contains a single entry by Papa-Lu published on July 9, 2007 9:22 PM.

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