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Russell Kirk

To condense into a short essay the reason I’m a conservative is no mean feat. From my perspective, in order to represent my reasoning, I need to address not only what it is about conservatism that first captured my attention, but also how I believe that the principles of conservatism best suit humankind’s natural inclinations and that of society as a whole.

My initial introduction to what conservatism embodies was through Russell Kirk’s magnum opus The Conservative Mind. Kirk’s rendering of conservatism’s legacy fascinated me primarily because I found it to be such a noble heritage and I was intrigued by conservatism’s persistent quest for seeking the high moral ground. Kirk’s book was consistent with other works on conservatism I read in their respect for virtue, humility, tradition, and piety grounded in the natural laws of Judeo-Christian beliefs. I found it interesting how those wonderful values are also very much rooted in the formation of local communities that serve as the building blocks for the world’s greatest civilizations, epitomized by America’s founding. I also came to appreciate that conservatism’s respect for ancestral wisdom has served as a guiding principle for leaders from Burke, Washington, Disraeli, and Lincoln to Churchill, Thatcher and Reagan.

However in keeping with the conservative’s propensity for prudence I’ll do my best to refrain from pontificating too much on conservatism’s rich historical heritage or hazard excluding essential elements. I’ll defer to the more capable writings of doyens such as Kirk or George Nash to impart conservatism’s legacy, or recommend the musings of Hawthorne, Chesterton, Tolkien, Orwell or O’Conner to express through life’s lessons the merits of a conservative mindset.

I’ve mentioned the influences that led me to conservatism, but it’s more challenging to express how I actually became a conservative. To read about a philosophy and admire its principles is one thing, but it is altogether different to actually embrace it as a beacon for how one conducts their life. So I feel the best vehicle for articulating that thought is through the metaphor of sports. Now I was never what one would characterize as a magnificent athlete, but I certainly wasn’t a “spaz”. I wasn’t gifted enough to play on any of my high school squads (for the record I vied with 2,500 other boys for spots on the squads), but I played basketball, football and baseball in pickup games on sandlots and playgrounds with passion and verve, savoring the thrills and tribulations of each stretched out triple, missed layup or Hail Mary reception.

It always appeared to me that athletics represent a microcosm of the qualities necessary to subsist in life. Athletes must develop and hone their skills, be prepared for sacrifice, dedication, self-discipline and exhibit a competitive spirit. Sports also have a communal quality. Coaches, trainers, teammates, family, friends, fans, and even fellow competitors are part of the athlete’s overall community, support system and sphere of influence. Most sports also have time-honored traditions, rules, modes of behavior and conduct that the participants and officials hold in high esteem and are maintained as much as possible in consideration of changing times and events.

The athlete also has a sense of humility and piety. They realize their gifts are special and more often than not express an appreciation to a higher power for their unique talent. And of course the ultimate goal of any athletic endeavor is the sweet sensation of victory. How many times have we heard the star player humbly declare that they would forego individual accolades for a team championship? This is the attitude of the dedicated competitor who places their team above personal gain, and their individual accomplishments are only fulfilled if their team earns the admiration of their peers as the best in class.

The attributes of sports are analogous to the values of conservatism on many levels. If we dedicate ourselves to our missions in life, take advantage of our God given talents, respect our fellow man’s person and place, appreciate our obligations to those truly in need, contribute to our community, have a sense of humility, pride and piety, learn lessons from our own decisions and those of other’s, and in the course of life’s journey accumulate some property then, whether we know it or not, we’ve led a life of conservative values. Conservatism, like sports, is the anti-entitlement philosophy. We are only entitled to the spoils of that which we have earned, and respectful of those who endeavor toward greatness.

Russell Kirk once characterized the conservative life as that which strives to live a life of grace. He wrote, “A poor man, if he has dignity, honesty, the respect of his neighbors, a realization of his duties, a love of the wisdom of his ancestors, and possibly some taste for knowledge or beauty, is rich in the unbought grace of life.” Although I may not always hit Kirk’s marks in how I conduct my own life, I couldn’t craft a better testament as to why I am a conservative.

Books by Dr. Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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2 replies to this post
  1. I love reading conservatives' reflections on why they give themselves that designation. (Thank you, Mr. Gallagher.) I especially enjoy essays and memoirs by people who once considered themselves something other than conservative until some event, issue, or person served as a call to adventure, an invitation to embark on an intellectual and spiritual journey. David Horowitz and David Mamet come immediately to mind.

    My own awakening began with William F. Buckley, Jr. I first saw him on television when I was 13 or 14, and I was mesmerized. I gave little thought to politics or ideology at the time, but–I'll risk presumptuousness here–I sensed an accord between his spirit and mine. I bought a few books, received a Buckley daily-word calendar one Christmas, and time passed. Late in high school, I befriended a passionate socialist; found myself in arguments with my parents, who called me shallow and my friend, idealistic; and then came college, Bush 41, Bush 43, and, finally, the writings of Russell Kirk. It was Kirk's love of ancestry with which I felt to be in communion; his dusky imagination and elegant prose reminded me of my grandmother, whose recent death had also meant for me the end of the stately, well-mannered, turn-of-the-century milieu that made visits to her house enchanting. But I have memory, the very quality that Kirk's writings celebrate, and that's how I know that I am a conservative.

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