by Mike Church
This week The Imaginative Conservative Editor-in-Chief W. Winston Elliott III discussed The Imaginative Conservative‘s third birthday and Russell Kirk’s penchant for ghost stories on The Mike Church Show.
Mike: Let’s say hello to my dear friend, the one and only Winston Elliott III, Editor-in-Chief of The Imaginative Conservative, the place to tickle your brain cells on a daily basis and read about what real conservatives of days gone by might have said about today’s conservatives, as well as what some of today’s conservatives say about the future of conservatism. Winston, how are you?
Winston Elliott: Good morning, Mike, how are you? Good to talk to you.
Mike: I’m fantastic. Don’t give me all that business proper stuff, Mr. Elliott. Talk to me the way you talk to me when we’re at a tennis club, you understand?
Winston: I don’t know if I can say a lot of that stuff on the air. I was thinking you were going to start off by singing “Happy Birthday” this morning.
Mike: I didn’t know today is your birthday.
Winston: It’s the third birthday of The Imaginative Conservative.
Mike: Oh, well happy birthday to The Imaginative Conservative. Do you know what else today is? Today is Happy Aaron Burr Day.
Winston: We weren’t celebrating that. I’m not sure why. He had a fine aim, I can tell you that.
Mike: He did have a good aim. Actually yesterday was Happy Aaron Burr Day.
Winston: Yesterday, the 10th, was the exact day we posted our first post three years ago on The Imaginative Conservative.
Mike: It’s a funny confluence of events; you can only thank the Lord for the way things work out sometimes. I had never heard of The Imaginative Conservative. I only knew about it because I had your co-founder, the wonderful and esteemed Brad Birzer who will be on this program tomorrow, on the show and we were talking about his great book on the forgotten founding father Charles Carroll of Carrollton, American Cicero. I asked Brad what else he was doing and where else folks could read his work and he goes: “as a matter of fact, Mike, I’m working with this guy Winston Elliott III and we’ve launched this website called The Imaginative Conservative—there’s some good stuff there.” I said: “Okay, sure.” I went there and started reading it and corresponding with you. It is a wonderful site.
For those who are not familiar with the term “imaginative conservative,” this is always a great place to start when you’re talking about conservatism. People’s idea of conservatism is war, more war, tax cuts, throw in some family values, add an homage to those guys called the founding fathers, and then add more war, border security, and then there’s spies and war. There’s actually a lot more to conservatism, and this is the best part of The Imaginative Conservative. Great men like Russell Kirk actually were very arm’s length when it came to politics. They didn’t get involved in politics very much. They didn’t talk about them or write about them. They wrote about conservatism, but it wasn’t about political conservatism, was it?
Winston: No. While politics is important, it’s a subset of the cultural issues that we deal with as conservatives, as human beings. At The Imaginative Conservative, we are dedicated to seeking the true, the good and the beautiful. We address culture, liberal learning, politics, economics, literature, the arts, and we do all that in the tradition of Russell Kirk, T.S. Eliot, Edmund Burke, Irving Babbitt, Mel Bradford, and Christopher Dawson. The idea, for us, is to understand conservatism in its deepest and broadest sense, which is to conserve, the root word being conserve (conservator in French)—to preserve the best that has come before all of our heritage, to enhance it in our lifetime, and then to pass it onto those who come after us. We certainly do spend time with politics, but we also recognize that the most important thing about the human person is not their political life but instead the purpose of human life, which is much broader than that.
Mike: When you talk about the purpose of human life, and when you talk about some of the things that I have read of late at The Imaginative Conservative, and we find ourselves in a discussion where we should be talking about some of the things that are right with our world. We tend to, as Brad Birzer says, conservatives today—or people that call themselves conservatives and those that have hijacked the term for their own commercial uses—have all achieved expert status when it comes to criticism. We’re great at what John Adams called “tearing down the building.” We’re great at tearing down the building. We’re not very good at looking at the foundations of the building and saying: “that’s a really good part of life there. That’s a really good part of being alive in 2013. That’s a really beautiful part of being a citizen of Texas and an American citizen.” We tend to not look for these things often enough, do we?
Winston: We have, unfortunately, a tendency to focus quite often on the negative, yet that’s not necessary. We as conservatives, as those who wish to preserve the best of our heritage, those who wish to enhance it in the areas of art, culture, theology, and education, we have a lot to offer that actually can be very attractive. But I had a mentor who always told me that in order to attract other people, you must be attractive. Our anger, our resentment, and our critical nature are typically not our most attractive features. I think it’s beneficial, and we try to do this at The Imaginative Conservative, to say that there is a value in cultural and political criticisms, but there’s a greater value in offering a vision of what we believe should be done in the area of culture and politics and how a man should live his life.
Dr. Kirk said,
“the conservative is concerned, first of all, with the regeneration of spirit and character, with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at its highest.”
It’s at a much broader and much more important level to what goes on in our lives. To be too dedicated, too focused on what’s happening in Washington, or in our case what’s happening in Austin or what’s happening at the city council, it’s actually, I think, to detract from the beautiful things that happen in our families, in our relationships, in the love and goodness that we can offer to people.
As you know, I recently gave a speech in Baltimore that was entitled “Joy Cometh in the Morning,” which actually is from the 30th Psalm. The psalm is talking about our place in eternity, our place in the divine plan. We go through tribulations and challenges, but in the end, joy cometh in the morning. That’s what we as conservatives have to offer. Yes, we recognize the difficulties we face in the culture in politics and economics, but in the end, we know that for those who believe this is not the end, but a temporary place for us to be to find our way to join with the eternal love that God offers us, there’s actually a joy coming in the morning. If we offer that as conservatives, we have a much more attractive and true message than to simply criticize the current failures of culture or politics.
Mike: The failures of culture and politics are very wide and very well-known these days. But the conservatism you’re talking about is not well-known and this is why I asked Winston to be on the program. I made it one of my goals this year to try and mitigate the nonstop, incessant, and, I think, obsessive conversations we tend to have just about the rottenness of our politics. Maybe our politics are acrimonious; they certainly are superfluous. I don’t think a lot of the things we talk about are very serious because at the end of the day, we pretty much know the way these things are going to be adjudicated on our behalf. Somebody is going to vote this way because their party says they should, and somebody else is going to vote that way because their party says they should; a law is probably going to get implemented, and then it’s probably going to go to a court. Then a court is going to just step in and make it inviolate and smash a gavel down and we’re all going to have to live with it. It just gets kind of monotonous and tiring after you rinse and repeat and keep doing this. There has to be more to this. There has got to be more to this discussion. And lo and behold—there is.
What’s really, I think, enlightening about all this, you mentioned Mel Bradford and Dr. Kirk as some of the great writers. Of course, the great M.E. Bradford is my favorite of the 20th century to read. I haven’t read all of Eliot and some of the men you mentioned, but I have read an awful lot of Bradford and an awful lot of Kirk. A lot of people don’t know that Melvin Bradford didn’t start off as an historian, right Winston? He started off as a professor of literature, right?
Winston: Yes. At the University of Dallas, he was a very respected and well-known professor of literature. Although you and I greatly admire and enjoy his writings on the American founding, politics, and the Southern tradition, actually he has written many beautiful essays on literature and literary criticism which are some of his finest work. I also think it’s important for us to also look at someone like Dr. Kirk, who we know for writing books like The Conservative Mind and Roots of American Order, which are focused on American history and American political culture. At the same time, Dr. Kirk was famous for much of his career as a great writer of fictional short stories. As a matter of fact, he wrote ghost stories. He wrote them in a way that helped draw out the most important questions of human life: What is our character? How is our virtue formed? When we fall to temptation, is there a way back; is there a way to redeem ourselves? Is there a higher purpose in life than just seeking economic or personal pleasures? For every right, is there a duty? He makes this clear in short stories and his novels in a way that’s very powerful. I think that’s part of what we as cultural conservatives have to offer. We understand that just offering rhetoric and nonfiction essays that keep reiterating the same political or cultural points is not enough. We have to remember that there’s a power in inspiration, in love, and in relationships. We have children, parents, wives, and husbands. We want to recognize the fullness of the human person.
We’ve been tricked in a way by the modern culture into saying: it’s all about politics and economics and that’s the only thing the news talks about. The next thing we know, we’re almost fans. I cheer for the red team and you cheer for the blue team—Republicans versus Democrats. I hate your team. My cheerleaders have the right colors on for my team. The thing is, I like sports. As you know, I’m a big fan of the Texans, but that is not the height of life. Just because it’s in the headlines today, although it may make it urgent, does not make it important. As conservatives, we have to seek to understand, appreciate, and explain those things that are essential to the human person. We have to focus on the most important things first and not be driven by the media or the current political debates in trying to figure out what’s essential. As a matter of fact, most often what the media is talking about are some of the least important issues we could possibly discuss with our family, our friends, our colleagues to make a positive difference in their lives.
Mike: You mean what George Zimmerman’s motivations were that night is not the most important thing on Earth right now?
Winston: You tell me if you disagree with this: it is possible that the media actually picks those stories that are not most important but are most exciting, that have the best pictures and drive the most emotion, so they can keep the most eyes and ears focused on their media, and thus sell more advertising. I don’t think they’re particularly concerned with the state of our souls or the state of our character as a nation, the state of education, or the state of the family. What they want to do is divide us and cause us to get into an argument because arguments are interesting. Really, what we want to do is live lives that call forth the best that’s within us and offer that best, offer those good things, offer the true, the good, and the beautiful to all those we come in contact with. That’s going to make us attractive. That’s going to make our principles more appreciated by those who either don’t understand them or think they disagree with them, without even truly understanding what we’re trying to do.
Mike: One of the things that I had made a note I wanted to ask you today, it got eclipsed by reading your wife’s wonderful short story—this is going to make a great movie, by the way. I’m going to option the movie rights on this. Barbara Elliott, posting this story about this fictional trial going on. St. Peter has Senator Screwtape on trial for the ecclesiastical and cultural transgressions of the United States and its government. I was chuckling as I was reading today. I think that’s part of conservatism that we don’t often, as you so eloquently pointed out, we don’t often think is a part of the conservative mind.
There’s another part of it, and that is part of the human condition and our experience as people. One of the things we like—the reason we like movies, television shows, fiction short stories, or novels—is because they tell great stories. Everyone likes a good story. I was reading Rod Dreher, who is an imaginative conservative by the way, at The American Conservative the other day. Dreher has a post called “Story Lines, Not Party Lines.” It’s a wonderful little essay. Dreher makes the point that great stories sell great ideas. You can’t just say: “we ought to have a flat tax.” If you told a story about a bunch of farm animals that had an argument over whether or not they wanted to do something and it was a metaphor for a flat tax, you’d get a lot more people to read it than you would just saying: “we ought to have a flat tax.” Right?
Winston: That’s exactly right. That’s part of what we have to remember as we’re trying to get people to understand the importance of the principles that we offer as conservatives. For instance, if you’re having a dinner conversation with your friends or family, are they more likely to quote a political speech or a movie, book, or essay they’ve read? At least in the circles I travel in and in talking with my family, there are a lot of quotes from movies and shows we like and songs we like. That’s part of what we should be able to do, to offer an imaginative conservatism that is able to express the kinds of things we believe in, but do so by creating excellent art. That’s part of the fun with Barbara’s article, which is called, “Celestial Courtroom: America at the Judgment of the Nations,” where she’s talking about the issues of the day. She’s talking about the boundaries on religion. She’s talking about how the founders are often portrayed in the media as being nonbelievers and as people who want a religion banned from public life. She does this by crafting a courtroom drama. Senator Screwtape is a character from one of C.S. Lewis’ books. It’s a fun way to examine those issues of what the founders talked about with religion, but in a courtroom drama. If you look at our site this week, there’s a wonderful essay by Stephen Masty called “The Death of Western Civilization” where he has portrayed a teacher who’s teaching 400 years from now about the fragmentation of Western civilization that happened essentially in our time, and explaining it in a way that brings it all together. It’s a really great story with a serious message.
In our case, we’re trying to also be a bridge. There are many great conservative thinkers, but often their writing is such that it’s not particularly accessible to the average person reading today. So, if we can take those ideas and present them in a way that allows folks who don’t want to go read a 400-page book to get the essence of the principles in a story, short essay, poem, or a brief lecture, then it’s a way they can share it with others and have it be a part of their lives.
In the end, Mike, we want to live the best lives we can as human persons. We want to serve the purpose that God has given us. We want to offer the best opportunities we can to our children, our loved ones, our communities. The way to do that is to be able to communicate with people where they are. On a day-to-day basis, we might listen to the political headlines, but we don’t want to spend all our time arguing politics with our kids. We want to help give them the kind of character and vision that we hope is the best for them and going to make the biggest difference in them becoming the kind of people we hope they would be. That’s not about politics or arguing. It’s about the gift and the gratitude we have for what we’ve been given and how we can pass that on.
Mike: Very well said. Final question for Winston Elliott III, the Editor-in-Chief of The Imaginative Conservative. Find The Imaginative Conservative on Twitter and Facebook. I just wonder, today is the third birthday, the third anniversary of the launch of the journal. Any coincidence that today is also the Feast of St. Benedict?
Winston: Well, there is some coincidence to that. Brad Birzer and I, who co-founded The Imaginative Conservative together, have a great admiration for St. Benedict and for his work of evangelization, his work of spreading the good news in a way that those who’ve never heard it before can hear it. I think that’s a good role model for us as conservatives. We have good news to spread. We have great wealth. We have a cornucopia, a treasure, of truth and principle and love for beauty, a way to find true joy, not in a hedonistic way but in a way that draw from the best of our Western heritage.
This is best expressed in the most important book that any of us could read when it says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about these things.” That’s from Philippians 4:8. This is a kind of a credo for conservatives. What is noble, what is right, was is admirable, what is lovely? We have that to offer. If we offer it to those around us, we have a much better opportunity to effect good in our culture and even in the political world than if we are simply pointing out all that is wrong.
Mike: Winston, thank you very much. It’s great to have you. Congratulations on three wonderful years. I hope 27 years from now you and I are still alive and talking about three wonderful decades.
Winston: Mike, thank you. Thank you for being a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative for the last two years. We appreciate what you’ve written that we’ve published, and we appreciate the opportunity to be a part of your community and to have you as part of ours.
Mike: It’s an honor, my friend, an honor. He’s Winston Elliott III. Winston, we’ll see you again very soon. Thanks a lot, my friend.
Winston: Thank you.
Mike: Give my best to your lovely wife, by the way. Tell her nice job on the “Celestial Courtroom.”
Winston: I will tell her. And Mike, never forget, joy cometh in the morning!
Mike: Talk to you soon.