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conservatismIn 1955, in the pages of Commonweal magazine, Russell Kirk sought to explain the gradual disappearance of serious journals of opinion in the United States and Britain. He offered several possible reasons for this trend: hard economic times and the material sacrifices required to fight two world wars. Yet these causes did not suffice. While literacy rates rose during the previous century, the number of thoughtful readers did not. It was clear to Kirk that the remaining serious journals of opinion “do not have very much to say; and what they do say, most of them say in chorus, with infinite repetition.” With few exceptions, these journals “are the captives of ideology; and ideology…is fatal to thought and style. Their oppressive ideology is ritualistic liberalism.”

These magazines, which are distinguished by their “remarkable dullness,” represent the “old dogmas of progress, equality, international amity, and the paternalism of the state.” And the best way to respond to this dullness is to “revive the great questions which ritualistic liberalism has long ignored.” The best way to do this is to found a conservative journal to remedy the imbalance since the status quo is “a most unhealthy condition for any people. The balance needs to be redressed, and that fairly promptly.”[1]

The previous year, Kirk had circulated among his friends a prospectus for a quarterly journal he believed could serve as an alternative to the overwhelmingly liberal periodical press of his day. Given the absence of even one explicitly conservative journal of opinion, Kirk offered a glimpse of what this new publication could offer the reading public. Openly conservative, Kirk’s review would seek to “revive the best elements of American and European thought.” It would attempt to conserve

the intellectual traditions, the free constitutions, and the old heartiness of our civilized society; it would be forthrightly opposed to political collectivism, social decadence, and effeminacy in thought and literature…. It would not be ashamed of an avowed prejudice in favor of religion, in favor of prescriptive justice, in favor of liberty under law, in favor of the wisdom of our ancestors, in favor of manliness in thought and society. But it would not be afraid to face the problems of our age. [2]

In 1957 Modern Age was born, and Russell Kirk was its first editor. In his “Apology for a New Review” published in the first issue, Kirk proposed to found “a journal of controversy.” Modern Age was to be a “serious journal,” not a “dull and pompous review, but rather a publication which endeavors to reach the minds of men who think of something more than the appetites of the hour.” It seeks to oppose “doctrinaire radical alteration” by pointing to “the wisdom of our ancestors.” While eschewing ideology—“we do not believe we have all the remedies for all the ills to which flesh is heir”—it would instead adhere to the basic principles of conservatism.[3] For fifty years, Modern Age has endeavored to fulfill Kirk’s vision by raising issues and concerns largely ignored by the liberal intelligentsia.

Much has changed since Kirk first called for the creation of a distinctively conservative journal of opinion. Publications and broadcast media outlets have since multiplied as the political fortunes of the post-World War II conservative movement have improved. Today, there are far more voices being heard on the right than Kirk could have imagined in the mid-1950s. But more than this has changed. As conservatives become increasingly seduced by political power, the fundamental objectives that once united them have become obscured. If we recall for instance the contributors to those early numbers of National Review, we must marvel at the unity of purpose and commitment to principle that, alas, no longer permeates elite conservative circles. Figures like Frank Meyer and Willmoore Kendall, Richard Weaver and Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham and Gerhart Niemeyer provided clarity of vision for a fledgling movement. Kirk himself began a long relationship with National Review as a contributing editor and columnist soon after the magazine was launched in 1955. While by no means uniform in their philosophical approach to fundamental questions, they were all serious thinkers who shared a common understanding of basic conservative principles. Conservatives of a traditionalist, anti-communist, and libertarian stripe all favored limited government and opposed attempts to justify the centralization of federal power on ideological grounds foreign to the nation’s founding principles. The increasingly noticeable loss of intellectual rigor on behalf of a common conservative end was acknowledged by National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr. in a 2005 interview. He observed that “conservatism has become a little bit slothful” because “the galvanizing thread that the Soviet Union provided” had disintegrated with the collapse of the Berlin Wall.[4]

Today, with the Cold War over and won, many conservatives are preoccupied with winning elections. All eyes are on Washington, D.C. While there seem to be more conservative voices in national politics, not much seems to change in Washington except the expansion of government. As government grows, so do the definitions of conservatism. There was a time when conservatives fearlessly challenged the dominant liberal thinking in the universities, in the press, and in the nation’s legislative halls. Now the prize is power and position, and if conservative principles need to be sacrificed to obtain them, so be it. The campaigns to elect Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan were not waged to the exclusion of intellectual development and cultural renewal.

One sign of this transformation is the contemporary rhetoric used to describe our historical origins. The Anglo-American roots of our basic political and legal institutions are now obscured by an unjustified sense of exceptionalism, as if our ancestors came to North America from outer space. Nearly all of our earliest colonial ancestors emigrated from Britain and viewed the English constitution as a model for the United States constitution. With few exceptions, there was no great attachment to natural rights theories and abstract principles among the founders. Inherited common law liberties were the foundation of American legal rights.

Defending human reason within the context of a larger moral order, while eschewing rationalism in politics, is the basis of Anglo-American conservatism inspired by Edmund Burke. The founding fathers understood that government was the work of generations, adapting and improving inherited institutions through the exercise of practical reason guided by moral prudence. Though of recent creation, the American constitution was modeled on the much older British precedent. Political ideology like that used to justify the French Revolution was a danger to be avoided, while history, experience, and respect for property were better guides. Abstract philosophizing often ignores human nature and fails to value political compromise. The historical and political basis on which the Old Republic was established has been losing its hold on the conservative mind for too long. A reexamination of the nation’s intellectual origins and their relationship to Anglo-American conservatism should help determine what is worth conserving in our day. A reacquaintance with the nation’s past may help us recover, if possible, what of value has been lost. An appreciation of the political experience of modern Europe will illustrate the impact of abstract ideology on the moral, cultural, and political institutions of a continent to which we are most indebted.

Equality as an abstract principle applied with devastating effect by French revolutionaries has infected modern politics in numerous detrimental ways. Unlike liberty, which seeks to protect individual and family property, the purpose of equality is to redistribute or level the unequally distributed material and immaterial values of a society. Moreover, since the physical and mental strengths of individuals are inherited before birth, any attempt to remove the diversity of gifts by government action necessarily undermines the liberties of those victimized by such leveling policies. And the most blessed are often the most harmed. Burke’s defense of the American Revolution was based on his belief that it sought to defend inherited liberties and not the two values of equality and the nation that the French revolutionaries could use to tyrannize their citizens.

conservatsimThe Jacobin celebration of the “people” or nation opened the door to the despotic power of popular government. To counter this form of modern tyranny, conservatives have upheld the rights of intermediate institutions like families, churches, and provinces, or states in the American context. Such institutions offer a nurturing environment for individuals whose liberties are protected from the abusive power of the central state. Given the important social role local institutions play in the civilizing process, it should not surprise anyone that conservatives have historically opposed liberationist movements. The breakup of society evidenced by a host of familiar social ills can be linked to individualistic hedonism spawned by modern liberal ideology. The feminist movement is a recent political manifestation of abstract theories of equality that emerged from the salons of eighteenth-century continental Europe. Therefore, conservatives who accept the egalitarian premises of feminist ideology have seriously departed from basic conservative principles. Yet, today, Washington-centered conservative magazines lament how ineffectual present-day feminists are in spreading their progressivist doctrine to Muslim countries wary of modern Western values.[5]

The conservative obsession with securing and maintaining political power has resulted in the neglect of our cultural health. And there can be no lasting reform in Washington if it cannot be sustained by a popular will cultivated by public expressions of conservative culture. An appreciation of the arts must, therefore, become a priority for conservatives. Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, has rightly identified the mutual estrangement between artists, scholars, and scientists, and the larger public.[6] “Art,” he says, “awakens, enlarges, refines and restores our humanity.” But the public has failed to appreciate what the arts can offer and is content to sit in front of television screens and computer terminals oblivious of the cultural richness that is available to it if only it would seek it out.

Part of this problem, Gioia says, can be blamed on the artists and academics themselves who have “lost their ability to converse with the rest of society.” Here, he is too kind to our cultural elites. If art program budgets at present-day high schools are the first to be cut—unlike when Gioia was growing up forty-odd years ago—it is because those who produce what passes for art today have not given the public any confidence that its investment in the arts has paid off. We are surrounded by ugliness, in our public monuments and buildings, and in what passes for contemporary art. It is no surprise that what we see in our daily lives gives us little reason for hope.

Art and architecture, environmental conservation and urban planning, are concerns conservatives have foolishly ceded to the Left and to aesthetically challenged developers whose only consideration is the construction of the cheapest structure for sale at the highest price without taking into account any other value. Conservatism is more than the promotion of efficiency and the maximization of profit. Kirk knew that “a conservative order is not the creation of the free entrepreneur.”[7] A culture worthy of our respect and affection offers a great deal more than merely an opportunity to accumulate wealth. Just as the natural world contributes to our humanity, so too do beautiful buildings, statues, monuments and, yes, even properly planned urban centers. Truth and beauty go hand in hand. Beauty gives testimony to the reality of truth; it reminds us that the universe which we inhabit is ordered by transcendent laws that we ignore at our peril.

For fifty years, Modern Age has defended spiritual values against “oppressive ideology” and “doctrinaire radical alteration.” It has challenged “effeminacy in thought” in favor of “manliness in thought and society.” For five decades, it has favored “the wisdom of our ancestors.” It has “face[d] the problems of our age” and revived “the great questions which ritualistic liberalism has long ignored.” As new challenges arise and old ones reappear, conservatives must be true to their fundamental principles if they hope to preserve what is good in our civilization. This fiftieth anniversary issue of Modern Age intends, if only in a modest way, to provide some direction for the road ahead.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of Modern Age. (Fall 2007)

Notes:

1. Russell Kirk, “The Age of Discussion,” Commonweal (November 11, 1955), 135-138.

2. Quoted in George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 (New York, 1976),

3. Russell Kirk, “Apology for a New Review,” Modern Age (Summer 1957), 2-3.

4. See Joseph Rago, “The Weekend Interview with William F. Buckley Jr.: Old School” Wall Street Journal (November12, 2005), A6.

5. For example, see Christina Hoff Sommers, “The Subjection of Islamic Women,” The Weekly Standard (May 21, 2007), 14-20.

6. Dana Gioia, “The Impoverishment of American Culture” Wall Street Journal (July 19, 2007), D7.

7. Nash, 198.

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3 replies to this post
  1. “Equality as an abstract principle applied with devastating effect by French revolutionaries ”

    I don’t think the problem with the French Revolution was equality. The problem is it was run by evil men who fell in love with their own blood-lust. The fact that most of them ended up guillotining each other just seems proof of a cosmic sense of justice (and maybe humor).

  2. “Part of this problem, Gioia says, can be blamed on the artists and academics themselves who have “lost their ability to converse with the rest of society.” Here, he is too kind to our cultural elites. If art program budgets at present-day high schools are the first to be cut—unlike when Gioia was growing up forty-odd years ago—it is because those who produce what passes for art today have not given the public any confidence that its investment in the arts has paid off. We are surrounded by ugliness, in our public monuments and buildings, and in what passes for contemporary art. It is no surprise that what we see in our daily lives gives us little reason for hope.”

    Another part of the problem is that conservatives complain about this stuff all day and do nothing themselves to support artists or build counter cultural institutions

  3. What is the point if not to capture political power? If you don’t have power then you can’t accomplish anything, and all one is left with is whining about how the world is going to hell in a hand basket. Perhaps that’s why there are so many conservative whiners. I’ve come to the conclusion they enjoy whining.

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