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(October 19, 1918 in Plymouth, Michigan – April 29, 1994 in Mecosta, Michigan) was an American political theorist, moralist, historian, social critic, literary critic, and fiction author known for his influence on 20th century American conservatism. His 1953 book, The Conservative Mind, gave shape to the amorphous post-World War IIconservative movement. It traced the development of conservative thought in the Anglo-American tradition, giving special importance to the ideas of Edmund Burke. Kirk was also considered the chief proponent of traditionalist conservatism
He was the son of Russell Andrew Kirk, a railroad engineer, and Marjorie Pierce Kirk. Kirk obtained his BA at Michigan State Universityand a M.A. at Duke University. During World War II, he served in the American armed forces and corresponded with a libertarian writer, Isabel Paterson, who helped to shape his early political thought. After the war, he attended the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. In 1953, he became the only American to be awarded the degree of Doctor of Letters by that university.
Kirk "laid out a post-World War II program for conservatives by warning them, 'A handful of individuals, some of them quite unused to moral responsibilities on such a scale, made it their business to extirpate the populations of Nagasaki and Hiroshima; we must make it our business to curtail the possibility of such snap decisions.'"
Upon completing his studies, Kirk took up an academic position at his alma mater, Michigan State. He resigned in 1959, after having become disenchanted with that university's academic standards, rapid growth in student numbers, and emphasis on intercollegiate athletics and technical training at the expense of the traditional liberal arts. Thereafter he referred to Michigan State as "Cow College" or "Behemoth University." He later wrote that academic political scientists and sociologists were "as a breed—dull dogs". Late in life, he taught one semester a year at Hillsdale College, where he was Distinguished Visiting Professor of Humanities.
Kirk frequently published in two American conservative journals he helped found, National Review in 1955 and Modern Age in 1957. He was the founding editor of the latter, 1957–59. Later he was made a Distinguished Fellow of the Heritage Foundation, where he gave a number of lectures.
After leaving Michigan State, Kirk returned to his ancestral home in Mecosta, Michigan, where he wrote the many books, academic articles, lectures, and the syndicated newspaper column (which ran for 13 years) by which he exerted his influence on American politics and intellectual life. In 1963, Kirk converted to Catholicism and married Annette Courtemanche; they had four daughters. She and Kirk became known for their hospitality, welcoming many political, philosophical, and literary figures in their Mecosta house (known as "Piety Hill"), and giving shelter to political refugees, hoboes, and others. Their home became the site of a sort of seminar on conservative thought for university students. Piety Hill now houses the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. After his conversion to Catholicism Kirk was a founding board member of Una Voce America.
Kirk declined to drive, calling cars "mechanical Jacobins", and would have nothing to do with television and what he called "electronic computers".
Kirk did not always maintain a stereotypically "conservative" voting record. "Faced with the non-choice between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Thomas Dewey in 1944, Kirk said no to empire and voted for Norman Thomas, theSocialist Party candidate." In the 1976 presidential election, he voted for Eugene McCarthy. In 1992 he supported Pat Buchanan's primary challenge to incumbent George H. W. Bush, serving as state chair of the Buchanan campaign in Michigan.
The Conservative Mind
Part of a series on conservatism
The Portable Conservative Reader (1982), which Kirk edited, contains sample writings by most of the above.
Not everyone agreed with Kirk's reading of the conservative heritage and tradition. For example, Harry Jaffa (a student of Leo Strauss) wrote: "Kirk was a poor Burke scholar. Burke's attack on metaphysical reasoning related only to modern philosophy's attempt to eliminate skeptical doubt from its premises and hence from its conclusions.
Russello (2004) argues that Kirk adapted what 19th-century American Catholic thinker Orestes Brownson called "territorial democracy" to articulate a version of federalism that was based on premises that differ in part from those of the Founders and other conservatives. Kirk further believed that territorial democracy could reconcile the tension between treating the states as mere provinces of the central government, and as autonomous political units independent of Washington. Finally, territorial democracy allowed Kirk to set out a theory of individual rights grounded in the particular historical circumstances of the United States, while rejecting a universal conception of such rights.
Kirk developed six "canons" of conservatism, which Russello (2004) described as follows:
Kirk said that Christianity and Western Civilization are "unimaginable apart from one another" and that "all culture arises out of religion. When religious faith decays, culture must decline, though often seeming to flourish for a space after the religion which has nourished it has sunk into disbelief.
Kirk and libertarianism
Kirk grounded his Burkean conservatism in tradition, political philosophy, belles lettres, and the strong religious faith of his later years; rather than libertarianism and free marketeconomic reasoning. The Conservative Mind hardly mentions economics at all.
In a polemic essay, Kirk (quoting T. S. Eliot) called libertarians "chirping sectaries," adding that they and conservatives have nothing in common (despite his early correspondence with the libertarian Isabel Paterson). He called the libertarian movement "an ideological clique forever splitting into sects still smaller and odder, but rarely conjugating." He said a line of division exists between believers in "some sort of transcendent moral order" and "utilitarians admitting no transcendent sanctions for conduct." He included libertarians in the latter category Kirk, therefore, questioned the "fusionism" between libertarians and traditional conservatives that marked much of post-World War II conservatism in the United States.
Kirk's view of "classical liberals" is positive though; he agrees with them on "ordered liberty" as they make "common cause with regular conservatives against the menace of democratic despotism and economic collectivism."
Tibor R. Machan defended libertarianism in response to Kirk's original Heritage Lecture. Machan argued that the right of individual sovereignty is perhaps most worthy of conserving from the American political heritage, and that when conservatives themselves talk about preserving some tradition, they cannot at the same time claim a disrespectful distrust of the individual human mind, of rationalism itself.
Jacob G. Hornberger of the Future of Freedom Foundation also responded to Kirk.
Kirk and neoconservatism
Late in life, Kirk grew disenchanted with American neoconservatives as well. As Chronicles editor Scott Richert describes it:
This helped define the emerging struggle between neoconservatives and paleoconservatives. "Not seldom has it seemed," Kirk declared, "as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States." But no one pointed out to him that he had committed a blunder geographical, that the capital of Israel is Jerusalem and not Tel Aviv. A few years later, in another Heritage Foundation speech, Kirk repeated that line verbatim. In the wake of the Gulf War, which he had opposed, he clearly understood that those words carried even greater meaning.
He also commented the neoconservatives were "often clever, never wise."
Midge Decter, director of the Committee for the Free World, called Kirk's remark "a bloody outrage, a piece of anti-Semitism by Kirk that impugns the loyalty of neoconservatives. She told The New Republic, "It's this notion of a Christian civilization. You have to be part of it or you're not really fit to conserve anything. That's an old line and it's very ignorant.
Samuel T. Francis called Kirk's "Tel Aviv" remark "a wisecrack about the slavishly pro-Israel sympathies among neoconservatives. He described Decter's response as untrue, "reckless" and "vitriolic." Furthermore, he argued that such a denunciation "always plays into the hands of the left, which is then able to repeat the charges and claim conservative endorsement of them.
Kirk and the Gulf War
Toward the end of his life, Russell Kirk was highly critical of Republican militarism. President Bush, Kirk said, had embarked upon "a radical course of intervention in the region of the Persian Gulf.
Excerpts from Russell Kirk's lectures at the Heritage Foundation (1992):
Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson were enthusiasts for American domination of the world. Now George Bush appears to be emulating those eminent Democrats. When the Republicans, once upon a time, nominated for the presidency a "One 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.