Mandeville, LA – Exclusive Audio and Transcript – Today on The Imaginative Conservative website, Clyde Wilson, the inimitable Clyde Wilson, one of the great living legends of Southern literature — you may know that he co-wrote the book with Brion McClanahan Forgotten Conservatives in American History. Wilson writes this about the great Russell Kirk, the father of the modern conservative movement, a man that I think many of us would do well to emulate, to study, and to study what Kirk studied… Check out the rest in today’s audio and transcript…
Begin Mike Church Show Transcript
Mike: Today on The Imaginative Conservative website, Clyde Wilson, the inimitable Clyde Wilson, one of the great living legends of Southern literature — you may know that he co-wrote the book with Brion McClanahan Forgotten Conservatives in American History. Wilson writes this about the great Russell Kirk, the father of the modern conservative movement, a man that I think many of us would do well to emulate, to study, and to study what Kirk studied:
In his characteristically charming style, which eschewed the journalistic, polemical, and pedantic, and hearkened back more than any other writer of our time to the graceful, gentlemanly communication of eighteenth century Britain, Kirk observed, in another late piece:
“More than sixty years ago, when I was a fourth-grader in the very northern town of Plymouth, Michigan, twelve Southerners published a book entitled I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition. That same volume, a heartfelt defense of the permanent things in the South’s culture, has been discussed ever since…Young men and women who come to study with me in my northern fastness discovery this literature—even without my having commented on any of it—and read the books, night upon night, even to the witching hour of three.”
On many other occasions, Kirk praised the Southern Agrarians, whom he likened to the “Celts of the Twilight,” going often to battle but seldom to victory. “The authors of I’ll Take My Stand did not propound a rigorous ideology or display a model of Utopia; the principle purpose it was to open eyes to the illusions of Modernism.” Their position was “not the only mode of conservative thought, but it is an important mode.”
The aims that Kirk correctly ascribed to the Southern writers were, of course his own; and the same is true of their disciple Richard Weaver and of every other twentieth-century thinker worthy to wear the colors of traditionalist.
Mike: Folks, virtue, gentlemanly behavior, tradition, these are things that we must reclaim if we’re going to reclaim self-government. Mark it down. You’ll never get self-government or any of your precious liberties back until you regain your traditions, your institution, gentlemanly behavior and your virtues. Write it down. Inscribe it somewhere so that an archaeologist can find it 500 years from now, make sure you sign it me, and determine that I, inspired by men like Kirk, inspired by Burke, by Aristotle, was correct.
They were engaged in a common struggle—a fight, as Bradford put it, against “discontinuity, rupture, and drastic innovation.” That is to say, they stood against that strong current of Americanism that regards our country as a notion, an unfinished infinitely malleable proposition for progress and democracy. [Mike: Boy, is that true!]
America was, rather, though a new land in the wilderness, a fabric of culture stretching back to Jerusalem, Rome, Athens, and London. Which is, of course, self-evidently true and yet ignored in most of our public discourse, including the words of so many who fancied themselves “conservatives.” As Bradford described in his essay on Kirk’s achievements: “Kirk’s amiable but unremitting determination is to require of our generation a grudging admission that America has a religious, a moral, and therefore a political genealogy; a patrimony that could be called unrevolutionary and not at all modern….”
Russell Kirk was invariably “amiable,” as Bradford put it, as well as eclectic and generous. His conservatism was never an ideology but a wide net that captured all who gave allegiance to “the permanent things.” [Mike: There’s your obedience to the unenforceable, by the way.] (“The permanent things” and the “moral imagination” were two of Kirk’s favorite phrases.) Only very rarely was he provoked into a mild irritation with those he felt were not true defenders of the permanent things, such as libertarians and neo-conservatives.
Thus, while Kirk did not like to emphasize differences, being a student of history he understood perfectly well tensions and incompatibilities between different ways of being conservative. The incompatibility, for instance, between the tradition presented by Randolph, and Calhoun, and Brownson, on the one hand, and that of Alexander Hamilton, on the other hand, that dubious conservative who “fascinates those numerous Americans among whom the acquisitive instinct is confounded with the conservative tendency.”
Patrick Buchanan, in his tribute to Kirk, put the same lesson in slightly different words. He summarized Kirk’s primary message as the truth that ideology, the curse of our sad century, is merely a sham religion that takes possession of a soul that is empty. Whether it is fascism, Marxism, democratic capitalism, “the end of history,” or any other secular utopia. [Mike: You can also throw in there “free market capitalism.” That’s just another religion, another secular religion that so many bow down on bended knee and genuflect in front of as though that is the American experience.]
This rejection of ideology is a mode of thinking, and living, that Kirk shared with the Southern Agrarians and with the subject of his first book, Randolph of Roanoke: A Study in Conservative Thought. For many years I have asked persons at various conservative gatherings what books have most influenced their thinking. A surprisingly large number, over three decades or more, have pointed to Kirk’s Randolph, more than have mentioned The Conservative Mind.
That a conservative of Kirk’s stamp should value the south should not shock anyone. It was, after all, Randolph, the quintessentially Southern statesman, who said, “I love liberty and hate equality,” thus summing up the American traditionalist’s creed as well as it has ever been done. Where else in American than in the South could Kirk find substantial and continuing traditions to oppose egalitarianism and utilitarianism, to affirm the American link with British culture and a propertied order, a preference for local liberties and prescriptive rights, and a distaste for abstract schemes and rationalistic progress?
End Mike Church Show Transcript