A response to Russel Kirk’s Ten Principles

In 1986, Russel Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind and long considered the initiator of intellectual conservatism in the U.S., offered ten principles of conservatism that he felt we a start on a fuller exposition. His editorship of The Conservative Reader is a major contribution to our understanding of this “mind.” (Any “mind” title should raise suspicions. Some, like The Arab Mind, have deserved condemnation; others, like The Reactionary Mind, have at least offered thoughtful and informed analysis of what conservatives have written)
My reactions to what Kirk’s principles are heavily influenced by my long association with African-Americans and their experience. “Long” is important b/c it means I can recall the days when my wife looked for work to get her through college and we both read “White Only” over and over. So my reactions are a bit piece-meal and do not pretend to be a general review of conservative thought and its implication.
Going in order (these can be found at https://kirkcenter.org/conservatism/ten-conservative-principles/)

Kirk declares that a society that “in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society – no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be.” (I will set in red those items I want to focus on in his language b/c to me a good deal of this language is a kind of reading between the lines, a “we know what you mean” sort of thing, and I will therefore elaborate as I am on these first two)

“…ignorant of norms” does not refer to Trump supporters; they know the norms, they just choose to violate them. Kirk here means the formal and cultural norms established by some group in the society. Which group? Imagine yourself trying to break into such a group but not knowing the norms; how do you learn them? Only if the members want you to learn them.

The voting comment is striking since the Voting Rights Act had just recently opened up voting to Blacks in the South. So suddenly voting is no longer important if the people voting are ignorant of norms.

“… that we contrive to avoid perpetual disputes about rights and duties” is loaded with implications for those challenging long cherished norms and traditions. Cherished by who(m)?

In fact, that whole paragraph deserves quoting (it’s the second principle)

“Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity. It is old custom that enables people to live together peaceably; the destroyers of custom demolish more than they know or desire. It is through convention – a word much abused in our time – that we contrive to avoid perpetual disputes about rights and duties: law at base is a body of conventions. Continuity is the means of linking generation to generation’ it matters as much for society as for the individual; without it, life is meaningless. When successful revolutionaries have effaced old customs, derided old conventions, and broken the continuity of social institutions – why, presently they discover the necessity of establishing fresh customs, conventions, and continuity; but that process is painful and slow; and the new social order that eventually emerges may be much inferior to the old order that radicals overthrew in their zeal for the Earthly Paradise.”

Does anyone else sense condescension in the “… why, presently….”?

Anyway, let’s unpack this mess. Live together peaceably on whose terms? Here, as forever throughout this response, I must refer to what is called the race issue, and for two reasons. One, I think this is often what Kirk has in mind, the social revolution brought about in part by the Civil Rights Movement or, as he would say, “perpetual disputes about rights and duties.” The other, two, is how a conservative rule over society would have blocked the Movement. Remember, that Kirk is not talking about a set of principles, truly, but is talking about a mind set. And all conservative writings I have seen readily admit this and, in fact, pride themselves on lacking a doctrine.

To continue: the conventions of law to the sight of anyone with sight are established by the powerful. Here we have the heart of conservatism: the authoritarian proclivity. “We have the power not only to make the law but to declare ourselves superior to others by that very act, therefore, we are in reality above the law b/c we create the law.” The only way to change anything then is to go hat-in-hand to the law makers and convention holders. Those radicals he refers to are what we call The Founding Fathers. Often Kirk’s words can be applied to objects he may not have thought of. For instance, the social order he says is the result of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice. Could that not apply to the Civil Rights Movement, trial, reflection and sacrifice after three centuries and more of “reflection”? This social order, he says, comes as artificial products: order, justice and freedom; but if society must be “organic”, how does he account for this artificiality? Hmmm.

Throughout the Ten Principles, anyone not conservative is painted as a radical, much the way Fox News portrays liberals as wanting to do away with international borders. And we have to ask ourselves just what custom he has in mind. Perhaps The Code of the South?

Not everything he says is against change. He says there does exist necessary change, but it must be gradual and discriminatory. Now I agree with that. Does that make me a conservative? No. What makes me a liberal is what change I see as necessary. And “all deliberate speed” was taken to mean so gradual that nothing ever changed.

One of the rights Kirk asserts is the right to property. Why, then, would he support conservative regimes which limited property rights? Not having read The Conservative Mind yet, I do not know of any examples he uses of people having these rights, but I do know of many instances where people did not and do not have such rights. It would be interesting to see how he would respond to those instances. Somehow I doubt they would meet universal condemnation on his part and he might struggle to find excuses for such denial.

A striking passage quotes Burke saying that we should abide even by prejudice, “for the great mysterious incorporation of the human race has acquired prescriptive wisdom far greater than any man’s petty private rationality.” Nowadays we associate the word prejudice with racism, so let’s divest the word of that and recognize the general meaning of prejudice. We have all know prejudiced people, people who made up their minds about olives or tamales without ever tasting one; we regard them with amusement. So with someone who has made up his mind about a particular group of people, e.g union members (my dentist thinks people “should work for a living”), teenagers, woman, foreigners, Democrats, NASCAR, and, yes, Blacks. Amusement trades places with bemusement as we listen to someone express their prejudices toward African-Americans, as in, “Well, I know it’s not politically correct, but that’s just the way I was raised. Besides, five Black guys jumped me in fifth grade.” That pretty well settles it. Or, “I learned all I need to know about Islam on 9/11.” Yup.

Well, amusement or bemusement, the tendency is to let folks like that paddle their own canoe and ignore the more distasteful parts of them, especially if they are a relative. But what if you are the target of that prejudice and Uncle Harry says he has gone to his boss and said, as one of the key employees, that he does not relish taking orders from a Jew? Now what? Does the boss have a right to strike back, to negotiate? And might negotiation involve transfers for no reason other than Uncle Harry’s prejudice? And does the Jew have a right to strike back, to even know what is going on? Does he have the right to be represented in this matter by a union, a professional organization, an attorney? That is, how do we deal with prejudice? Replace “Jew” with another of the examples I used above: union member, Democrat, woman….. what rights to they have?

No, prejudice needs to be attacked head on and called out for what it is, whether it is against meat or people.

Another principle is that no perfect social order can be created. That is why, I guess, conservatives have returned to the immemorial practice of voter suppression. This radical notion of everyone getting to vote just wasn’t getting the job done for conservatives trying to get candidates in who would toe the line on tax relief for the poor…… old billionaires aka donors. Non-conservatives are painted as heedless and thoughtless. Restricting their votes makes sense in order to preserve the social order.

But do not think conservatives do not appreciate diversity. Indeed, they do. Kirk states that “For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization (“healthy diversity”; let that sink in), there must survive orders and classes (whew! thought we were going all Social Justice Warrior there for a minute), differences in material condition (who goes last in the wash tub?), and many sorts of inequality (do we get to pick which sort we want? I’ll take rich). The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment (I can hear the trumpets now) and equality before a just court of law (and just where do we find one?)…… and if all natural and institutional differences are destroyed, presently some tyrant or host of squalid oligarchs will create new forms of inequality.” My question to the ghost of Kirk is, have all differences been destroyed? If so, is the result Obama or Trump?

Kirk speaks of a proper attention to prudent reform, so I ask why did conservatives not support the Civil Rights Movement? In this passage, Principle six, Kirk speaks of an ordered, just, and free society, while admitting some “evils, maladjustments and suffering” will continue; but how are those distributed?

Before moving to the next page, we have Principle seven, which deals with private property, upon which great civilizations are built. So why did Whites in California in the early 60s oppose legislation to stop discrimination against Blacks in real estate? Of course, Blacks could get great property in ghettoes; wait a few decades and gentrification would pretty everything up.

Throughout this opposition to radical as opposed to prudent reform, Kirk routinely compares liberal, Democratic proposals as tantamount to brutal totalitarian acts. I suppose we may call this the slippery slope: the right to vote today and mass reeducation camps for Republicans tomorrow, like Obama’s death panels.

The understanding of basics would help Kirk because he has picked up the conceit of earlier philosophers of depicting early man or primitive man or original man as living in a “natural condition of grinding poverty.” No research into early man has revealed any such condition. Recently I read that the earlier philosophers realized that that conceit was just that, a trope to base speculation on. The neocon Francis Fukuyama devotes a good deal of his first volume in the social order set to early man and makes it clear that an understanding of early man and the conditions he created for himself is important to frame the development of society. When you start with life being nasty, brutish and short or conditions of grinding poverty, you can create a world of your own (see my entry “They build a world and then  go live in it.”)

The importance of property in conservative thought has already been mentioned, and I found it odd that Kirk asserts that property owners recognize and cheerfully take up obligations and responsibilities surrounding property ownership. I wonder if that include conservation and non-pollution.

Kirk presents a true mockery when he speaks of local decisions made by the local community, marked by general acceptance on the part of those affected. We need not turn to the ever-present specter of racism to puncture the façade of a “successful spirit of community,” we need only to look at what happens to any American without clout, without a voice. All our communities have pockets of neglect and disdain. Lifting up all Americans will not be accomplished by keeping a higher level of government away. The conservative dreams of keeping the state and federal government out of local affairs because they know their wrong-doing will be exposed. The reason conservatives do not like a free press is because journalists expose their wrong-doing, tear at the sham of sanctity.

But Kirk seems to go to the heart of the matter when he says these functions of community sometimes pass by default to centralized authority. He pairs by default with usurpation, and what most conservatives claim is usurpation by the state or federal government and by the courts. But if the conservative forces had insisted on sticking to the Constitution and following the law, there would never have been a need for local people to appeal to a higher authority. I am quite surprised by Kirk’s admission that the greybeards might just turn out to be a pack of grasping, greedy local citizens intent on screwing other local citizens out of their rights and property.

Conservatives lost the moral basis of their claims in the face of Black demands for the most elemental rights: freedom of movement, the vote, fair treatment under the law, the right to redress of their grievances. That moral basis corroded terribly in the 60s in the highly racist movement to nominate Barry Goldwater. Goldwater saw it, did not like it, but went along with it. Conservatives saw their chance again with Donald Trump and weaponized racism, White supremacy and White nationalism. Now they are stuck with it because any Republican remotely disagreeing with absolutely anything Trump does or says gets primaried and riddled with presidential tweets……. and a derogatory nickname. This is your Republican Party but you sure can’t say it’s not White.

Prudent restraint on power along with a balance of power has been the one conservative watchword most liberals could unite with conservatives on. What now? Stripping all restraints off Trump and reducing the balance of power to a joke as he refuses subpoenas by Congress has led the GOP into the darkness. He says that power is never abolished; it always finds its way into someone’s hands. Quite agree.

A healthy tension between liberty and authority characterizes a just government since human nature is a mixture of good and bad. He cites constitutional restrictions, political checks and balances, adequate enforcement of the laws, “the old intricate web of restraints upon will and appetite.” These make for an ordered society. So why do conservatives always celebrate authority? The claim the fear disorder, as we all fear it, but then set up and unleash forces sure to destroy order. They decry revolutions, excepting our own, and then go on to equate orderly reform movements as tantamount to communism and socialism. Is that the way you maintain the tension? Here is a great quote illustrating just this: The conservative “thinks that the liberal and the radical, blind to the just claims of Permanence, would endanger the heritage bequeathed to us, in an endeavor to hurry us into some dubious Terrestrial Paradise.” Really? Liberals say this? And further, we believe that everything new is necessarily superior to everything old. That is just plain nonsense and Kirk knew it when he wrote it.

His last paragraph invokes the supernatural and makes it clear that that is the “great line of demarcation.” As usual, the moral order is held up to us and for us and if he had written this in today’s America, he could have pointed to Trump as an exemplar of the moral order.

BTW, I notice these comments amount to almost as many words as The Principles.



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