July 01, 2007
It is hard to understand why those who are not cognitively challenged write inexplicably stupid things. Although Professor Allan Wolfe and I would not agree on much politically or philosophically, from all accounts he is an intelligent man. In June 1999 he wrote a reasonably perceptive review of my book After Liberalism for The New Republic, the publication in which his multi-paged rage against Russell Kirk has just appeared (sorry, it’s not available to non-subscribers online). Since I was then already under the ban of the neoconservative media empire and its army of drones, the attention he bestowed on my work was appreciated, even though Wolfe quite inaccurately referred to me as an extreme “anti-liberal,” a description that would not have made the slightest sense if he had pondered the argument of my book. (It was I, and not my left-liberal critic, who represented traditional “liberalism.”) But my question today is why Wolfe has allowed his diatribe against Kirk or against George Panichas’s selection of Kirk’s writings to be published in The New Republic.
Granted that its editors are dotty about some subjects, e.g., goyim living in small towns in the American hinterlands and meeting in drugstores to express politically incorrect ideas or the putative responsibility of Christian civilization for the Holocaust (TNR was among the first publications to give maximal exposure to Daniel Goldhagen’s undetermined thesis on Christian guilt for the murder of European Jewry), there is still no justification for the nonsense Wolfe put into this piece. He should have known better.
This does not mean that there is nothing in his mostly rambling screed that merits attention. But unfortunately even those scattered bits of truth are mixed together with garbled commentary. For example, it is unfair to assert that what “Kirk says about religion and the social order” is “breathtakingly unoriginal.” Quite to the contrary! It is Kirk’s bold attempt to assimilate the American political experience to a European conservative matrix, as I point out in my book on the American Right, which is the strikingly original part of his work. Wolfe notices this fact more or less but then goes on to claim that Kirk is merely restating Charles Beard’s view that the Framers came out of “upper-class backgrounds.” That is not the point of Kirk’s presentation of the founders as “pillars of order.” What he had in mind is something closer to the British squire class of the eighteenth century, an analogy that comes through in his historical writings and in much else of what Kirk wrote. Although Wolfe is justified in raising questions about Kirk’s understanding of the American founding, he should try to read Kirk whole instead of seizing on snippets to be held up to ridicule. But Wolfe is correct to suggest, albeit in graceless fashion, that the times have not been kind to Kirk. Although National Review Online has rushed to defend him against his accuser, some if not all of these expressions of indignation seem perfunctory. Indeed Kirk’s book The Conservative Mind did not even make on to the National Review list, printed last year, of the “ten most important books for the conservative movement.” The tributes to Kirk from such movement conservative publications are becoming entirely formulaic, a situation that tells more about the current conservative movement than it does about the quality of Kirk’s oeuvre.
Wolfe is correct to note that Kirk assumes that ideology is almost always a characteristic of the Left, albeit one that Kirk finds in Nazism as well. Wolfe observes accurately on the whole but without the slightest sympathy for his subject that “of all the crimes committed by the Nazis, the proclivity for human perfectibility is an odd one to choose.” Kirk’s real view here is not hard to fathom, as his son-in-law Jeff Nelson notes in NRO: namely, ideologues are driven by utopian schemes of social reconstruction far more than the traditional Right and that the Nazis shared this typical leftist proclivity, a trait that rendered Hitler and his crew a lot more dangerous to deal with than mere counterrevolutionaries. As Wolfe also implies, however, Kirk did not fill in all of the dotted lines in putting forth historical generalizations; he often simply assumes that his reader is on the same wave length. Would that Wolfe had left his critique at that point and not raised bizarre charges against his subject and against those whom Kirk saw fit to praise!
Some of Wolfe’s attacks on Kirk are shockingly gratuitous, and when first shown them, I could barely believe my eyes. The book under Wolfe’s review, The Essential Russell Kirk, “leaves you with a vivid sense of the smallness of the man.” Moreover, Kirk is “contemptuous of the truth, mangling his facts and distorting the history of the country he claims to love.” He is “provincial, resentful, bigoted,” and the anthology of his writings are full of “the grumblings in a small-town drugstore by men convinced that somehow the somehow the world has passed them by.” Elsewhere his writing is called “repellent,” but it is hard to figure out why we should think this is so. Kirk’s chance remark that pornography was shown on a television at a hotel where he stayed “tells us something about his late-night taste in film.” But this judgment is wildly off the mark. One has only to go onto the TV menu or look at the leaflets placed next to the TV set in many hotels in order to grasp that pornography is being featured. There is nothing in the passage quoted that would suggest that Kirk is a pornography addict. We are also told that Kirk had “enslaved” the female members of his family because of his presumed failure to condemn John C. Calhoun and Aristotle for their defense of slavery. One can only hope that such charges are a misguided attempt to be humorous. The alternative explanations, such as senile dementia, may be even more painful to consider.
On historical matters, Wolfe does not do much better than he does in telling us about Kirk’s defects as a moral actor. Although Wolfe spends several pages on Kirk’s mercurial religious tastes, he never indicates that he converted to Roman Catholicism in the 1964, a fact that would affect most of what Wolfe writes about his religious skepticism and theological vacillations. A statement that is so full of unproved premises that one would not know where to start refuting it is as follows: “Kirk admires John C. Calhoun, whom he calls a disciple of Burke, because Calhoun defended the conservative idea of an organic constitution. In reality, however, Calhoun was willing to tear up the Constitution written in Philadelphia if the defense of slavery required it.”
Since Wolfe devotes several paragraphs to assailing Kirk for not condemning Calhoun “who denied the fundamental equality of all human beings,” it might pay to point out that Calhoun never called for ripping up the Constitution. He was a strict constructionist in interpreting that document, but was less inventive than Professor Wolfe and his friends, who have used “a living constitution” to mandate the destruction of eight month fetuses and the imposition of homosexual unions on the unwilling American majority. Allow me to surprise Professor Wolfe with a historical fact: Landed classes here and in Europe were the group who in the nineteenth century typically defended “organic constitutions,” and if Kirk is looking for examples of such a defense on American soil, Calhoun would be a good figure to start with. Significantly, John Stuart Mill, a feminist and social democrat (but hardly a typical nineteenth-century libertarian as Wolfe claims) admired Calhoun almost as much as did Kirk. Calhoun’s theory of concurrent majorities was debated among European political theorists well into the twentieth century, and by people who had no conceivable interest in reviving slavery. As a biographer of Carl Schmitt I was struck by the fact that this German legal theorist presented Calhoun as a premier defender of a “liberal theory of sovereignty.”
Wolfe’s appeal to “human decency” and “equality” are intended to halt our discussions, in the same way that cries about racism, anti-Semitism, or homophobia have the effect of shutting up dissenters at our illiberal institutions of learning. I for one remain defiantly unmoved when Wolfe pontificates that he and other liberals believe in “human rights” (a magic word, like the name of the Deity in the Old Testament) and that because of this belief “they view slavery as the institution most destructive of those rights ever invented by the mind of man [we”ll let this sexist reference go].” Wolfe goes on to cap his point with this klutzy rhetorical gesture “But not Kirk.” And not Gottfried either. Why is slavery worse than crushing the head of an eight-month fetus in the womb of its mother, who is asserting her feminist right to infanticide, and doing this while we pretend that the execution is protected by the U.S. Constitution?
I could also cite examples of politically incorrect “indecencies” that Wolfe as an “auto-critical liberal” would undoubtedly condemn, depending against whom they were expressed. Somehow I doubt that he would care as much about inequality if the targets were not authorized victims but white males, and particularly white male Christians. These are not the kinds of “indecencies” or violations of “equal rights” that Wolfe would likely protest. (Having reviewed several of his books, I can speak to this subject with authority.) Wolfe belongs to his times and environment as surely as did Calhoun. Nonetheless, he expects us to treat his sensibilities and his sense of outrage as being of transcendent importance. Obviously Kirk had failed to genuflect before his sentiments often enough and must have been, as we learn, an anti-Semite (which is a totally undemonstrated charge) and a good deal else that is “indecent.”
A few other loose ends need to be tidied up. Wolfe sounds as illiterate as his fellow-liberal Jesse Jackson when it comes to the “infamous three-fifths clause” in the Constitution. As I was taught in grade school, when Wolfe and I attended such an institution in the early 1950s, the three-fifths reference had nothing to do with attributing to blacks no more than 60% of their humanity. It was a method of giving greater electoral power to Southern states, in order to get them to ratify the Constitution. It was also arguably a way of limiting the power of the slave-owning class, who wished to have fuller representation in the national government. Women, who didn”t vote at the time, were also included as part of the demographic base.
Even weirder is Wolfe’s real or pretended ignorance of the extent of Christian influence in the early American Republic. His attempt to use a document sent to North African potentates by John Adams in 1797, in regard to the Barbary Pirates, in order to prove that the US “was not in any sense founded on the Christian religion,” does not indicate that the US was then committed to building a secular society. That document accompanied the signing of an accord with the government of Tripoli, one that was intended to show that the American federal union “felt no enmity against the laws, religion and tranquility of Mussulmen.” Such a diplomatic situation was not likely to produce a ringing endorsement by the American government of the Nicene Creed.
Wolfe would do well to read such historians as Barry Shain and Alan Heimert, both of whom document the extent of Protestant Christian influence on local government and civic association in early America. As late as the 1930s, Supreme Court majority decisions referred to the Protestant Christian character of the American republic, and as late as the 1830s there were established state churches, although not an established national church in the US. If Kirk is guilty of reading too much of European conservatism into the American founding, Wolfe goes even farther in the other direction, by assuming that the American Constitution from the beginning prepared the way for the kind of left-liberal regime that he fancies. But the alternative for Wolfe may be too unsettling to think about, a country of disgruntled gentiles sitting around in drugstores in places like Mecosta, Michigan and venting their “bigotry” and “small-mindedness.” Thank Heavens for broadminded, worldly intellectuals like Wolfe occupying endowed chairs at Boston University!