Enduring Wisdom for Any Year

In 1991, Russell Kirk (venerated especially among traditional conservatives; I don’t know what neocons think of him) gave a speech to the Heritage Foundation, large portions of which are too good not to pass along at the start of a new year:

It is possible to describe certain attitudes that make up America’s conservative mentality, even though not all Americans could express coherently their belief in such general principles, and although some conservatives would dissent from one or more of the general assumptions or principles I now mention.

First, belief in some transcendent order in the universe, some law that is more than human: a religious understanding of the human condition, if you will; a belief in enduring moral norms. As the national pledge of allegiance puts it, “One nation under God…. ”

Second, opposition to totalist ideology and the totalist political order. The American conservative rejects the notion of a future earthly paradise — which the ideologue promises to attain.

Third, confidence in the American Constitution — both the written national Constitution and the intricate fabric of custom, belief, and habit that makes up the underlying “unwritten” constitution of a nation-state. Many decisions of the Supreme Court in recent decades are bitterly resented; nevertheless, attachment to the Constitution itself remains strong.

Fourth, maintenance of the rights of private property and of a free or competitive economy, as contrasted with a directed or socialist economy. This healthy prejudice persists despite the increasing consolidation of business and industry into large conglomerations or oligopolies.

Fifth, suspicion of central political direction, and preference for state and local powers: insistence upon private rights.

Sixth, a deep-rooted patriotism, joined to uneasiness at “entangling alliances”; this latter attitude, nevertheless, modified by determination to resist totalist powers that menace the American national interest.

Seventh, an awareness that change is not identical with healthy improvement; a relish for the American past; a genuine preference for the old and tried.

Such is the consensus of that very large body of Americans who choose to call themselves conservative in their politics. Within this crowd of conservative citizens exist various factions, each emphasizing some aspect or another of the general conservative attitude. There exists no “party line” to which conservatives of one persuasion or another are compelled to conform.

There have been ages when custom and inertia have lain insufferably upon humankind; and such an age may come to pass again; but such is not our age. Ours is an era when the moral and social heritage of many centuries of civilization stands in imminent peril from the forces of vertiginous indiscriminate change. Resistance to the folly of such change is the primary duty of the … conservative.

The critic Eliseo Vivas wrote once that “It is one of the marks of human decency to be ashamed of having been born into the twentieth century.” Spiritually and politically, the twentieth century has been a time of decadence. Yet, as that century draws near to its close, we may remind ourselves that ages of decadence often have been followed by ages of renewal.

The Roman Stoics taught that some things in life are good, and some are evil; but that the great majority of life’s happenings are neither good nor evil, but indifferent merely. Wealth is a thing indifferent, and so is poverty; fame is a thing indifferent, and so is obscurity. Shrug your shoulders at things indifferent; set your face against the things evil; and by doing God’s will, said the Stoics, find that peace which passes all understanding.

I am heartened from time to time by a stanza from Chesterton’s long poem, The Ballad of the White Horse. Chesterton is describing the prophets of doom, who tell us that nothing in life is permanent; that all is lost, or is being lost, in our culture; that we totter on the brink of an abyss. Such prophets of doom think themselves wise. Chesterton has in mind the typical intellectuals of the twentieth century, but he calls them the wise men of the East. Here I give you Chesterton’s lines:

The wise men know what wicked things
Are written on the sky,
They trim sad lamps, they touch sad strings
Hearing the heavy purple wings,
Where the forgotten seraph kings
Still plot how God shall die.

Such despairing souls, though possessed perhaps of much intelligence, in truth are not wise.

[T]he best way to insure a[nother] Generation of intelligent young conservatives is to beget children, and rear them well: the wise parent is the conservator of ancient truths. As Edmund Burke put it, “We learn to love the little platoon we belong to in society.” The institution most essential to conserve is the family.

I conclude with an exhortation which Orestes Brownson, that redoubtable conservative reformer, scholar, and journalist, delivered at Dartmouth College in 1843. His topic was “The Scholar’s Mission.” He concluded, as follows, his charge to the rising generation:

Ask not what your age wants, but what it needs, not what it will reward, but what, without which, it cannot be saved; and that go and do; and find your reward in the consciousness of having done your duty, and above all in the reflection, that you have been accounted to suffer somewhat for mankind.

You may find even brighter gems should you wish to read it all.

Happy New Year.

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

The War Party

One of the reasons I’m burned out on the two major parties is that, to a disgusting extent, they are one party, The War Party. That party’s going to be the death of this nation, as giddy, thoughtless, hubristic wars make us odious in the eyes of the world and eventually bankrupt us.

This is not conservatism. This is not Christian. This sure as hell is not “Christian conservatism.” No amount of drum-beating about Radical Islamic Terrorist Hoards can make it so.

The best conservative response to terrorism, it seems to me, is what I first heard from Pat Buchanan: If there’s no solution, there’s no problem.

Terrorism is an evil, not a problem. We will not eradicate it (Hatfield probably said something like Bush’s second inaugural before he set out to end McCoy terrorism – or was it McCoy ending Hatfield terrorism?), and I personally – call me silly – don’t didn’t want to give up the Republic trying to eradicate it.

And while my individual position may shade into “isolationism” (due to personality quirks and a history of conscientious objection and borderline pacifism), the historic Christian conservative mainstream position is not isolationist.

That’s all I need to say to introduce and commend to you a great current piece by Winston Elliott III at The Imaginative Conservative. The author is appreciably more hawkish than I am, despite his having a son in the Army, but far less adventurist, interventionist and lunatic than either Dubya or Obama or anyone who’s taken seriously for President next year (Ron Paul, the favorite of active military people, not being taken seriously).


Every conservative concerned about American foreign policy should read Foreign Policy for Conservatives on this site. This brilliant description of a conservative foreign policy is excerpted from Russell Kirk’s book The Political Principles of Robert A. Taft …

Those who wish to use the American military to effect regime change in foreign lands are sensitive to terms like “war party.” They say this is an exaggeration of their position. Poppycock. Let’s go ahead and add “interventionist” and “lover of foreign adventure” for good measure. They do not like it because it accurately describes their approach to using the military might of the American Republic. They are open to spending American blood and treasure whenever they feel that people in a foreign country are “oppressed” or their leader is a “tyrant” or “dictator.”…Before they start calling me an “isolationist” again let me state my position clearly (as I have before on this site). I don’t believe in “isolationism.” However, I do believe that prudence demands we count the costs of our actions, especially so that we learn from the past and may make better decisions in the future. Certainly 6,000 U.S. dead, 33,000 wounded, and $1.3 trillion is a very high cost indeed. 
Is it not legitimate to ask was it worth it?…Russell Kirk and Robert Nisbet, and other notable conservatives, have expressed great concern that centralization and militarization have been the greatest threats to preservation of the principles of the American Republic. They were not isolationists. They were true patriots who wished to guard against taking actions to destroy the enemy that may simultaneously lead to undermining the ordered liberty we claim to fight to preserve.I am for taking military action against those that clear evidence indicates threaten the safety of our Republic and its citizens. But, does this necessitate a permanent military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan? How about Germany, South Korea and Japan? Is there no end to this? If not, I fear that we must (as Brad Birzer has suggested on this site) admit that the Republic is lost and that we fight to defend a democratic empire … 

My policy … is simple: I say kill the enemy and come home. Don’t move into his house and call it defense….

I will say this again. When the real interests of Americans are threatened then to use military force is permitted. Kill those who plan to kill us. Destroy their bases. When necessary, go back and do it again. That is prudent application of military force against the enemy. It is not pacifism or isolationism. 

Don’t occupy foreign nations for decades, longer than WWI and WWII combined. This is foolishness. And it is not conservative.

All I ask for, beg for, is a prudent use of our military. Never one drop of blood for an American empire. Kill our enemies, destroy their bases and bring our boys home. I believe it is conservative to choose protecting American lives over a goal of changing the culture and politics of foreign nations.

Foreign Policy for Conservatives is itself a collection of excerpts, but I’ll be so bold as to pull one of them:

The statesman not concerned primarily with the national interest is tossed about by every wind of doctrine; he pursues with imprudent passion vague ideological objectives, and soon finds himself mired in diplomatic and military quicksands….

Finally, one more personal observation. I alluded to my conscientious objection which, if you know me, you’ll know was Vietnam era, shortly before the abolition of the loathed military draft. But I fear that the abolition of the draft, replaced by a “volunteer army,” has deprived our ruling class from having any flesh, blood or skin in the game of military adventurism. How many of our bellicose GOP hopefuls have a child in uniform? How many served themselves? Do you think there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that the Obama girls will go into the Army from Sidwell Friends School, rather than to University of Chicago, Stanford or one of the Ivy League schools?

No, I’m afraid that to our rulers, the flesh and blood of soldiers is just a “human resource,” to be squandered as freely as monetary resources.

We now return to lamestream programming. Look! Kim Kardashian! Chaz Bono! American Idol! Shiny! (HT Mark Shea)

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Standing advice on enduring themes.

Does economic growth rot the culture?

Georgetown political theorist Patrick Deneen thinks genuine conservatism is incompatible with global capitalism and that confusion of the two is a cold war artifact. I’ll not equivocate about this one: I very strongly suspect he’s right.

Other stimulating excerpts:

My goal has been (I hope) in particular to deepen some of our political understanding and vocabulary, to make visible to more readers some of the deepest presuppositions of modern politics and even the deeper philosophical ideas that inform discrete political issues.  By enlarging the view and elongating the perspective, I also hoped that some other overlooked possibilities might be entertained – particularly beyond the worn and largely unproductive contemporary political positions adopted by the Right and the Left.

[M]any modern proponents of democracy believe that true democracy will only be achieved when we have overcome all “particularity.”  The root of the contradiction of modern democratic theory is the idea that there are only two justifiable and desirable conditions of humankind – the radically individuated monad and the globalized world community.  Any intermediate grouping or belonging is seen as arbitrary and the locus of limitations – hence, unjust.

Technology aids and abets the modern project of eviscerating attachments to local places and cultures.  Not long ago, thinkers like Emerson and Dewey praised the liberating and transformative potential of the railroads and telegraph; today, it is the internet and Facebook. [No, the irony is not lost on me.]

I think there is great systemic danger in the not-distant future due to a coming (or already arrived) energy crisis.  This will be a traumatic experience for a civilization that has been built around the assumption of permanently cheap energy.  I would submit that our economic crisis, our debt crisis, and our moral crisis are all pieces of this larger energy crisis.  Because our way of thinking treats problems as separate and discrete, we tend not to see their deeper connections.  I would be happy to elaborate on this, but won’t presume to take up the space to lay this out in this venue.  The thinker who has best articulated the contemporary tendency to treat all problems as “parts” while ignoring the whole is Wendell Berry.

(I found the interview linked above through Deneen’s own summary at Front Porch Republic, which also reminds me that he was interviewed by Ken Myers at Mars Hill Audio Journal, an excellent resource for commuters or people who like something other than frenetic music on the iPod when they work out, walk, bike or whatever.)