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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 9/23/13

Modern Conservatism, or: Who Says That We're Our Brother's Keeper?

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PART 1: Dissecting Russell Kirk

"Man cannot learn to forget, but hangs on the past: however far or fast he runs, that chain runs with him."--Friedrich Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History.

In April of 2010, I published an article for OpEdNews titled "The Children of Cain." One of the editors retitled it "Conservatives: The Children of Cain," but I changed it back, because I had intended the article both as a warning to my liberal and progressive brethren and as an indictment of those on the political right, who invited the dangers implicit in working from a position of fear and dealing in absolutes. I have since grown to regret my decision.

The following quote is from "The Children of Cain." The words are in the third-to-last paragraph of that article:

"It is the height of human arrogance to believe that there is only one way to accomplish a particular goal, and that your way is that way. It is equally arrogant to attempt to force your viewpoint on everyone else. To paraphrase Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: The Revenge of the Sith, 'Only the Dark Side deals in Absolutes.'"

To me, Modern Conservatism is indeed the Dark Side: Selfish, egotistical, avaricious, and unwilling to compromise; dealing in a simplistic world of black and white, yes and no. The revival of American Conservatism--as well as its inevitable degeneration, the going over to the "Dark Side"--began with Dr. Russell Kirk and his elitist version of conservatism. But I will say this: Dr. Kirk would not recognize or approve of what passes for conservatism today.

Russell Kirk wrote a brilliant book in the 1950's, titled The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Elliot, which went through seven revised editions and served as the cornerstone for Barry Goldwater and his conservative ideas for the 1964 election. As David Jenkins stated in his December 2, 2011 article, "Russell Kirk Would Not Recognize These "Conservatives'," Dr. Kirk's book was directly responsible for "giving rise to conservatism's intellectual respectability in post-World War II America."

I first read The Conservative Mind over thirty years ago, a year or so after Ronald Reagan's election as President. I first heard about the book on some Sunday morning talk show. (I think it was conservative commentator James Kilpatrick who mentioned it.) The book is not an easy read: it uses words that had never been in, or had fallen out of, general usage long before Dr. Kirk wrote his magnum opus. Dr. Kirk writes at the college level (think Immanuel Kant, but better organized), not the eighth- or tenth-grade level so many modern authors adopt. It is also a book that, while I strongly disagree with much of it (just as I disagree with many of the ideas of Karl Marx in Das Kapital ), is still worth reading, especially if you want to understand how America got to where it is today.

Dr. Kirk's system of conservatism is a hierarchical, authoritarian system of classes, orders, tradition and prejudices. Based as it is on a system of divine intent of unspecified origin (the Providential Theory of History) and provenance, it is hostile to the very concept of reason.

Russell Kirk's Six Canons of Conservatism

Here are Kirk's 6 canons of conservatism (Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, Revised Seventh Edition unless otherwise noted; pp 8-9):

1. "Belief in a transcendent order": that political problems are "religious and moral problems." Further, that a "narrow rationality" cannot itself satisfy human needs.

2. "Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, utilitarian aims of most radical [i.e. "liberal'] systems."

3. "Conviction that civilized society requires order and classes, as against the notion of a 'classless society'," combined with the belief that a destruction of "natural" distinctions between men leads to the rise of oligarchs, as a consequence of the masses' need of leadership. Only "equality in the judgment of God, and equality before courts of law" are recognized by conservatives. Equality of condition, they think, means equality in boredom and servitude.

4. A recognition that "freedom and property are closely linked." This allows the conservative to believe that economic leveling of any sort leads inevitably to the total destruction of liberty by the government. (Dr. Kirk does not mention what he believes happens to liberty when the flow of property and possessions goes the other way, i.e., from the poor to the rich).

5. Originally, Dr. Kirk wrote that conservatism had a deep faith in tradition and prejudice as guarantors of social order, combined with a distrust of mere reason (See Carter, Byrum E. (1954) "The Conservative Mind, by Russell Kirk," Indiana Law Journal : Vol. 29: Iss. 2, Article 11 , pp. 307-14 ).

The Revised Seventh Edition changes this wording to "Faith in prescription and distrust of 'sophisters, calculators, and economists.'" Semantically, there is only a very small difference between the two statements. Prejudice is a preexisting opinion held in disregard of facts that contradict it. Prescription is a law or rule that limits possible actions in response to a situation, regardless of need or the facts of the issue involved. In exercising prejudice, one limits one's own or others' actions as a consequence of accepting one's own, or others', judgment: one "prejudges," or acts on a "preconception," of an individual or situation. With prescription, the law itself limits the actions of oneself or others. In both cases, the operative term is "limits the actions." As we saw with the Jim Crow laws in the century following the Civil War, and as we are seeing again today with the push for voter ID laws and the blatant attempt to undermine labor unions in the United States, legal limitations on the actions available to yourself or others are invariably preceded by the extra-legal form of limiting actions known as prejudice.

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Richard Girard is a polymath and autodidact whose greatest desire in life is to be his generations' Thomas Paine. He is an FDR Democrat, which probably puts him with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders in the current political spectrum. His answer to (more...)

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