Our Cultural Crisis: A Kirkian Response

COMMENTARY Conservatism

Our Cultural Crisis: A Kirkian Response

Apr 23, 2018 10 min read

Former Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought

Lee Edwards is a leading historian of American conservatism and the author or editor of 25 books.
The proper response to modern conditions can be found in ancient principles. scyther5/Getty Images

The following article is adapted from a speech the author delivered at the Heritage Foundation on March 14, 2018.

Few would dispute that we are in the middle of a grave cultural crisis. A despairing conservative critic wrote: “We are on the road to cultural disaster.”

He placed the blame on modern liberalism, which, he said, walks on two legs — radical egalitarianism that stresses equal outcomes rather than equal opportunities, and radical individualism that recognizes no limits to personal gratification. In their final stages, he said, “radical egalitarianism becomes tyranny and radical individualism descends into hedonism.”

Judge Robert Bork handed down that blunt indictment two decades ago in his powerful polemic “Slouching Towards Gomorrah.”

And what of today? Are we still slouching — or galloping — towards Gomorrah?

Consider these findings. Most millennials think “marriage is unnecessary,” and even a hindrance to their careers or their self-discovery. Yet study after study has shown that marriage and family are the cornerstones of a vibrant society.

One-fourth of high-school seniors use drugs — 6 percent use marijuana daily. Over 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2016 — more than all the American combat losses during the Vietnam War. Opioids accounted for over half of the overdoses.

More than 60 percent of college students engage in “hookups,” so-called “uncommitted” sexual encounters. But when sex is separated from love or even affection, it becomes a mechanical means of gratification.

If we have taught our children that there are no boundaries, wrote university president Everett Piper, why should we be surprised that as young adults they behave as if there were no boundaries?

It seems that George Orwell was wrong and Aldous Huxley was right. We face the possibility not of a totalitarian government headed by Big Brother, but of a hedonistic society tranquilized by drugs, sex, and mass media.

We are bombarded by such pernicious slogans as:

  • The Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule are out of date and should be interred.
  • Smoking a cigarette is bad, smoking a joint is good.
  • Three cheers for same-sex marriage, and a Bronx cheer for traditional brides and grooms.

Few seem to care that the smartphone is turning us into dummies who can communicate only with our thumbs.

How far along the path of cultural decadence are we? The noted author and wit C. Northcote Parkinson described six stages of decadence:

First, political over-centralization, as in Babylon, Rome, Peking, Paris, and London.

Second, inordinate growth in taxation that becomes the means of government interference in every corner of society.

Third, the growth of a top-heavy system of administration that leads to a giant political machine.

Fourth, promotion of the wrong people, i.e., bureaucrats.

Fifth, the urge to overspend, which over the decades creates a vast debt that is placed on the shoulders of future generations.

Sixth, the encouragement of a liberal sentimentality that weakens the minds and the wills of a significant part of the population.

America can plead guilty to all of the above.

To help us understand the essential role of Burke, there is, fortunately, Russell Kirk, the preeminent American historian and cultural conservative. 

Is there, then, no slowing down or even reversing our course? Judge Bork turned to Edmund Burke, who, unlike the libertarian John Stuart Mill, had “a true understanding of the nature of men, and balanced liberty with restraint and order, which are, in truth, essential to the preservation of liberty.”

To help us understand the essential role of Burke, there is, fortunately, Russell Kirk, the preeminent American historian and cultural conservative, who argued that we will abandon our present path only if we expose the corrupting liberal ideas that brought us here. Ideas like:

  • A militant secularism that places man at the center of existence and asserts that God is dead, if He ever existed.
  • A soft socialism that approves government regulation of our lives in every economic and social realm.
  • A legalistic internationalism that insists the nation-state is the cause of all conflict.
  • A rabid egalitarianism that promises equal results rather than equal opportunities.
  • An arrogant relativism that argues that there is no absolute truth — all points of views are equally valid.
  • A devotion to radical societal change modeled after the French Revolution rather than the American Revolution.

Conservatives, Kirk said, must reconcile individualism (which sustained 19th-century life at the same time it starved the soul) with the sense of community. Conservatives must open the eyes of the people to the central concept of politics — that the claims of freedom and the claims of order can be kept in a healthy tension, avoiding extremes. The political vehicle by which that tension can be maintained is the U.S. Constitution, with its time-tested checks and balances.

In his magisterial work The Conservative Mind, Kirk proposed conservative alternatives to liberal nostrums such as the idea of human perfectibility and economic egalitarianism.

Instead of secularism, the conservative looks to a transcendent order that rules society as well as personal conscience.

Instead of socialism, the conservative declares that freedom and private property are inextricably linked.

Instead of revolution, the conservative says that society must change, but prudently, lest it lose what it has gained through the ages.

And what will result if all these conservative alternatives are implemented? Conservatives promise no earthly paradise but a land of ordered liberty in which the individual can go as far and as high as his ability and ambition will take him, a land, quoting the Heritage Foundation, where freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish.

Is belief possible in our secular, neo-socialist, slavishly egalitarian world? Russell Kirk, a Roman Catholic convert, would firmly answer, ‘Yes!’

The way to such a land of individual freedom and responsibility, Kirk asserted, is through belief in something greater than any one of us. “Culture,” he warned, “a civilization, cannot long survive the extinction of a belief in a transcendent order that brought the culture into being.”

But is belief possible in our secular, neo-socialist, slavishly egalitarian world? Russell Kirk, a Roman Catholic convert, would firmly answer, “Yes!”

We are not yet in a state of mindless, endless pleasure seeking. A solid majority of Americans believe in God and go to church. Americans remain the most charitable and connected people on earth. They belong to countless voluntary associations — Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” — that solve countless problems without government prodding or regulation. The sinews of a good society are there, if atrophied.

In his 1985 message to the youth of the world, Pope John Paul II addressed directly the many temptations surrounding young people, such as “the fantasy worlds of alcohol and drugs . . . short-lived sexual relationships without commitment to marriage and family,” cynicism, and even violence.

The secular, consumer-dominated world suggests that man will find fulfillment in such fantasies, a suggestion rejected by John Paul II, who quoted Christ: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

What does it mean to be free? It does not mean, the pope said, “doing everything that pleases me, or doing what I want to do. . . . To be truly free means to use one’s own freedom for what is a true good . . . to be a person of upright conscience, to be responsible, to be a person for others.”

Milton Friedman, the libertarian economist and Nobel laureate, said almost the same thing: “The really important ethical problems are those that face an individual in a free society — what he should do with his freedom.” That is, you cannot separate individual freedom and responsibility.

The social scientist Charles Murray offered five rules for a happy life, ranging from marrying young to not worrying about fame and fortune, and including this arresting advice: Watch the movie Groundhog Day repeatedly. Without preaching, Murray said, “the movie shows the bumpy, unplanned evolution of [the] protagonist from a jerk to a fully realized human being — a person who has learned to experience deep, lasting and justified satisfaction with life even though he has only one day to work with.”

Trump has turned out to be an effective user of the bully pulpit, not simply the ‘bully in the pulpit’ suggested by his critics.

We can even learn something from President Trump, who in his first year in office either implemented or began to implement 64 percent of the conservative recommendations in the Heritage Foundation’s latest “Mandate.” He has turned out to be an effective user of the bully pulpit, not simply the “bully in the pulpit” suggested by his critics. One secret of the president’s success is persistence, 18 hours a day, seven days a week — except when he is playing golf.

In February, as part of a Heritage panel, Professor Charles Kesler of Claremont McKenna College described how Trump has demonstrated courage in pushing forward his agenda in the face of the united opposition of the Establishment, or what might be called the progressive–intellectual–media complex.

The president’s central theme, Kesler said, is the “greatness” of America. He reminds Americans in nearly every speech that we are a nation of builders who can accomplish almost anything if we put our minds and our bodies to it.

The president’s key political goal is to limit the federal government and put the people back in charge. He deliberately divides the country into populist red states and progressive blue states. For all his personal flaws, of which there are many, President Trump is lifting up traditional heartland values in place of elitist coastal values. The billionaire in the tailored Brioni suit turns out to be closer to Joe Sixpack than Bernie Sanders with his wild hair and wilder rhetoric.

As we confront the cultural crisis, let us return to Russell Kirk, who in The Conservative Mind and throughout his life never gave into despair, but practiced a measured optimism. While not denying that progressivism in America was far advanced, Kirk argued that Americans possessed things that made a conservative alternative to the progressive agenda possible:

The best written constitution in the world, the safest divisions of powers, the widest diffusion of property, the strongest sense of common interest, the most prosperous economy, an elevated intellectual and moral tradition, and a spirit of self-reliance unequalled in modern times.

Liberal dominance, he said, was not inevitable. “The consolidation of power and uniformity of existence are not irresistible forces beyond the control of will and reason,” he insisted. “Men have it in their power to preserve and strengthen voluntary associations, local enterprise, and local and private rights.”

Kirk laid down a philosophical foundation for a conservative social order.

First, conservatives need to revive the classical definition of justice — “to every man the things which are his due,” no less and no more. Kirk believed that this should be the animating moral principle of a people.

Second, conservatives need to remind Americans to love our country. To paraphrase Barry Goldwater, extremism in the defense of patriotism is no vice.

Third, conservatives need to emphasize that the task of the United States as “the greatest of powers” is the preservation of justice and peace. This may be the most difficult undertaking, Kirk admitted, because “national vanity is as difficult for states to subdue as spiritual pride is rebellious within man.” In this present cultural crisis, we need Russell Kirk’s idea of ordered liberty more than ever.

This will require our digging deep into the history of Western civilization. Russell Kirk has done the digging for us in his exemplary book The Roots of American Order. Using the imaginative device of five cities — Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, London, and Philadelphia — Kirk traces the roots of American order to a longstanding tradition in human history.

First came the Hebrews, who recognized a “purposeful moral existence under God” and planted the seeds of order nearly 3,000 years ago in Jerusalem. Next came the Greeks of Athens, who strengthened the order with their philosophical and political self-awareness.

There followed the Romans, who nurtured order with their emphasis on the rule of law and moral concepts. Order was intertwined with “the Christian understanding of human duties and human hopes” and the importance of the individual. It was joined by medieval custom, learning, and valor.

The roots of order were further enriched by the political experiments in law and liberty and governance in London, the mother of parliaments, and Philadelphia, the birthplace of the American Republic’s founding documents — the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Only the priceless principle of ordered liberty can explain how America has survived wars and depressions, massive population shifts, political partisanship, the mass media, racial and ethnic tensions, and a virulent counterculture that poisoned the Sixties and whose virus is still active today.

In the last chapter of his last book, The Sword of Imagination, Russell Kirk asks, “Is life worth living?” He acknowledges that in our chaotic world, many might shrug their shoulders and dismiss such a fundamental question. Contrary to the modern atmosphere of moral ambiguity, Kirk provides a conservative alternative, writing that life “ought to be lived with honor, charity, and prudence.”

Russell Kirk asks, ‘Is life worth living?’ He acknowledges that in our chaotic world, many might shrug their shoulders and dismiss such a fundamental question. 

In one of the more than 40 lectures that he delivered at the Heritage Foundation, Kirk suggested how conservatives, especially young conservatives, might go about such a life: Choose a vocation that will enable you to play a vigorous part in restoring the American Republic. Take to the law — “if you can endure the boredom of our law schools.” Take to serious journalism or, for more immediate influence, television and radio. (I add here the social media, which had not yet attained their dominant place in our culture when Kirk spoke here.) Aspire after a college professorship to counteract the ivory-tower professors who talk and write only for each other.

The best way to rear up a new generation of protectors of the Permanent Things, Kirk said, is to beget children and read to them of an evening and teach them what is worthy of praise. As Edmund Burke put it, “We learn to love the little platoon we belong to in society.” The “little platoon” most essential to conserve is the family, followed by the church, the school, and the community.

And what do we mean by the Permanent Things? Kirk wrote that throughout his life, he had sought to conserve “a patrimony of order, justice, and freedom, a tolerable moral order, and an inheritance of culture” based on the ideals of Western civilization.

The Kirkian response to our cultural crisis, then, is deceptively simple: to offer a conservative culture resting on the Permanent Things of order, justice, and freedom, and drawing from such men and women of imagination as T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Willa Cather, William F. Buckley Jr., Ralph Ellison, Tom Wolfe, John Dos Passos, Evelyn Waugh, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and the movie director and producer Peter Jackson.

I end with words of Orestes Brownson, the 19th-century author and Catholic convert who was a favorite of Russell Kirk. Invited to address the graduating class of Dartmouth College, Brownson urged the young scholars to: “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.”

This piece originally appeared in The National Review

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