Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Conservative Mind, by Russell Kirk: A dumb book report

I didn't pick this book out of a hat. Kirk's tome has been praised by figures such as Richard Nixon (according to Ambrose's biography, he read it avidly and used it to shape his own thinking) and William F. Buckley. Just last month, John Kass wrote a column in which he mentioned glancing at his own "dog-eared copy" of it and bemoaning the fact that today's Republicans can't articulate their own conservative principles, thereby guaranteeing Obama another term.

It doesn't take more than ten or twenty pages of reading to realize that, were any Republican to espouse Kirk's talking points, they wouldn't be able to get elected dogcatcher. The Conservative Mind, a history of the philosophy and ideas of conservatism, plumbs the likes of Edmund Burke, John Adams, Toqueville, T.S. Eliot and a slew of other philosophers, writers and politicians (some of which I'd never heard of) whose scorn for what Toqueville termed "despotic democracy" comes out crystal-clear:

  • Aristocracy (by his terms) is necessary in society;
  • Social and economic class is unavoidable (so much for Rick Perry's disavowal of the idea)
  • Not everyone's vote is equal, nor should it be;
  • The proletariat cannot be treated the same way as society's elites, which makes public education a waste of time and money;
  • We need a landed gentry with sufficient leisure to contemplate the heavy ideas and do the thinking for all of us, while we do the heavy work;
  • The southern politicians (Calhoun among them) "knew" the dangers of freeing "the negro population";

And so on. It's pretty eyebrow-raising, to say the least. Were the Republicans to hitch their collective wagon to this star, Joe the Plumber never would have had the career he did, the Tea Party would be home watching t.v. and Bush would have hung his Harvard and Yale certificates on the door to the Oval Office.

Nevertheless, it's a fascinating walk through a solidified ideology's history of Western civilization. Kirk is nothing if not erudite, and his argument is compelling, if maddeningly predictable in places. Depending on whom you ask, Kirks' predictions of democratic tyranny and a ruling power pulling all our strings may have come to pass, if one accepts his terms and premises. But by those same terms and premises, most of us are too dumb to realize it anyway.