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What Would Russell Kirk Say about Ann Coulter?

What Would Russell Kirk Say about Ann Coulter?

November 23, 2006

Would the late Russell Kirk think of Ann Coulter as a positive force in the conservative cause? It is not an easy question to answer. Kirk died in 1994, well before Coulter took center stage. Everyone knows her now. She is the willowy blonde queen of the wisecracking, populist brand of conservatism in vogue on the talk shows these days. She is also a best-selling author, with several books to her name. She once described the 9/11 widows who have become prominent critics of the war in Iraq as "broads" and "millionaires, lionized on TV and in articles about them, reveling in their status as celebrities." She added, "I've never seen people enjoying their husbands' deaths so much."

Kirk? I suspect that few younger conservatives will even know his name, despite the fact that he is generally credited with being one of the founders of the conservative movement. Kirk could have been sent from central casting to portray the tweedy, genteel school of conservatism. The author of The Conservative Mind and Roots of the American Order, he spent his life teaching and writing in defense of what he called "the permanent things," the central tenets of the Christian West. One suspects he would have squirmed in his seat if had lived to hear Coulter defining conservatism with her one-liners and broad generalizations.

Then again, maybe not. Kirk was no shrinking violet. He understood the difference between a scholar and a journalist, between original thinkers and polemicists who popularize the great themes of literature and politics. Right-wing columnists such as Walter Winchell and Westbook Pegler were contemporaries of Kirk's. Their writing featured the one-liners and name-calling associated with Coulter, as did H.L. Mencken's, when he opted for the low-road. I can't recall reading anything by Kirk about these writers, but I wouldn't be surprised if he viewed them as allies in the grand scheme of things.

But the fact remains that there is a different brand of conservatism, exemplified by Coulter, coming to the fore in recent years, one less rooted in the great thinkers associated with the conservative movement. Daniel McCarthy, in the November 6th issue of The American Conservative, explores the phenomenon in an article entitled "GOP and Man at Yale." The title is a play on William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale, the book which brought Buckley into the national spotlight and launched the conservative movement.

It is McCarthy's contention that many modern younger conservatives are conflating conservatism with a knee-jerk loyalty to the Republican Party; that the new breed of conservative is not reading Kirk, Richard Weaver, Willmoore Kendall, James Burnham, Whittaker Chambers, or any of the prominent thinkers featured in anthologies of conservative writing, such as William F. Buckley's American Conservative Thought in the 20th Century or George H. Nash's The Conservative Intellectual Movement. Nor are they spending time with conservative scholarly journals such as Modern Age and Intercollegiate Review.

"The time when Young Americans for Freedom [the conservative youth group associated with the Goldwater era] wore badges blazoned with the slogan ‘Don't Immanentize the Eschaton' has long passed," writes McCarthy. "Now College Republicans parade in shirts proclaiming ‘George W. Bush Is My Homeboy.'" McCarthy complains that "where once students were at least familiar with the names Kirk and Weaver, or Mises and Nock, today they look to Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter for guidance. They're little acquainted with the wisdom of the contemporary Right's founding generation, and it shows."

In other words, they are Republicans first, and conservatives only to the extent that conservative principles can be turned into slogans to help the Republicans win elections. It does not matter to them if the Bush administration bloats the federal budget, ignores the flow of illegal immigrants into the country or engages in Wilsonian efforts to make the world safe for democracy. They will defend these policies if doing so helps the Republicans at the polls, without even taking the time to ponder if their stance is in line with the core principles of conservatism as historically defined.

Is McCarthy on to something? Has conservatism lost its intellectual vigor, its soul? Yes and no. No question, there are many people who call themselves "conservatives" these days who have no idea what that term implies. That becomes obvious when you listen to the callers to the conservative talk shows, many of whom would think you are talking about something in a super-hero movie if you warned about the danger of immanentizing the eschaton.

But let's keep things in perspective. Back in the 1950s and 1960s the conservative movement was very small. Very small. It was big news when William F. Buckley's magazine National Review grew to 100,000 readers. The other conservative publications of the time - Modern Age and Intercollegiate Review, for example - had even fewer readers. I can remember my graduate school days and early years as a teacher, when I seldom encountered anyone who was reading these magazines and scholarly journals. Members of the conservative movement read them diligently, but there just were not that many of them around.

Switch to today. Rush Limbaugh has millions of listeners, as do Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Laura Ingraham. Ann Coulter's books shoot to the top of the best-seller lists. National Review now has around 200,000 subscribers, as does The Weekly Standard. We have hundreds of thousands of people in Pat Robertson's and Gerry Falwell's organizations; there are the Evangelicals, born again Christians, the Right-to-Life movement, opponents of affirmative action and busing for racial balance. All these people call themselves "conservatives." Few of them think that has anything to do with spending long hours pondering the work of Richard Weaver and Willmoore Kendall.

I am not sure when or why these people began to use the term "conservative" to describe themselves. I suspect that it was during the Reagan years, when both Reagan's supporters and opponents used the term to describe Reagan's agenda. It was also at that time that the term "liberal," because of Reagan's success at the ballot box, became a term few politicians wanted to be associated with.

So McCarthy is correct. There are many people these days who apply the conservative label to themselves who have little familiarity with the intellectual foundations of the conservative movement. They have little concern with whether the godfathers of the conservative movement would have backed the war in Iraq or supported building a wall on the Mexican border or protectionist trade policies. They tend to think of these issues along party lines, jumbling the Republican platform with conservative principles without regard for intellectual consistency.

But this leaves open the question of whether there really are fewer young Americans these days taking the time to delve into the work of the scholars who were associated with the conservative scholarly journals of the 1950s and 1960s. McCarthy does not know the answer to that question. I don't think anyone does. It would be a difficult poll to conduct. My guess is that the number of people who are reading serious conservative scholarship nowadays is about the same as back in the good old days of conservatism in the 1950s and 1960s: very few.

Which means that McCarthy is right about the large number of modern conservatives who lack a solid intellectual foundation in conservative philosophy, but perhaps not as right about the decline in serious thinking on the Right.

Reading McCarthy's complaint, I couldn't help but think of an old friend who was a devotee of the Big Bands of the 1930s and 1940s. He would get visibly upset when Glenn Miller's name was mentioned, because he thought Miller a popularizer of the music who made it simple and saccharine for the masses. He was proud to be among the cognoscenti of the time who preferred what he considered the more authentic sound of Red Norvo and Benny Goodman. It did not matter if Norvo and Goodman continued to sell records. The problem for him was the uninformed mob that was clamoring over Miller. He did not like being associated with all the bobby-soxers.

I used to chide him that Miller's popularity did not lessen his opportunities to enjoy the purer sound he enjoyed, just as the success of Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity in spreading the conservative message does not limit anyone else's chance to read and write about how much more there is to conservatism than what they have to say. It is true: conservative ideas are more mainstream these days. Which means they will get garbled and distorted at times. But, if you ask me, it is better to have to tone down and quibble a bit about what Ann Coulter is saying than to have to endure the liberal monopoly that faced William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk back in the 1960s.

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)


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