Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Russell Kirk Named the True Enemy: Ideology

I have asked before "Why are liberals so intolerant?" I am a little closer to an answer after reading R.R. Reno reflection on Alan Wolfe's review of The Essential Russell Kirk: Selected Essays. (A New Republic subscription is required to read Wolfe's review.) R.R. Reno is a professor of theology at Creighton University and a frequent contributor to First Things.

Those we call "liberal" in the United States are mostly servants of ideology in the strict sense in which Russell Kirk used that word. As Professor Reno points out, "Kirk has a very specific definition of ideology. A political imagination is ideological, according to Kirk, when it latches on to a belief that political, economic, and social processes can be organized to create a perfect world." This definition runs counter to the conventional wisdom which tends to use the word "ideology as any intensely held political position."

Russel Kirk is often thought to be the founder of American political conservatism.

Kirk and what I would call traditional conservatism (a best a subset or tendency of the American right) deplore "the modern political tendency toward ideology." I do too. Ideology prefers abstractions to the existential challenge to dealing with real flesh and blood people. Since it does not believe in original sin, it believes (like Rousseau) that the ideal is attainable and that the only barriers are institutional. God help anyone who gets in the way or disagrees. Reno puts it well, "Love these days is much more difficult than the critical stance, which every street-corner professor retails..." Or as Peggy Noonan puts it, "I believe that such behavior results from the triumph of ideology over our common humanity."

Wolfe's intolerance and arrogance forced Reno to rethink his dismissal of Kirk: "But Wolfe’s grotesque lack of sympathy has challenged my own relatively modest lack of sympathy and brought me to a deeper appreciation of Russell Kirk. The impatient mental habits and strangely stunted emotional range of the kind of American liberalism that Alan Wolfe represents throws into sharp relief the essential and permanent intellectual obligations that Russell Kirk sought to discharge in his no doubt imperfect way.

"We do well to be reminded of the fact that we, too, inherit those obligations. We really do need to give an account of our patriotic loyalty that remains true to our greater, more permanent faiths. We need to cultivate loyalty to what our culture has given us, and do so in a way that combines the intimacy of love with the honesty of moral judgment."

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