tv Bradley Birzer Discusses Russell Kirk CSPAN August 6, 2016 4:45pm-5:31pm EDT
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flash. please welcome editor and general manager of tribune content agency and today's interviewer, john barron. [applause] >> good morning, everybody. i love the smell of books in the morning and it is great to be around a bunch of friends who feel the same way. it is my pleasure to help kick off today's day of lit fest. it is my great pleasure to welcome bradley birzer, the author of "russell kirk: american conservative". bradley is the russell kirk chair of american studies and professor of history at hillsdale college, he came over from south-central michigan, made the journey, to talk about his book about russell kirk. one of the first questions for lots of people is who is russell
kirk? he cast a large shadow over american intellectual fraud in the latter half of the 20th century and it could be argued nobody does. yet russell kirk is not a name much known these days or invoked these days. your book does many things but it also helps serve as a marvelous introduction to russell kirk. we will talk about many things. >> it is a pleasure to be here. russell kirk was born in plymouth, michigan, born into extreme poverty and something he experienced the first 35 years of his life to varying degrees yet he was always very bookish and became interested in all
kinds of things if stories were to be believed, he read the collected works of karl marx and thomas jefferson by the time he was 11, he read all of james fenimore cooper. there was a certain genius to this unusual young man in plymouth. he went to michigan state, served in the military during world war ii, he gets his graduate degree a little higher than a phd at a scottish university. in 1952, came back in 1953, his dissertation, became this million copy bestseller called the conservative mind, it hit the market of the chicago publisher, and went through 7
editions over its lifetime and it really did give -- there were a number of disparate voices that were not leftist. they might be conservative to some degree, libertarian to another degree but a number of voices i think kirk's book allowed a forum for all these voices at the end of world war ii, the end of the korean war, he becomes very important especially we would never have had a barry goldwater movement without kirk. we would not have had a reagan movement later on without kirk. he did represent that strain of conservatism. >> he helped coalesce conservative thought. what is interesting and most people might not imagine is the milieu in which the conservative mind came out in 1953 was very different than the way we offer
shorthand for political thought at this point. we think about conservative and liberal and we think about these things on the opposite extremes, pretty entrenched ideas what those terms mean. they are convenient shorthand at this point that often lead to stereotypes but at the time the conservative mind came out conservatism wasn't a thing in america. >> that is right. part of what kurt had to do was bring together all of these disparate strands, and give it some kind of coherence. what he decided to do in his dissertation, when he wrote the dissertation he had longed to be a well published author, never anticipated he would have the kind of success he did. the timing was perfect and he was a very good writer and a good thinker as well but he didn't project that this will change the world but i think you
are right that we have forgotten him in this day and age, 1953 to 1964, once goldwater fails in that horrific failure in the presidential election kirk's fortunes go down and it will take the rest of his life, he died in 1994. it takes him those 30 years to rebuild his reputation before the goldwater debacle. this has to be stressed and can't be stressed enough that kirk's conservatism was not political but fundamental to understanding the original conservative movement, it became political with goldwater. when kirk writes "the conservative mind" he is not thinking of a political movement. these are not for reagan, he is not thinking large defense and free markets. he is in favor of all that but
his main idea of conservatism is presenting a kind of western face against the soviets. it wasn't just that we weren't soviet or we were anti-communist but he wanted to figure out a way that we were something that was its own thing but he didn't want to be ideological. a lot of his conservatism very poetic, very literary and has to deal with art more than tax subsidies or military policy. >> host: to set the stage, pre-1953, conservatives not really having a place at the table. they were not a firm cemented part of the spectrum with a definition behind them. the country is coming out of the great depression, the country has been experiencing the new deal for quite a while, you have
radical ideologies germinating abroad, a giant war had taken place abroad, and government control in ways bigger than ever before are necessary and modernism was the inevitable path for mankind. that along comes kirk, who presents a different path. >> very anti-modern. he is very leery of this. one thing we often forget and your question leads beautifully into this is modern conservatism really comes out of two impulses. number one, it comes out of the fear there is collectivization going on not just in governance, no doubt conservatives from the beginning were fearful of big government whether it is what we theoretically abroad in terrorist ideological regimes in russia, germany, italy, portugal
and other places prior to world war ii and we see them decline in others, we see them increase, not just the fear of that abroad but also fear that at home through what we call progressivism that there was a desire to solve all problems through colossal institutions whether it was gm which kirk had no level, or educational bureaucracy, michigan state which kirk was fearful of these huge universities or government. he was as tearful of the cult of the colossal, anything that seemed to be anti-humane, that was one of the impulses that was very important for all conservatism and libertarianism in the 1950s but the other impulse which we have forgotten and we have seen modern conservatives lambaste this and this was a defense of the traditional liberal arts, people
like russell kirk, william f buckley, they believed strongly that our true voice was the voice of socrates, plato and cicero and augustine, they saw that line and believed these things were being attacked and it makes sense. we don't have to be conspiratorial, national governments get involved in funding universities they want things like science, science is great but they will use science for making larger bombs, to round this question out, one of the things tied to the fear of what is colossal and the loss of the liberal arts, we are pursuing power without virtue and kirk was absolutely horrified, not sure how well i explained that tried to explain kirk's feelings about this, was horrified about the dropping of the atomic bombs on hiroshima
and nagasaki. those two events, one event put together, that dropping of the bomb, development of the bond that physicists would even consider this, it was too much for him and i go into this in detail and i hope people don't think of kirk as crazy, and old stoic kind of response, he wondered as a member of the us military if it was his duty to commit suicide not because he was depressed for because he was suicidal but because our honor is americans had been so tainted by the attack on these cities that maybe it was the duty of a good american to have recompense to pay for this in a purgatorial way. obviously he didn't commit suicide but his letters and his diary at the time just
horrified. >> host: i want to talk in more detail about kirk's brand of conservatism. we think of liberals or conservatives these days we can't help but fall into the trap of stereotype and caricature. we see almost a cartoonish pop conservative or liberalism on radio and tv. you write that conservatism for kirk served as a means, a mood and an attitude to conserve, preserve and pass on to future generations the best of the humane tradition rather than to advocate a particular philosophy, party or agenda, very different than our shorthand version of conservatism now. can you talk about what was his brand of conservatism and why it said lots of mines on fire? >> as you said so well a few minutes ago it was not -- there were not many conservative voices, they were not unified by any means, you had someone like
robert nesbitt at berkeley, people like leo strauss in chicago, a lot of these people were not coming out of the ivy leagues, a lot of these people were people who had been educated in smaller schools. i don't want to take this too far, but there is a bit of animosity toward not only corporate america but east coast elitism. i don't want to suggest that was a prime motive factor but they were pretty proud, to jeff the institutions on the east coast as well but that conservatism as kirk -- the word conservative is first used in the american tradition in the modern sense by a person at one of the 7 sisters schools, a philosopher named peter varick. .. article in the atlantic and you wouldn't get from reading this that it's political, he's really talking about elliot,
remembering the great thicks -- things in music. it's not a conservative in a political sense. it's not until after world war ii that the term gets bantered around. kirk, whether he's right or wrong about this, it's really quicker that gives that label some kind of real strength and it's not a rallying cry for a party because eisenhower takes him a while, for example, to call himself that. robert taft takes it on quickly in 1953 and you see with national review and others, that conservatism, he gives us six cannons in the book the conservative mind which defines it and those cannons and uses that term can known intentionally, he'll convert to roman cathalicism.
he is really if you read those canids they sound deeply religious because they start off with arguing that we should believe in ata higher power we should believe in the author of the natural t law. in his second ten he actually sounds like that too. what he saying could have easily been written by someone in round during 1952 i mean 1965. it's all personalism and very humane in the way that he is thinking about this.y that h and i stress and i think it's important to know that he uses the term canon because thatss meant a truth that wasn't easily defined. he is trying to avoid the program or a fast cystic
conception. he doesn't want to be an ideology. he doesn't want to be a party platform. as a way of thinking and that's what we might call a stoic almost agnostic judaism or christiana. agnosti really to have this as a way of moving forward and we know from its beginning it's very catholic and very jewish. it's not practice it protestant until you have the revival of the new right. so the great movement is kind of a hazardous religious overtones those religious overtones but it is not completely religious in the way we will think of it. >> so he puts out the conservative mind in 1953 it shows that there is not only this other point of view but
that it also has this very proud angle -- anglo american heritage and he instantly became the spokesman for really what became a movement. what do the book did the book accomplish and what was the reaction. it's still in print at this point.eah. it's very heavy stuff. not your typical bestseller material and yet that's what it became quacks. >> it went through seven editions. the last edition was published in 1986 just about eight years before he passed away he evenen says at the beginning most likely this will last revision. in particular each addition changes the last chapter so that it looks forward what is happening. the original title interesting enough is called the conservative route because he thought that all conservatismuts
would be the rearguard action. he couldn't imagine anyone stepping forth in using thisis as a way to move into the future. it would always be a way of stopping radical progressives and holding them back to a certain degree but he thought we would lose. that was a typical whittaker chambers. he's always can fenced that communism will win. the publisher that we identify with he have made his money byic translating catholic theologyic in the late 1940s so a lot of german scholars and a lot of french scholars have translated those and made his money that way before it became known as conservatism. it is in the english-speaking world it is published in every age or periodical in every major newspaper several
newspapers review it twice because it becomes so big that they feel like they have to go back and look at it again and make sure they didn't get it wrong.t m almost everybody is there. there are some people who will say he is a 19 century man who was thrust into the 20th century he is a romantic there was no question that he is in idealistic romantic he would him enjoyed walking tours no question about it. he could've easily and he was a very eccentric person. but yes that word conservatism becomes the word really brings in all of these different schools great books people in here in chicago people like this and others and in santa
fe but it does bring together a lot of people and one person who is absolutely taken with this book strangely enough is this pilot from arizona barry goldwater. >> it begins with edmund burke in his thought let's talk a little bit about the thoughts. and talk about some of the other people in the book of conservative the saints if you well. the conservative wind is a hate geography. it's worked looking at 29 people and looking at their lives and what they contribute.te. that is important that in the book these 29 characters some we know well people like edmund burke or is it well known to most academics at the time people like that but others this obscure britishly sh
figure. a lot of these people don't remember very well in america harvard historian french. i think they are great guys but nobody picks up that we make it there are some other names that we know very well.tig he ends the book with t.s. eliot. they become very good friends starting in 1963 and they shape each others thoughts profoundly. and on i know that we could about a conservatism here orou abroad without elliott. he won his nobel prize and so forth. to go back certainly he's important. he bookmarks this. for the conservative mind starting with them. the two great figures of their day we as the 26 figures in
between those 29 overall. he is a great figure. i have the great privilege of teaching american founding. i get to teach that every two years. but i always make sure that as the students are reading we also do a good deal. i part of that is because i love kirk and i like a bird as well. but he was leading person. he put his life on the line more than once. put h defending american rights. and he did that for his whole career it wasn't just a political movement. he truly believed that the americans have inherited the very long tradition of common-law the right to be innocent until proven guilty, he believed that we where the true englishman and that was his idea as well. there is a sense that's very
important for our modernki conservatism but i think it is equally important to say he's not unique he is one in a very long line of thinkers. even though he starts it there. he is the inheritor he is the inheritor of all of the greats through the western tradition. so for that idea to come forward that is his understanding that we as americans and i would even say for the audience especially in those watching look at ronald reagan. if you go back and look at his speeches and 81 and 82 he will talk about the greatness of g america but what he talks about so importantly as america defending the greatness of the west. he draws on them.
later i think he becomes a little bit more nationalistic.ore he is concerned with the western tradition and the best. that's why he picks them as well.th the b >> the conservative mind obviously set the table for his career he was a writer throughout his life. helped found the national review he was a comments f widely read across the country. several other books on novelist just a creative figure and if for nothing else he would be remembered for that. despite the fact that early onon he did not talk about conservatism as a party or an agenda or as politics he did get very much involved with politics as you alluded to
with his candidacy in 1964. what prompted that shift and how things play out. >> that as an awkward subject. he goes against his own principles. in many ways in every way i could find he really was a man of integrity and i'm sure he have his faults and i've seen he have a temper and so forth. this was not a guy.al he made a lot of money but he gave it all away. he have argued as early as 1953 nt takes this from one of the great writers politics is for the porter rich. it's not that nicest comment to make. but real change at least early on came by writing books it came by dealing with newspaper editors came by writing
syndicated columns. he was a truly truly a man ofch letters.of lette the real presence in change would take at least 25 years we don't go into congress assuming that we get this one loft passed everything would change tomorrow.passed, he saw how civilization have risen and fallen he knew that the greats of western civilization people have mentioned him a couple of times they have all the end of that. they were all nostalgic writing about what they have lost. the same thing is true with saint augustine. they come at the end of their age in for calling his book the conservative route he thought we too were at the end of the west and therefore our job would be like medieval monks. we would preserve it then this young senator who has a lot of
charisma and even though about a third of the population like tim that third really liked him and goldwater wasn't by all accounts it's hard to dislike him. when he met with people he was totally honest people used to talk about that when he and nixon would meet donors goldwater would never placate a donor.ould if they wanted some kind of subsidy he would say to their faiths no. and nixon would say i think we can work something out. it was a real difference.o nixon was like that. he was a promotion and a guy who was promoting a boxing match. i think that's an interesting way to think about it.i don'
i don't think any of us would ever think that he lied he just was a guy. whatever he thought he spoke. he is a young man here he is calling him from washington dc and michigan insane my two favorite authors are you and friedrich. what do i need to say to make this work. hell i convince people and i think a young kurt was pretty flattered by that. i think he was taken in by that and he became very involved. goldwater called him all the time. of course they strategize how do we take out the birchers. we don't want these people on our side. none of these people should be a part of this.righ but the movement i think it went off in different directions. and they really didn't get involved in policy as much. he wasn't good at it.
kirk is a fantastic. if you want a winning politician than he's not that good. along the way obviously he supported reagan but also supported eugene mccarthy's run and 76. later on he loved normal -- norman thomas. i think he was much more concerned with personality and who he thought was honest. there is obviously a lot of name and influences that he enjoyed it's very enjoyable in your workbook to go down all of those paths of these thinkers who influenced him. is probably more ideas per page in this book than aea year's work of talks. it's fascinating intellectual history by the same token russell clerk was an interesting character.
he was not just a writer off in a room somewhere. a lot of eccentricities a little bit of a prickly nature. talk about the man himself in some of those peculiarities. it's a great question. i don't think you could walk away from him without knowing his personality. he was bizarre. my favorite story about him a year before he gets married he's a bachelor all the way up until 1964 and he marries about a month before he turns 46.about a she'd been a model in new york. extremely intelligent. just a force of nature. incredible person. they were a great team. a year before he gets married he always traveled the world not as a young man but once he went off and served the military in the military he became enamored with traveling. traveled throughout north africa and south africa and all of asia.
usually we just live on peanutut butter he didn't mind poverty at all. whatever he have that's what he have. money was only a means to an end for him.. 1963 he and a hungarian scholar decide there to spend the summer i can see maybe walking across all of north africa in the winter but they decided to take the summer and they walk all across north n africa and everywhere he goes because he's kirk he always carries with him a portable type writer. his letters and 48 in all my years of research i've never seen a body of letters like what he left. the guy never stopped writing. he could do 120 words per minute. heat a photographic memory. just amazing. so in 1963 he walks across the desert. and he wears the whole time a
three-piece tweed suit across the desert he carries with him not only his typewriter but he has this huge cane that has a sword in it. the ts a would not allow this now.desert. usually carried a revolver wherever he went. an absolute eccentric. and bedouin children they follow him everywhere. just this bizarre character walking across. ends up in europe after this whole thing. gets one operate in italy. he and his friend they show up at this opera and he wore in addition to wearing his three-piece suit everywhere. he have count dracula key. he have gotten in the price. it was one of his good friends. and he loved wearing this high colored key. and so he shows up at the april opera and he's late. the security guard well not let the men at all. doors opening.
and so his friend said do not understand this is russell kirk. he is the duke of acosta. it's this tiny little 600 person village in michigan and they let him in. >> and the small town in michigan it was his home and he rebuilt his home in a rather grandiose matter.rebuil this is the other story we don't forget.at if any of you end up reading the burke book the one thing to take away and i ended the book with this because i thought if no one would believe it. he did make millions of dollars during his lifetime not only from his book but especially from his fiction. most people who know his fiction don't know he is also
the founder of postwar conservative them. the thing i think is most impressive about him is when he died he was basically broke. he gave everything away. they used to drive into grand rapids. anyone who wanted to come from cambodia or ethiopia anyone escaping from communism they opened their houses to them. and so the daughters they would wake up every morning they never knew who would be at breakfast with them because at times there were 18 ethiopians vietnamese all of these people one of my colleagues where i teach he was brought out because of kirk. we don't often remember that about these guys. he truly lived this in every sense of the way. in one of the people that he t met was an ex-con who was on
parole from upstate new york who happened to be walkingki through michigan in the late 1960s his wife met him. kirk thought the sky was fascinating. they loved him and they invited him to stay. he ended up living with them. he called the office in new york. clinton wallace ends up living there on ash wednesday of all days he accidentally leaves the great to the fireplace open and they are down hiss home.all thin they have to rebuild it after that. it's this beautiful ornate structure there. but here is what i think is beautiful. it's just a few miles away.'s they buried clinton wallace. he died around 19 78. tombstone is right there. but it's great doesn't say hobo doesn't say homeless drifter it says clinton
wallace knight of the road. that's who he was. he loved people he loves stories of people. he was very forgiving but he also was interesting.this he just wasn't on the criminal side. let me ask you something that you might imagine that he would think about what's going on these days. ec i don't mean to put you in his mind but who better to ask than someone who has put together this biography. what would he think about today's political environment. >> he would be horrified in every way.gs would i think two things would have bothered him immensely. he spent the last three days of his life combating this. right or wrong he thought that george bush foreign policy was against everything that america really stood for.
he saw this as our first foray into serious american empire. he spent those three years he was really run out of the conservative movement for his views on this. he made some remarks that were very -- not very judicious. he thought bush had betrayed the entire legacy. you have a military so you don't use it. and he did not believe in any form of overseas expansion so he would be the idea that we had troops stationed in 150 countries something very different from what it would've been in 1991. he would've been very upset about that. he would not recognize the people he would have thought there. he was very worried about the possibility but he also and i
think this is maybe even more important i don't want to name names but the idea that you have radio shows dedicated to conservatism as art not as art as entertainment. the fact that you would be selling it as a radio show or tv show his conservatism what were doing here were actually having a discussion and yourva letting me talk what were doing here and taking 35 or 45 minutes and actually thinking about an idea that was what we should be doing. he may have disagreed with someone but that was the proper way of doing news. in the early 1960s there were people who were just going right at him and he just sat back he disagreed with her strong brand of individualism. was very charitable.
he does let her talk and then he just answered very calmly. she was frustrated.ed when he does that with malcolm x seem kind of thing. after discussion and i think that was important for him. soundbites. >> did the exchange of ideas a good thing and enclosing here we wanted to open up the floor to any questions from the audience for professor if there are any about russell kirk his thought where this book we had answered all of the questions. one last question and we will close his legacy. we do had one question.we wil
what was his reaction to what happened in the 60s so muchs conservatism today seems to come from that and this is somewhat off the subject butms there's been a lot in the news lately about how conservative professors on campus are afraid to coming out of the closet on that. like most conservatives was confused in the 1960s he did have some radicalism on campus.time, he he was willing to debate in engage in one of my favorite stories and this is not something i go into in great detail because we don't have a lot of evidence he was asked to speak at the university of michigan he was to debate tom hayden. he got in front of the crowd that was predisposed it was pretty radical group. but he was without question he
was a gentleman and he treated no matter who he was talkingho to he treated people with respect and tom came late because the event had to get started and hayden hadn't shown up. they allowed kirk to give a speech. he came in from the back of the room at least as a storygi goes and he immediately started launching into him as a defender of corporate capitalism and a person who was defending the establishment and the story goes i think it says so much about what we remember about him. and explains a lot. there was a young man in theth front row he was very convert convinced. as soon as he launched into him. he stood up and started yelling. and saying you know right to do this. you did not listen to this man he actually is more respect for us than you are showing now and by all accounts he won
the debate because whatever he said he treated everybody while. it wasn't a show for him. this is serious conversation.shr i think it is really important to know that whatever it's become he was always a defender of people who would have been called minorities in the 1950s always he believed that the changes that werewa happening in the 60s were necessary he believed from the very beginning that he have an air editorial in 1963. he said he thought one of the ugliest things that had developed in american culture were road signs. he actually has an editorial in one of his newspapers that said all good citizens shouldtot spend their time defacing billboards because they don't do anything for the beauty of america. inside as well as out.
it was a very interesting things. he said it was his duty to make up for the sins of his ancestors.he when we hear radio personalities in the media today is not generally what we hear. >> i can't really answer your second question. i know a lot of my friends feel very oppressed in the academy.n't real i'm teaching at a small college that's very open i've never experienced that. i the great blessing of teaching at the university of colorado at boulder. i loved it. i'm sure people thought i was weird but i have nothing but good experiences for what it'swh worth my evidence i have not seen that but i certainly know my friends who are conservative or libertarian i don't feel the way i do but maybe i've just gotten lucky. we have come to the end of our
time and wanted to remind everybody the book is russell kirk american conservative. thank you very much wonderful conversation. and everybody enjoy the rest of the literature fast today. thank you so much. much. the book will be sold just outside the door and your feedback is important to us. p so please visit us and complete the post survey. have a fantastic day. on tuesday in washington dc the institution