2 September 2003
historical look at our country; from its roots to the conservatism
of today, focusing on Buckley and Kirk. Until conservatives
and Republicans reacquaint themselves with the issues of government
excess and crass materialism in a serious way, we risk losing
ourselves in the same materialist quagmire that destroyed socialism.
years now, many of us who think of ourselves as traditional
conservatives have been wrestling with the direction of the
conservative movement. We are mindful that the modern conservative
movement, as we understood it, rallied around three basic concerns:
opposition to communism and socialism, the celebration of a
free economy, and the preservation of traditional values upon
which the nation’s culture and future depend.
the free world overcame communism, we did not think the battle
for a better America had ended. Capitalism, for all its benefits,
was never the sole end of true conservatives, as this essay
will seek to show, and we did not oppose the centralization
of power in the state only to surrender it to the multi-national
corporation. Of course, we are not anti-government or anti-corporation.
We see the need for both, but might define that need more narrowly
than others. We are mindful of the services and conveniences
afforded us by a commercial economy, but we do not think commercialism
is the only value to which we might aspire. Our concern was
ably and succinctly summed up by George Will almost 30 years
ago, when he wrote:
True conservatives distrust and try to modulate
social forces that work against the conservation of traditional
values. But for a century the dominant conservatism has uncritically
worshipped the most transforming force, the dynamism of the
American economy. No coherent conservatism can be based solely
on commercialism, but this conservatism has been consistently
ardent only about economic growth, and hence about economies
of scale, and social mobility. These take a severe toll against
small towns, small enterprises, family farms, local governments,
craftsmanship, environmental values, a sense of community, and
other aspects of humane living. (The Pursuit of Happiness)
exploring these issues in more detail, let us survey the political
landscape for a moment. The Republican Party - I am sorry to
say – has become overly solicitous of big corporations
and big government. There is no wing that I can discern that
puts small business interests ahead of capitalist forces, or
seeks to rescue nature or local culture from modern excesses.
There is no energetic environmental movement within the Republican
Party and, even more surprising, no strong push for local empowerment.
The collaboration between big government and big business is
a concern. Lip service is given from time to time to local and
states rights, but the federal government grows, no matter who
is in charge. In the meantime, we struggle to make sense of
economic policies that put the American worker and the small
entrepreneur at a disadvantage.
are even more worrisome. They are committed totally to the empowerment
of the federal government at the expense of individuals and
small businesses. Bill Clinton might have believed the era of
big government was over, but he was wrong as surely as he was
misguided in so many other ways. The party of FDR and JFK has
become the true party of Strom Thurmond, vintage 1948 - endlessly
seeking to play the race and class cards for political advantage.
The white southerners of yesteryear did it well, but nobody
does it better than the left.
then, are we to turn, the advocates of the small farm and shop?
How do we engage a dialogue that roots conservatism in the heart
of the republic, and how does one salvage our culture from the
demigods that parade across our media on a daily basis, unmindful
of the harm they do in the name of getting more, by whatever
means, no matter the damage done to our children, our local
environment or our long-term cultural health?
the great British pundit, died in 1938, just in time to miss
the destruction wrought by the engines of corporate and state
power he had resisted throughout his life. His argument against
unbridled capitalism is found throughout his work, but perhaps
most eloquently in his essay, What's Wrong with the World. He
was joined in battle by T.S. Eliot, who wrote in his important
essay, "Notes on A Christian Society," that a wrong
attitude toward nature revealed a wrong attitude toward God.
concerns were taken up by the small group of southern poets
and writers based in Nashville, Tennessee, who in the 1920s
and 1930s launched their own movement to save traditional culture
from the engines of modernity. The Fugitives, as they would
be called, were an interesting group. They included such giants
of literature as Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate and John Crowe
Ransom, and men of traditional mind like Donald Davidson and
Andrew Lytle. Historians from across the nation would express
sympathy with their world view, e.g. Richard Weaver, M.E. Bradford,
Cleanth Brooks, C. Vann Woodward and Eugene Genovese.
It is no accident that they emerged as a cultural and literary
force in the shadows of the Tennessee hills, not far from the
Smokey Mountains. Vanderbilt was a quiet refuge in a tumultuous
world. As one historian of the movement noted: "The surrounding
land nurtured a conservative society whose easy manners and
customs endowed the school with a gentler aspect, providing
its students with a homogenous outlook and a hardy traditionalism."
were arguably the most important regional movement to emerge
in the United States since Emerson and Thoreau walked the New
England woods almost a century before. They were determined
to turn back the forces of industrialism, not in the name of
enslaving the poor, but in liberating man. Their dreams could
not be counted on a horizon of smokestacks. They articulated
this view in an anthology called, I'll Take My Stand, which
has survived, amid charges of romanticism, as one of the more
important cultural critiques of the past century.
Eugene Genovese, in his short but important study, The Southern
Tradition, put in perspective the Agrarian agenda. The movement
was about preserving a regional culture, a way of life rooted
in land and tradition. The Agrarians were not opposed to modernity,
but to its excesses. Wrote Genovese: "Southern conservatives
have condemned not science, reason, material progress and individualism,
but, rather, the cult of scientism, atheistic and pantheistic
rationalism, and a material progress that has resulted in the
alienation of the individual from self and society."
By the 1930s, the nation had changed so dramatically that the
Agrarians were viewed in many quarters as throwbacks disconnected
from reality. Merrill Peterson, the great Jeffersonian scholar,
has suggested that in adopting Jefferson as their model, the
Fugitives failed to acknowledge that the Virginian had accommodated
himself to the uses of industrial and state power. Richard Hofstadter
likewise suggests that the notion of an agricultural America
rooted in tradition, self sustaining and noble, was pure mythology;
the Agrarian ideal had ceased to exist long before the 1930s,
a victim of Westward expansion, rural greed and frontier atrocities.
Nothing the critics have said obviates the concerns of the Agrarians,
however, who were well aware that rural folks were not immune
to the dominant cultural forces blowing through the nation.
Nor is there any denying that Fugitives were out of step with
the times. The historian C. Van Woodward has observed that by
mid 20th century, cities in Southern metropolitan areas were
growing at three times the rate of comparable cities in other
parts of the country. For every three city dwellers in the South
in 1940, there were four by the end of the decade. Moreover,
in 1930, there were 5.5 million southerners employed in agriculture,
a number that drops to 3.2 million by 1950.
causes can still be important. Genovese, once a staunch leftist,
found much about southern conservatism to applaud. For starters,
the Agrarians were "premature environmentalists" whose
concern about the impact of industrialized life on the environment
is an important theme in I'll Take My Stand.
essay, by John Crowe Ransom, set the tone. Ransom, like Chesterton,
sought a world filled not with ambitious men, but with contented
citizens. Whatever its drawbacks, European culture, at least
beyond the great cities, had reconciled itself to nature. Men
and women found their spot between the rock and the shade tree
and then "willed the whole in perpetuity to the generations
which should come after. This had been in many respects the
thrust of human society, in which man concludes a truce with
nature, and he and nature seem to live on terms of mutual respect
and amity…..But the latter day societies have been seized
- none quite so violently as our American one - with the strange
idea that the human destiny is not to secure an honorable peace
with nature, but to wage an unrelenting war on nature."
argued that true artistic accomplishment is - in the final analysis
-- a product of rural life and cannot be severed from spiritual
and traditional forces that beat in the heart of nature.
other essays argue against the logic of progress as defined
in an urban or industrial setting.
in fact, impossible for any culture to be sound and healthy
without a proper respect for the soil, no matter how many urban
dwellers think their victuals come from groceries and delicatessens
and their milk from tin cans.
So wrote Andrew Lytle who sought to combat the negative images
of southern rural life that were prevalent in the great centers
of commerce. Lytle was not impressed with the notion that progress
came parading in the garb of the New Deal or any other government-inspired
innovation. While it is true that modern conveniences afford
us more time - the crucial question is time for what? Is the
time spent in a way more meaningful than learning how to live
in harmony with nature? Is our dream of modernity a life in
which the body and mind atrophy, food is less healthy, our lives
imitate popular trends, our relationships are formed with celebrities
we will never meet, our wants determined by advertising that
tries to convince us to fill our homes with marginally useful
do not come from cities promising riches and store clothes.
They have always come from wilderness, stinking of goats and
running with lice, and they spoke of a different kind of treasure,
one a corporation head would not understand," Lytle observed.
conceded that the engines of change will not be stilled, but
it was his hope that they might be slowed down. Davidson acknowledged
that art can be created in urban centers, but asks if mass produced
art does not, in the end, lead to a deterioration of value and
content. Robert Penn Warren knew the day was coming when the
sins of racism would have to be confronted, but he nevertheless
offered a kinder interpretation of the relationship between
southern white and black cultures than the rest of the nation
observed, the noble efforts of the Agrarians to confront the
excesses of commercial culture got lost, unfortunately, in the
upheaval over civil rights. Massive resistance in the South
to the rightful claims of African American citizens did great
harm not only to the racial relations of our nation, but also
to the very idea of local and states rights. Genovese tackled
this issue head on precisely because he believed the Agrarians
were part of a great American tradition on behalf of a kinder,
more thoughtful way of life. Rural communities and small towns
across the nation had earned a place at the table of American
understood, intuitively, that they were on the losing side of
history. The great engines of change - industrialism, modernity,
consumerism - could not be turned back by fine phrases and poetic
sentiment. Nevertheless, they articulated a perspective that
would find a constituency as the excesses of the 20th century
became more pronounced. They were the precursors of the modern
environmental movement, as we have noted, and that movement
would emerge as a major political force in the 1950s and 1960s.
They would also find a hearing in the pro-business, pro- free
enterprise conservative movement that William F. Buckley Jr.
launched in full force in the 1950s.
Buckley rallied a new conservatism (and won criticism from the
old conservatives like Peter Vierek for his efforts) that brought
three strains of thought into a cohesive, albeit strained, alliance.
Prior to Buckley, conservatism was a hodge-podge of ideas with
no real constituency. Republican candidates and presidents were
generally pro-business, but had no coherent vision or philosophy
relative to the role of government.
Buckley changed that. First, he brought into the fold prominent
anti-communists such as Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham and
Max Eastman. He also engaged the free marketers, who focused
on the dangers of expanding government to business. They were
students of Hayek and Von Mises and would later take solace
from Milton Friedman. Most interestingly, Buckley mobilized
traditional conservatives like Russell Kirk, who, while being
anti-communist and pro-free enterprise, rooted his concerns
more deeply in the soil of American history than either of the
other two wings.
is the "patron saint" of conservatives, Russell Kirk
was certainly the dean of scholarly conservatism. His classic,
The Conservative Mind, remains the definitive work on the roots
of Western conservatism over the past 200 years. Interestingly,
despite their friendship, Buckley and Kirk are a study in contrasts.
Buckley spent most of his time in New York, while Kirk was a
quiet scholar living in rural Michigan. Buckley was a celebrity,
Kirk an obscure historian. Buckley named as friends some of
the most prominent liberals of the age, while Kirk opened a
seminar for shaping new conservative thinkers. Buckley had wit,
style, glamour; Kirk was almost sullen at times, a man uninspired
by the modern trends with which he was forced to contend.
argued that conservatism was about a great deal more than making
the world safe for consumers. And he said as much on a number
of occasions, perhaps most emphatically in the very book that
conservatives tout as their classic - The Conservative Mind.
could he see our century, never would concede that a consumption-society,
so near suicide, is the end for which providence has prepared
man. If a conservative order is indeed to return, we ought to
know the tradition which is attached to it, so that we may rebuild
society; if it is not to be restored, still we ought to understand
conservative ideas so that we may rake from the ashes what scorched
fragments of civilization escape the conflagration of unchecked
will and appetite.
so concerned about this issue, in fact, that he brings it up
repeatedly in TCM. He suggests that the entrepreneurial spirit,
unleashed and untempered, posed a danger to traditional culture.
He takes head on the pro-capitalist wing when he laments: "to
complete the rout of traditionalists, in America an impression
began to arise that the new industrial and acquisitive interests
are the conservative interest, that conservatism is simply a
political argument in defense of large accumulations of private
property, that expansion, centralization and accumulation are
the tenets of conservatives."
were any doubt about Kirk's own view, it is clarified in two
important lectures that he delivered in the early 1990s before
the Heritage Foundation, arguably the most important think tank
in the country. Kirk celebrated the memory of Donald Davidson,
one of the original Agrarians. Davidson, Kirk argued, sought
to save the American south from the rampant consumerism that
had, by the 1990s, degraded American culture. He stood up against
the centralized state that sought to control education and the
economy, and against private interests that sought to homogenize
America and thus rob it of its regional flavor. Davidson and
the Agrarians resisted the marching orders of commercial and
do commend to you, ladies and gentlemen, the genuine conservatism
of the Twelve Southerners. It is not the only mode of conservative
thought, but it is an important mode. The authors of I'll Take
My Stand did not propound a rigorous ideology or display a model
of Utopia: their principal purpose was to open our eyes to the
illusions of Modernism. The Southern Agrarians proclaimed when
I was a child that the southern culture is worth defending;
that society is something more than the gross national product;
that the country lane is healthier than the Long Street; that
more wisdom lies in Tradition than in Scientism; that Leviathan
is a devourer, not a savior.
could be accused of not always understanding the realities of
wielding power in a modern industrial state, but he nevertheless
did not abandon his traditionalist approach. How we live and
work is important, he suggested. The now over-used cliché,
quality of life, was central to his perspective. That is why,
in another lecture, he celebrated Wilhelm Roepke, who had been
the architect of the post-war German recovery.
was a principal champion of a humane economy: that is, an economic
system suited to human nature and to a humane scale in society,
as opposed to systems bent upon mass production regardless of
counterproductive personal and social consequences. He was a
formidable opponent of socialist and other `command’ economies;
also a fearless, perceptive critic of an unthinking `capitalism.'”
was hardly alone. Whittaker Chambers, Malcolm Muggeridge, James
Buckley — and others — all expressed sympathy for
the cultural critique that Kirk outlined. In his essay, "Cold
Friday," Chambers assumes almost a Jeffersonian mantel
as he walks us around the farm and the fields, notably the one
for which his essay was named. He calls “Cold Friday”
a defiant field, with two of its sides too steep for modern
farm machines to navigate, and he suggests that this obstinate
geography had a symbolic meaning -- a retreat from the great
emotional upheavals that had wearied him. Chambers ties respect
for the land directly to the fight against collectivist forces.
"So I meant Cold Friday to be a base for my children not
only against the forces of revolution in the world, but also
against the climate of materialism which breeds revolutionists,"
he wrote. He listened for the eternal things.
has come to us again-a spring that I scarcely expected to see.
Twice at night the wild geese have passed over. There have been
three such flights, since one night I dreamed that I saw hundreds
flying overhead, so in the way we hear so much without ever
quite waking to its meaning, I may have heard these wild geese
honking without waking.
of Chambers know that he disassociated himself somewhat from
the label conservative and that he was critical both of the
south and of Kirk. He even applauds the ingenuity of the industrial
power unleashed by the North. Yet the contradictions in his
own life are telling. Like many people living in modern societies
but still tied to what Yeats has called "the memory of
Nature," Chambers was at war with himself. Chambers conceded
that capitalism uproots our sense of place, yet he rooted himself
and his own survival precisely in a place that he calls "Cold
Friday." He opposed the materialist energies of the left,
but then applauded the materialist energies on the right. All
the while, he candidly acknowledged that the great issue confronting
Western civilization was one of spirit and faith, not only the
free market. (In this respect, he was a precursor, perhaps,
of Solzhenitsyn). When he dismissed the concerns of Kirk as
"irrelevant buzz" he was refusing to embrace an answer
to the most fundamental question he asks: What in the West is
worth saving? Kirk had an answer, but one not easily accepted
in our age of excess.
Until conservatives and Republicans reacquaint themselves with
these issues in a serious way, we risk losing ourselves in the
same materialist quagmire that destroyed socialism. We cannot
return to the age of Jefferson, but we might revive a cultural
dialogue through which the excesses of capitalism and the state
might be tempered, and the reclamation of our communities reenergized.
It is not simply conservatism that is at risk, but the very
idea of self governing individuals who need not be crucified
on a cross of centralized power, wherever that power might reside.
George Shadroui is a Memphis based writer who has been published
in more than two dozens newspapers and magazines, including
National Review and Frontpagemag.com.