Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind sold more than a million copies during his lifetime. William F. Buckley has said of Kirk, “It is inconceivable even to imagine, let alone hope for, a dominant conservative movement in America without Kirk’s labor.” Most self-identified conservatives, however, have never heard of Kirk. Of those who have, most haven’t read his seminal text. So in an effort to make sense of my own Conservative inclinations and to gain a deeper historical and philosophical sense of Conservatism, I’ve been facilitating a seminar on The Conservative Mind.
Kirk believes that effective conservatives should be familiar with history, including the history of ideas. So his book gives an intellectual history of conservatism and lays out the movement’s highest ideals and historical challenges. He–and his British predecessor Edmund Burke–concerned themselves with opposing the liberalism and radicalism spreading like wildfire since the French Revolution. They believed that ideas must be conquered with ideas. Therefore, in his book, Kirk tries to lay out the historical and imaginative landscape of a Conservatism that he hopes will take hold in the Western world.
While reading “The Conservative Mind,” I’ve found myself surprised again and again. The Conservatism of the movement’s founders differs sharply in many ways from what we would identify as Conservativism today. For example, today’s Conservativism is often associated with an opposition to movements like Black Lives Matter. But if we closely examine their works, Kirk’s (and Burke’s) ideas might help us to understand, and even advocate for, these movements. I’d like to shed some light on this, based what we’ve learned in the seminar.
Political Power Tied to Land
For readers today, one of the most unusual canons of Conservative thought is the “persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked.” Kirk (and Burke) affirm the importance of the personal ownership of property. They also value how, historically, political authority and power have been tied to the land and the interests of various communities, rather than through a pure popular vote. They worried that political power and influence determined solely by democratic majorities would leave minority groups unheard and unrepresented. For example, they worried that the increase in industrial populations, along with a move towards a popular vote, would leave rural communities with policies detrimental to their health and wellbeing.
Similarly, many black communities today argue that their interests are not represented, partly because of a separation of political and state power from land. When it comes to law enforcement, they affirm in some ways a structure closer to that of medieval England. Calls for reforming the recruitment of police in Minneapolis illustrate this. Many Minneapolis police come from suburban areas, from cities and neighborhoods that are predominantly white and starkly different from the socioeconomically and racially diverse Minneapolis. And because the police don’t live in the city, they do not have to invest in the well-being of its citizens or deal with the intimate consequences of abusing their power against their neighbors. One reform advocated now is a residency requirement, a requirement that state authorities in a law enforcement position draw their authority from the land. Rather than fighting this reform, Conservatives should praise its advocates and join in a move their forefathers would affirm.
Kirk rejects the promotion of “economic levelling” raised by “radicals” from Burke’s day to his own. Conservatism holds that men are equal before God and the law, but not equal in condition. And Kirk rejects the idea that societies should be structured so as to give all people equal things. We are not equal in condition, according to Conservatism, and society should not be expected to create this sort of equality. However, in accordance with nature and divine ordinance, Conservatism does believe that one requirement for any civil society should be equality before the law.
Conservatives sometimes miss these distinctions when they criticize the equality sought by many black communities. The equality most often advocated is “equality of opportunity.” This idea pursues not an entitlement to an equal share of all goods for all persons, but, rather an equal shot at engagement in the political, social, and commercial life of the nation. It seeks to abolish the biases and prejudices developed which rob persons of color from opportunities which their white neighbors with similar skill and experience receive. It seeks to abolish the ways in which black persons are subject to unequal administration of justice and legal judgment. In this way, it seeks to affirm that natural law and divine ordinance to which Kirks’ Conservatism submits itself.
In discussing Burke’s “politics of prescription,” Kirk notes how his predecessor rejects the Lockean idea that man is a tabula rosa, a blank slate which will learn from the world as if it were only created with his birth. “Human beings, said Burke, participate in the accumulated experience of their innumerable ancestors; very little is totally forgotten. Only a small part of this knowledge, however, is formalized in literature and deliberate instruction; the greater part remains embedded in instinct, common custom, prejudice, and ancient usage.”
Our instincts and inclinations pass from generation to generation, and there isn’t an easy way to get rid of them. Burke and Kirk see this as a good thing. They want to uphold the value of the “collective knowledge of mankind,” the largely instinctual and unwritten knowledge collected over the centuries. They see a danger in trying to let go of all of the unwritten things we’ve learned from our ancestors, because those lessons were learned and lasted for a reason.
When discussing this with my seminar, I outlined how trauma studies can illustrate the point on an individual level. When a person experiences trauma, the body carries with it an unwritten knowledge gained from the experience. And then when the person encounters an event similar to the traumatic event, the body automatically kicks in to a protective mode, pushing for safety with a fight or flight response. Because of this unwritten knowledge, this instinctual knowledge acquired with experience, trauma survivors can be keenly aware of dangerous situations which go unnoticed by others. And while they will need to learn to develop responses to trauma in order to flourish in their personal and social lives, their trauma exists and remains with them for a reason. The body has learned something, and it reminds us of that lesson when we encounter a situation similar to the original danger. This is similar to the process of the collective knowledge of mankind, which goes further and says that a (largely unwritten) body of knowledge passes from generation to generation.
While focusing on the immense value of collective knowledge, we might also consider a darker side. If our parents were racist–or our parents’ parents, or our parents’ parents’ parents, and so on–then all of the related and unwritten instincts, customs, and prejudices would pass on from generation to generation, largely unnoticed but entirely real. To understand whether one has racist inclinations, Conservatism would tell us that one should not only examine one’s immediate life through the span of conscious years, but must also look at the history of one’s family and communities. One must, for example, understand redlining and restrictive covenants.
Black communities thoroughly affirm Burke’s idea of the collective knowledge of mankind, even if this affirmation focuses on the darker side of this knowledge.
The Social Compact
Burke believes that the administration of justice in society is facilitated by the social compact. He sees the social compact as “a contract that is reaffirmed in every generation, in every year and day, by every man who puts his trust in another.” In this compact, we “yield up an unrewarding natural ‘freedom.’” We give up the ability to act as we wish in a world of anarchy, in order to gain the benefits of the administration of justice. This yielding is done in a position of trust. We surrender “freedom” because we trust in the guarantee of justice. And we have an obligation to submit ourselves to society’s administration of justice.
The surrender need not be permanent and constant, however. Burke believes that man is entitled at times to resist the obligations of the social compact. One situation entitles resistance: “violation of that trust.” One example might be when those empowered to protect society and enforce the law go beyond their authority and kill a man. The trust is further broken when this incident is repeated across the country and then inadequately addressed (at times even justified by community members). This, most certainly, would be a violation of the social compact.
Conservative aspirations must keep in mind the pervasiveness of sin, the corruption which lies within the heart of every man and threatens the health of society. In discussing reforms, Kirk emphasizes the need for reform to begin with the human heart and that a disregard for sin will lead to catastrophe, “that sin always will corrupt the projects of enthusiasts who leave sin out of account; that progress is a delusion, except for the infinitely slow progress of conscience.”
Readers will recognize in these arguments a critique of overly-enthusiastic calls for the end of policing (though we should also be cautious not to overly-caricature reform calls). At the same time, these arguments can be used to critique the starry-eyed view that many have held towards the police. The Catholic Church is struggling to deal with the adage that “absolute power absolutely corrupts,” given the institutional power imbalances that have facilitated the abuse of children by its leaders. Society has yet to seriously address the extreme power wielded and abused frequently by law enforcement, in part because we fail to take seriously the idea of original sin with regards to that particular profession (perhaps because white persons and Republicans tend to view the police “warmly”).
Even further, the Conservative understanding of original sin can instruct us on how the United States ought to relate to racism. As soon as society develops a passive or forgetful relationship with sin, Kirk argues, sin and evil will prevail. For a country founded upon the deliberate compromise of the mass abduction and enslavement of a race, the same should apply for racism. Racism, in both the human heart and in America generally, like sin, will only be overcome through a long, conscious, and constant resistance.
Finally, Conservatism carries a deep skepticism of innovation. It affirms the many good things that have survived through the ages and acquired a sort of timeless value. It also worries that rebellion and revolution will lead, not to an establishment of a new order of higher ideals, but to further breakdown and violence, as happened with the French Revolution. Revolutionaries have historically been bad about preserving their ideals through revolutions, especially as the reconstruction of civil structures results in the loss of all political and social checks and balances, increasing the allure of total power now freely available for the taking.
Change should be slow, argue Burke and Kirk. They would raise a skepticism towards a host of radical changes being implemented quickly. They also believe that change should come from “generally-felt needs,” not “fine-spun abstractions.” I would argue that one way to identify a “generally-felt need” would be looking at protests gathering a diversity of persons across the world together to push for reforms. They might see a need here, even if they would argue for a gradual social unfolding of solutions.
Regardless, Burke thoroughly rejects the use of violence to either create or prevent change. (He also rejects the brandishing of violent weapons for the sake of intimidation or power-flashing. As Kirk writes, “A man has always a right to self-defense; but he does not have, in all times and all places, a right to carry a drawn sword.”) As reforms occur, Conservatives should be gracious in their responses, even if they disapprove. Kirks says, “Conservatism is never more admirable than when it accepts changes that it disapproves, with good grace, for the sake of a general conciliation.”
Conserving Conservatism, and the South
Certainly, the foundations of Conservatism do not easily cohere with all voices and ideas pushing for various forms of racial equality. And one might question the ways in which Kirk frames or fails to frame his discussions on slavery. However, the fact that Conservatives fail to recognize the clear overlap between many ideals of Conservatism and those of Black Lives Matter demonstrates how poorly we understand our tradition, how poorly we’ve conserved Conservatism.
Kirk himself himself recognizes this. In particular, he criticizes sharply a sort of zombie Conservatism he identifies in the South in 1953:
“Only vague cautionary impulses guided the South after 1865, combining with popular distrust of the negro, and lack of material resources, to slacken the rate of social alteration. The modern South cannot be said to obey any consciously conservative ideas–only conservative instincts, exposed to all the corruption that instinct unlit by principle encounters in a literate age… The great majority of Southern people, indeed, never apprehended much more of the doctrines of Randolph and Calhoun than their apology for slavery and its defense through state powers.”
Some resources, if you’re interested:
- 75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice
- Anti-Racism Resources for White People
- Foundations of Conservatism Seminar: Lecture Videos
- Foundations of Conservatism Seminar: About
- Police reform in Camden
- 10 nonfiction books on why we need to defund the police
- A practical guide to defunding the police
- The End of Policing, by Alex Vitale
Other related writings:
- A Conservative Consideration of #BlackLivesMatter
- Why objections to defunding the police are racist
- Catholic Misrepresentation of Pope Francis Today Shows the Subtle Silencing of Black Voices
- If you blame protestors, you likely would have blamed George Floyd
- Why I Left the Law Firm Life: A Letter to My Former Boss
- Last Night Was Different: More on the Fires in my Cities
- My Racist Exchange Today
- Do I Support Looting
- Reflections on a Second Night of Fires
- Trauma and Setting Fires
- More of my writings on race here
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.