fragments of an attempted writing.

Kirkian thematics, probably part I.

For various reasons I haven't been able to get back to my current series on my old bookselling haunts.  That sort of writing (not that it is of great quality, but that it is very personal) requires more of me than other word scatterings.  Perhaps later in the week.

I have been tempted to write something on Kirk's 6 Canons of Conservatism, elsewhere called his 10 Principles of Conservatism, which came up in a recent discussion, maybe later on that.

For now Dreher on Brooks.

Kirkian conservatism is a political thematic, if you will.  I'm not sure that it is an actual political philosophy.  In any event, whatever it is, I can't find where Kirkian conservatism comes down on actual policy matters, and let me let you in on a little secret, most discerning reader, politics ultimately comes down to policy, and law, and, you know, concrete stuff.  Get it?  [Modestinus points at some of these realities in this post, which every distributist should read - and which Moddy should turn into a book.]

So Kirk sometimes espoused support for environmental regulations.  But as a commenter on the Dreher thread accurately notes, Kirk also "spoke frequently about voluntary community vs. coerced community." And as you know Kirk was very much on the side of voluntary community.

So what does a Kirkian conservatism do with actual environmental policy?  Let's get more specific - what does it do with Monsanto and its GMOs and intellectual property claims?  Lay it out for me.  As I know more than a fair share of conservatives who refer to themselves as being inspired by Kirk or even as Kirkian and/or Burkean (via Kirk) conservatives, I can tell you than Kirkian conservatism seems to have little to no bearing on the actual policy positions of those who like to bear his name.  And let's be forthright - it's actual policy that makes the difference between whether or not our great grandchildren are all sterile because of GMO corn (if that fevered fear of certain leftists I know turns out to be true), and not our rhetorical preferences or our sentiments.

As I see it, a self-proclaimed Kirkian conservatism is usually, but certainly not always, akin to Crunchy Conservatism, which means that we want a conservative rhetoric which makes us feel like we are not the assholes that Dubya/Rove/Cheney/McCain/and-in-a-pinch-Romney diehard supporters are, but we're still going to vote for movement conservatives Huckabee and then Santorum when given the chance and we're going to actually, when pressed, support movement conservative positions (especially domestic ones) well more than half of the time.   We want a kinder, gentler version Paul Ryan, if you will, though one deemed just as sexy.

But neither life nor politics works that way.

Dreher wants to return to a "traditionalist conservatism."  He uses the turn your TV off trope in his call to intellectual and traditional conservative arms.  But what does he really want more than a changed rhetoric?  What does he really want more than a slight dressing down of some of the more pushing-the-envelope elements of movement conservative domestic fiscal policy and military policy?  What does he want to do with Social Security?  What does he want to do with Medicare?  How does he want them funded and budgeted?  How does he want them administratively organized?  What does he want to do with environmental regulation?  What, exactly, is he going to do about the Koch Bros plant not all that far from me or him in Crossett, Arkansas, and how, exactly, is his policy decision informed by a Kirkian conservatism?  Wouldn't it be great if the Kochs voluntarily cleaned up that plant?  My daughters would like pink worker fairies (we don't do princess fairies in our household) with magical powers to clean up their rooms.  Some shit doesn't happen.

I don't mean to suggest there there should be a policy opinion hegemony among those toting around Kirk, Nisbet, and Weaver.  As you probably know, I belong to a couple of radical leftist groups, and have friends in many others, and I can assure you that those who tote the name of Marx around have varied opinions on policy.  But they all are (often enough) able to argue why a given policy position is in line with a Marxist political/economic orientation.  And most of the time their defenses of their policy positions along Marxist lines are plausible, or plausible enough anyway.  It is hard for me to imagine a Kirkian approach to the Koch plant in Crossett that is such that I read/hear it and think "yeah, that is definitely Kirkian."  Hence my position that Kirkian conservatism is thematic, and doesn't really orient one to specific ways of handling policy decision making or even general trajectories of approaching policy position making.

This isn't to say Kirk is bad for this reason or that his words are useless. Far from it.  I much prefer Kirk to most other American conservative thinkers.  Themes can be helpful.  Then again, we live in the age of 
überlifestylization, in which we hold to very little that goes deeper than the thematic, so perhaps turning to the thematic too often approaches the danger of offering an easy catharsis to commodity fetished souls.  I don't know.  But I do think that if you are going to call for a return to a traditionalist, Kirkian conservatism, and you can't tell me with some precision what this means in terms of policy positions and how those policy position decisions are integrally related to Kirk's thought, you are posturing, and intellectually masturbating.  Not that I would ever accuse Dreher of that though, of course.....  


  1. Dont have much to say besides I agree -- I came upon this problematic awhile back here ( - especially in the comments thread...

    I need to actually finally sit down and soak in some genuine Marxism for awhile -- I also feel like my Anti-Statism is constantly being chipped away - especially as I think of how UNPRACTICAL any form of personalism is - Buber, Marcel, etc. etc.

    Owen, have you written down any set of "must reads" for politics/economics ?

  2. My biggest gripe with Kirk(ianism) and other brands of Anglo-style traditional(ist) conservatism is that it perpetually begs the question, "Which tradition?" I mean, what are they really trying to hearken back to? The days before mass industrialization and bioengineering gave us Frankenfood and rampant pollution?

    Since you mentioned the Koch brothers, I am reminded of a distinction several Cato Institute scholars often make between those who are "pro-market" and those who are "pro-business." The latter group is pretty well represented by the mainstream political parties, though of course the Republicans are typically demonized for it more than Democrats. The pro-market types, even if they are intellectually misled, really believe that if government just leaves well enough alone, most (all?) of these problems will be sorted out so long as there is a background legal order which embraces a few basic (common law!) principles, e.g., freedom of contract; strong property rights; and a tort system grounded in strict liability. So, with respect to environmental matters, a factory that pollutes will have to pay out for the "right" to do so, i.e., compensate the victims of the pollution (which, presumably, they would do ex ante rather than incur the costs of environmental cleanup, medical bills, etc.). If the costs outweigh the benefits, then the factory will simply shut down or move or find some other means of producing its wares without causing the same degree of damage, etc. I suspect a "Kirkian" might get behind something like this even though it has some severe limitations. Additionally, my example is super-simplistic; what if the factory produced something socially valuable like medical devices for a rare health affliction but, due to its low rate of occurrence in the general population, is unlikely to yield a sizable enough return that would allow the factory to compensate its neighbors for polluting their water/air supplies?

    All of that aside, the bigger problem with conservatism in an American context is that it is and will always be a mishmash of contradictory ideologies, postures, themes, idealizations, etc. I was talking to a former coworker (and ex-Catholic) the other day about Catholic Social Thought and why it turns into such a mess in an American context. People seem to forget the socio-political (not to mention historical and geographic) context of so much Catholic teaching from the 19th C. onwards. Whatever purchase it may have (or could have) had in Europe doesn't work very well in a two-party political system which is animated by a single blanket ideology -- liberalism -- and often turns on a handful of interpretations of what "liberalism" means. I can't remember who wrote it (perhaps a few people), but there's really never been something like "the Right" in the U.S. in the way there was/is a "Right" in Europe (and we might say that about "the Left" as well). It's all just a lot of squabbling and fighting over the scraps dropped from the Enlightenment's table. The "tradition" being invoked in a relative recent one; nobody is seriously contending we go behind the pantheon of Jefferson, Locke, Hume, Smith, Ricardo, etc.

    1. There have certainly been folks who fly the Kirkian banner and yet subscribe to the high liability quasi-absolute property rights scenario you lay out for dealing with Koch dumps. I don't see how such a position can really be reconciled with Kirk, who had a rather fluid view of property rights (a low view compared to libertarians) and who was famously dismissive of libertarian approaches to social and environmental ills. That said, you get folks who quote a few lines of Kirk's admiration for Röpke and note generic themes from Kirk like "restraints on power" and then immediately jump to the conclusion that on some essential level one can claim Kirk and claim the libertarian solutions to the Koch dumps that you gloss. I don't see how this is anything more than using Kirk as a mystical token for being granted humane legitimacy and substance and gravitas and shit, like when Reagan quoted Solzhenitsyn in a manner that inferred that the two shared something similar with regards to what the word "freedom" means and how societies should be ordered.

      Part of the problem, too, in my opinion, lies with Kirk himself. You state: The "tradition" being invoked in a relative recent one; nobody is seriously contending we go behind the pantheon of Jefferson, Locke, Hume, Smith, Ricardo, etc. Well, in Kirk you find the argument for a conservatism which asserts that it takes its bearings from outside of classical liberalism. And so Kirk (especially in works like The Conservative Mind and The Roots of American Order points to a counter narrative operating sometimes within, and sometimes on the fringes of, and sometimes side by side with, classical liberalism. But frankly I think the degree to which Kirkian thought relies on there being a vast gulf between Adams and Jefferson approaches the fanciful. Yes, there were real distinctions. But I think that most of Kirk's heroes (Adams, Hamilton, Calhoun, Disraeli, Balfour, etc.) are still decidedly operating within the strata of classical liberalism (especially on certain areas, i.e. notions of property rights that rely on Lockean presuppositions). I guess in the end I think the Kirk really wants there to be a clear line where there is not actually one. But, at least, Kirk tried, he lays out coherent theory and historical analysis, he picks the guys on his team, names his enemies, and gives clear reasons for his positions.

    2. -cont'd-

      I rarely see that from Kirk's self-professed followers today, especially (obviously) the more popular ones like Dreher. If Kirk's assertions that there is a real, living conservative tradition among his historical heroes that actually functioned as an operative socio-political alternative and counter narrative to classical liberalism is a stretch, it's still far more clear and coherent and arguable a thesis, in my opinion, than the notion that the the high liability quasi-absolute property rights scenario Cato likes can be reconciled with Kirk. Or, to go another route, the notion that Kirk can in any way be reconciled with the fiscal policy positions of Santorum, or of Paul Ryan. Grant it, usually those flying the Kirk flag don't try to make the argument, they just fly the Kirk flag and happen to support either movement con or libertarian policy positions.

      Anyway, what is clear to me is that if some dude adopts a libertarian take on environmental matters (even a "Hayekian" & "traditional" common law based one), or takes a movement conservative take on, say, a very large and pro-active U.S. military, and then claims to be a trad con or a Kirkian, whatever he actually is he is getting his policy positions from a source other than trad con sources or Kirk. So when Dreher praises Brooks for that notion that American conservatism has been split between economic conservatives and trad cons, I want to know where the two have real policy differences, and what political philosophies they base those policy differences on. But what I am really doing by asking that question is calling a bluff. Brooks claims that Reagan embodied both economic and trad conservatism. I think that is utterly specious. I think that Reagan would wholeheartedly endorse Ryan's fiscal policy positions today if Reagan thought he could win with them. For there to be a real difference between this out of hand running wild economic conservatism today, and the greatly diminished trad con on the other, there must be policy position difference, somewhere. If there are not, all we are talking about are differences in rhetorical posture. And I think with both Dreher and Brooks (note Brooks referring to Dubya's "compassionate conservatism" as another embodiment of a combined economic and trad con - the idea of Dubya being a part of the Kirkian tradition is either laughable or reveals something very damning about Kirk, I'm not sure which) may very well just want their conservatism to come in a more palatable package, one that is feels more respectable in public and has the affect of being more humane and more thoughtful, but with more or less the usual movement con policy positions. I don't think either is capable of much more than such dreaminess.

    3. To be uncharacteristically brief:

      I don't know how you can take the views of someone who called cars ‘mechanical Jacobins’ and put them to work for environmental libertarianism.

  3. What this ends up coming down to is some version of 'mind your parents' which in turn is really about minding GOP leadership. It is laughable to me to suggest the GOP is in any way small government- the stats put the lie to that. The government got bigger under every single one of them in my lifetime.
    People will look back on 2008 as the beginning of the end for the Republican party.
    This appeal to tradition (which is changing all the time- progressives don't just change the present, they revise the past) is just the call of people who are beginning to feel the loss of power.

    1. This appeal to tradition (which is changing all the time- progressives don't just change the present, they revise the past) is just the call of people who are beginning to feel the loss of power.

      Indeed. How does one apply Kirk's second conservative principle, "the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity" to the questions of Social Security and Medicare in our society today. Generations have now relied on SS, and more than a generation on Medicare. My parents spent their entire adult working lives assuming SS and Medicare would be there for them in their retirement, as did many millions of Americans.

      Kirk's tenth con principle is so vague as to be completely useless - "the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society" (see his description of that here:

      I am much more sympathetic with the notion that we are living in a post-cultural situation. There are few cohesive and coherent socio-cultural binding agents left today. One other thing I plan on addressing when dealing with Kirk's ten principles and six canons is the question of technology - which changes everything. When you have financial markets that are heavily derivatives based operating via computer systems handling millions of transactions a minute, you are in a social ordo wherein the matter of socio-cultural "permanences" is a very complicated one. I would love to see someone write a reflection on reading Russell Kirk and Paul Virilio (see ) at the same time.

  4. Great to see you back to blogging again!

    I like Rod, and read his blog regularly, but lately he's had a lot of posts along the lines you mention that just aren't coherent. He'll say, "Politics can't solve our problems--it's the breakdown of society/the family/the working class." I mean, as you say, if it's not about specific laws or policies or whatnot, what are you supposed to do? How do you make society/the family/the working class functional? Force 'em all to go to church? Then he'll say, "I wish we had a socially conservative party," then after that he recently said that harping on gays and abortion had cost the Right a lot of credibility. Then he groused about Romney and said that Obama would probably have better policies, but that he couldn't vote for Obama because he doesn't share his values. Then he'll talk about how Republicans may be assholes, but they're his people. I mean, it's a big, incoherent mess.

    From having long read him, I know Rod is a very emotional guy whose political sentiments are strongly tied to gut feelings. I wonder of a lot of Kirkians, Distributists, etc., tend to also fall in that personality type. I think the Distributist goal is great, but I can't see how it's accomplished in actual practice without either going back to a pre-industrial economy (which isn't going to happen) or a form of statist command economy (which Distributists claim not to want). I also don't get the thing about liking candidates or feeling they're "one of us", and all that. To me it's a very cold-blooded calculus--you pick whoever you think is best, or least bad, or vote third party, or write in, or refuse to vote--all of these are valid actions which can be defended, but you don't vote for someone out of emotions! Rod said on one post that he was "looking for reasons to vote for Romney", sort of in a tone of "I don't like him but he's one of us, so I guess I oughta vote for him." To me this is emotionalism and tribalism, pure and simple. It just makes me crazy because this type of emotional manipulation is the exact way politicians and political parties get people to keep thinking inside the box and mark the box on the ballot for people who are going to f*** them over.

    FWIW, I voted for Obama in 2008, but his administration has been so much Bush III that I'm not voting for him; and Hades will freeze over before I vote GOP. The only third parties on the ballot in my state are Libertarian (also a hell-freezes-over scenario) and the Greens, who lost any credibility they might have had with me by seriously considering Roseanne Barr as a candidate (she didn't get it, but still). If I thought my state wouldn't go 70% GOP (it will) and that there were a chance of sending electoral votes away from Romney (there's not), I'd vote for Obama just to keep the worse evil out. However, given the intense redness of my red state and the lack of alternatives, I'll probably write in Socialist. The thing is, though I have been a registered Democrat most of my life (I went independent last spring), I have no emotions about who I "should" vote for or how I "should" feel, any more than if I were hiring a plumber. Which is what voting it--hiring someone you hope might be competent.

    OK, end of rant!

    1. I don't know. Dreher's appeal -- which still mystifies me a bit -- seems to be centered on the fact that he tries to pass off his socio-political views as "unique" in a conservative landscape which has become quite "orderly" over the last 30 years due to the acceptance of certain macro-level policy positions. (Sure, the neocons disrupted that a bit, but they no longer hold center power in the party even if their influence will likely be felt for awhile.) But Dreher isn't that unique; his views are derivative. Moreover, they're filtered through what you might call his "emotivism" but what I have often seen to be his intellectual childishness. When you tie that up with the fact he has the spiritual development of a 5-year old, what you get is a recipe for incoherence, inane blathering, and a lot of bad intellectual bets. That's Dreher in a nutshell.

      Of course he's something of a poster boy for a certain ideological wing of the (American) Orthodox Church -- a position he enjoys for the simple reason that he is one of the few Orthodox "public intellectuals" around. In my mind that's a disgrace to Orthodoxy, not a testament to Dreher's insight or intellectual fortitude. His role in the internal politics (and steady decline) of the OCA is just further evidence of his court jester status among conservative writers (and that's saying something these days).

    2. Hear hear!! What Gabriel said.

      And I love the way you said it, too, Gabriel.

      I find Dreher unreadable. So, I try not to read him. My friends email me occasionally about his latest inane blather (such an apt description!), and that's as far as it goes. I let them go through the ordeal of actually reading him and filtering out whatever his message du jour is. Better them than moi, lol.

    3. Turm, that was a very well stated gloss.

      I've been told that my disdain for Dreher is too easy, shooting fish in a barrel easy, and that it is unkind to verbally assault special needs public "intellectuals." Plus my own rants tend to be written off as Muzhik was on "the other side" of Orthopolitics and I have all sorts of ideological reasons for going after the boy.

      Frankly, the person who should be the target for the most animus concerning RodDre's writing at the moment is Daniel Larison, who apparently mustered the incredulity requisite to hire the man, and who is, with regard to the subject matter of his rag, utterly full of shit as evidenced by his using the term "Burkean conservative" as if that term actually means something (full disclosure, I once used the term in that way myself, and I was utterly full of shit in doing so).

      So, in lieu of another rant, I will simply state this again. The perfect expression of everything wrong with RodDre is found here (which, thank you very much, a friend notified me of when it came out, stating, "Just read Rod's latest blog piece. Okay, you were right about everything all along."):

    4. I've probably said this before but I think Dreher's appeal lies in his being more articulate than he is intelligent, which is a relatively rare and fascinating type of person. The fact that he apparently has all the internal filters of a Labrador (the above link should be read as the stream of consciousness from a Labrador retriever's day out in Paris) mean that in him we have a perfect case study of how a man of modest intelligence and a limited reading list unwittingly comes to terms with the incoherence of American 'conservatism' by falling in love with France. Had he converted to one of the right-wing Catholic sects that Gabriel likes to blog about instead of Orthodoxy, he could've stitched it all together into a coherent lifestyle.....

      In a way, it's unfortunate that his audience of hundreds isn't large enough to make it worth fitting him into some kind of satirical roman-a-clef...

    5. Wait! I know no one loves a smart ass, but does God love smart people in a special way?

      No brief for Dreher, just a semi-literate man of modest intelligence here.

      Hezekiah Garrett

    6. No, but there is a touch of either tragicomedy or pathos to the noticably dim 'public intellectual'.

    7. I find Dreher's latest blog unreadable as well. He had a couple of posts during OWS that were fairly decent but that's about it. I don't understand why Brooks at the NYT links to him. It was a Brooks column about Rod some months ago that landed a book deal for Rod. Go figure.

    8. I actually have no idea why Dreher never fall into the trad-Cath orbit, though he bailed on Rome in 2006 -- a year before Summorum Pontficum. To be honest, he was always a huckster for a lifestyle that appeals more to readers of First Things than The Remnant and his rather childish departure for Orthodoxy (one I found childish even when I was Orthodox) seemed to indicate he had only a very faint grasp on the Catholicism he once claimed to nobly profess. So be it. I used to expect him to go Protestant again, but at this point I wouldn't be surprised if he eventually reverted to Rome.

    9. Samn!

      If folks would ignore him then, he'd go away.

      You say he only has a following of a few hundred, in a nation of roughly 330 million, and a world with 6 and a half billion. He seems to have more than a few enemies too, judging by whats right here.

      Does he call himself a "public intellectual" or is that something y'all have tagged onto him? it just doesn't seem fair to the slow-witted like me.

      Hezekiah Garrett

  5. Is that where the term "infernal combustion engine" came from? I've used that one more than once. But he was right about Jacobinism. If mules were legal on city streets, I wouldn't ride a motorcycle even.

    Hezekiah Garrett


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