January 19 is the anniversary of the birth of General Robert E. Lee, perhaps the greatest military commander the United States (or the Confederate States) has ever produced, and certainly one of finest Christian gentleman in the two millennia history of our Western civilization. I was intending to write a piece commemorating that signal event—and the general’s continuing importance, despite the insanely ignorant, frenzied and vicious attacks on him in recent years.
But I have written on Lee previously, and others have done so expertly on his anniversary. And thinking about how far as a people we have descended, how we have allowed our history and traditions to be wrenched away from us, how we have allowed in a real sense actual traitors to our culture and our inheritance to poison and infect that heritage and denounce it as racist and bigoted, akin to the worse features of Naziism…thinking about that, I returned to the essay I published on January 13 of this year, titled “MLK, Russell Kirk, and the Ignominy of Modern Conservatism.” That column, part of the MY CORNER by Boyd Cathey series, has already had substantial exposure. It was picked up by THE UNZ REVIEW, THE ABBEVILLE INSTITUTE, VDare's Twitter, Ilana Mercer’s “Barely-a-Blog,” and several other outlets, including several overseas. So, it’s not like readers need to read it once again.
But thinking about Lee, taken down now so criminally from atop his well-deserved monuments, while Martin Luther King is hoisted over and over again onto his pedestal of foul feculence, and how we are commanded to bow down to him like slaves to the god Baal, I could not help but recall that latest barbarity, the latest fanatical assault on the central core of our “permanent things.” For King represents in nearly every way not only the antithesis of Robert E. Lee, but also of Russell Kirk, and of those heroes we once held high as exemplars of the finest men of our history.
I recall a conversation I had with Kirk back when I was his assistant in Mecosta, Michigan, in the fall of 1971. Russell compared Lee to the noble “Chevalier sans peur et sans reproche” [“the knight without fear and without reproach”], the Knight Pierre de Bayard of the late 15th century. I had never heard of Bayard, but reading up a bit I came to see what Kirk was saying. Those noble characteristics that Bayard exhibited went far beyond knightly routine; they were, in a way, almost supernatural in quality. And Robert E. Lee, in Russell Kirk’s estimation, had filled a similar role in the difficult history of the American nation.
Now it is Kirk’s turn to have his legacy, his life, and his essential views emulsified into a smelly porridge, unrecognizable, undigestible, but oh-so-politically-correct, and thus, just maybe acceptable to some on the Left and to the self-congratulatory “modern conservative movement”: “Look, everyone, we aren’t racists! And old Russell who said all those nasty things back in the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, well, look at him now! We’ve tidied him up!”
That purification process has not yet been attempted on Lee, for he may well be outside the realm of “trans” possibilities. But for Lee admirers like Russell Kirk, by all means, due to his relative position in the history of American Conservatism, something had to be done.
Thus, in this column I discuss in particular and in a bit more detail the flagrant abuse of the legacy and beliefs of Dr. Kirk. Just recently (January 16) the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal—the organization established in his name to supposedly perpetuate his ideas and vision for Western civilization—forcibly conjoined “the Sage of Mecosta” with black activist, John Woods Jr. in a special Martin Luther King Day event co-sponsored by the Acton Institute of Grand Rapids. The object? To somehow combine “Kingian nonviolence with Kirkian Conservatism,” to somehow forge a “communitarian” consensus and bring “right and left” together.
Of course, and let’s sit down with Rachel Maddow and Al Sharpton over a couple of beers and just compromise our “differences” away. My advice is not to invite partisans of Lucifer over to lunch (or visit them in their caves) and attempt to find consensus with them: you lose every time and end up their prisoner.
I recall a quote that Russell sometimes cited. It is by the 17th century writer Sir Thomas Browne, from his volume, Religio Medici. Although I do not have the exact citation, it goes something like this: “Not every man is a fit champion of Truth. Many there are who, reckless without wisdom and prudence, charge the enemies of Truth, but remain prisoners thereof.”
A mesalliance between Kirk and King is not just inconceivable, but is rather a direct and especially gross insult to both the memory and the philosophy of my former mentor and friend for twenty-seven years, for whom I spent a fruitful year as his assistant (1971-1972) in the wilds of central Michigan.
King is not worth the spittle spewed from the mouth of Kirk…or of Lee.
Here is my slightly revised essay:
The latest ideological outrage perpetrated within the “conservative movement” has been the “cleansing” inflicted on Russell Kirk, who is credited with founding the movement back in the early 1950s. And it arrives with the sponsorship and imprimatur of the institution heralding his name, The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, which hosted a joint conference with the Acton Center in Grand Rapids, on Monday, January 16, featuring black activist John Woods, Jr. Woods’ Web site, Braver Angels, declares that his own organization is dedicated to “healing the wounds between left and right…. At Braver Angels, our work is about building a house united.” (A photo of glassy-eyed Clinton and Trump supporters from 2016 decorates his site.)
Here is a portion of the invitation from the Kirk Center (signed by Jeff Nelson, the CEO of the Center):
This inanity is built on blatant intellectual legerdemain. How can my old friend Jeff write such words with a straight face and without blushing embarrassment?
Once individuals such as Kirk were thought too philosophically unwieldy to be incorporated into the budding pantheon of conservative political correctness. Although usual pro forma tributes regularly praised his earlier achievements, his unfavorable views of King, his opposition to civil rights legislation, his consistent arguments against egalitarianism, his opposition to the rabid anti-colonialism of the 1950s and 1960s, and his anger directed at George H. W. Bush (he was Pat Buchanan’s campaign chairman in Michigan in 1992 at the same time I headed the Buchanan effort in North Carolina) are significant markers which must be catalogued.
From fall 1967 for twenty-six years, I corresponded with Russell. As chairman of the Visiting Lecture Program at Pfeiffer University I managed to bring him down for a weekend. Then, after completing an MA in 1971 as a Thomas Jefferson Fellow at the University of Virginia, Kirk requested that I travel to Mecosta to serve as his assistant for 1971-1972. Editing Kirk’s little educational quarterly, The University Bookman, was one of my major responsibilities. In its pages he insisted on open debate on such topics as cognitive disparities between the races (he published a review of Dr. Audrey M. Shuey’s study, The Testing of Negro Intelligence, and other politically-incorrect volumes).
In the spring of 1972 one night we sat in his library as the results of the Michigan Democratic presidential primary came in. I had a radio, and at Russell’s urging I brought it down from my room on the second floor of the library building. Kirk applauded George Wallace’s upset victory, although I don’t think he desired that his wife find out!
While at the University of Virginia I completed a semester paper titled, “Robert Lewis Dabney and the New South Creed.” Russell knew little of Dabney, save for what he had read in Richard Weaver’s The Southern Tradition at Bay. But he read my essay, liked it very much, and suggested I send it to David Collier, then editor at Modern Age. I did just that, and Collier responded, tentatively accepting it for publication, but with a couple of minor editing suggestions.
Unfortunately, I never got around to those edits. Yet, since then I have gone back to work on the paper, and it has found outlets in several publications.
One particular passage that caught Kirk’s attention and interest was Dabney’s acute and prophetic description of American conservatism. Written as part of Dabney’s response against efforts to enact women’s suffrage, Kirk wrote to me in the early 1990s—the George Bush years—that he was especially delighted in this passage, marveling that Dabney could have been so prescient a full century earlier (1875):
The present nugatory “conservative movement” has no room for the real Russell Kirk. His fundamental beliefs and views are now discreetly ignored, or simply redacted, and he emerges fully purified of his earlier inequities and stains of racism.
This piece was published on My Corner on Jan. 19, 2023.
Boyd D. Cathey holds a doctorate in European history from the Catholic University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, where he was a Richard Weaver Fellow, and an MA in intellectual history from the University of Virginia (as a Jefferson Fellow). He was assistant to conservative author and philosopher the late Russell Kirk. In more recent years he served as State Registrar of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. He has published in French, Spanish, and English, on historical subjects as well as classical music and opera. He is active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and various historical, archival, and genealogical organizations.