Dear friends of Istituto Acton,
I’ve just returned from my annual trip to Michigan for Acton University. This year I also made my first visit to the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, about an hour north of Grand Rapids, with a couple of Romanian friends who were as shocked as I was to see some Amish in their horse-drawn carriages along the way. It is embarrassing to admit that it took thirty years since I first heard about the Sage of Mecosta to make it there.
The Kirk Center’s collection of books by and about Edmund Burke was especially impressive; I would have benefited from perusing it before my AU lecture instead of after. I could have spent hours going through the vast Peter Stanlis section and the complete set of The Annual Register edited by Burke.
Even more impressive than the books, however, was the generous hospitality of Russell (until his death in 1994) and his wife Annette to generations of students and scholars from all over the world. Far from limiting their welcome to acolytes, the Kirks took in all sorts of itinerants as well, showing how liberal conservatives can be.
We heard the recollections of Lee Edwards of those he called “giants” such as Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan in addition to Kirk, and his thoughts on the future of the conservative movement they helped to shape. How they managed to bring together social conservatives, economic liberals and national-security hawks remains quite an achievement, especially today with that alliance fraying.
I was particularly interested in hearing what Edwards thought about the relationship between contemporary culture and politics. The left controls the former and the right the latter, despite the greater importance each gives to the other, which means neither side is where it wants to be. Discontent abounds among the activists and their donors, while the middle class seems to be less and less involved. This cannot possibly make for a good polity.
In one sense, the professional agitators will always be more engaged, and not only for monetary reasons. Edwards noted that Kirk was fond of quoting Burke: “They will never love where they ought to love, who do not hate where they ought to hate.” Kirk and Burke were very anti-ideological but one wonders whether the self-satisfied bourgeoisie can ever match the ideologues in passionate intensity and commitment.
It offends our post-Christian humanitarian sensibilities to hear that love and hate necessarily complement each other, though we cannot really have one without the other. We’d like to think that we can love everyone without exception without having to hate anyone; our immigration debates in Europe and the United States are proving otherwise. For better or worse, people tend to prefer their own. Those in favor of open borders must hate what nationalists propose and vice versa.
In our times, tolerance extends for all except the intolerant, as John Locke described it. Locke was especially concerned with the political effects of the religiously intolerant, those who would not see religious pluralism as a good thing in principle. As Leo Strauss remarked, pluralism as an –ism is still a monism that is a certain way of excluding what is opposed to it. The question is not so much whether we should have a religiously unified or pluralistic society but which type of religious orthodoxy the latter entails. Every society, even the most secular and religiously indifferent, reflects some kind of theological basis.
It is easier to argue with hard-core nationalists whose hatreds are evident and show them how unreasonable these hatreds are than with humanitarians who don’t believe they hate anyone; a veil of tolerance cloaks their hatreds. Just ask someone who dissents from their dogmas regarding gender equality, immigration, environmentalism, etc., who will soon be declared “deplorable” or, to use the older term, anathema.
The economic question for conservatives and progressives is where capitalism fits in their social vision. Conservatives such as Burke and Kirk were favorable to economic liberty, provided it was rooted in a cohesive moral culture that shaped what economists call the preferences of producers and consumers. (Economists are generally indifferent to these preferences.) Nationalists mainly think the economy can and should be guided at the national level on behalf of its citizens, while progressives prefer international or global governance of one sort or another, nominally on behalf of the marginalized wherever they may be.
Not being inherently political, capitalism does not promote strong passions for or against it. Both its proponents and opponents admit it largely succeeds in creating a prosperous middle class, one less prone to ideological or romantic longings for a new society or new man. The market economy excels at producing goods and services, not so much at giving us something to live and die for. For that, we need to make uncomfortable distinctions between friends and enemies, the faithful and the heretical and other kinds of retrograde views that we would rather not consider but inevitably must.
I thank God it took a trip to a rural Michigan village to remind me of these permanent things.