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Russell Kirk at 100: For the Young, Still A Mighty Voice of Conservatism

Russell Kirk at 100: For the Young, Still A Mighty Voice of Conservatism

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Friday, 19 October 2018 08:40 AM Current | Bio | Archive

October 19 would have been the 100th birthday of Dr. Russell Kirk, author, teacher, thinker, and — most historians agree — the founding father of postwar conservatism.

Hope College and Hillsdale College, both in Kirk’s homestate of Michigan, have hosted “Kirk on Campus” forums to discuss the late author’s works and influence.  John O’Sullivan of the National Review Institute recently chaired a panel on the impact of Kirk’s books, lectures, letters, and life.

And the importance of Kirk’s works and words can never be underestimated. 

The influences of Kirk’s traditional conservatism are, in fact, important in the careers of Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley, Jr., Newt Gingrich, Jack Kemp, Justice Antonin Scalia, and at least two generations of U.S. political leaders.

Almost incredibly, since his death in 1994, Kirk’s words and works have become even more appealing and motivating to young Americans.  His 1953 book, The Conservative Mind, From Burke to Eliot, is considered possibly the most decisive and influential work on contemporary conservative philosophy.

“Dr. Kirk traced modern conservatism through history and literature to Edmund Burke,” columnist and conservative thinker Pat Buchanan recalled to Newsmax, “Ever a man of principle and traditions, Dr. Kirk never ceased battling against the fraudulent claim of false ideologies.”  (Buchanan also reminded us how in his first presidential bid in 1992, Kirk was chairman of the Michigan Buchanan Brigades).

In large part, Kirk’s works live on through the efforts of his widow Annette.  Shortly after his death, she launched the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal.  Based out of the Kirk ancestral home “Piety Hill” in bucolic Mecosta, Michigan, the Kirk Center is a non-profit educational organization that promotes the traditional conservative thought that was its namesake’s brand.

“And we’re out in the middle of nowhere,” Mrs. Kirk told Newsmax, “When you’re here, you’re not in an office or a classroom but exactly where Russell lived and thought and wrote.  And you’re getting Russell.”

“Getting Russell” is precisely what Bruce Edward Walker did. As the Acton Institute writer told us, “I was once a ‘busboy’ for Annette and Russell at a restaurant down the street from Piety Hill, and finagled a conversation as they finished their meal. That led to an invitation to their home.” 

Walker recalled how “as a teenager in the 1970’s, I experienced first hand the sexual revolution and the ‘me first’ culture.  And there have been nothing but negative impacts since.”

Kirk, Walker observed, “could clearly see that their foundation was made of fine sand and that there was nothing concrete there to provide a stable society.  He understood that there were permanent things that mattered and your lived your life accordingly.”

Like everyone who has studied with or about Kirk, Walker cited his mentor’s “Ten Conservative Principles.” Culled from the works of Eliot and other public figures for two centuries, these include the belief “that there exists an enduring moral order…and moral truths are permanent” and that a “conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity.” 

The son of a railroad engineer and graduate of Michigan State University, Kirk served in the armed forces in World War II and began reading of and corresponding with the thinkers who would shape his philosophy.  Following his discharge, he became the only American to be awarded a Doctor of Letters from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Kirk would teach at Michigan State and later Hillsdale College, his dry wit and love of cigars and port after dinner making him seem to be an American “Mr. Chips.”  Virtually all who knew him recall his commandeering the cafeteria at Hillsdale and any other institution where he lectured to read his own ghost stories.

“I spent a week-long seminar at Hillsdale, and I remember going to the cafeteria, where Dr. Kirk turned down the lights and, for several nights, read ghost stories,” Kirby Wilbur, popular Seattle (WA) radio talk show host and former Republican State Chairman of Washington State, told us, “And, boy, were they scary!”

At 100, Russell Kirk’s unique life, words, and examples live on and touch the lives of many.  It seems likely they will do so for another one hundred years, or more. 

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.

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