Mike and Brad Birzer Discuss Libertarianism
Mandeville, LA – Exclusive Transcript – “We say hello now to old and dear friend – he’s going to get mad if I call him doctor – Dr. Brad Birzer, who is author of several fantastic books. I know some of you already have American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. The new work, Russell Kirk: American Conservative. Also, Brad is writing these days at Front Porch Republic and other websites, and also at The Imaginative Conservative website.” Check out today’s transcript for the rest….
Begin Mike Church Show Transcript
Mike: We say hello now to old and dear friend – he’s going to get mad if I call him doctor – Dr. Brad Birzer, who is author of several fantastic books. I know some of you already have American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. The new work, Russell Kirk: American Conservative. Also, Brad is writing these days at Front Porch Republic and other websites, and also at The Imaginative Conservative website. Brad, it’s been far too long. How are you, buddy?
Brad Birzer: Hey, Mike. It’s great to talk to you. Thanks so much for having me on. I’m hoping that I get some kind of sample of this 100 proof no-hangover alcohol. That sounds pretty awesome.
Mike: I’ll see if I can get you –
Birzer: That would be great. I just want to try it.
Mike: I’ll send you a bottle for Good Friday. How about that?
Birzer: That sounds great. Jesus would be proud.
Mike: Where are you scholastically speaking? I know you’re at the University of Colorado, but you hold a chair at Hillsdale. Are you back in Michigan now or are you still in Colorado?
Birzer: Yeah, finishing up my second semester back at Hillsdale. The whole family, we went out to Colorado, Boulder, last year. We had a great, fantastic year, but we’re glad to be back. Glad to be back around my colleagues and such great Hillsdale students. It’s going well.
Mike: And you’ve finally got, over the years, that you were able to cobble together the story of Russell Kirk and finally turned it into this book Russell Kirk: American Conservative. Refresh people’s memories, because I don’t think most people, especially most people that call themselves conservatives, don’t know much about, and that’s unfortunate, don’t know much about Kirk. I was reading Allen Mendenhall’s review of the book that you wrote. Come to find out, I don’t know much about Kirk. I didn’t know he was a stoic before he converted. I didn’t know any of this stuff. Just fill us in a little bit on the biography of who Russell Kirk was.
Birzer: Thanks, Mike. Of course, you’re in the book. I hope you saw that you’re in there. Allen Mendenhall did just a great job reviewing it. Russell Kirk was born in 1918 and died in April of 1994. During those 75 years, he really spent his life cultivating a kind of proper, deep Christianity and conservative. He’s regarded, even by people who dislike him, he’s generally regarded as the founder of post-war conservatism. Between 1948 and 1952, ’53, he was really trying to bring together a whole number of libertarian, conservative voices, a lot of anti-communist voices, trying to give them that one proper voice to challenge the left. He was pretty effective in that. He spent most of his career as a writer, wrote fiction, did really well with fiction, wrote a number of political books that did very well, cultural criticism. He was on TV quite a bit, did some radio. He taught at a number of different colleges. He probably, in the long run, can be remembered as one of Barry Goldwater’s main advisors and speech writers leading up to the ’64 campaign. He had something to do with Reagan as well but it was more Goldwater that I think he shaped and really helped set that agenda, the Goldwater agenda in ’64. That really will be his legacy, I think, in the long run.
Mike: You said that he tried to bring together libertarians. He abandoned that idea, though, with “The Chirping Sectaries,” right?
Birzer: He never liked the term libertarian. When he was a young man, and I mean in his 20’s, early 30’s, he was pretty close to anarchist. He would have been quite happy to be with the libertarian anarchists like Albert J. Nock and Isabel Paterson. Around 1953, after he met T. S. Eliot, he became really convinced that the libertarians were just a small part and maybe a dangerous part of the conservative movement. I think he was always fine having them, but as long as they didn’t try and make themselves not only distinctive but superior to conservatives. That’s what really annoyed him because he really was going for a much broader vision, I think, than what he thought even the neocons or the libertarians could offer, at least by the 1970s and ‘80s.
Mike: I remember reading a column that you wrote, I guess to promote the book and the story of Russell Kirk. I read it at The Imaginative Conservative. One of the things I also did not know about Dr. Kirk, and you pointed this out, that in his public speaking and the political columns and writings that he would author, after he converted, he used Catholic metaphor. He used it so deftly and so cleverly that it never even occurred to me. I read some of the works that you referred to. It never occurred to me that he was sneaking in these terms. Tell us a little bit about that.
Birzer: I think a lot of it is that he had always, even in his pagan, stoic days – he was pretty proud to be a pagan and a stoic when he was a young man, but even in those days he had always gravitated towards St. Augustine. He was kind of an Augustinian pagan before he became an Augustinian Roman Catholic. That Augstinianism remained throughout his life. I think there was always that element that he had taken from St. Augustine. A lot of the language that he was using, even in the ‘50s, language of personalism, language of subsidiarity, those are things that really caught on in the larger culture after Vatican II, for better or worse. I think after Vatican II a lot of those things caught on. A lot of the ideas that Kirk had been promoting in the ‘50s were really the kinds of things that the Catholic Church would be promoting at its best, at least through people like Pope Benedict. Those are the kinds of ideas that Kirk had been promoting all along. They became somewhat respectable and mainstream by the 1960s. A lot of his language sounds very Catholic even before he’s Catholic. There’s no doubt that even in his fiction, he was doing all kinds of fun things, playing around with Dante’s imagery. There are a lot of subtle things that I think once you’re looking for them they just pop out at you, as you’re reading his fiction especially.
Mike: I have only read – maybe now that I’m getting a little bit older, one of the projects I can work on is I want to read the fiction of Chesterton. I especially want to read The Man Who Was Thursday, his detective book, because I’ve heard that’s the best one. I want to read Kirk’s fiction. What Kirk fiction would you suggest I start at?
Birzer: The one thing that you can get relatively easily is called Ancestral Shadows. It’s a collection of most, not quite all, but almost all of his short stories that he wrote. His short stories are great. He also wrote three novels. Those are a little bit harder to find. None of them are in print right now unfortunately. Definitely start with the short stories. There are a couple of different short stories that I think are – probably the best one is called “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding.” It won all kinds of awards in 1977, along with things that Ray Bradbury and Stephen King had written that year. It won major science-fiction awards. It really is an incredible story. That’s probably the best place to start with that short story. Others like “Behind the Stumps” – probably a lot of these names won’t mean a lot to people, but there are definitely some really great short stories in that Ancestral Shadows collection.
Mike: Dr. Brad Birzer is the author of Russell Kirk: American Conservative. Are there other bios of Kirk? Were there other bios of Kirk you referred to?
Birzer: There are three other books on Kirk, not quite bios but close. James Person wrote a very, very nice short biography of Kirk. Gerald Russello has written on Kirk. And, of course, Wesley McDonald, who passed away last year, had written a lot on Kirk as well. So not full biographies, but each had a particular and interesting take on Kirk. This one, thanks to Annette Kirk, thanks to her opening up the papers to me, this is really the first full biography. I’m really happy with it in all kinds of ways.
Mike: I always wanted to delve into this and try to figure this out and I just haven’t had time. Was his time spent at St. Andrews – most people wouldn’t know unless you read a biography of him – I guess he did his graduate studies at the University of St. Andrews, which is like second home to me. I’ve been there twice. I love the little town of St. Andrews. I can understand why he and Annette apparently kept a house there and revisited often. When he was at St. Andrews, is that what turned him on to Edmund Burke or did something else happen?
Birzer: There were some interesting things. I tried not to over-psychologize Kirk. When he wrote his master’s thesis at Duke, he wrote it on John Randolph of Roanoke, the great Speaker of the House under Jefferson. When he wrote that, he became really enamored with Burke because of Burke’s influence on Randolph. He didn’t know Burke that well before that. It was really through that master’s thesis that he got interested. Then, of course, he got drafted and was in the war from 1942 to 1946. When he was finally let out of service in 1946, he started teaching at Michigan State. It was there that he decided to get his PhD. That’s when he applied to St. Andrews.
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This is where I don’t want to over-psychologize him, but it’s a pretty funny story. He was madly in love with his little sister’s best friend, a young woman named Rosie. When he went to St. Andrew’s, they took a six-week ship together and Rosie accompanied him. Kirk was very set on asking her to marry him. He was totally in love. Right when they landed in Scotland, she broke up with him and took off to Europe. He was so distraught. There’s actually this moment in his private diary where he writes: I will never know happiness again. My Rosie has left me. What will I do now? I’m not joking, Mike, a sentence later it says: I think I will explore all of the influences that Edmund Burke has had on the world. THIs was 1948. This was his way of dealing with his breakup. Of course, the rest is history. That’s where The Conservative Mind came from, from the four years that he wrote that book, his dissertation.
End Mike Church Show Transcript