The Spectacle Blog

Weaver, Kirk… Brooks?

By on 10.11.08 | 1:23PM

I was struck by the first three sentences of David Brooks' most recent New York Times column:

Modern conservatism began as a movement of dissident intellectuals. Richard Weaver wrote a book called, “Ideas Have Consequences.” Russell Kirk placed Edmund Burke in an American context.

Brooks then descends into a didactic history presuming to show that the problem with the modern Republican Party is that it doesn't get enough votes in Georgetown, Hyde Park and Berkeley. The GOP, says Brooks, "has lost the educated class by sins of commission -- by telling members of that class to go away." That notion might deserve more examination, but let's look at the two conservative thinkers Brooks name-checked in the opening of that column:

  • Richard M. Weaver was a native of North Carolina who grew up in Kentucky, graduating from the University of Kentucky and getting his master's degree at Vanderbilt. He was a student, at one time or another, of John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks. He got his Ph.D. at Louisiana State University.
  • Russell Kirk was a native of Plymouth, Mich. -- then a small town, now a suburb of Detroit -- who graduated from Michigan State University, got his master's degree at Duke University, and his Ph.D. at St. Andrews in Scotland.

They were very different men, but they had something in common: Neither was a native of any metropolis and both got their undergraduate education at state universities. By contrast, David Brooks grew up in Greenwich Village and is a graduate of the University of Chicago (annual tuition: $35,000).

Beyond these biographical data, it is impossible to place Brooks within the intellectual stream that Weaver and Kirk represent. Weaver's 1943 Ph.D. thesis is available as The Southern Tradition at Bay. Kirk's most famous work, The Conservative Mind, included chapters on John C. Calhoun and John Randolph of Roanoke, the latter of whom Kirk made the subject of an excellent 1951 biography.

Both men were profound admirers of Southern agrarianism, and neither was an admirer of Brooks' heroes, Alexander Hamilton and Teddy Roosevelt. Brooks, then, has accomplished the neat trick of denouncing Republicans for abandoning a conservative intellectual tradition to which Brooks himself has never belonged, dragooning Kirk and Weaver from the grave as posthumous allies of the apostle of "national greatness."

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