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The Baby and the Bathwater: MLK and Russell Kirk’s 6th Conservative Principle

The Baby And The Bathwater: MLK And Russell Kirk’s 6th Conservative Principle

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is an American icon and venerated hero. He bravely spearheaded the civil rights movement of the 1960s, bridging people with powerful rhetoric and socially relevant ideas. Dr. King is credited as the most influential person that helped end racial segregation.

Dr. King is one of the few figures who is universally recognized on both sides of the political spectrum as a hero, an American patriot, and a political figure worth aspiring to. One would be hard pressed to find an average U.S. citizen with disparaging words relating to Dr. King.

Recently, formerly classified documents from the FBI on some aspects of Dr. King’s personal life were released. These documents detailed some unequivocally dark and unsavory aspects of his life away from the spotlight. As David Garrow reported in Standpoint magazine:

“Newly-released documents reveal the full extent of the FBI’s surveillance of the civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King in the mid-1960s. They expose in graphic detail the FBI’s intense focus on King’s extensive extramarital sexual relationships with dozens of women, and also his presence in a Washington hotel room when a friend, a Baptist minister, allegedly raped one of his ‘parishioners,’ while King “looked on, laughed and offered advice.’ The FBI’s tape recording of that criminal assault still exists today, resting under court seal in a National Archives vault.”1

The article detailed more specifics about King’s deplorable behavior in his private life. King engaged in salacious acts and used language near identical to what President Trump has been criticized for. Read the excerpt below (warning: this quote contains graphic language):

“At the Willard Hotel, King and his friends’ activities resumed the following evening as approximately 12 individuals ‘participated in a sex orgy’ which the prudish Sullivan felt included ‘acts of degeneracy and depravity . . . When one of the women shied away from engaging in an unnatural act, King and several of the men discussed how she was to be taught and initiated in this respect. King told her that to perform such an act would help your soul.’ Sometime later, in language that would reflect just how narrow Sullivan’s mindset was, ‘King announced that he preferred to perform unnatural acts on women and that he had started the International Association for the Advancement of P**** Eaters.’ Anyone familiar with King’s often-bawdy sense of humour would not doubt that quotation.” (Garrow, 2019, para. 13).

This is clearly morally deplorable behavior. So long as this information is credible, it remains an enormous stain on his legacy.

Public figures with flaws of this nature have received the vitriol of the social justice mob. The social justice mob has come for anyone and everyone under the sun with an imperfect past, demanding the expungement of these people from public life.

Contemporary social justice warriors have demanded the renaming of buildings, the removal of statues, and the renaming of streets that contain a link to a racist past2. These advocates have been largely successful in their pursuits. Many places, including our college campuses, are named after people who are legitimately troubling and often racist.

This necessitates asking the question: what is to be done with tributes to folk heroes with questionable pasts? How do we rectify the discrepancies of an imperfect legacy? To answer these questions, we must assess the moral, political, and historical foundations of liberal and conservative thought to gain an understanding as to what constitutes an appropriate course of action or inaction concerning this issue.

This is a clash of conflicting visions. Progressivism, as an ideology, is competing with its diametric opposition, the tragic nature of the human condition.3 In the vein of these ideological positions, liberals believe in the concept of perfectibility, while conservatives do not. Conservatives believe in the flawed nature of Man and the tragic nature of the human condition. In the following essay, the moral foundations implicit in this conversation concerning flawed heroes of the past are articulated. The work and thought of Jean Rousseau and his fellow progressivists from his era, the 1700’s, are compared and contrasted with the work and thought of conservatives like Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and a contemporary scholar, Anthony Kronman, who is not a conservative otherwise, but admits to being one in this instance.

During the Enlightenment, progressivism, as an ideology, was originally known as “Meliorism.” Rousseau was the original Meliorist. There are two main tenets to Meliorism.

The first is a belief in the natural goodness of Man, corrupted by society. Evil in this world comes not from within Man’s fallen nature, but is introduced from without, via society. By tinkering with society- meaning adjusting our norms and laws- we can eradicate evil.

The second tenet to Meliorism is a belief in the progress of human nature. Each successive generation is superior to each previous generation. This superiority means that the norms of the past are unfit for the present. The present age must destroy the old norms and create new ones to suit new modern-Man.

The rejoinder to the first tenet of Meliorism is that Man was not born naturally benevolent, but instead with an ethical dualism inside of each of us. Think of the figurative angel on one shoulder, and the devil on the other. It is through our choices and our resistance to our evil inclination that our moral worth is determined, not our relationship with society. No amount of tinkering can eradicate evil, as it is sewn into the very fabric of the human condition.

The counter-argument to the second main tenet of Meliorism is that human nature is constant. The present age is no different than any other age, let alone better. Russell Kirk knew that, “Real progress consists in the movement of mankind towards the understanding of norms, and towards conformity to norms.”4 Real progress consists not in the creation of new norms, nor in the destruction of old ones, but rather in adherence to the old ones.

Irving Babbitt commented on Rousseau’s philosophical position of the natural goodness of Man, which is the nucleus of the first tenet of Meliorism addressed. Babbitt explained that, “The old dualism put the conflict of good and evil in the breast of the individual . . . with Rousseau this conflict is transferred from the individual to society.”5 By removing the evil inclination from the breast of the individual and transferring it to society, Man’s flaws are no longer a limitation in social life and policy.

Arthur Melzer, a scholar of Rousseau, understood the meaning of this transfer in the following way: “evil derives from society rather than from their sinful natures and that it may be cured or ameliorated through human . . . action.”6 Because evil comes from without and not from within, “then perhaps it could be overcome by reordering society. In principle, Rousseau opens up radical new hopes for politics, utopian, messianic . . . hopes that it can transform the human condition, bring secular salvation, make all men healthy and happy.”7

This is a major departure from the traditional line of thinking Babbitt referred to. By transferring the evil in the world from the breast of the individual to society, the notion that we can eradicate evil completely is now a possibility. Now that Man is devoid of an evil inclination, “the appropriate manipulation of environmental factors could lead to human perfectibility,”8 and that, “if the individual- the basic building block of society- could be perfected, so too could the entire social order.”9 Again, this is all attainable because Rousseau transferred the struggle of good and evil from the breast of the individual to society.

Rousseau successfully influenced Condorcet, William Godwin, and James Macintosh, his fellow Meliorists. All the premises Rousseau established, they built upon to further the Meliorist ideology. Condorcet shared Rousseau’s optimism concerning the perfectibility of the human condition. He believed in a, “Gradual advance towards absolute perfection,”1” and the, “moral goodness of man susceptible to indefinite improvement.”11 William Godwin believed that we are, “capable of unlimited improvement.”12 Godwin, like Rousseau, believed that, “excellencies and defects of the human character not derived from causes beyond the reach and the ingenuity to modify and correct.”13 James Macintosh knew that, “the miseries of the human race are about to be alleviated.”14

Now let’s contrast these Meliorists with Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk. As Burke opined, “That man thinks much too highly, and therefore he thinks weakly and delusively, of any contrivance of human wisdom, who believes that it can make any sort of perfection” (Burke, 1780). Burke knew that, “There is by the essential fundamental constitution of things, a radical infirmity in human contrivance.”15

Russell Kirk was Edmund Burke’s most devout disciple on the west side of the Atlantic Ocean. Kirk famously outlined his 10 conservative principles. The sixth of which was, “the principle of imperfectability.” This principle is worth reading in its entirety:

“conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability. Human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults, the conservatives know. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created. Because of human restlessness, mankind would grow rebellious under any utopian domination and would break out once more in violent discontent—or else expire of boredom. To seek for utopia is to end in disaster, the conservative says: we are not made for perfect things. All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk. By proper attention to prudent reform, we may preserve and improve this tolerable order. But if the old institutional and moral safeguards of a nation are neglected, then the anarchic impulse in humankind breaks loose: ‘the ceremony of innocence is drowned.’ The ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society have converted a great part of the twentieth-century world into a terrestrial hell.”

We are incapable of perfection, as the flaws of Man are sewn into the very fabric of the human condition. Every effort at perfection will only make our lives worse than had we accepted the terms of our imperfect existence in the first place.

When a belief in the perfectibility of Man is present in the mind of a person, flaws and imperfections mandate the disqualification of someone or something. When the imperfect nature of Man is the prevailing notion, flaws are not disqualifiers, rather they serve as reminders of the flaws embedded in each of us; when imperfection is the assumption, flaws are recognized and become easier to digest.

Here is a simple example of how these competing ideological positions manifest themselves in our lives. Take liberal comedians John Stewart, former host of, The Daily Show, and Bill Maher, host of, Politically incorrect. Both are very liberal comedians who are funny and reasonable when it comes to issues like free speech and engaging with the opposition, unlike many of their liberal peers. If someone believes in perfectibility, this disposition places a person’s positive attributes first, but then concludes with their negative aspects, disqualifying the comedians altogether. When a belief in imperfectability is present, the opposite occurs: their negative aspects are articulated first with their positive attributes following, employing their positive attributes as validation.

Colloquially, the person who believes in the flawed nature of Man would think along this line: John Stewart’s really liberal, but I think he’s funny and a reasonable guy, so I like him. The Meliorist rationale would logically work in the opposite fashion: I think John Stewart’s funny, and a reasonable guy, but he’s really liberal, so therefore I don’t like him.

The radical social justice warriors adhere to the Meliorist vision. These modern-day Jacobins are leading the fight against the past, employing the ideology of perfectibility. The moment one finds a flaw in someone or something, it is grounds for dismissal. Edmund Burke encountered this ideological position in his day with the radical Jacobins and their desire to destroy the Ancient Regime of France. Burke, eloquent as always, understood this hot-blooded desire to destroy something because it is imperfect and does not live up to a standard of perfection:

“But is it in destroying and pulling down that skill is displayed? Your mob can do this as well at least as your assemblies. . . . Rage and phrenzy will pull down more in half an hour, than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in an hundred years. The errors and defects of old establishments are visible and palpable. It calls for little ability to point them out . . . . To make every thing the reverse of what they have seen is quite as easy as to destroy. No difficulties occur in what has never been tried. Criticism is almost baffled in discovering the defects of what has not existed; and eager enthusiasm, and cheating hope, have all the wide field of imagination in which they may expatiate with little or no opposition.”16

If the only thing necessary to destroy an institution is finding a simple flaw, nothing is capable of standing up to scrutiny. Everything imperfect must be destroyed, and must be replaced by an idea- or more accurately, an ideal- that exemplifies the vision of the destroyer. Sir Roger Scruton understood this with the same eloquence as Burke: “Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.”17

When judging the past with the standards of the present while using a philosophical model that supports perfection, the past cannot stand up to the scrutiny of the present. We must therefore destroy the past and engineer the present as we see fit.

The social justice warriors in the present are judging the past with our contemporary standards. As Anthony Kronmon wrote in, The assault on American excellence: “it is unfair to judge those who lived in an earlier age by the standards of our own.”18 By keeping our monuments erect to those who came before us, we are acknowledging the fact that the past is flawed, and we are able to engage in moments of metacognitive-reflection and accept that we are flawed as well. Kronman understood the issue in the following way: “we, with our more enlightened ideals, are human beings, with the same imperfections as our predecessors, bedeviled by the same tendency to overestimate ourselves.”19

What Kronman alluded to is the essence of the second tenet of Meliorism. Human nature is constant. We, in the present, are no different than our eldest of ancestors. Destroying those who came before us due to their imperfections, “runs the risk of encouraging the immodest belief that we not only have better values than our forebears . . . but are better human beings. It makes it easier to think that we are less likely than they to be deforemed.”20 We, in the present, will also make mistakes. By maintaining the monuments to flawed figures, “they remind us that others in the past, with human shortcomings like ours, have not always lived up to the better angels of their nature, and that we shall fail to do so as well.”21

Kronman and Burke are kindred spirits on the issue of the present inappropriately assuming superiority over the past. Burke understood history as the accumulated wisdom of our ancestors; he understood history’s purpose as a guide for Mankind. He also saw the potential for Man to weaponize history and use it as an impetus for future violence:

“We do not draw the moral lessons we might from history. On the contrary, without care it may be used to vitiate our minds and to destroy our happiness. In history a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind. It may, in the perversion, serve for a magazine, furnishing offensive and defensive weapons for parties in church and state, and supplying the means of keeping alive, or reviving, dissensions and animosities, and adding fuel to civil fury. History consists, for the greater part, of the miseries brought upon the world by pride, ambition, avarice, revenge, lust, sedition, hypocrisy, ungoverned zeal, and all the train of disorderly appetites.”21

The lessons we should learn from history are often ignored or discarded. Instead of learning from our history, it is often weaponized and cherry-picked to further ideological causes under the name of social justice.

History is used as a legitimate basis for the present to take action against the past. Those who weaponize history can use the past to penalize the present. Burke knew that:

“It is not very just to chastise men for the offences of their natural ancestors: but to take the fiction of ancestry in a corporate succession, as a ground for punishing men who have no relation to guilty acts, except in names and general descriptions, is a sort of refinement in injustice belonging to the philosophy of this enlightened age.”22

In many instances of social justice, those in the present are being charged with crimes committed by the past, particularly racial injustices committed by dead White people against other dead Black people.23 In this instance, the living are now guilty of crimes committed by the dead. Holding someone accountable for the actions of others, let alone those who died years before they were even born, should seem axiomatically illogical and immoral, however, the people levying these accusations are not motivated by facts and logic. They are motivated by emotions, and when this is the case, “our passions instruct our reason.”24

One place this form of instruction has been institutionalized is the contemporary American university. Kronman specifically addressed the context of the fervor on his college campus, Yale University. He articulated a succinct, yet pithy point regarding our colleges and universities: “Those who insist that students be protected against . . . pain confuse a residential college with a home. They conflate comfort with moral maturity.”25 The university is supposed to be a place where students are confronted with challenges, are exposed to ideas they otherwise would not encounter, and face the ambiguities of life head-on. It is not supposed to be a young-adult vacation-resort.

The benefits of confronting challenges and disconcerting things in life are immense. As Haidt and Lukianoff explained in, The coddling of the American mind:

“we’re trying to clear away anything that might upset children, not realizing in doing so, we’re repeating the . . . mistake. If we protect children from various classes of potentially upsetting experience, we make it far more likely that those children will be unable to cope with such events when they leave our protective umbrella.”26

Exposure to harmful and traumatic ideas and events builds character. It makes a person stronger for having gone through the difficult experience, stronger than they would be otherwise had they been shielded from it. Haidt and Lukianoff elaborated on this concept: “Kids become more fragile and less resilient, which signals to adults that they need more protection, which then makes them even more fragile and less resilient.”27

By removing anything that upsets the fragile mind of our youth, we are encouraging fragility, which then encourages a need to insulate our fragile youth, which then exacerbates the existing fragility. Our colleges should not be a place that promotes fragility, but rather they should be places that promote the strengthening of our youth by forcing them to confront the difficulties and harsh realities of the human condition, which is tragic in its nature.

To conclude, Man is deeply flawed and imperfect. Anyone who holds a belief in the perfectibility of Man will always fall short of this benchmark. It is easy to find flaws and use them as an excuse to destroy what currently exists in order to fit a utopian vision.

If we hold our historical figures to the standards of the present, they will never pass the tests of scrutiny, and we must therefore remove them. In doing so, we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Some of these people may be flawed, but some of them are also heroes, like Dr. King, who has earned all the accolades by his outstanding accomplishments. By leaving these people on their pedestals, we can see their flawed reflections in ourselves.

Our standards of the present are unfit to judge the mores and cultural values of the past. We, in the present, are not better than our ancestors; we are the same. Our ancestors were flawed because those flaws are a part of the human condition; they are sewn into the very fabric of human nature and can never be removed.

The past, warts and all, can serve as a beacon of light in the darkness that stares ahead of us that is the future. The only illumination for the future we can see is the light of the past. We must never destroy the past; we must heed Simone Weil’s warning: “The past once destroyed never returns. The destruction of the past is perhaps the greatest of all crimes.”28

Everyone is flawed and imperfect. Perfection is impossible. These flaws come from within our fallen nature, and they are not introduced from without, via society. Human nature is constant, not progressing. We are no better than our ancestors, and if we remove their flawed presence from our lives, we will do as Shakespeare once observed: “commit the oldest sins the newest kind of ways.”29

 

Notes

1. Garrow, D. (2019, May 30). The troubling legacy of Martin Luther King. Standpoint. Retrieved from: https://standpointmag.co.uk/issues/june-2019/the-troubling-legacy-of-martin-luther-king/

2. Tacopino, J. (2015, September 9). Students demand college rename ‘Lynch’ building because of racial overtones. The New York Post. Retrieved from: https://nypost.com/2015/12/09/students-demand-college-renames-lynch-building-because-of-racial-overtones/; Mock, B. (2018, October 2). Atlanta has built a task force to change stree names honoring white supremacists. Pacific Standard. Retrieved from: https://psmag.com/social-justice/changing-names-of-streets-in-atlanta; Holson, L. (2019, May 23). When the names on a campus building evoke a racist past. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/23/us/task-force-university-racism.html; Lake, E. (2015, December 8). Should we rename institutions that honour dead racists? Aeon. Retrieved from: https://aeon.co/ideas/should-we-rename-institutions-that-honour-dead-racists; Singer, A. (2017, Agust 24). Places should be renamed, statues taken down, North as well as the South. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/places-should-be-renamed-statues-taken-down-north_b_599eab50e4b0d0ef9f1c11a8

3. Kessler, S. (2018). “An ‘ever better’ Constitution? Progressivism as ideology and the US Constitution.” The VoegelinView.

4. Kirk, R. (1989). Enemies of the permanent things. Peru, IL: Sherwood, Sugden, and Co.

5. Babbitt, I. (1924). Democracy and leadership. Indianapolis, IN: The Liberty Fund. (p. 99).

6. Melzer, A. (1990). The natural goodness of Man: on the system of Rousseau’s thought. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.

7. Ibid.

8. Winston, M. (2005). From perfectibility to perversion: Meliorism in eighteenth-century France. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.

9. Ibid.

10. de Condorcet, J.A.N. (1794). Outlines of an historical view of the progress of the human mind. London, EN: Forgotten Book

11. Ibid.

12. Godwin, W. (1793). An inquiry concerning political justice. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

13. Ibid.

14. Macintosh, as quoted by Stanlis in Stanlis, P. (1986). Edmund Burke and the natural law. Shreveport, LI.

15. Burke, as quoted by Stanlis, in Stanlis, P. (1986). Edmund Burke and the natural law. Shreveport, LI.

16. Burke, E. (1790). Reflections on the revolution in France.

17. Scruton, R. (2014). How to be a conservative. London, ENG: Bloomsburg Publishing. P. viii.

18. Kronman, A. (2019). The assault on American excellence. New York, NY: Free Press.

19. Ibid, p. 176.

20. Ibid, p. 176.

21. Ibid, p. 178.

22. Burke, E. (1791). Reflections on the revolution in France. (P. 243).

23. Sowell, T. (1999). The quest for cosmic justice. New York, NY: Free Press Books.

24. Kronman, A. (2019). The assault on American excellence. New York, NY: Free Press.

25. Ibid, p. 211.

26. Haidt, J. & Lukainoff, G. (2018). The coddling of the American mind. New York, NY: Penguin Press. (P. 24)

27. Ibid, p. 30.

28. Weil, S. (1949). The need for roots. New York, NY: Routledge.

29. Shakespeare, W. (N.D.). Henry V: Part 2. Retrieved from: http://shakespeare.mit.edu/2henryiv/full.html

Steven Kessler

Steven Kessler received his Ed.D. from the University of Rochester in Higher Education Administration. He is the Edmund Burke Society Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal. He has published in places like "The Conservative," "The European Conservative," "The Imaginative Conservative," and "The Journal of Liberal Arts and Sciences."

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