"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

When Russell Kirk met Malcolm X

Brad Birzer over at The Imaginative Conservative reprints an essay written by the Sage of Mecosta describing his meeting with Malcolm X just prior to Malcolm's assassination in 1965. What I would give to have been a fly on the wall at that meeting: Kirk, the stalwart Burkean conservative, Catholic gentleman, Bohemian Tory exchanging ideas with the former disciple of Elijah Muhammad turned critic and orthodox Sunni Muslim. Kirk's remembrance of Malcolm X is almost wistful, full of a spirit of "what might have been." As Kirk writes:
Somewhat to my surprise, I found Malcolm X to be a man of considerable intellectual powers, certainly no conventional demagogue, dignified, and rather winning in manner. He was a strange being, but no fool or madman. He had then just returned from a pilgrimage to Mecca, capping his formal conversion to the Mohammedan faith.  
He rose out of violence and crime in the urban jungles, and he died by violence and crime. Yet the convicted burglar who made himself a minor power in the land did not appear to be a natural fanatic or incendiary.
Kirk's appreciation for Malcolm X was grounded in the way Malcolm's carried himself. This had to do with Malcolm's presentation, but it also had to do with the deeper content of Malcolm's worldview. Despite the radicalism that infused his political ideology, Malcolm X was also a profoundly conservative man, both personally and in key aspects of his social & political agenda. Obviously a man of intelligence & drive, Malcolm X embodied an approach to black empowerment that relied on individual initiative & self-reform, as well as efforts to address broader inequities reinforced by government policy.

Given Kirk's own eclectic conservatism, one can understand the appeal parts of Malcolm's message may had to him. At the same time, Kirk had critical distance when it came to Malcolm X's prior activism in the cause of racial separation. Kirk's embrace of the limits of politics and his understanding of America as a land of diverse peoples & ways of life made Kirk skeptical of the idea that races here could ever be separated. Efforts to do so, he wrote, "never could be realized in America."

At the end of his life, as Kirk notes, Malcolm X was in a period of change in the time leading up to his assassination. When he went on pilgrimage to Mecca, as he famously recounted in his Autobiography, he had seen fellow Muslims who were not only white, but blonde & blue-eyed, worshipping & eating with fellow Muslims like himself. His break with the Black Muslim Movement and his embrace of Sunni Islam meant in part an opportunity for him to examine his views on race. Where would Malcolm had ended up had he lived? That question hovers over Kirk's last comment:
I should have liked to talk to Malcolm X longer, to ascertain if truly there was forever a great gulf fixed between us. But that unquiet spirit will not be heard again.
To be an unquiet spirit in an unquiet age is no vice. The tragedy of Malcolm X's life is that it was cut short, just as he was finding his own authentic voice.  

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