Where to find such men today? I wouldn’t suggest looking to our present military. Despite the endless homages to “our men and women in uniform,” most of the leaders in our now inclusive armed services are, in my experience, little more than shallow careerists. With some noteworthy exceptions, the military man is now a glorified civil servant concerned primarily with looking good on paper.
But just as the steely warrior has become a thing of the past, so too has his intellectual equivalent. Russell Kirk’s brand of conservatism is all but politically irrelevant, though probably no more so than the liberalism Professor Johnston espoused. With his claim that “intellectuals should be liberals,” Johnston probably only meant that thinking people should be open-minded rather than obsessed with enforcing PC edicts.
But Johnston, by then a long-retired physics professor, seemed only vaguely aware of such things. He did not seem to apprehend the fate that has befallen our universities, especially in their humanities and social-science departments. The average professor of “American Studies” would have had nothing but contempt for Professor Johnston. By now, even the likes of liberal news anchors such as Tom Brokaw have given way to the smug irreverence of Rachel Maddow and Anderson Cooper.
It seems likely that the Lawrence Johnston I encountered that afternoon was merely a lonely old man in search of some company over a cup of coffee. Perhaps he was seeking reassurance toward the end of his life that the deeds of his youth had been the right ones. I wasn’t able to provide him much company or reassurance, and for that I’m truly sorry.
Professor Johnston passed away last December. Here’s to Lawrence H. Johnston, Russell Kirk, and my beloved grandfather. May men of their caliber come to inhabit our world again. May there be great generations yet to come.
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