Wednesday, February 27, 2008

William F. Buckley, Jr.: The superfluous man

Somebody, I think it was G. K. Chesterton, said that a man is never truly successful until he becomes superfluous. If this is the measure of success, then William F. Buckley, Jr. was truly a successful man.

William F. Buckley died today. Buckley was probably the most influential conservative of the 20th century. His influence was made manifest through both his magazine, National Review, which he founded in 1955, and his television program "Firing Line", a nationally syndicated interview program that ran for 23 years. Through his writing and his voice--always curious because of its accent which was impossible to identify but hard to resist--Buckley literally changed the course of modern American politics.

It would be fair to say that, without him, there would have been no Barry Goldwater, no Ronald Reagan, and no modern conservative movement. Oh, and no Rush Limbaugh. Depending on who you are, that will come as a commendation or a critique.

I remember snooping around one day in 1979 in the periodicals section of the University of California at Santa Barbara Library, and coming across a copy of National Review magazine. I opened it and was immediately charmed by the cheeky sense of humor and the iconoclastic attitude toward the liberal establishment that ruled without opposition in those days. I remember taking out the subscription card and sending it in, with what then seemed a good hunk of the meager balance in my bank account at the time (oh, the life of a poor college student!). I proceeded to read every issue--letters and all--for 8 straight years.

It was my education in politics and culture. In those days, it was one of only a small handful of conservative magazines, with a circulation under 10,000--small as magazines go. It addressed not only policy questions but literature and the arts. Its scope put to shame the narrow policy wonkishness of modern conservative literature with its shallow slogans and cultural tunnel vision. It had a samizdat air to it. You felt you were a part of an underground movement. Forget Che Guevara, he was mainstream (still is).

At that time conservatives were in the catacombs--only we were armed.

Buckley made his mark as scourge of a liberalism that had grown fat on taxpayer dollars and intellectually lazy by having gone intellectually unchallenged for so long. It simply didn't know what to make of Buckley, whose quick wit and formidable vocabulary placed him outside of any of the stereotypes liberals had of conservatives.

Buckley once told William Rusher, then the publisher of National Review, that he didn't consider himself all that brilliant: it was the quickness, not the depth of his intellect that had stood him in such good stead in his confrontations with the left. Here, as in so many other things, he was exactly on target.

In his many confrontations with the cultural Philistines he was seldom without a sense of humor, and indeed his amicability with those he crossed swords with could even rankle his friends. Rusher said he once upbraided him because every time he debated John Kenneth Galbraith, the left-wing economist (which he frequently did), the discussion often ended in good natured ribbing. Rusher wanted victories: Buckley wanted converts.

People have forgotten the political world before the 1980's. The media at the time was completely controlled by the left in every respect. Conservative publications were few and far between, talk radio had yet to come of age at all, and conservative commentators in the mainstream media were virtually non-existent--except for Buckley. How "Firing Line" ever got syndicated by PBS is still mystery to me.

A lot of people talk about how communism was the great uniting force for conservatism in those days, and there is something to be said for that. But I think for the most part that the grease that kept the wheels of conservatism going in those days was the revolutionary nature of the movement. Conservatives had a remnant mentality: They had to stick together.

With a few exceptions, such as organizations like the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and a handful of others, today's conservative movement has split into factions which don't even necessarily talk to each other any more except when they have to see each other at the local polling place where they are probably still voting for the same candidates.

The economic libertarians have embraced a sort of economic utilitarianism that sacrifices everything else to the bottom line. And religious conservatives have considered their political obligations as ending in few specific social issues beyond which they simply consider it impious to go. But both of these factions share a common malady: they are no longer intellectually serious. There has indeed been what R. Emmett Tyrell (whose American Spectator was another fixture of the old, intellectually vibrant conservatism) called, the "conservative crack-up."

There was a time when Buckley could say (and did) that "all the philosophical action is on the right." It would be hard to say that today.

In its prime, National Review bestrode all these factions and kept them talking to each other--even if it was only to disagree. Conservative intellectuals didn't only debate the left: they debated each other--in the National Review. Today, sniping and backbiting has replaced debate among conservatives, and it happens between conservative institutions and organs of opinion, not within them.

National Review was largely Republican in its party allegiances, but it wasn't, like so many conservative entities today, out merely to get its people elected: it was out to change a culture. And it did.

Buckley was never one to wear his religious beliefs on his sleeve--it didn't fit his blue blood manner to do so. But his favorite episode of "Firing Line" seemed to be his interview with Malcolm Muggeridge on the issue of religious faith. He replayed it again and again to the point of tiresomeness. Muggeridge was a Christian convert, and an articulate one. Muggeridge's intellectual approach to religion obviously appealed to Buckley, and he dubbed him "St. Mug." One hopes that he valued Muggeridge's belief more than his delivery.

In my favorite of all Buckley's many newspaper columns, "Pitcairn Lives," about the descendants of the mutiny on the Bounty, who now inhabit one of the world's most secluded islands, Buckley recounted how a friend of his had wanted to visit Pitcairn Island all his life, and finally did, spending "a rapt couple of days" there. The tourist ships come into the harbor, and the natives rowed out their longboat to visit and sell trinkets:
     On bidding an Islander who had befriended him good-bye, he said: "Maybe I'll see you next year."
     "No," the Islander replied, sadly but fatefully. "People only come to Pitcairn once. Good-bye."
     ...At high-tea time they are all back on board, four generations of Islanders. They spend three happy hours, communicating their cheer. And, after sunset, they board their longboat--80 per cent of Pitcairn's population--and sing out their happy/melancholy farewell songs.
     "In the sweet by and by/In the beautiful land beyond the sky . . ./We shall part never more, when we meet/On the be-yoo-tee-fool shore . . ."
People like Buckley only come once, and then you have to say goodbye.


Anonymous said...

Some good thoughts over at The Agitator:

Conservatism would do well to return to turn away from the ugly populism that currently has the movement by the throat, and move toward Buckley’s more elitist-tinged skepticism of power. Buckley was intellectually honest, engaged his opponents fairly, and was willing to admit when he’d been wrong (see his change of position on the drug prohibition and the war in Iraq, respectively). More importantly, he was no party hack. He was beholden to ideas.

Buckley leaves an enormous legacy, but to the detriment everyone, the right left Buckley years ago. Where Buckley stood athwart the tide of history and beat it back with wit, sophistication, and argument, we today get best-selling Regnery screeds from lowest-common-denominator clowns like Ann Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza, and Glenn Beck. Where Buckley mistrusted government and aimed to slow the world down, he’s been usurped on the right by the likes of William Kristol and David Brooks, men who want to use government to remake the world in their own image. Where Buckley flourished in cosmopolitan Manhattan and took delight in life’s finer things, modern conservatism has grown disdainful of the marketplace of culture, commerce, and ideas abundant in urban areas (witness the last election, where many on the right weirdly smeared John Kerry as a “latte-sipper”–real Americans apparently drink Maxwell House). In fact, today’s Bush/neocon-right is often contemptuous of commerce itself, sometimes calling the voluntary, unchecked exchange of goods, labor, and services–a pure free market–”ugly” and “crude.”


Anonymous said...

Apparently he also originated this fallacy:
Post Pot Ergo Propter Pot.