Wednesday, October 12, 2016

When Conservatives Could Talk Intelligently: Where is William F. Buckley when you need him?

Compound Sentences. Subordinate clauses. Conclusions with supporting premises. Eloquence. They were all once a part of conservative rhetoric, a rhetoric now become imbecile and associated with the nominee of this nation's nominally conservative party, the extent of whose wit is embodied in insults and thoughts that (perhaps fortunately) do not extend beyond 140 characters.

Instead of advocacy and criticism informed by a knowledge and understanding of the long tradition of American and European political philosophy, we get lengthy disquisitions on the optimal tonnage of beauty contestants. Comments once strewn with quotations from Edmund Burke, Alexis de Toqueville, Lord Acton, and Russell Kirk are now more likely to make reference to the words and actions of people whose chief public exposure is in People magazine. 

There are a few relics left. Charles Krauthammer, Brett Stephens, and, to some extent, Jonah Goldberg and Russ Douthat at least speak grammatically and prosecute a good argument, but they have proven themselves (to use the British term) wets when the going gets tough on social issues like marriage.

Today's conservatives breath with only one lung. They are all economics and no culture. Yes, you can find frequent and justified ridicule of the latest PC outrage on Fox News, but once the liberal tide rises, they just position themselves higher on the beach. And as the waters rise, the retreats pile up and the conservative territory diminishes. And no one wants to do the hard work of dealing with the more enduring problem of the rising sea of ideology.

Where once we had spokesmen who were Burkeans because they had read and agreed with Burke, we now have Machiavellians who not only have not read Machiavelli, but don't even know who he was.

If you want to understand better the low estate into which the conservative mind has fallen, you need to see PBS' new documentary, "Best of Enemies." It is about the public confrontations between William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal, the two intellectual leaders, respectively, of the conservatism and liberalism of the 60s and 70s. They spoke at a level which would be incomprehensible to today's generation of voters, educated as they were in public schools where the traditional content of history and literature have been set aside in order to make space for test preparation, fun projects, environmentalism, and political indoctrination.

But in their time, Buckley and Vidal were a huge television draw. They were rock stars before rock stars were, well, rock stars.

"Best of Enemies" focuses on the television debates on ABC during the Republican and Democratic national conventions of 1968. It was a time when CBS and NBC ruled the ratings, with ABC a distant third. While the two more popular networks focused exclusively on the 1968 convention, ABC decided to throw the dice, and put Buckley and Vidal on the same set to see what would happen.

It was a tremendous hit filled with tremendous hits.

Buckley, editor of National Review, the magazine that put conservatism on the American political map and the host of PBS' weekly "Firing Line," and Vidal, the brilliant writer of lurid but popular novels like Myra Breckenridge, squared off in a series of televised flame wars that put to shame the sallow political discourse of today. They didn't like each other, but, with the exception of one now famous incident (which the documentary spends most of its time building up to), Buckley and Vidal engaged in informed political argument only peppered with insults, not, as today, insults peppered with ill-informed political argument. 

This is public television, of course, and so they can't keep their ideological fingers off the facts. Between the mostly accurate historical narrative, we are treated to a litany of disinformation on Buckley's conservatism.

We have Andrew Sullivan, for example, remarking on how elitist and anti-democratic Buckley was. Mind you, this was the Buckley famous for saying that he would rather be ruled by the last three hundred names in the Boston phone book than the entire faculty of Harvard University, and Sullivan and his fellow liberals the ones who applaud every time unelected elite liberal judges take issues out of the democratic process and decide them for the rest of us. 

And then there is the customary civil rights rhetoric, where conservatives in general and Republicans in particular are cast as the ones in favor of discrimination and segregation despite the fact that it was the Democratic Party who supported segregation in the South, that housed Lester Maddox, George Wallace and (to this day) Lyndon LaRouche, and that offered the greatest opposition to the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s, voting against them in much higher numbers--and percentages--than Republicans.

Then we have Sullivan speculating that Buckley's opposition to homosexuality was the results of Buckley's fear of his own homosexuality. Thoughts like this are, of course, a great comfort to gays like Sullivan, whose insecurity not only demands that everyone else agree with him (by force if necessary), but that everyone else must be like him deep down. And so we say unsubstantiated and--let's face it--stupid things like this.

And we are also given the impression that Buckley lived in the shadow of his emotional outburst when, after Vidal called Buckley a "crypto-Nazi," Buckley called him a "queer" and threatened to punch him in the face. In fact the whole program works up to this moment. And when it comes, it cuts to 5-second shots of the liberal commentators, silent, thinking apparently, how terribly, terribly sad it was.

Tsk, tsk. Such a shame.

That Buckley would regret losing his temper and calling Vidal a homosexual (he was, although he consistently refused the "gay" label) using a term that gays themselves use (check out the "Queer Studies" discipline at your local state university) was something Buckley regretted doing. Conservatives have, not only standards, but consciences. But Vidal's charge that Buckley was a "crypto-Nazi," a term no conservative uses of himself, goes unlamented on the show.

No five-second camera pauses focused on the pained faces of moralistic liberals pondering the tragedy of it all. No moralistic lectures from Andrew Sullivan. No grim voice narrating how Terribly. Unfortunate. It was (queue the footage of the face of the perpetrator, in slow motion).

Maybe that was because Vidal, apparently lacking an operative conscience, never regretted hurling his own epithets, and had no journalists to feel guilty for him.

But despite all of the obligatory liberal finger-wagging and head shaking, the glory that was Buckley comes through. In fact, maybe it was good that Buckley called Vidal what he in fact was on live national television and created such a legendary moment. If he hadn't, PBS might never have done such a show, and we couldn't have seen these great old clips of Buckley practicing the art of polemic, an art increasingly falling into disuse, and one which, if conservatives fail to revive it, will be their undoing.

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