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William F. Buckley in Perspective

I grew up in a household that revered William F. Buckley. My father is from New York City and converted to Buckley in the ‘60s. In my childhood, National Review was always at hand. The specter of Buckley haunted me … Read More

By / February 29, 2008

I grew up in a household that revered William F. Buckley. My father is from New York City and converted to Buckley in the ‘60s. In my childhood, National Review was always at hand. The specter of Buckley haunted me long before I was politically aware.

National Review, of course, has extensive coverage of Buckley’s death and legacy by many of his intellectual children, step-children, and grandchildren. One of Buckley’s protégés, David Brooks, discusses Buckley in today’s New York Times. One of the most insightful remembrances comes from John Judis in The New Republic:

Yet the key to Buckley is to understand that he was a rebel, but not a heretic. He fancied himself and his politics to be anti-establishment, yet he was part of the American establishment against which he rebelled.

And this is what inspires me when considering Buckley’s life and intellectual/political pursuits: his most outstanding moment was a legacy of (perhaps over-articulated) dissent.

The initial publisher’s statement of National Review, with its assertion of “standing athwart History, yelling, ‘Stop,’” is still a fun read because of the tone is one of congenial indignation. He objected to the ideological hegemony of New Deal liberalism. Instead of merely being a “nonconformist” to his era’s dominant model, he believed that he could collaborate with his fellow travelers (“those who have not made their peace with the New Deal”) to create a coherent and competitive alternative.

Dissent is sometimes overwhelming and lonely. Schopenhauer aggressively challenged Hegel's system; no one attended his seminars. The Clash stipulated that Beatlemania had bitten the dust. Have you heard what they call “Punk” music today? So, sometimes dissent fails.

Buckley dissented from the logic and consequences of the New Deal. Compared to other moments of dissent in the the 20th century, Buckley's may lack the thrilling aesthetic punch of Modernist novels, Punk music, or Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Its impact also may be diminished by the fact that WFB was a WASP who, at first, just changed the minds of other WASPs.

But Buckley’s success was astonishing.

The ancient paleoconservative establishment had decayed and Buckley replaced it in National Review with a space where different genres of conservative thought were synthesized, sublimated, and, in some cases, excluded. Cultural paleoconservatives, suspicious of late-capitalism, were brought together with market-worshiping libertarians, anti-Communists, Straussians, neoconservatives), and right-wing Thomists. All were promiscuous with one another and spawned new generations of thought for the American Right.

Some may be horrified by that reality, but what is important about Buckley and the development of conservatism is that with Buckley at the helm, these couplings were premised on the condition of intellectual rigor and cosmopolitanism.

Due to that ethic, Buckley had the good sense to attack some of the Right’s most
notorious loons including the John Birchers and those dreadful Randian Objectivists. Some may demand that he should have denounced more groups within his coalition, but he had to start somewhere.

Looking back, many have pointed to instances where his opinions were wrong, in particular his evolving but persistent blind spot on matters of race and ethnicity. But one should not stop admiring Jean-Luc Godard simply because of his Maoist period, or Michel Foucault because he tried to vindicate elements of the Iranian Revolution within his schema of history, so William Buckley (rightly understood) certainly deserves admiration too.

There’s another worthy essay in the most recent New Republic that, coincidentally, dovetails with the passing of Mr. Buckley and his importance, Mark Lilla’s “The Pleasures of Reaction” (subscription required). It is Lilla’s brief explanation of the history of neoconservatism, but one important facet of the article is his emphasis on defining the “political reactionary":


We need to restore the term "reaction" to our vocabulary, not as an epithet but as a psychological and political category… Modern reactionaries and modern revolutionaries share a picture of history that theologians call apocalyptic: they are obsessed with ruptures in time, and see human experience as radically discontinuous. The revolutionary works to bring the apocalyptic moment about, ushering in paradise; the reactionary believes that moment has passed and that the gates of hell have opened.

When thinking about Buckley’s contribution it’s fascinating to read that his dissent, despite being sometimes pessimistic, never evolved into the belief that the “gates of hell [had] opened.” Admittedly, National Review has provided a forum to reactionary musings, and with Iraq we certainly know that many of the writers there bought into their roles as political revolutionaries, but extremism wasn’t the M.O. of Buckley.

Judis again:

As a political figure, Bill Buckley ceased to be central to Republican conservatism sometime in the 1980s. He was displaced by both New Right conservatives who saw him as too willing to break bread with the Council on Foreign Relations and who conceived of conservatism as an alliance between the religious right and K Street, and also by neo-conservatives who, even after the Cold War was over, wanted to continue to fight it out against new enemies… as conservatives actually gained power, Buckley found himself once again standing athwart history and yelling stop. He remained a rebel to the end.

Buckley, as Auden would have it, has “disappeared in the dead of winter” and the earth will take that emptied vessel and “receive an honoured guest.” The style and form of William Buckley’s dissent should be appreciated, even if there are valid reservations about the content.

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