William F. Buckley was a smart man, that’s for sure.
He could throw around more ten-dollar words than his beloved Catholic church has sinners (even excluding the priesthood). He knew all the right places to ski and the proper wines to drink while listening to this concerto or appreciating that symphony. A product of privilege right down to the French boarding schools he attended, Buckley was as sophisticated, erudite and insightful as they come.
Except on the subject of politics, that is – which just happened to be his life’s great work.
And aren’t we lucky for it?
I mean, what can you say about a guy who wrote “General Franco is an authentic national hero” at the same time he found Dwight Eisenhower too liberal to endorse for president? What are we to make of a lover of democracy who called whites in the American South “the advanced race”, entitled to prevail politically even if they were numerically inferior, and who even left open the door to the use of violence toward that end? Heck, for that matter, what can be said of someone so culturally perceptive that he could write, “The Beatles are not merely awful. They are so unbelievably horrible, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art, that they qualify as crowned heads of antimusic.” (Was it the “We’re more popular than Jesus” quote that rattled you Bill, or were you just jealous of all the screaming chicks?)
What can we say about a guy this spectacularly wrong? Probably he got it best himself when he noted, "I profoundly believe it takes a lot of practice to become a moral slob”. As it turned out, he got a lot of practice.
Buckley is often credited with being the father of modern conservatism (pardon the oxymoron) in America. It is said that before he founded the National Review in 1955, there essentially was no such movement in the country. It is said (no less than by Reagan himself), that the line is drawn directly from Buckley to Goldwater to Reagan. (For some completely inexplicable reason, conservatives usually leave off Gingrich and Bush the Younger from that genealogy.)
Buckley was an astute observer of the human condition, despite keeping, shall we say, a certain polite distance from most of the poor humans who happen to find themselves stuck in that sometimes challenging condition. He was once asked by NPR’s Terry Gross whether being raised in European boarding schools and being a member of Yale’s notoriously elitist Skull and Bones Society hadn’t left Buckley a trifle, um, out of touch with real people (the hoi polloi, that is, as they’re referred to at the Club)? Au contraire!, he skillfully parried. Buckley did a lot of reading and therefore understood people quite well!
So well, indeed, that he came out in support of segregation during the era when the civil rights movement was the most important, the most consuming, political question of the day. So who do you think history will judge to have gotten this question right, eh? – Martin Luther King or Bill Buckley? One could say that Buckley’s position was just about the most spectacular example ever recorded of the missing of a historical train. There was Ol’ Bill (who actually didn’t even have the excuse then of being old), standing on the (whites only) platform, watching the Morality Express go whooshing by.
But then, wasn’t missing just such trains precisely the point of conservatism?
Buckley certainly thought so. In the essay with which he launched the National Review, he committed it and the conservative movement to the project of “stand[ing] athwart history, yelling Stop”.
Yep, that’s actually a bona fide quote from the man himself. If that sounds a bit anachronistic as the grand rallying cry for a modern political movement, you’re – ahem – still not getting it, I’m afraid. The thwarting and reversal of progress is precisely the point of conservatism.
After all, progress is scary. Progress is difficult. Progress is messy. And progress means having to share.
So Buckley launched a movement to yell “Stop!”, and they all did, and they were grandly successful, as a matter of fact. For three decades, conservatives have ruled America and stopped progressive change in its tracks. Moreover, they’ve worked assiduously to undo those achievements that so many of us took for granted as the very markers of civilization itself.
Sometimes they have only wanted to unravel a couple of decades worth of history, as when they oppose civil rights, women’s rights or environmentalism. Sometimes it is more on the order of a century, as when they seek to dismantle social safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare. Sometimes their handiwork goes back several centuries, as when they find First Amendment ideas such as separation of church and state to be troublesome, or when they object to that whole pesky checks-and-balances thing. But sometimes it is the work of an entire millennium they wish to unravel, as they rip up the inconvenient notions of democracy itself, expressed as far back as the Magna Carta.
So, how ‘bout it folks? Anybody here excited to return our society to the gleaming days of the twelfth century? Watch where you step in the street! I mean, um, the latrine. Well, what’s the difference, anyhow? And monarchy is really not so bad after all, you know – once you get used to it. It only has a bad name because it gets treated so unfairly by the liberal press. You know, like George W. Bush.
So let’s do it, huh?! Back we go!
All you nice Negroes out there, I’m afraid we’re going to need to ask you to use that other drinking fountain from now on. Sorry about that. Careful with your chains too, if you would please. And ladies, I think you remember your proper position in conservative society, do you not? That’s right. Take off your shoes – you won’t be needing them anymore. Now assume the position. Careers? Oh, that’s a laugh. Political equality? Such a comedian! Family planning? How’s your rhythm?
We won’t be bothering with environmental stewardship anymore, either. (Or, more accurately, I should say we won’t be bothering with pretending to bother with environmental stewardship anymore.) When your grandkids ask why it seems so awfully toasty on Spaceship Earth these days, just tell ‘em Bill Buckley sent you. But be sure to be nice to them, since you’ll be hitting them up, cap-in-hand, every week, the demons of Social Security and Medicare having finally been vanquished by heroic conservatives. That begging thing you’ll be getting good at in your twilight years is what nice right-wingers like to call ‘self-reliance’. Bully for you – you’re finally off the government dole!
Such changes might have been hard to get through Congress, but that’s only if one existed, of course! But – the present farce notwithstanding – having a Congress would mean having democracy, which conservatives never supported at the time it was being born. Just like they never supported American independence from the British Empire, the abolitionist movement against slavery, the social safety net, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights or environmentalism – at least until decades later, when it was safe (and supererogatory, as Buckley might say), if they did all. Anyhow, governing is so much easier now that the unitary executive idea has migrated from slogan to metaphor to rationale to monarchy.
And hasn’t it all just turned out dandy? See how thrilled Americans are with their conservative movement! Witness the record-breaking levels of support for King George! See how they rally behind his nice war in god’s name! See how all the king’s policies and all the king’s men command the loyalty of his subjects! See the people in this election season filling the streets and ardently clamoring for “Stasis Now!” – the very words boldly printed upon their placards! Watch them reviling the notion of change at every juncture! See them at campaign rallies, desperately seeking to stand athwart history, heroically trying to shout out “Stop!”, valiantly attempting to build a bridge to yesterday!
Yep, William F. Buckley was a smart man alright. One can’t help but think that he saw the handwriting on the wall, block letters growing every day more boldly vivid and fluorescently bright such that they have now taken over and indeed become the wall.
Conservatism has ruled America for three decades now, and never more than in the last seven years. Backward, deceitful, polarizing, warlike, arrogant, racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, destructive, intolerant, ignorant, lethal and incompetent – it’s just plain ugly, isn’t it? Ergo – as you might have said, Bill – Americans have awakened sufficiently from their Buckley-induced stupor to now join the rest of the world in embracing this ideology about as much as they might welcome a whopping good case of leprosy. And with roughly the same results if they did.
Eighty-two years old, one can’t help but think that smart Bill Buckley got out while the getting was good, just months before the election that would seal forever the fate of his destructive little life’s project.
Perhaps he had actually come to believe his own words from an earlier time: “Some of my instincts are reprehensible.”
They say he died at his desk, about to write another essay. Maybe it was entitled “The Achievements of My Life As A Conservative”. And maybe it was sitting there staring at that very, very blank page that killed him.