The idolization of William F. Buckley is one of the more stomach-turning aspects of the current “conservative movement.” Far from leading a triumphant right-wing, Buckley buried intellectual conservatism in America. He “made conservatism respectable,” as the myth goes, by making it more palatable for his liberal sparring partners and turning his movement into a destination for the ascendant neoconservatives.
The most interesting—and genuinely right-wing—minds at his magazine (Samuel Francis, Murray Rothbard, Revilo Oliver, Joseph Sobran, Peter Brimelow to name a few) were expelled, replaced by either neocons or GOP-boosting light-weights who’d root on most anything their superiors deemed “conservative.” As a writer, Buckley’s mannered, impish style served mainly to cover over the absence of real ideas. (After years of doping, this became impossible.)
A particularly regrettable variation on Buckley worship is the move made by some conservatives to praise the old, good Buckley vis-à-vis the new, bad movement (which is much like lauding Frankenstein for being more presentable than his Monster.)
There is a kernel of truth to all this, of course. As James Lubinskas pointed out in a 2000 American Renaissance cover story, the early National Review opposed the civil rights movement, the 1965 Immigration Act, and Brown vs. Board of Education; it also criticized Martin Luther King and was willing to discuss race in a way the current mag never would be. (The old NR was always compromising, but it certainly was different to what we have now.)
Though, truth be told, the paleo and conservative critics who triangulate on Buckley rarely mention those things. They instead laud Buckley for being things he most definitely was not—an intellectual, a “libertarian,” and a foreign-policy “realist.” (To pick apart just one of these myths: One should remember that Buckley expelled the John Birch Society in the early ‘60s not because of their kookiness—or because they were racist or anti-Semitic, which they weren’t—but because they opposed John F. Kennedy’s “anti-Communist action in Southeast Asia,” what came to be known as the Vietnam War. Moreover, the Buckleyites were the main opposition to the ultimate “realist” achievement of Nixon and Kissinger, the opening to China.)
WFB certainly had more class than the creatures who staff NR now, but ultimately the argument that “Buckley would have been ashamed” doesn’t hold water for the simple reason that he had a hand in appointing all of the people we now find embarrassing and loathsome.
William’s brother Reid is the latest to attempt “Buckley triangulation” or this kind… In the end, his interview with the The Daily Caller website mostly reveals how trapped he is in “conservative” thought patterns as well as the personnel structure of the movement his brother created.
Some choice moments:
You write your brother was saddened by the state of conservatism in the waning years of his life.
I think his sadness was extraordinary. His sorrow was so deep. He saw the conservative movement, I believe, go downhill and the Bush administration offended him. He was very anti-Wilsonian and he was offended by Iraq, number one.
Number two, he was deeply offended by the domestic agenda of the Bush administration, for example the outrageous farm bill, the outrageous steel bill. The extraordinary deficit that it was leading to. I think what also offended him was the idea of keeping the cost of the Iraq war off budget, because it was dishonest.
But I think largely what Bill worried about was that we had lost the edge. And that the movement had become establishmentarian. He was a natural rebel.
How many “rebels” do you know who attended Barbara Streisand’s birthday parties? Moreover, Reid’s talk of Buckely being “offended” by Dubya’s budget-busting ways is either disingenuous or delusional: Buckley formulated, in 1952, his goal of teaching conservatives to “accept Big Government for the duration,” as he believed the “instrumentality of a totalitarian bureaucracy” was necessary to defeat Communist Russia.
Later in the interview, Reid contradicts himself by discussing how conservatives must come to accept the American state apparatus due to … globalization and mass communications?
We cannot ignore modern communications. We cannot ignore globalism. It’s preposterous to even think we can do that.
So if we keep preaching small government to people, our audience will be progressively smaller. And we will end up being on the fringes of politics in the sense that the Rands [the followers of Ayn Rand] still are today.
The American welfare state is dying, bankrupt to the tune of 100 trillion, and Reid announces that in order to remain relevant, conservative must accept it.
Reid also sounds a kind of dumbed-down version of his brother’s argument in God and Man at Yale—that the country could be saved if only Americans could believe hard enough in “Americanism”:
I’d like [undergraduates] to be instructed in vision of the city on a hill. That this was a special, an extraordinary event, it was almost guided by the Holy Spirit that there should exist this continent between two immense oceans, and that we should be permitted to try to build a small republic here.
This is an ontological vision that young people have to understand in order for them to understand why we have such a thing as equality. Equality makes absolutely no sense to anyone unless you believe that we are heirs, all of us, to kingdom of the hereafter. Christ made us equal. Without Christ, equality is a delusion...”
For centuries, Western Christians (not to mention non-European Christians) existed without any inkling of the idea that their devotion to Christ was the foundation for republican egalitarianism—few seemed to believe that it entailed equality in this world of any kind. Buckley wants to embrace a modern, egalitarian Christian heresy—but then pray it doesn’t slide into a full-out Marxian one. (Actual Biblical injunctions to obey one’s master, as well as pre-modern Catholics’ and Lutherans’ preferences for hierarchal social order are, needless to say, conveniently ignored.) The “conservative” critique of godless Communism is that its equality was a delusion—as opposed to real stuff here in the U.S.A.
Most telling of all, Reid hints at the kind of brain-trust he’d like to see in a refurbished “conservative movement.” Not only should Sarah Palin have pride of place, but…
I lean to the Krauthammers.
Is Charles Krauthammer the theoretician who can bridge the chasm?
I think he has that kind of reach.
The Buckleys seem to always end up in subservience to neoconservatives.
That this clan of second-rate thinkers and fourth-rate novelists ever had influence in American culture must certainly go down as one of this country’s greatest blots.