Wednesday, February 27, 2008

WFB Requiescat In Pace

William F. Buckley Jr. has died. He is widely, and rightly, credited for having been the intellectual force behind the creation of mainstream conservatism beginning in the 1950s - at a time when a thinker such as Lionel Trilling could claim that there was no such thing as conservatism in America, and Louis Hartz acknowledged only one tradition in American political thought - the liberal tradition.

Buckley fashioned a form of conservatism that came to be known as "fusionism" - a combination of disparate and often divergent viewpoints, including economic libertarianism, social conservatism (or "traditionalism", often religiously based) and Cold War anti-communism. Please don't mistake what I mean when I say that there is a kind of sad fittingness to Buckley's passing at just this moment, when the coalition he helped create is fraying and increasingly untenable. The glue that held it together - internationally, the Soviet Empire, and domestically, New Deal/Great Society liberalism - have both been effectively vanquished (while many conservatives will disagree with the latter claim, I refer them to Peter Lawler, who notes that we do not face a future of government expansion, but one in which we are "more alone and on our own than ever." Our future is not likely to be one of a growing socialist state, but "creeping and creepy libertarianism." The fact that the government is broke only makes this more likely to be the case). Efforts to put the coalition together again in the current election proved to be fruitless, and the base is now angry at the nomination of John McCain, but one element or another would have been unhappy with the nomination of any of the candidates, given that it was the Humpty-Dumpty Republican primary - aimed to recreate a coalition that no one could put back together again.

I have a fond personal memory of Buckley - a time he was among a group of five representatives of various religious traditions were gathered by Princeton University's "Center for Human Values" to discuss the amorphous topic of "Mind, Faith, Spirit". Guided by Bill Moyers, the assemblage was clearly intended to reach a consensus that religion was wholly a personal and individual matter, and that one's belief should have no bearing on the public life of a nation. Buckley, as one would expect, refused to play nice. He began by announcing that "I may be a little bit of an imposter in this distinguished panel, because I'm sort of ridden with belief." In response to views that it was possible to believe in God but understand and sympathize with those who believe otherwise, he said, "The Ten Commandments say, 'Thou shalt not place other gods in my house,' and the Lord's prayer has in it the phrase, 'lead us not into temptation.' Could you understand by asking that you not be led into temptation that you be spared the seductiveness of other gods?" And, lastly (not in the transcript, but firmly burned in my memory), to the question whether religious belief necessitated rejection of belief other than one's own (which, of course, every other member of the panel dismissed out of hand as an unthinkable suggestion), Buckley replied: "As a member of the Roman Catholic Church, I hold the Creed of my Church to be true, which means by definition that the belief of any other religion in contradiction to that Creed must be categorically false." I believe it was the first time, and possibly the last, that the word "true" was used in an event sponsored by the "University Center for Human Values" without implied or gesticulated scare quotes. I became instantly aware on that day the ramrod backbone it took to write a book like "God and Man at Yale" in 1951 and to found "The National Review" in 1955. He was a man of courage and independence, and we could use more of his kind. RIP.


Unknown said...

Thank you for the post.

While I agree with Lawler's description of American as being "more alone and on our own than ever," I disagree his assertion that this proves Tocqueville wrong on soft despotism.

In my eyes there is nothing contradictory about the parallel expansion of government and the increase of individualism, which threatens to confine us wholly in the solitude of our own hearts.

If as democrats we are only brought out of ourselves through political art, mostly understood as civil and political associations and active community life, then the expansion of government, where it is others who are governing, can be identified as the cause of our being trapped in ourselves.

The problem lies in the American's alienation from political participation, which can largely be attributed to the fact that more and more public decisions are being made farther and farther away from the average citizen. We have witnessed an "out-sourcing" of politics, as evidenced by a centralization of power in Washington, followed by the further centralization of power in the executive that would even have horrified Hamilton.

Washington political debates, however, are about subjects so complex and so foreign to the common experience of the average American, that who could blame his apathy. Moreover, with fewer real decisions being made in his community, it is understandable why he would stay at home.

Of course we cannot deny the many other cultural factors contributing to our individualism, such as the working citizen having become a mere worker; and an over-worked worker at that, for how else will he satisfy his ever pressing new wants which inevitably become needs.

Finally, I would disagree fundamentally with the diagnosis of an absence of a proto soft-despotism. Permit me a few observations to make my point:

(1) The stock market's slavish hanging on to the every word of the Fed. (2) The continuous expansion of "rights" (now in debate is the right to health care, to a college education, etc.). (3) The absurd debate questions that make it seem as if the president must be prepared to do something about just about every problem anyone can come up with. Well, I admit none of these reasons are very persuasive, but I am tired and having a difficult time thinking up my usual list.

Now, my diagnosis is not the whole story; like anything real, the problem is much more complex, especially since we are talking about the decay of republicanism and its supporting public virtues, which alone allowed us to become the most prosperous and power nation in history.

Nevertheless, from the tenor of your posts, e.g., the abdication of personal responsibility re mortgages, our consumption based economy (as if that could even be a base), etc, I gather you will get my drift in this post.

Thanks again for the thoughtful blog.


Anonymous said...

As a member of the Roman Catholic Church, I hold the Creed of my Church to be true, which means by definition that the belief of any other religion in contradiction to that Creed must be categorically false

It may also be a sign of Buckley's passing that it happens that same week that Pew released a survey showing the diminishing Catholic Church. Evangelical Christians are now the plurality religious group in America, and certainly a continued force in politics. G.W.B. was fueled to two victories by evangelicals, and while he was old enough to remember the intellectual formation of the conservative movement, the GOPer who follows McCain won't. Buckley's politics to the extent they come from his Catholic Creed are increasingly obsolete, and the decline and change in religion is as much a part of the breaking of the stool as the Soviet Union.