William Buckley Died. We all do. Do our ideas die too?

Sitting here watching C-SPAN, in a somewhat throwback to summer 2007 when a roommate and I had a genuine crush on the network that talks about books and shows you how boring the insides of the congressional halls can be (at least the language is a bit dry from the podiums, no doubt sneers and IOU’s flitter about the chambers). It is a bit strange to be watching a panel honoring William Buckley Jr.’s life. He is founder of National Review, a conservative opinion journal, and “Firing Line,” a public television debate show that I recall featured Noam Chomsky during the Vietnam War. Yes, it was memorable and elitist, and despite promises that Buckley would invite him back, Chomsky never did appear again on Firing Line. And not that he cared. In response to Buckley’s death, Chomsky was on video recalling how it hardly much mattered how the show back in 1969 went. Further Chomsky recalled how Buckley, compared to the neoconservatives he rebuked with the result of the Iraq War but held great influence over during their youth or as their parents peers (the Bush family being an example), was of a certain aristocratic and potentially imperialistic intellectual breed that now looks quite moderate and tame.

When I rewatched the Chomsky-Buckley debate and Buckley’s ruckus with Gore Vidal, I did not see a tame Buckley, but someone very committed to nationalism and a full defender of those political boundaries including their monarchical or colonial histories (though he was slow to acknowledge it). He was as well, not surprisingly, intolerant of certain types of dissent spreading across the country–especially the idea that the United States could be wrong as a political and military intervener, constantly referring to the landing on the Normandy beach to save the French, which Chomsky tactfully dismissed as a useful comparison by noting the difference as a foreign occupier versus a civil war, something that obviously resonates strongly today.

Watching this particular panel on C-SPAN, much like an old roommate of mine would watch FOX News Channel and Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity, I wanted to get the inside scoop from people I don’t talk with about politics very often. Why did conservatives adore William Buckley? They complimented his prolific writing (author of 50 books and thousands of columns) that provided critical momentum, constant reflection and consistency to conservative political thought in the second half of the twentieth century. And perhaps sourly noted (my friends often intone the “Too Soon!” reference), a conservative scholar addressed that most of Buckley’s books would not hold up over time because he had no real epic work, Up From Liberalism being mentioned as a very good short criticism of liberalism though hardly a positive construction of conservative thought–also, only a select few were even still in print. They said he stuck to principles rather than a certain historical romanticism or sentiment that influences the left. This tactic, however, pushes out the obvious: everybody romanticizes. They romanticized that Buckley stood firm to principles without ever wavering. They described how he was against the increase of the size of the state, bureaucracy, etc. Minutes later, watching the 1969 debate, I saw him back the state’s authority, use of taxes (which would seem to only increase) to intervene in Vietnam’s affairs. With his desertion of backing the Iraq War, Buckley naturally changed in some ways according the context of different situations, as we all do as political and social human beings.I must say, the commentators made sure to add that Buckley was in full support of the war on terror and Islamo-Facism. I can understand much of these tendencies, but often feel politicians of every stripe too often conflate the necessity of terrorism in response to and a consequence of a lack of human needs–allowing people land to grow food, build homes, access to water–with the choice of being a terrorist. For many, it is a false choice–for they and their families will likely not survive unless they form alternate means.

Anyway that is a much larger discussion, which I hope to open up. Please add your voices to the chorus with comments.

ps. it was weird that i agreed with George Will, a conservative columnist, on several things. He seems to be a realistic person and extremely witty though his arguments ring a bit hallow.  The whole night reeked a bit too much of white male elitist culture–the panel’s participants had the in joke of one-upping each other with latin  phrases.

Published in: on April 13, 2008 at 3:52 am  Leave a Comment  
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