Though I was later to appear on “Firing line,” write for his magazine,and find myself embroiled in his public diplomacy, my first meeting with Bill Buckley was by far my warmest. It was the morning of the Apollo 11 moon launch, and the July temperature and humidity at Cape Canaveral were both approaching 100 as the Saturn V smoked cryogenically on launch pad 39, seventeen thousand feet away at the end of a placid barge canal.
Which was as close as even photographers were allowed, in the event of a four kiloton misunderstanding. The countdown was delayed for hours, and driven by some Plimptonesque pyrotechnic attraction, Bill availed himself of the final hold to venture from the air conditioned TV pavilion to get a few thousand feet closer to deploy his Leica for the launch itself. Like some few others, I had wrangled credentials from Conde’- Nast to view Apollo, and offered him a magnified squint at the distant scene through the artillery sized telephoto I had aimed.
Two things stick in memory. The previous day, a business-suited Czech journalist had up and died of heat stroke while taking the NASA safari through its 20,000 acre reserve, but Bill was wearing his inevitable necktie, albeit on a gossamer pongee shirt. The other was his response to a TV crew after the rocket’s seismic ascent on an ear-shattering pillar of flame , like a video of 9-11 run backwards . We were all still literally shaken- the shock waves had set the canal seething—when the TV guy stuck a microphone at his face and barked:
“Mr. Buckley, have you anything to say about watching the first men depart for another world?”
He half turned to the man, raising his eyebrows in mock amazement at the question, and just shook his head.
Bill Buckley was many things, but centrally he was one of the great American journalists, whose historic achievement was the creation of National Review. Historians will look to his magazine when they seek to explain much that has happened to the America of our time. During the 1930s, Walter Lippman was an important journalist, and like Buckley wrote many useful books. But whereas Lippman explained and defended something that already existed, the reformist Progressive movement and the New Deal, Buckley brought into being something new, something that had no existence before”the modern conservative movement.
Through his public personality, and his distinctive prose style, he also gave conservatism a new public face”no longer Sen. Robert Taft, a man of integrity and intellect but someone who made Herbert Hoover look like Rudolph Valentino.
Buckley saw that the weekly New Republic and Nation were explaining and defending liberalism for an educated and influential public and that conservatism needed something comparable. Beginning in late 1955, he put together a remarkably heterogeneous senior staff at his new National Review. James Burnham, a professional philosopher and analytical realist, was “indispensable,” as Buckley put it, not at all exaggerating. Burnham had been for a while a Trotskyist, had taught philosophy at NYU, and served in the CIA. He was a strategist of power, Realpolitik, the world as it is, analysis not emotion. “Fact-and-analysis” was his mantra. At NR, he mostly seemed above the storm, a ghost of a smile expressing his opinion of foolishness.
“The storm” because the senior people were often personally and intellectually at swords” point. Buckley as the impresario enjoyed their arguments, which indeed enlivened the magazine, and in fact constituted the various elements of conservatism as it then existed. Russell Kirk had published the influential Conservative Mind in 1952 and brought a traditionalism based on Burke into the mixture. Frank Meyer, reacting against years as a Marxist theoretician, was a libertarian. Meyer had reviewed The Conservative Mind dismissively as crypto-socialism. Kirk had reviewed Meyer’s libertarian What Is Conservatism? contemptuously as nothing but an ideological tract. To put it mildly, they hated each other. But both contributed valuably to NR, and Buckley kept them aboard as contributors with his magnanimity and his pleasure at being the impresario of a good show.
Willmoore Kendall, a brilliant political philosopher, interpreter of our constitutional tradition, and disciple of Leo Strauss, had been an influential professor for Buckley at Yale. He was so difficult a personality that the Yale administration”an amazing fact”had bought out his tenure contract for thousands of dollars.
James Burnham quarreled politically with William Rusher. In domestic politics, Burnham saw Nelson Rockefeller as compatible with conservative anticommunism. Rockefeller was strong on national defense, and certainly anticommunist. Burnham did not loathe, as Rusher did, the Eastern Republican establishment (Rockefeller-Eisenhower) and would have been content to be on its conservative edge. Rusher, on the other hand, wanted to displace the Eastern establishment and in 1963-4 was a principal architect of the Goldwater movement. When Goldwater defeated Rockefeller in California in 1964 and became the nominee, the fate of the Republican Party was set. Goldwater carried only six states”all in the Deep South”and ever since the party has looked southward for its core support. Rusher had prevailed over Burnham for the foreseeable future. And the GOP would be a different party entirely without, for example, its libertarian leaven and evangelical base south of the Mason-Dixon. Goldwater had accomplished this in 1964, ironically to be sure, because Goldwater himself was a Western individualist who leaned libertarian and later spoke of the Rev. Jerry Falwell in terms suitable to a barracks.
Without Buckley it never could have happened. As Boswell said at the end of his Life of Johnson, he has left a gap which nothing can fill up.
Jeffrey Hart is a long-time senior editor at National Review and Professor Emeritus of English at Dartmouth University. He is the author of 10 books, including The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times.
With the passing of William F. Buckley I now feel officially old. Like thousands of modern conservatives, I grew up on Buckley. Each Sunday, I would make sure to be at home for Firing Line, to watch him genially make mincemeat of the likes of Harriet Pilpel—one of the generation of nice old babuschkas who somehow (unaccountably to me) became architects of a culture of death. Or to watch Buckley pick the brain of the aged, elfin Malcolm Muggeridge—an ex-Communist who became (something of a Jansenist) Catholic, whose books I promptly ran out to buy, and essays to read in the Human Life Review—which was published out of the old offices of National Review. I remember my first visit to those offices—which seemed to me hallowed—to meet with the grand, pipe-smoking Jim McFadden, patriarch of the pro-life movement. I’ll never forget the giant painting of Kaiser Franz Josef that hung on his wall. It was McFadden who put me in touch with a saint: Fr. John Hardon—whose graduate classes in theology I’d hitchhike to sit in on, to make up for what I wasn’t learning in high school religion class. I’d haunt the public library every two weeks to see when NR would come out, to read the brilliant essays of Thomas Molnar, Erik von Kuenhelt-Leddihn, and Joseph Sobran. Around the old offices of NR—situated, I remember, just down the block from a haunted-looking Swedenborgian church—an entire intellectual sub-culture of (mostly Catholic) activists and authors centered, much of it supported by the lasting heritage of Cardinals Spellman and Cooke. Indeed, one the best things about NYC is that it has never had a really evil archbishop—and consequently, much more than Chicago or Los Angeles, still retains an infrastructure of old-style ethnic Catholicism.
The authors I found in NR I promptly followed up on, and their longer works helped to form me, and thousands of others, as thinkers and writers. Indeed, as many liberals used to observe, it was Buckley’s very public eloquence and slightly showy vocabulary that helped dispel in the popular mind the idea that conservatives were the “stupid” party. (In reality, it was Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind that established the existence of a serious tradition of thinking on the Right on this side of the ocean. But perceptions matter too, and Buckley helped to change them.) I remember the lesson I drew for my own writing from Buckley’s example. As a freshman journalist at Yale, I reflected that Buckley never actually seemed to persuade any of the liberals who read him. But he demanded and got their respect, and inspired young people like me with the knowledge that we were not alone, or out of our minds. So I resolved that my writing on politics would have to be done at a higher level, displaying (perhaps a bit ostentatiously) a level of learning and thought that would at least intimidate the liberals into taking me seriously. As to winning them over—perhaps by inching ever closer in their direction, showing that we shared common premises, but different means—that seemed a waste of time. Perhaps even dangerous.
Overall, I think this lesson was the right one—as the subsequent career of National Review has helped to prove. As the old lions of its staff died, retired, withdrew, or were driven off, the magazine seemed to slide imperceptibly away from Buckley’s old approach of responding to leftist contempt by brazening it out, and proving itself smarter and more principled, regardless of consequence. It became, in a term that I know would pain Buckley to read, populist. Also much less discernibly Catholic. Its sales inched up. It advertised on talk radio, and began to read every more like Rush Limbaugh’s books than Russell Kirk’s. Perhaps this was inevitable. But I can’t help finding it sad.
I wish that Buckley’s legacy better represented his own work at his best. (But few magazines hold up such a high level of quality for so long. Compare the Time magazine of 1955 with what is published under that name today. It seems like the special-ed edition.) I am glad to know that he died in the Church we he so often defended so eloquently, his mater if not always his magistra. I gratefully acknowledge his central significance to me and a generation of my fellow conservatives. And so it is with regret that must point out that without his magazine’s relentless support, the Bush administration would not have found it politically possible to invade Iraq. Which means that there is another large group of Americans whose lives were deeply affected by William F. Buckley, Jr. You can read their names here. Let us pray for his soul along with theirs:
Lacrimosa dies illa,
Qua resurget ex favilla
Iudicandus homo reus;
Huic ergo parce, Deus.
Pie Iesu Domine,
Dona eis requiem.
William F. Buckley Jr. might have allowed the neoconservative tendency in through the gates at NR, but he never quite surrendered to its charms”opposing, eventually, the war in Iraq and never evincing any kind of “democratist” sentiments. This is worth remembering while reading the gushing eulogies coming from the old and new guard of the neocon brain trust.
Norman Podhoretz, for instance, reminisces of his days as an assistant editor at Commentary in the 50s when he scored a big coup hiring Dwight MacDonald, the Trotskyist/cold warrior/theorist of the “68ers, to write a hit piece on Buckley and NR. Podhoretz remembers being displeased with the piece, entitled “Scrambled Eggheads on the Right,” not because he saw much of intellectual value in NR, but because MacDonald had failed to appreciate that Buckley was a great prose stylist.
Podhoretz admits that he’s still at odds with Buckley, only now, in his mind, the tables have turned:
Amazingly, [Buckley] is nowadays in the position of trying to forgive me for holding views to the right of his own on what some of us call World War IV. Conversely, I keep trying to open his eyes to the truths of the Bush Doctrine, now that those eyes have been dimmed, though thankfully not altogether blinded, by certain ideas stemming from the so-called realist school of thought. Mirabile dictu, as he might say of this bizarre reversal of roles. [emphasis in the original]
Ah yes, dedication to “ending tyranny in our time” while struggling against “Islamofascism” and bringing democracy to Babylon are truly the regalia of a real right-winger. When I mentioned this passage to my friend Paul Gottfried, he noted that it’s probably more accurate to say that Podhoretz is now to the left of Leon Trotsky.
Furthermore, it’s difficult to know to whom exactly Podhoretz is referring in his “realist school of thought” comment. Burnham? whose geopolitics were based on cold-hearted “facts and analysis,” but who actually sought “roll back” in the Cold War and the liberation of central and Eastern Europe? Perhaps Kissinger? even though Buckley and NR were hardly supportive of his dÃ©tente policy, with Kissinger’s acceptance of the Soviet sphere of influence and his cozying up to Mao.
I imagine that, in the end, “the so-called realist school of thought” is simply a place holder for anyone not thoroughly obsessed with the Middle East and who doesn’t view endless wars there as inherently in the national interest.
Of course, Norman should be commended for pointing out the actual differences he has with Buckley and the NR tradition. His own progeny, and much of the neocon 2nd generation, usually make due with simply mouthing some conservative-movement bromides. And so we learn from John Podhoretz that one of Buckley’s great virtues was his “commitment to the notion that social experiments are very dangerous things indeed.”
I wonder how Podhoretz fils thinks our wonderful social experiment on the Euphrates is going? Dangerous? A bit costly perhaps?
Contra Podhoretz pÃ¨re, Buckley was never blinded by a surfeit of realism.
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In this classic clip, Buckley pokes fun at the very notion of an “ideal president”””we don”t live in Camelot but in the good ol” USA and that’s all right, Jack, at least all right by me.” He praises Switzerland as the “best run country in world””right in the heart of Europe with a proud federalist tradition, a model for a USA in which people are allowed “to dream dreams without any reference at all to the man that occupies the White House.”
These are not the words of the author of Bush Country about the American heartland’s love affair with their great visionary leader.
Buckely might have overseen the neocons ascendancy at NR, but he shared none of their instincts.
Leave it to John McCain to make Barack Obama appear to have the steady, sane foreign policy. With the Albanians’ declaration of independence in Kosovo, the retirement of Fidel Castro and the recent repudiation of Musharrraf’s PML-Q party in parliamentary elections in Pakistan, there have been a number of occasions in recent days for McCain to demonstrate the experience of his long years in Washington, and without fail he has flunked every test. Declaring that Russian hints of recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia in retaliation for Western recognition of Kosovo were “outrageous,” McCain remains dedicated to a fruitless, ruinous anti-Russian stance that he has maintained since his first presidential run when he was then singing the praises of Shevardnadze. He then denounced Obama for the latter’s suggestion that he would take the opportunity of Castro’s retirement to meet with the former dictator’s brother, showing that his approach towards Cuba policy is no more sensible or wise. Rather than use this historic moment to argue for a change in utterly failed Cuba policy, McCain remains committed to the status quo. On Pakistan, McCain has been and remains reflexively supportive of Musharraf’s regime, endorsing the same tainted embrace of Musharraf that has handicapped our Pakistan policy for at least the last two years.
But then it is hardly encouraging that one of Obama’s foreign policy advisors, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzenzinski, is on the board of The American Committee for Peace in the Caucasus, a group that is hardly subtle in its pro-Chechen and anti-Russian slant. Nor can we be reassured when Obama supports military strikes in Waziristan, even if this is current policy, when such strikes seem detrimental to broader strategic interests in South Asia. One of the few bright spots in Obama’s extremely worrisome foreign policy agenda is his willingness to hold talks with heads of regimes targeted by Washington with sanctions and viewed as hostile powers. In what is arguably the least important of the three regions, Obama seems to have the best policy, while echoing, or not explicitly, rejecting the reckless and provocative positions of the current administration in the other two. The election in November is going to result in one kind of disastrous foreign policy or another. It simply remains to be seen which regions of the world the next administration is going to destabilize.
Every now and then I am forced to retch with disgust as I read some choice slander in the neoconservative press. Such a reaction occurred recently while I was looking at a picture of Tom Cruise in the New York Post. Cruise was dressed in a German Wehrmacht uniform and obviously shown in his cinematic role as the Swabian Catholic aristocrat and resistance fighter against the Nazi regime Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg (1907-1944). As everyone but crazed Teutonophobes employed at neocon publications and self-hating German leftists must know, Stauffenberg was a highly principled and courageous officer, who gave his life (knowing that he would do so) for the purpose of removing Hitler from power. Stauffenberg was connected to a plot against the Nazis, some of whose members had been involved in anti-Hitlerian activities for years. Although a devout Catholic and a traditional European conservative, the circle to which Stauffenberg belonged also included such Social Democrats as the former concentration camp inmate Julius Leber and the onetime mayor of Leipzig Carl Goerdeler. The Leipzig mayor Goerdeler, who is the subject of a massive biography by the German historian Gerhard Ritter, had been outspokenly anti-Nazi from the early 1930s onward.
When the bomb that Stauffenberg placed in Hitler’s headquarters on July 20, 1944 failed to detonate as expected, Stauffenberg and other conspirators were rounded up and executed”sometimes in gruesome fashion. Claus’s brother Berthold, who had been close to the poet-seer Stefan George, was also among those put to death; and Claus’s wife Nina, and the mother of his five children, was deported to a concentration camp, with her mother. Curiously a Polish Jewish sister-in-law, who had been Aryanized by the Nazis for designing German warplanes, tried to get Nina and her mother released. But unfortunately this influential sister-in-law, Melitta, died before her efforts could bear fruit, when the British shot down a plane she was on, late in 1944. Stauffenberg’s mother-in-law died in Ravensburg, and his wife was removed to Bavaria, where SS officers were given orders to execute her. But the Americans reached her first and released Nina, who was properly viewed as a Nazi victim. Stauffenberg’s widow spent the remainder of her long life (she died last April at the age of 92), writing about her husband and other resistance fighters against Hitler, and working for the cause of international peace. When Nina passed away, the British Telegraph published a long, admiring obituary celebrating her courage and decency, while recalling the heroic deaths of her husband and brother-in-law.
But the neocon New York Post sees history differently. The editors attached to a photograph of Cruise, dressed as Stauffenberg, the caption “Tom Cruise playing a Nazi.” In the twisted world of neoconservative letters most Germans are Nazis, most Russians are anti-Semites, and most white Southerners fascistoid racists. The exceptions to these generalizations are apparently those few Germans and Russians who support neoconservative imperialism, while apologizing nonstop for their politically incorrect pasts. Southerners are allowed into the neocon club, providing they loudly bewail their ancestors” sins of segregation and slavery. Southern whites, seeking absolution from the neocons, must also worship at the altar of Martin Luther King and must naturally hold unfailingly sensitive opinions.
The implied attack on Stauffenberg this week recalls more explicit invectives against the German resistance fighters by the ever intemperate loudmouth and Post columnist, Ralph Peters. When Peters is not pushing for president his favorite pol Joe Lieberman or calling for the bombing of Iran, he beats up on the Germans, from Luther to Hitler, and not surprisingly, the “phony” opposition to Hitler. Although Peters has something less than a nodding acquaintance with European history, he does treasure his predictable hates. On more than one occasion he has opined that the German resistance opposed Hitler only because he was losing the war, an enterprise that the July 20 conspirators, all supposedly good Nazis, had previously backed. These figures ditched the Nazi government, however, according to Peters, as soon as they thought they could get better peace terms from the Western democracies, without Hitler.
Peters’s charges are unrelated to historical facts. Most of the resistance figures had loudly lamented the Nazi regime for many years before their failed coup, and such conspirators as Leber, Goerdeler, and General Ludwig Beck had been trying to overthrow the Nazis since the 1930s. While Stauffenberg had been initially positive about Hitler, from 1940 on his conversations and letters reveal his profound contempt for the Nazi regime. The idea that Stauffenberg had embraced the conspiracy as a clever Nazi in 1944, trying to pull Germany’s chestnuts out of the fire, does not correspond to the heavily documented record of the last four years of his life. His failure to act against the regime earlier was based on his concern as a German patriot about seeing his country destroyed by the Soviets and their Western Allies, particularly after the demand for unconditional German surrender, proclaimed by Churchill and Roosevelt in January 1943, became known. But the attempts of the German resistance to extract more lenient peace terms through secret negotiations with Stalin’s Western Allies had failed even before the attempted overthrow was launched. The resistance fighters tried to bring down what they considered a wicked government in the face of a hopeless international situation and in the face of the inflexibility of the anti-Nazi coalition.
One final point seems necessary in order to contextualize my reaction to the smearing of the German opponents of Hitler. In the mid-1980s, I endured a sharp verbal assault on the pages of Commentary by that global democratic polemicist Joshua Muravchik. It seems that my critic decided on the basis of my comments about Russian socialist dissenter Andrei Sakharov that I should never again be allowed “into civil discourse,” (whatever the hell that means!). It seems that I had shown the temerity of having noticed Sakharov’s early devotion to Stalin’s government, a fact that according to Muravchik (and no doubt other neocons), it was inexcusably rude to bring up. But why is the fact unmentionable that Sakharov, a nuclear physicist, developed a Soviet atomic bomb and worked on a Soviet hydrogen bomb both under Stalin. Why should his early history be thrown into a memory hole because he later supported bilateral arms agreements between the Soviets and the US and because Sakharov became a neoconservative hero while a Soviet reformer in the 1970s? Why is any mention of his early association with Stalin’s murderous regime less noteworthy than the fact that Stauffenberg for a relatively short period of time had held out hope for Hitler as a political leader. Stauffenberg sacrificed much more fighting a totalitarian regime, without hope of outside assistance, than Sakharov suffered as a Soviet dissenter. And, as far as I know, photos of Sakharov have not appeared in the Post or in other neocon house organs decorated with the caption “here’s a Stalinist.” Yes I fully know the reason for this distinction, and so do you, gentle readers. Leftist democrats with Stalinist pasts offend neocons far less than do German patriots, even those Germans who gave their lives fighting Hitler.
Taking a break from current events (1918″), I’d like to recommend a fascinating book that re-imagines economics. Self-consciously bold, the book rejects the utilitarian view of man implicit in “neo-classical” thinking (Ricardo, Malthus, later Mises), which focuses on man as an imperfectly rational calculator of his own self-interest. Instead, it attempts to view the economic activities of men and women in a much wider context”that of their life as social animals, members of families and communities, and creatures of God. The volume, Human Goods, Economic Evils, by Edward Hadas, is one of the latest productions of the admirable ISI Books”which seems to be picking up the task once performed by Regnery Publishing, providing philosophical and cultural nourishment to what remains of the conservative mind. (ISI is stoking the frontal cortex, while other “conservative” publishers seem fixed on the reptilian brain. Who can blame them? I try to keep mine well-fed, granting it a single rat every day.) In an online article, Hadas sums up the motives for his writing:
The faithless reason of methodological atheism is dangerous to Christians, but it can be overcome. The task is not easy, because the atheistic explanations cannot exactly be disproved (‘falsified’, in the language of the fashionable philosophy of science). They can and should be ridiculed for making insulting claims about men and their motivations, for relying on preposterous unacknowledged motivations and for denying the power of goodness, but ridicule of one set of explanations can only be truly effective if it is accompanied by a superior alternative. What are needed are Christian reconstructions of the various social sciences, remade to be in the true image of man. In other words, a new reason must be created, one which corresponds with the teachings of faith. For scholars, the need is quite practical. If Christian social scientists and teachers cannot rely on working practices that are based on men seen as social, religious and moral creatures, they will inevitably fall back on the existing models, based on men seen as individualistic, worldly and selfish. The result will be incomplete and sometimes immoral analyses.
From that starting point, Hadas lays out in thumbnail what he sees as a more complete anthropology on which to base other human sciences such as economics. He nicely sums up man as “good but weak,” and views human economic activity in the much wider context of man’s effort to “humanize” his environment”to make a world more responsive to his needs and wants. These are inherently “good,” but man is “weak,” and will frequently mistake his needs, and “want” what he should not have (or far more of it than he needs). Instead of the value-neutral language of conventional economics, which exempts itself from judging human desires, instead relying on a kind of moral “price system,” in which all desires are basically interchangeable, Hadas draws on the Classical and Christian tradition (and the work of Alasdair Macintyre) to incorporate serious value judgments into his cogent economic analysis. His goal, candidly stated throughout, is to create a solid theoretical framework that will unite into a more rigorous system the insights and injunctions of Catholic Social Teaching”a much debated subject which I discussed in brief last week.
I’m still only halfway through the book”which I’m reading because I’m speaking, alongside Hadas, at an ISI conference in April that celebrates Wilhelm RÃ¶pke“but I can already highly recommend it. There’s just one statement in it which provokes my dissent on a critical point, and which violates the deep common sense which animates the rest of the book. On pages 26-27, Hadas assaults the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham that underlies modern economic thinking, making sensible observations on the reality of everyday altruism:
In reality, however, men often look beyond themselves in their search for the good. A quick observation of the labor of mothers, fathers, coworkers, soldiers or lovers shows that men frequently search for the good of others, often so resolutely that they willingly make huge personal sacrifices.
So far so good. But the next two sentences, I think, plunge off the cliff: “A more Christian analysis suggests that men should search for the greatest good, which involves a profound denial of all selfishness and self-interest.“
Here Hadas goes much too far, and makes of Christian ethics something like Ayn Rand’s caricature of “altruism” which she pillories at tedious length throughout her novels. To move many notches up the scale of literary quality, this is the variety of Christianity which motivates the self-extinguishing clergymen in the brilliant Camp of the Saints“who welcome the conquest of the West by Moslems and Hindus in the name of selflessness. It is the same “unselfishness” that C.S. Lewis’ devil advocates in The Screwtape Letters.
If I could add a few qualifiers to Hadas’ language, such as “denial of unjust selfishness” or “distorted self-interest,” I could adopt his statement and move on. But given his use of “profound,” I don’t think he’d let me, and because of that the point is worth arguing.
Are Christians really called to a “profound” “denial of all self-interest”? In the most fundamental task which faces any of us, seeking eternal salvation, our first motive is the pursuit of eternal happiness with God. This is no hedonistic or shallow search for satisfaction, but the proper functioning of a human will as it seeks the goal for which it was created, which God Himself surrounded with rewards that will redound to the self (and to no one else”God doesn’t need us). The alternative, damnation, is equally hedged around with punishments which one will endure by oneself. It seems that the divine economy itself is set up based on the assumption that man will pursue happiness and shun unhappiness, and this is as it should be. In the writings of the most mystical of saints, we occasionally find such a pure love of God that the saint himself (or more usually herself) actually ceases to care about the happiness of heaven”so pure is his love of God. However, that is a difference of emphasis, not a contradiction. Where mystics have arisen who actually professed that they did not care whether their souls were damned or saved, they were typically condemned; indeed, this was one of the flaws that got the Quietists denounced. A certain eternal self-seeking is not just permitted; it seems to be commanded. (Jesus Himself was not averse to offering punishments and rewards”a fact for which Nietzsche condemned Him, as I remember.)
Let’s move to more controversial ground, the natural order. If man is to reject all self-interest, this must include every sphere of life”including the realm of eros. On a radically altruistic analysis such as this, none of us should seek out the company of people whose conversation we enjoy, or wed those to whom we are attracted. Instead, we ought to mortify such selfish inclinations, and seek out the loneliest person we can find. We should mortify biology, and find a spouse among the ugliest and least marriageable”lest the taint of selfishness attach itself to the sacrament.
Equally, I cannot see why we should prefer the interests of our own children or family members over those of strangers, or of our countrymen over foreigners. Strictly applied, such a standard would dynamite the Christian notion of subsidiarity, which ranks our obligations as proceeding outward from the self, with the greatest claims upon us made by those who are nearest (relatives and neighbors). Perhaps one could make a case that in strict justice we owe our own children nutrition before we owe it to strangers, but in dispensing it we would always have to be careful to disentangle any motives of personal affection or attachment, and strive not to take undue pleasure in it.
Does it sound like I’m addressing a problem that doesn’t exist, knocking down a straw man in a forest where no one will hear it fall? I wish I were. The first time I discussed this issue with a friend, she confirmed that she too had been troubled by the question of selfishness: “I’ve always wanted to adopt, and I still intend to. But for a long time I wondered if it was even moral to have my own children, when there are so many unwanted children out there whom I could raise instead.”
To which I responded: “That’s kind of creepy and sick, don’t you think?” She allowed that it probably was. Not everyone would agree. A decade ago I wrote an article addressing a book which literally argued that Westerners did not have the right to reproduce themselves in a world troubled by hunger, and I coined a word to describe the book’s position: “demographic masochism.” The whole discussion reminded me of the words of a wise Christian psychologist, who inquired, “Jesus said to love your neighbor as you love yourself. But what if you hate yourself?”
Let me carry this reductio just one step farther”into the absolute ethical contradiction to which it leads. If all self-interest is evil, then what does it mean when I perform an act of kindness to someone (let’s say, I volunteer to shovel out his driveway)? Whose interests am I serving? His. If he accepts that offer, whose interests is he serving? His own. In other words, he is being selfish. Which is evil. Indeed, by even offering him this service, I am in essence serving as a near occasion of sin, a temptation to self-interest on his part. In which case, the kindest thing I could do”thinking of his eternal salvation”would be not to make the offer. Unless, of course, I was sure he would be virtuous enough to refuse. (Of course, continuing the regress, he might reluctantly accept, if only to allow me the chance to do something virtuous—just as the woman I did not want and who did not want me might unselfishly accept my marriage proposal, the better to let each of us make a lifelong sacrifice.) In such a world, everyone would be holding the door for others, who would smile but refuse to walk through them. And no one would get anywhere.
More realistically, the people who accepted this notion of unselfishness would be holding the doors for the selfish ones, who would prosper enormously in the absence of anyone defending even their most legitimate, just self-interest. Any claim of weakness by the unscrupulous would be immediately met with a wave of self-accusation by the scrupulous, who would avoid the crippling guilt by giving in to every demand. All of which pretty well describes current ethnic politics in America and Europe.
Instead of such a frankly hopeless standard, Christians are better off accepting the fact that they have selves with legitimate interests, which they should pursue”but keeping a skeptical eye, informed by justice and charity, on the excesses of selfishness which tempt us constantly. We need not make some universal moral calculus which determines if each of our actions is motivated by “the greatest good” (and for whom? the greatest number?). Instead we must walk through the thicket of mixed and conflicting motives, asking always for the Grace which perfects, but does not abolish, nature.
The death of William F. Buckley, Jr., is, for me at least, the closing of a chapter in my own history, both personal and ideological. Buckley, you see, was my childhood hero.
His magazine, the National Review, was available in our Junior High School library—along with The New Republic, The Nation, and even American Opinion (!)—and I read it regularly, as soon as the new issue came in. Nurtured on Frank S. Meyer’s essays, and Buckley’s acerbic commentary, I was part and parcel of the Goldwater movement in my own small way, and I idolized the youthful and articulate Buckley, who often appeared on television. Here was an intellectual, who was, at the same time, a man of the Right: back then, an almost inconceivable phenomenon. Buckley, with his formidable erudition, and his ready wit, was a kind of intellectual father figure for me: although I never met him, he was a kind of model. While I never succumbed to the temptation to imitate his languid style, complete with impish smiles and heavy-lidded eyes, he did inspire me to read the dictionary, from beginning to end, in search of words with which to impress my friends and correspondents.
It is hard to over-emphasize the importance of National Review for the young conservatives of the 1960s: there was no other magazine, no other center of intellectual nourishment, for us, but then none was needed. NR was quite enough. That’s because there was no party line, no neoconservative enforcers of the Frummian variety, no partisan sensibility that distorted the editors’ always sharp analysis of what we, as conservatives, ought to do, say, and think about this or that, no looking over one’s shoulder. In the pages of NR the intellectual heavyweights—Meyer, Russell Kirk, and the like—battled it out: Liberty versus Order, Fusionism versus Traditionalism, Rollback versus Containment. The Big Issues, and all very appealing to a callow youth in search of answers and intellectual adventure. And not all politics all the time, either, but columns on the arts, on travel, on matters great and small that revealed a much wider world than the suburban desert in which I lived, that gave me a hint at what life had to offer if only I kept up by subscription to NR—and a dictionary by my side.
National Review, in the old days, was an education, all by itself, and I graduated from its school, so to speak, a confirmed man-child of the Right. For that, I can only thank Bill Buckley, no matter what his latter-day sins. I shall not make the mistake he made, and use an obituary to pick a quarrel, or settle an old score. I will merely note that the National Review he founded ceased to exist around about the late 1970s, when the neocons came to prominence. I fondly remember an entire issue given over to the alleged “libertarian threat” represented by the Cato Institute and its intellectual satellites, which prominently mentioned one of my more leftish-sounding articles as proof positive that libertarians were and are a dangerous conspiracy out to smash the American State—a piece that presciently noted the separatist tendencies of the American Southwest, and its future de facto merger with Mexico. That I was celebrating this prospect, and not simply forewarning it, is why Ernest van den Haag (I think it was) found the article alarming. I was thrilled, nevertheless, to have been mentioned in the magazine-of-record of my childhood—a thrill that was long gone when the thuggish David Frum took up the cudgels again many years later.
Alas, by that time, NR was no longer even a caricature of its old self: the red-state fascist maunderings of Frum and his fellow neocons had long since taken the sizzle-and-pizazz out of the mag, and it was merely the Pravda of the Party-Liners, a slave to Party and Dogma.
I have to add, however, that Buckley appeared to have second thoughts about relegating his legacy—his magazine, that is, and the mantle of “mainstream” conservatism—to the War Party. This piece, acknowledging that the Iraq war—and the greater project of “transforming” the Middle East at gunpoint—was and is a failure did not go down easily with the neocons, who didn’t dare grumble all that audibly when it came out. Buckley’s intellectual honesty prevented him from swallowing the Party Line, and his stature on the Right stopped the David Frums of this world from declaring him an “unpatriotic conservative” on account of his realistic dissent.
So let us mourn the passing of good ol’ Bill Buckley, who, for all his flaws, managed a signal achievement: when statist liberalism was the only known alternative to socialism, his bright repartee lit up the intellectual darkness and attracted us intellectually adventurous youth to a counter-culture that would come to challenge the heretofore unchallengeable status quo. To his soul, I tip my hat and say: God speed, and thanks.
The Associated Press is reporting that William F. Buckley has passed away in his home. He had been suffering with emphysema for years.
Taki’s Magazine has had its disagreements with the current National Review to be sure. But at this moment, we”d be remiss not to think of Buckley’s tremendous intellectual achievement in editing NR over the course of four decades. Not only was NR home to Buckley’s splendid columns, but in its pages one could read stalwarts such as James Burnham, Russell Kirk, Hugh Kenner, Willmoore Kendall, Whittaker Chambers, Jeffrey Hart, and Joan Didion to name but a few. Our own publisher and editor made many memorable contributions. Current NR writers like John O’sullivan and John Derbyshire continue the tradition.
It’s perhaps not an exaggeration to say that William F. Buckley invented the modern conservative movement in 1955 with the publication of his new magazine with its characteristic blue borders. Great Buckleyisms such as, “I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said,” are indicative of the charm and Ã©lan Buckley displayed in skewering his liberal opponents. Ronald Reagan was an NR subscriber, as was almost every major writer on the right.
Buckley is due for some criticism. The New York TImes has eulogized him for “making conservatism”not just electoral Republicanism, but conservatism as a system of ideas “ respectable in liberal post-World War II America.” He certainly did this, and many point toward Buckley’s purging of the dubious John Birch Society from the conservative movement as a major achievement. But one wonders whether he didn’t expel a few too many important voices who didn’t fit into the conservative-Republican mainstream: Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard come to mind. By the late ‘90s, writers like Paul Gottfreid and Peter Brimelow were no longer welcome at NR.
In turn, Buckley was far too welcoming to those “often clever, seldom wise” thinkers who entered the conservative movement from the left and who”ve counseled democratization, preemptive wars, and nation-building; he then looked the other way as the current editorial board attempted to purge conservatives who questioned the Iraq war. Moreover, NR was far too slow in recognizing the self-proclaimed “conservative” George W. Bush for what he is”a budget-busting liberal”and far too accommodating of the misdeeds of the Republican Party.
The conservative movement is in disarray, and the Republican Party faces electoral defeat and intellectual bankruptcy. William F. Buckley bears some responsibility.
But to find serious, well-argued critiques of the kind of politics to which the GOP and much of the conservative movement have descended, one need look no further than NR in its heyday. For this, we should be immensely grateful. R.I.P.
When I wrote Pat Buckley’s obituary last spring, I had a pretty good idea that Bill would follow her sooner rather than later. I happened to be with him the day she died, along with his brother James and sister Priscilla, and I was taken aback by Bill’s unembarrassed weeping. At her memorial service at the Met, he was more in control, but one could tell that he no longer wished to live. I often went up to Stamford to visit him after that, but it was almost too sad. Gone was the constant banter and double entendres that Bill and Pat indulged in. Although Bill was famously impatient and at times at a loss about Pat’s drinking and smoking, he was, in the 50 years I knew him, incredibly polite with Pat, even in the surroundings of his own bedroom.
I will not go through his various achievements; newspaper obituaries will do this. What they won’t do is capture the man whom every servant loved, as did every ski instructor, every waiter, every young man or woman who came to him for help as I did so long ago. Twice he wrote to editors pleading with them not to fire me because of something I had written. “Taki is an innocent,” he would write, “he really doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.” When I asked him if he were sure about that, he would roll his eyes and say, “a conservative is never wrong.”
Even toward the end, when neocons had not only captured the White House but also the magazine that gave me my start, National Review, he would try and appease me when I’d complain about scum like Frum and other self-publicizing careerists. At his 80th anniversary at the Pierre, he placed my wife next to him and me next to Pat. Some neocons nearby turned green. The supercilious look he affected served him well throughout the years, but never have I had a friend whose heart was that of an angel, and he was as close to a second father to me as it is possible to be. Rest in peace, dearest Bill, you did, after all, believe in the afterlife and now you are back with your darling Patsy.