William F. Buckley, Jr., Giant of the Right, is Dead

Whatever one thinks of the politics of William F. Buckley, who died today at the age of 82, he was undoubtedly a central (perhaps, the central) figure in creating the foundational ideas of modern American conservatism. To be honest, I have not done a proper study of the man and his times. However, I do have God and Man at Yale on my “to read” list. I should say that from what I do know of him, though, he possessed a keen intellect, an immense vocabulary, and a clarity of writing and thought that was admirable. He also deployed a devilish sense of humor and a sharp wit. He was able to build lasting friendships with ideological and political adversaries (John Kenneth Galbraith is but one example) and was not afraid to challenge core conservatives principles (in his late years, he became increasingly disaffected with the Bush Administration and the war in Iraq). Clearly, he was a complicated figure and a formidable man by almost any measure.

However, as with all things, we cannot simply accentuate the positive. The negative must also be examined and there are some rather egregious episodes in Buckley’s wide-ranging life. Paramount among these, for me at least, were the noxious, segregationist views he championed in the pages of the magazine he founded, The National Review. This particular passage is emblematic of the thinking inside the house organ of movement conservatism in the mid 1950’s:

“The central question that emerges…is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.”

Though he came to renounce those views in time, I still find it hard to simply overlook them or the role that Buckley had in giving them mainstream credibility (it should also be noted that the National Review is still home to some rather questionable thinking about race in America).

In any event, I have two final thoughts. One, captured in this rumination by Spencer Ackerman, is that Buckley made liberals reassess their core beliefs:

“But what was undeniably valuable was how he forced mid-century liberalism, so self-satisfied, to rethink many of its basic premises, grapple with inconvenient truths and harsh assessments, and emerge (in my opinion) stronger. What sort of ossification would have resulted had no one stood athwart history, yelling Stop?”

Critically examining one’s own beliefs is a vital thing, and having intelligent and thoughtful opponents can only aid that process.

The second point, touched on here by Ezra Klein, is that Buckley’s passing illuminates the current level of degradation in our public discourse:

“As a slightly more general point, in the last two or three years, a whole host of giants have passed away, men who were political thinkers at a time when that made you a cultural figure. John Kenneth Galbraith, Milton Friedman, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Norman Mailer, and now, William F. Buckley Jr. Gore Vidal is just about the last of their number left. And that’s a shame. They would write serious books of political analysis and sell millions of copies — they were the writers you had to read to call yourself an actual political junkie. Now, the space they inhabited in the discourse is held by the Coulters and O’Reilly’s of the world. Where we once prized a tremendous facility for wit, we’re now elevating those with a tremendous storehouse for anger. Run a search on quotes from Galbraith, Buckley, or Friedman, then do the same for O’Reilly and Coulter. We’re really losing something here. And we don’t even have Molly Ivins around to wrest it back.”

I have to agree. When faced with the almost nonsensical rantings of current National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg, or the shock jock tendencies of a Michael Savage, or the gleeful and hateful bomb throwing of an Ann Coulter, even a liberal such as myself pines for a return to the days of yesteryear, when it was ok for political foes to be smart, urbane and sophisticated in the public arena:

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~ by uvasig on February 28, 2008.

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