Thursday, February 28, 2008

William F. Buckley Jr., R.I.P.

Our revered founder, William F. Buckley Jr., died in his study this morning.

If ever an institution were the lengthened shadow of one man, this publication is his. So we hope it will not be thought immodest for us to say that Buckley has had more of an impact on the political life of this country — and a better one — than some of our presidents. He created modern conservatism as an intellectual and then a political movement. He kept it from drifting into the fever swamps. And he gave it a wit, style, and intelligence that earned the respect and friendship even of his adversaries. (To know Buckley was to be reminded that certain people have a talent for friendship.)

He inspired and incited three generations of conservatives, and counting. He retained his intellectual and literary vitality to the end; even in his final years he was capable of the arresting formulation, the unpredictable insight. He presided over NR even in his “retirement,” which was more active than most people’s careers. It has been said that great men are rarely good men. Even more rarely are they sweet and merry, as Buckley was.

When Buckley started National Review — in 1955, at the age of 29 — it was not at all obvious that anti-Communists, traditionalists, constitutionalists, and enthusiasts for free markets would all be able to take shelter under the same tent. Nor was it obvious that all of these groups, even gathered together, would be able to prevail over what seemed at the time to be an inexorable collectivist tide. When Buckley wrote that the magazine would “stand athwart history yelling, ‘Stop!’” his point was to challenge the idea that history, with a capital H, pointed left. Mounting that challenge was the first step toward changing history’s direction. Which would come in due course.

Before he was a conservative, Buckley was devoted to his family and his Church. He is survived by his son Christopher. Our sadness for him, and for us, at his passing is leavened by the hope that he is now with his beloved wife, Patricia, who died last year.
Buckley was a practicing Catholic and is credited for founding and defining the modern Conservative movement in the United States, especially through his magazine National Review, and his long-running PBS political debate show, Firing Line.

He was known for his slow but multisyllabic speech, Mid-Atlantic accent, and casual, slouching style. He was decent and kind, even with his enemies, and showed considerable humility despite his position. If you debated with him, you lost.

The decline of Christendom and the rise of absolutism in government is a well known phenomena marking the end of the Medieval period: by the 1930s, the Totalitarian State seemed inevitable. The choice was between Communism, Fascism, or the New Deal (in the United States) — all big, secular, bureaucratic, centralized governmental systems — and this "tide of history" was seemingly unstoppable. It was in the decade after the Second World War that Bill Buckley was to “stand athwart history yelling, ‘Stop!’”; the Totalitarian State was not historically inevitable, and he managed to cobble together various groups into a new Conservative movement that was to counter this trend.

The two most prominent groups in this movement were Freemasonry and conservative Christian religion, coming together under a new political philosophy called Fusionism, which coupled economic liberalism with social conservatism. Although historically these groups were extremely hostile, they both had everything to lose from expansionistic Communists armed with nuclear weapons; and the fact that many prominent Western intellectuals supported Communism made this unlikely coalition possible. I cannot imagine that the pro-life movement would have been possible under the former regime, but aspects of the "spirit of Vatican II" are also a side-effect of this alliance.

It ought to be noted that Buckley was a member of the Skull and Bones at Yale University, a secret society modeled on Prussian Freemasonry. Yalies and Bonesmen have been a disproportionately influential core of the American covert intelligence community: Buckley was a Central Intelligence Agency operative working in Mexico City, giving inspiration to his numerous espionage novels. He supported the C.I.A., and often said that it has a higher standard of professionalism and ethics compared to what is shown in the popular media. It is rumored that National Review, which typically operated on a deficit, indirectly received underwriting from the C.I.A. (the C.I.A. subsidizes overseas publications useful to the American cause), while Firing Line, because it was shown on the Public Broadcasting System, openly received taxpayer support.

Although Buckley called himself a libertarian, he specifically excluded Ayn Rand's libertarian Objectivist movement as being too far from the mainstream. He also rejected the once-prominent John Birch Society, which, like the Communists, sought to secretly subvert various organizations. In general, he avoided the conspiratorial right-wing "fever swamps" of fringe conservatism. Buckley advocated for a genteel, non-confrontational opposition, more intellectual than activist in tone, and this led some to reject his movement as being more style than substance; more 'respectable' than effective.

The culmination of Buckley's Conservative movement was the Presidency of Ronald Reagan, whose administration included many Catholics. Buckley's movement was quite popular among young Catholics born in the era of the Second Vatican Council — who explicitly rejected the Marxism and heresy fashionable to reformers of the earlier generation — and who instead became staunch Reagan supporters. This effectively ended the formerly unquestioned Catholic support for the Democratic Party: young Catholics followed formerly segregationist Southern Protestants into the Republican Party, leaving the Democrats under the control of hard-line Socialists.

While economic liberalism and American constitutional theory do have Catholic roots in Medieval Scholasticism, the Counter-Reformation, and the natural law tradition, these theories are now mainly based on naturalistic and subjective Enlightenment theories that reject God and instead place Man at the center of a materialistic cosmos. While many Catholics supported Fusionism due to its anti-Communism, this movement does not conform to Catholic notions of economic subsidiarity, nor especially to the Magisterial teachings on social justice in the mode of Rerum Novarum (1891) — although I might add, neither does the movement of modern 'Catholic' dissenters who remain loyal to the Democrats.

Buckley's Conservative movement is breaking apart; the first problem was the inclusion of the 'Neo-Conservatives' (also called Neo-Liberals) into the movement: formerly Trotskyite Marxists, these "Neocons" retained their desire for exporting revolution throughout the world, and we see this in the policy of spreading democracy via war, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. (A traditional Catholic solution would have been convincing Sadaam Hussein to convert to Christianity). A second problem is that many "country club Republicans" resent Christian morality: being rich and successful also means the ability to gain the favor of many otherwise unavailable attractive young women, and so for them, abortion on demand is a requirement for living that lifestyle without care; also they may have extremely uncharitable views on the sick and poor, contrary to Christ. Another issue was the "triangulation" policy of President Bill Clinton, who repudiated the sharply declining industrial labor unions in favor of the libertine wealthy and professional classes, capturing these formerly core members of the conservative movement, and who now lead the new Kulturkampf against the Church.

With the death of William F. Buckley Jr., we also see the death of the American Conservative movement, seen in the ascendency of Senator John McCain as Republican candidate for the Presidency. Formerly Conservative parties worldwide are now repositioning themselves as left-of-center, while the Left is rushing towards nihilistic and self-destructive policies.    But we still have hope.  Politics are messy and compromising, especially under our system of government, but we ought not flee the world, but instead bring light into it.  One of the bright lights of our days is the recovery of an integral, lively Faith.

May Bill Buckley rest in peace.

1 comment:

  1. What a great profile of this American Catholic legend.

    Thanks very much for this instructive piece.

    An Spanish Catholic from Madrid who loves your blog