Thursday, 28 February 2008

In Passing

William F. Buckley, Jr.


The preventive-shutting-off-of-comments at sites like Huffington Post was unsurprising; neither was the range of tributes at The Corner and elsewhere.

But I was unprepared for the reaction of some commenters in this thread (at Tam’s) and this one (at Ace’s). Comments with the sort of the bemused solemnity that prevails when you’re ten years old and are told that your eccentric great uncle from Montana has died:

“Well, yes, I’m sorry he’s dead, but I really didn’t know him all that well, and, gee, he was awfully old, wasn’t he, and he sure talked funny (what was up with that, anyway?), but folks say he did great things (but I never saw him do them; all I ever saw was when he’d come to visit; he’d sit on the porch and chat with his old buddies, and use all these words that nobody had ever even heard of), and now everyone’s sad that he’s died, and though I didn’t really know him (not like gram’pa!), I suppose I should be sad too.”

Perhaps it's because we no longer know our own history.  At the close of the second world war, informed opinion was that Roosevelt’s alphabet agencies had saved America from the failure of capitalism that was the great depression, that the only way to prevent future wars was to exchange American sovereignty for “international cooperation” (and that the Soviet penetration of America’s nuclear program had actually been a good thing, because a nuclear Russia created a countervailing force against future American hegemony), and that the bureaucracy, with the advice of academically-certified experts in white coats, would regulate the future for all the rest of us.  Market economics?  Not after Baron Keynes and his disciples had repaired broken economies and then bent that revived power toward winning the war.  (And the U.K. would require only a few more years of rationing, just to be sure that resources would be allocated sensibly.  Be patient...)  No, it was democratic socialism that was the inevitable next stage of development, and if there were countries that imposed their socialism without doing it democratically, well, that was just a bug.

“Conservative” voices were discredited and fragmented:  Aside from the occasional congressman or academic who hadn’t gotten the message, “conservatives,” to most, were America-firsters like the John Birch Society, racist-populists like the KKK, or the cranks who campaigned against fluoridation of drinking water.[1]

This is the world into which National Review was born.

Others will write (and have. written) about the influence of Buckley, and of National Review.  This, by Reason’s Robert Poole, makes a good beginning:
By creating National Review in 1955 as a serious, intellectually respectable conservative voice (challenging the New Deal consensus among thinking people), Buckley created space for the development of our movement.  He kicked out the racists and conspiracy-mongers from conservatism and embraced Chicago and Austrian economists, introducing a new generation to Hayek, Mises, and Friedman.  And thanks to the efforts of NR's Frank Meyer to promote a "fusion" between economic (free-market) conservatives and social conservatives, Buckley and National Review fostered the growth of a large enough conservative movement to nominate Goldwater for president and ultimately to elect Ronald Reagan.
No small achievements, any one of them.

I would suggest that if you were born after 1960, Buckley’s influence is as much a part of your political awareness as the air you breathe:  Sometimes obvious, often unnoticed, but inevitably there.  Buckley may have seemed quaint, or old-fashioned, or irrelevant - but only because so many of the positions he espoused are now the axioms of informed opinion, and so many of his achievements are part of the landscape.

But we must remember that American politics, and American attitudes, and therefore America (and therefore the world), would be much different had William F. Buckley, Jr. not decided to start a little magazine back in 1955.



Elsewhere:
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[1] As today's cranks campaign against vaccination, but on the other side of the spectrum. What goes around comes around.
[2] via “Oedipus” at Ace.

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