Thursday, February 28, 2008

William F. Buckley Jr.

Weird week. Two annoying conservatives expired (Mecham and Buckley). While sympathetic to their families, it's not necessarily a time to sugercoat their influence.

William F. Buckley Jr. as a Progressive Role Model by Matt Zeitlin
William F. Buckley Jr, who died today, was mostly known for founding and editing National Review and being a leading conservative intellectual, journalist and thinker for more than 5 decades. But before founding National Review, he wrote God and Man at Yale. He was in many ways the original conservative critic of the academy. God and Man was a polemic against the liberal atheism, or at least agnoisticism, among Yale faculty. Buckley anticipated those right wing critics who today think that college campuses are much too liberal, except he was doing it 50 years ago.

But more importantly, Buckley should be a model to all of us young writers looking to influence the political scene. Buckley wrote God and Man when he was 25, and founded the most influential political magazine of the last half-century when he was 29. And even though he was a conservatives’ conservative, he still appreciated youthful vigor and energy in his movement that he did some much to shape. He was an enthusiastic Goldwater supporter and helped found Young Americans for Freedom in 1960 so as to channel youthful energy into movement conservatism. In modern liberal blog terms, he was some freaky combination of Matt Yglesias, Markos Moulistas and Rick Perlstein – except conservative.

There's a whole lot anyone can learn from Buckley the man - he was kind, urbane, sensitive, intelligent and an amazing stylist. But we liberals and progressives rightly are repulsed by his politics. But there's also Buckley the institution builder. And he was greatly responsible for turning conservatism into the institutional force it is. And he was able to do it by providing ideological coherence and also by energizing and deploying young people to be proud, excited conservatives. But he also viewed conservatism as distinct from the Republican party and was ready to abandon the party when he thought it wasn't conservative enough. He should be the model for what we self-styled progressives are doing today - building a set of institutions to make progressivism a lasting force in American politics. And while many of us are supporters of the Democratic party, we recognize that our movement has to be more than a partisan one. In short, we need to be like Buckley to reverse the gains him and his movement have chalked up in the last 50 years.

I wouldn't quite go as far as Zeitlin to compliment Buckley. Buckley wasn't quite as kind as he makes out. Bill was even known to have lit into Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky pretty good on occasion. But Zeitlin does show some of the areas where Buckley can give us a lesson:

- the need to build permanent institutions and publications that further the progressive movement

- the need to remember that erudition and activism are not the sole territory of the left

- the need to not necessarily tie your idealogy to a certain political party

- the need to be a good writer and intelligent advocate for your cause

The passing of Buckley reminds me of the importance of not only reading people you agree with but also those you disagree with. I've read books by Limbaugh, O'Reilly, Coulter, Hannity, Buchanan, Ralph Reed, Goldwater, etc. ... and Buckley. Besides being amazed that the first four I listed were even capable of reading, let alone writing a book, it gives one a sense of what you are up against. A little Sun Tzu-ish, I grant you ("Know thy self, know thy enemy"). But smart.

And lastly, it's comforting to know that not all effete Ivy League snobs are liberals.

1 comment:

wunelle said...

You beat me to the observation that Buckley--though I have no love for him--hardly seems properly in the company of people like O'Reilly and Ann Coulter.

They're hardly even people.