Saturday, March 01, 2008

The Philosophic Postmortem of William F. Buckley, Jr.

William F. Buckley, Jr. died in Connecticut on February 27. Most Western newspapers and news media have bid adieu to the intellectual major-domo of American conservatism with glowing, admiring salutations.

And every one of those salutations has missed the point: That Buckley was a vile man who rescued the Republican Party from the self-destruction of irrelevancy and a just demise. Because of him, the Party was saved the task of rethinking or at least remembering the meaning of its name, republican, that is, of the Party which in the late 18th and early 19th centuries struggled to preserve a government charged with protecting and upholding individual rights to life, liberty, property, and happiness.

The New York Times, in its February 28 article on Buckley's death, "William F. Buckley Jr., 82, Dies; Sesquipedalian Spark of Right," noted that

"Mr. Buckley's greatest achievement was making conservatism - not just electoral Republicanism, but conservatism as a system of ideas - respectable in liberal postwar America."
The Times does not say what ideas comprised that system. Further on it notes that

"The liberal primacy Mr. Buckley challenged had begun with the New Deal and so accelerated in the next generation that Lionel Trilling, one of America's leading intellectuals, wrote in 1950: 'In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.'"
The article is wrong that the liberalism Buckley opposed had begun with the New Deal; it began long before that, long before World War I. But Trilling, at least, was partly right; the dominant political ideas after World War II were liberal collectivist ones. Opposing them were "conservative" ideas, with the Republicans especially becoming vaguer and vaguer about what it was that they wished to "conserve." Their vision of a limited government republic was growing dimmer and hazier, and in light of their tepid opposition to (and in many instances, of their endorsement of) statist policies, their occasional harking back to the days of freedom, liberty and free enterprise was growing more and more hollow. They had no compelling answers to the liberal ideas.

Buckley saved their necks and provided them with a "system" of ideas they could feel at home with. He persuaded a spent and ideologically rudderless conservative movement to base its political philosophy on religion, altruism, and self-sacrifice as an alternative to the "atheistic" liberal welfare state of society, altruism and self-sacrifice. Individual rights were nothing to him if not "God-given." He was as much an enemy of freedom - and of freedom of speech - as any holy-roller Democrat. Fundamentally, there is no difference between the policies advocated by "atheistic" or secular collectivists and "religious" ones. Buckley never seriously challenged the "status quo" of controls, deficit spending, or the regulation of business and industry. He was one of the original advocates of volunteerism or mandatory public service.

The Daily Telegraph (London) of February 28 best summarized Buckley's influence on American politics:

"Buckley's aim was to turn the Right-wing movement in America into a recognizable, politically definable and powerful force, and to cleanse it of what some of its critics saw as leanings toward anti-Semitism and Fascism....Buckley was often credited with being the originator of the conservative thrust of the post-war years, which he saw as the antidote to the liberal philosophy which he believed had been dominant since the New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt....[His] greatest moment, arguably, came when Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter for the presidency in 1980. The fall of Communism vindicated much of what he fought for for decades."
It was Reagan's tenure in the White House that legitimatised the religious character of Republican conservatism and gave it impetus, the results of which we are seeing today not only in President Bush's faith-based initiative and in his war policy, but also in a religious revival in America that straddles left and right.

Learned, glibly articulate with a penchant for obscure words and noted for a complex, obfuscating verbosity nearly as convoluted as Immanuel Kant's, a master of sardonic humor, often self-deprecatory, Buckley was the Ellsworth Toohey of the Right.

In the 1950's the country was ripe for a revolution in ideas against the collectivist and altruist ideas that were steering it by default in the direction of statism. William F. Buckley proposed that ideas were not necessary. Faith and tradition were enough to save the country.

But, we should let Ayn Rand, whom Buckley in his National Review and in various columns slandered and answered with snide, sophomoric, cowardly attacks (or allowed other writers to attack her in a similar style), never daring to tackle her positions with any kind of intellectual honesty, have the last word on Buckley and his conservatism. In answer to a question in the Playboy interview of March 1964 about why she considered National Review "the worst and most dangerous magazine in America," she explained that

"...[I]t ties capitalism to religion. The ideological position of National Review amounts, in effect, to the following: In order to accept freedom and capitalism, one has to believe in God or some form of religion, some form of supernatural mysticism. Which means that there are no rational grounds on which one can defend capitalism. Which amounts to an admission that reason is on the side of capitalism's enemies, that a slave society or a dictatorship is a rational system, and that only on the ground of mystic faith can one believe in freedom. Nothing more derogatory to capitalism could ever be alleged, and the exact opposite is true. Capitalism is the only system that can be defended and validated by reason."
In commentary in the New York Daily News of March 11, 1982, shortly after Rand's death, Buckley revealed a petulance that cloaked his malice for her and for reason:

"She was an eloquent and persuasive anti-statist, and if only she had left it at that, but no. She had to declare that God did not exist, that altruism was despicable, that only self-interest was good and noble."
In short, his animus for Rand was based essentially on her refusing to relegate reason in the role of handmaiden of theology, on her divorcing reality from mysticism, on her "anti-statist" integrating of an "eternal vigilance" against any tyranny over the mind of man as well as over his body. Let no one doubt that Buckley understood Rand's philosophy to the core, that he feared it, and chose as his weapon against it the Toohey-esqe tactic of snickering laughter. For that reason alone, he should be damned and no respectful esteem granted him.

Earlier in that article, he remarked that the "philosophy she sought to launch" is dead.

He was wrong about that philosophy. Objectivism, or a philosophy of reason, is making progress in the culture. It is alive and well, as William F. Buckley is not.

27 comments:

Bill Bucko said...

"Buckley was the Ellsworth Toohey of the Right."

Well said!

Good riddance to the clown.

Anonymous said...

Ditto.

Jack Galt said...

An excellent (and all too deserved) post-mortem. What also strikes me about Buckley's persona was his all but drooling pseudo-intellectualism (primarily his habit of using words that even the most erudite would be hard pressed to know in advance) while pushing religion and tradition. He was a fraud in more ways than one and as Cline identifies, one of the primary reasons the Republicans are the near-worthless defenders of capitalism that they are today.

He's lucky there's no hell because the devil would be too good for him. Good riddance.

Bill K said...

Over at the HBL, Harry Binswanger recalls that more than once Buckley asked Ayn Rand to forgive him his many slanders of her but Rand wisely and righteously refused to do so.

Carlos said...

William F. Buckley was a true intellectual, not because of his vocabulary, but because of the profound knowledge he had about a wide variety of topics. The evidence of this is easily recognized in his vast body of work, for anyone who cares to look. This "postmortem" and the comments betray a hatred of the fact that Buckley recognized, as did Fredrich Hayek, that society is an infinitely complex system in which tradition contains information based on centuries of human experience, and that reason can't fully explain. He also believed in God, which means he held the "unreasonable" belief that random mollecular collisions don't explain the origin of life. Somehow this makes him an enemy of freedom. Reading all this vile, I now understand why he thought little of Ayn Rand and her cult. There is an angry totalitarian subtext in your denunciation of Buckley, which states "off to the gas chamber you go!"

Bill Bucko said...

One of Ellsworth's--pardon me, Buckley's--devotees is trolling, here. "Profound knowledge" of an "infinitely complex" society? Knowledge that's beyond reason? ... We gladly leave the supernatural to creatures of your ilk. Your moral level is sufficiently indicated by your uncritical borrowing of a smear from Communist spy Whitaker Chambers.

jsabotta said...

The ugly anti-religous bigotry endemic in modern official Objectivism has culminated in the grotesque spectacle, during the last presidential election, of a Leonard Peikoff using the inherited (and, in his case, wholly undeserved) prestige of Ayn Rand's intellectual heritage to endorse John Kerry.

After that betrayal of individual liberty - and incidentally, of the war effort Objectivists claim to support, I am somewhat indifferent to any moral judgement made on anyone from an "Objectivist" standpoint.

robert jones said...

William F. Buckley, Jr., devoid of ideas? I do not believe I read that correctly.

I was a fervent reader of National Review in its heydey, and still often visit NRO (Nat'l Review Online). Cline speaks of tradition, as though tradition is empty. But, Buckley defended the *ideas* embodied by America's tradition of smaller government. To try and condense what Buckley wrote and stood for into anti-philosophical posturing is a grossly unfair case of context dropping.

I was equally influenced by Ayn Rand. Take the religion out of the equation, and the two were on the same sheet of music the vast majority of the time.

After Rand's death, Buckley continued their feud, culminating in the embarrassingly bad novel, "Getting It Right."

Now that Buckley has passed on, let us have something decent to say about the man, and let's end this silly feud thing. Rand was right more often than Buckley was, but Buckley had a much better understanding of the kind of people who gravitate to conservative politics. I am not going to stop believing in God just because that's what Ayn Rand wants.

Secularism has found a vastly larger home under the statists running the Democrat party than it ever will in the Republican. When it all comes out in the wash, religious folk vastly outnumber atheists. If atheism were a prerequisite of advocating the ideas of capitalism, the free-market small-government would have to fold up it tents and call it a day.

Nicholas Provenzo said...

> The ugly anti-religous (sic) bigotry endemic in modern official Objectivism has culminated in the grotesque spectacle, during the last presidential election, of a Leonard Peikoff using the inherited (and, in his case, wholly undeserved) prestige of Ayn Rand's intellectual heritage to endorse John Kerry. After that betrayal of individual liberty - and incidentally, of the war effort Objectivists claim to support, I am somewhat indifferent to any moral judgement (sic) made on anyone from an "Objectivist" standpoint.

This statement is wrong on many levels. It attacks the esteem that Ayn Rand held for Leonard Peikoff as unearned; it was not. It assumes that the Bush Administration's war is the same war Objectivists would fight if they held political power; it is not. It equates the philosophic opposition to mysticism with bigotry; it is not. It assumes that the dramatic rise of mysticism in American politics is a factor that can be brushed aside by other considerations; it cannot. And it implies that the writer respects Rand's ideas even as he condemns those who ware animated by them; he does not.

* * *

>Take the religion out of the equation, and the two were on the same sheet of music the vast majority of the time.

Ayn Rand's stand for reason (and as a corollary, against religion) was not just some superficial part of Rand's system of ideas—it was the central thesis. Thus to claim that Rand and Buckley were on the same sheet of music is to understand neither; in the case of Buckley, it is akin to saying that a broken clock is not all that bad—after all, we can count on it to be right twice a day.

>I am not going to stop believing in God just because that's what Ayn Rand wants.

That statement is not anywhere even close to Rand's argument against mysticism. Not once did Rand advocate an idea because she merely "wanted" it.

>If atheism were a prerequisite of advocating the ideas of capitalism, the free-market small-government would have to fold up it tents and call it a day.

Atheism is not a "prerequisite" for philosophic capitalism; a rational epistemology is. That such an epistemology is atheist is a consequence of its commitment to reason, not a precondition.

Burgess Laughlin said...

The philosophical foundation for capitalism, as a political system, is (hierarchically) first an ethics of egoism, then (going deeper) an epistemology of reason, and then (going to the most fundamental level) a metaphysics (ontology) of one world.

In my understanding of his writings (read many years ago), Buckley rejected: capitalism as a political system; egoism in ethics; reason as one's sole source of knowledge, in epistemology; and a metaphysics of one natural world.

Buckley was an enemy of capitalism and everything it stands on philosophically.

Anonymous said...

I agree with everything in this editorial except the last line, which was frankly just petty. To conclude that Rand's ideas are alive, but Buckley is dead, has probably defined a new class of logical fallacy, namely, argumentum ad post mortem. This kind of cheap shot is not representative of Rand's ideas or the movement she inspired. If we want to show the world the power for good by integrating reason, independence and true capitalism, this is not how to do it.

Stay Focused,

Aristotle Jones

robert Jones said...

Yo, Nicholas Provenzo: Man, you are in WAY TOO DEEP with all that Objectivist party-line stuff. Blah, blah, blah.

I stopped drinking the Kool Aid a LONG time ago, so stop busting through the walls, shouting "Oh, Yeah!"

Danke vielmals.

robert Jones said...

P.S.: Nicky: Leonard Peikoff was the only one left to hang on by the end, the only one who's self-effacing and ability to keep his dignity under wraps made him last the longest.

Rand left everything to Lenny Peikoff, because -- to quote Foghorn Leghorn -- "nobody here, but us chickens!"

The man has turned into a parody of a bad joke. His ceaseless recycling and re-treading of Rand's legacy (not to mention every shred of paper upon which she wrote) makes him the Yoko Ono of the Objectivist Movement.

Burgess Laughlin said...

A question for "robert jones": Which person would you nominate as being the world's best living philosopher?

Bill K. said...

Capitalism Magazine has an article by C. Bradley Thompson that addresses this topic precisely.

“The reason that some conservatives fear Ayn Rand is that, ultimately, they can't defend America philosophically. Conservatives don’t like the fact that Rand defends reason, objectivity, and certainty--and they won't; they don't like the fact that she defends rational self-interest, moral absolutism, and rationally grounded virtues--and they won't; they don’t like the fact that she defends individual rights and capitalism--and they won't. Because they won't defend these philosophical principles, they can't defend America. That is conservatism's dirty little secret.”

http://www.capmag.com/article.asp?ID=5124

Robert Jones said...

"World's best living philosopher"? Hmm, that's an interesting question.

Insofar that a philosopher is someone who produces a body of work by which his audience can make sense of the world, I would say:

Dennis Prager.

A close second goes to:

David Mamet.

Burgess Laughlin said...

To Robert Jones: Do you agree with the fundamental principles of Dennis Prager's philosophy?

Whether you do or not, what are the fundamental principles of your own philosophy? The most fundamental principle for each branch will suffice.

What I am trying to do is to understand where you are "coming from," that is, from what context your earlier remarks are proceeding.

robert jones said...

This is what I mean by "WAY TO DEEP" into the Ayn Rand KoolAid.

This thread was about Wm. F. Buckley vis-a-vis Ayn Rand. I addressed it from the point-of-view of their individual political positions, and simply pointed out the fact that their stances on political issues of the day were most often in sync.

This cloying need of Objectivists for someone to have to always spell out someone's views by regurgitating a list of their stances on all the branches of philosophy reveals a distinct inability to deal with the real world, as it is. Objectivists, like libertarians, live in an idealized world, and when someone falls short of their ideals -- surprise! -- they blame it on that person for failing to meet all Objectivism's criteria.

Nonetheless, I will tell you my philosophy. I would do it standing on one foot, but since I'm a disabled veteran, I will do it standing on both feet:

1. Metaphysics: God created the universe and the world, then sat back, had a beer, and let us destroy ourselves.

2, Epistemology: School of hard knocks. Get the sleep out of your eyes, the sh*t out of your ears and pay attention!

3. Ethics: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Unless they're your enemies. Then, screw 'em.

4 . Politics: "Where am I from? I'm from the United States of Kiss My Ass, THAT'S where I'm from."

5. Aesthetics: Beethoven, Brahms, Billy Wilder, and Edward Hopper.

You need not answer. I've had it with arguing with Objectivists. Most of them have bought into the convoluted system of their philosophy to hide from themselves the fact that they are losers. The ones that are honest either leave Objectivism, or use a ten-foot pole to distance themselves from it.

Burgess Laughlin said...

Thank you, Mr. Jones. Your answer is informative and therefore helpful. Have a good day, sir.

Bill Bucko said...

Informative about himself--or should I say, revealing?--not about Objectivism or Objectivists.

marissa montoya said...

yeah, i think he revealed some people take blogs too seroiusly and you can argue using shtick and wit. :)

Anonymous said...

Robert Jones writes:

>Most of them have bought into the convoluted system of their philosophy to hide from themselves the fact that they are losers.

He must be talking about Buckley's acolytes here. :-P

Good on Burgess Laughlin to get him to lay all his cards on the table. Nothing like a death by self-strangulation . . .

The Gregor said...

It is borderline retarded to think that you can defend something as sacred as individual liberty with 2,000 year old tails of virgin births and zombie resurrections.

The Gregor said...

It is also borderline retarded to use “tails” instead of “tales” but not as dangerous.

Nicholas Provenzo said...

>It is also borderline retarded to use “tails” instead of “tales” but not as dangerous.

LMAO!

Bill Bucko said...

THIS is the divinely-inspired moral guidance Buckley wanted us to accept:

"Deny thyself";
"Lean not unto thine own understanding";
"Seek not after your own heart";
"Strive not to be rich";
"Resist not evil";
"Take no heed for the morrow";
"Love not the world, nor the things that are of the world. Everything that is in the world is of the world";
"Unless a man hate his father, mother, children, and his own life also, he cannot be a follower of Mine."

Whatever that's a foundation for, it isn't capitalism or freedom. Or anything supportive of human life.

And for ruining your life with such mystical barbarisms, your reward is supposed to be heaven.

Heaven--an absolute dictatorship, where your every thought is spied upon by an all-seeing God, and your only option is to worship Him or be eternally punished for thought-crime in His concentration camp, hell.

As 19th-century freethinker Bob Ingersoll said: "There can be little freedom on earth as long as men worship a tyrant in heaven."

"I cannot worship a God Who advocates slavery. I neither want His heaven, nor fear His hell."

Sharpshooter said...

Thank you, Mr. Jones, for showing unequivocably whose philosophy is "juvenile".