I have a personal history with Buckley, and I'm willing to guess that it's one shared by many people.
I found his work (and that of other libertarians and conservatives) in my teens and I was enamored with his ability to tie his positions consistently and directly to the core principle he espoused. I appreciated his intellectual consistency and his ability to construct strong arguments with clear and honestly-believed underpinnings.
Growing up in the waning days of the Cold War, I found comfort in his anti-communist statements. I also loved the way his brand of economic and social libertarianism made neat and clear sense of matters. The perspective of others seemed muddy and confused by comparison.
I went to college. I explored other ideas. I found truth in Marcuse, Chomsky, Zinn, critical race theorists, critical legal scholars, ecofeminists, deep ecologists, and others who certainly wouldn't see eye to eye with Buckley's conservatism. I still appreciated the intellectual honesty of Buckley and his ilk, but I began to question some of the very values and principles that supported their worldview. My personal politics shifted leftward.
It's been fifteen years since I left college and about seven since aborting my last stab in a graduate degree program. All of those ideas--the conservative and the liberal--have been slow-cooking in the crockpot that is my brain for a very long time.
The resulting stew contains a variety of flavors--some of which undoubtedly contradict. Somehow, though, I've learned that I don't have to make either/or choices. I don't need to embrace Buckley or Chomsky. I don't need to choose between the invisible hand's infallibility and the inevitability of socialism. I can find truths in mish-mash and if I'm willing to consider, reconsider and test them, I might eventually find a way to transform those truths into something approximating The Truth.
Buckley's death inspired me to think a little bit about him and his role in history (and more particularly, in my history). He delivered important messages to me in a way that resonated. His arguments were reasoned and expressed with a certain gravitas and ethos that made me take them seriously. He seemed more interested in getting the correct answers than in having those answers as weapons to wield. That doesn't mean he refused to argue and he wasn't reluctant to use his sharp wit to attack an ideological foe, but he was serious and persuasive in a real way. He was secure in his perspective. He didn't seem threatened. He wasn't merely grinding axes. He wasn't screaming for attention and he didn't feel the need to bully his opponents.
When thinking about this reflection, I found another by my friend Ben. He's a little more pro-Buckley in perspective than I am, but I think we'd agree that one of the reasons people from "all sides" are thinking about him is because he offered a higher-level discussion than your average rabble-rouser.
Ben embedded a YouTube video of Buckley and Noam Chomsky arguing about the motivations behind military interventions. Chomsky is making his arguments about the ills of imperialism and the underlying capitalist agendas of military actions. Buckley is arguing that motivations may have more to do with sparing friends and self from future problems than Chomsky would like to admit. The argument is offered in the context of Viet Nam, but functions on a bigger and more historical level.
I just watched the entire video. I won't tell you with whom I agree more and why. That's a different topic for another day. I will tell you the biggest message I took from the exchange. It is possible for people of diametrically opposed perspectives to meet and to talk like rational people about issues in which they have a great deal invested. The argument is sharp, relatively smart, and more substantive than most we have today. Buckley and Chomsky argue at length and both are willing to engage the issue at hand cooperatively. They intentionally avoid getting sidetracked in "digressions", as Buckley terms them. They stay on point, argue their positions, and offer something meaningful.
To me, that's the Buckley legacy. It's something everyone might want to think about right now, too. Today's trumpeters of Buckley's fusionism are angry, loud, and shrill. They'll betray their positions and their principles to score short-term televised victories. They're driven by ratings and by vanity. They want to make it to the top by securing notoriety instead of respect. They've abandoned meaningful persuasion and have instead opted to fulfill the Postman prophecy that we'll amuse ourselves to death--and that's not funny.
Please understand that I'm not just bashing the conservatives of the world for their coarseness relative to Bill Buckley. The same arguments apply to many on the left side of the political divide, as well. Everyone has guilt to share.
Watch a little bit of the Buckley/Chomsky video and to then watch this excerpt from Hannity & Colmes with Bill Cunningham back to back. The feeling you'll have afterwards will be a fitting tribute to William F. Buckley.
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