Thursday, February 28, 2008

William F. Buckley dies... Reflections on what Bill Buckley meant to me...

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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  1. As one of the key intellectuals who sought an increased role of religion in America, Buckley was responsible for undermining the best of the pro-Capitalism foundations of the GOP. He set the country back many decades and dealt a huge blow to Capitalism and free-market ideas.

  2. Software nerd - I think you need to spend some more time with early 20th century American political history.

    The truth is that Bill Buckley and Milton Friedman and others of similar ilk challenged liberals on their most sacred and - they thought - unassailable notions, and, by the end of the 20th century, their view has largely prevailed.

    The world is far more open and committed to free markets and a free economy than they were in the early 20th century, at a time when it is foreboden to challenge the Keynsian orthodoxy, even among many conservatives. And the empirical benefits are really fairly brilliant. There are plenty of reasons to be concerned about wealth inequities in the early 21st century as there were reasons in the early 20th century, but the world is, generally, on a much more free trade and better path 100 years later. And folks like Bill Buckley and Milton Friedman had much to do with that.

    Everyone, I'm learning, likes to believe they have more final answers than they really do, including Bill Buckley. But some people got us closer to better answers than others because of powerful and profound thought about the directions the world needed to take, and Buckley was one of those people, independent of ideology.

    It is always hard to give credit to people we disagree with in ways that we take too seriously, frankly, as a rule rather than as an exception. I'm quite sure that Catholics had a hard time giving credit to Protestants in pre-Enlightenment Europe. But, really, no matter what any Catholic had to say on the matter, Martin Luther still had empirical and progressive consequence on the world, whether Catholics liked it or not. And similarly, folks like Bill Buckley and Milton Friedman inched us forward, whether liberals want to give them credit or not, and the proof is in the clear and present reality that their commitments are widely embraced by liberals as much as conservatives. And liberals, like Paul Krugman, who try to shew us all back to the bad ol' days of liberal orthodoxy are just wrong and retrograde and need to use their noggins more and their subscriptions to the church of progressive politics a little less, or a lot less in Paul's case (if you can't guess, I listen to almost everything Paul Krugman says with skepticism because he just can't seem to ever get off of the notion that "his team is always right").

    If the direction of freer markets and more libertarian commitments, generally, on issues like drugs or sexuality, even with Bill's blend of conservative morality, look regressive and foolish to you, then power to you with that bet, I suppose. But I think you're probably wrong on that. There's plenty of things I didn't like about Bill Buckley. But there were far more things I did once I got over the notion that because I was a liberal I was always right and Bill Buckley was always wrong.

    The world was generally changed for the better because of Bill Buckley, I think. Not everyone can say that. At least not at the level that Bill can say that. And if I were Bill I would give two shits if people agreed on that or not unless they could do as well what Bill did so well in his lifetime, independent of ideology: he made stronger arguments.