This February marks the 11th year since the passing of William F. Buckley Jr., arguably the single greatest trailblazer in the annals of modern American conservatism.
Buckley is most often remembered as a matchless thinker and commentator; he was also an exceptionally prolific writer, a nationally renowned television host, and an insuperable debater. He was, in the words of George H. Nash, “arguably the most important public intellectual in the United States in the past half century.”
But he was also so personable and considerate a man that, alongside his professional work, he took the time to, in the words of Lee Edwards, write letters to “thousands of people, many of whom he did not know but thought deserved a reply.” To quote Nash again, Buckley “may well have composed more letters than any American who has ever lived.” One does not build such an epistolary record without an honest respect for, and interest in, one’s correspondents.
The sufferings and needs of his fellow citizens touched Buckley deeply throughout his career. A thoughtful Catholic, he recounted his beliefs and faith journey in his 1997 spiritual autobiography Nearer, My God. He viewed current affairs in light of his belief in the love and power of God, attempting to challenge ingrained injustice not in the name of a vague “progress” or reflexive traditionalism, but in the service of truth.
He was certainly, by his own admission, not perfect, and revised his own positions on several issues during his long career. But he always rendered an honest—and informed—effort in the cause of God and his country.
Buckley’s life and achievements have been recounted and reexamined numerous times over the last decade. But given today’s contentious social atmosphere, it would do us well to look back at what made Buckley so unique in his field—and why his role as a edifying force in our culture was such an invaluable one.
By examining his career and approach to his work, we can learn from Buckley two lessons. First, in order to successfully improve one’s society and fellow citizens, one must challenge the corrosive forces of relativism and moral indifference; second, that one must do this intelligently and with respect, lest one’s passion to improve be corrupted into mere bluster. Hardly anyone is converted to a cause—or even dissuaded from their own—by mere shouts.
In 1951, Buckley’s classic God and Man at Yale—which critiqued the pervasive and biased leftism of Yale’s faculty and curriculum—brought him into the national spotlight and indelibly altered the course of his life. An intellectually daring 26 year old, Buckley demonstrated that he was not afraid to publicly critique the assumptions of the post-war American establishment. He maintained this pugilistic yet respectable attitude throughout his career, on his Emmy-winning PBS program Firing Line, in the pages of his magazine National Review, and in his nationally syndicated newspaper column “On the Right,” which began running in 1962.
Yet Buckley’s voluminous pen and sonorous transatlantic accent have long since been quieted. Picking up and continuing his legacy has become a formidable task.
In this time of division, when old compromises and conventions seem to be unraveling, can anyone fill the elevating role that William F. Buckley once did?
Perhaps, as Rod Dreher argues, America as a society has lost the common ground it needs for Buckley’s approach to be useful; that conservatives and liberals are too dissevered to truly be one “common people” anymore. In Dreher’s view, conventional Christians have in recent decades become so drastically separated from mainstream culture that their best hope is to follow in the footsteps of Saint Benedict, a strategy which he calls the “Benedict option.” That means, if not founding Benedictine monasteries, then separating from the cultural mainstream and founding countercultural communities that can withstand the forces of modern secularism.
Others, such as Andrew T. Walker at Public Discourse, are more optimistic. Walker proposes a vision of conservative engagement with society that he refers to as the “Buckley option.” A new Buckley-type figure could find success in the current environment, Walker believes, by being brave and “standing athwart history,” just as Buckley himself did. “The Buckley Option will insist,” Walkers says, “on a Christianity whose ethics are intelligible, life-giving, and at all times applicable to the public square.”
For my part, I do not think that these two strategies are mutually exclusive.
But through all these considerations, we should not lose sight of the facts: notwithstanding the diametrically opposed views of Buckley and many of his sparring partners, they lived in an America that still held many ideals in common and believed in a common American culture and a Western identity worth preserving. They also held to a common standard of public decency—one that, for example, allowed Buckley to politely interview someone as divergent as Allen Ginsberg, the well known hippie writer and exponent of LSD, on Firing Line in May 1968.
In place of Buckleyite bonhomie, today’s political climate is characterized by bitter vitriol, provoking ideological media feuds that would have been unthinkable during the sleepy days of midcentury CBS and NBC dominance. While this shift has not been without its benefits for the free exchange of ideas, its downside should be examined soberly.
The internet is undoubtedly responsible for some of this change, but we cannot entirely place the blame on the progress of technology. The core of the problem, I would argue, lies in the first of Buckley’s lessons that I mentioned—his warning against relativism. We have lost that common pith of beliefs and values, which throughout history has been essential in the formation of united societies. How can a civilization persist if it cannot even agree on the most basic of truths, or even, increasingly, on the existence of ontological truth in the first place? The issues of social division and polarization cannot be solved without ameliorating this more basic division.
The aforementioned May 1968 episode of Firing Line with Ginsberg may hold another lesson on what happens when agreement over first principles is lost—and how Buckley’s style of inquiry can expose the heart of that disagreement.
In the course of the hour long episode, Buckley and Ginsberg explore, among other things, the topics of Christianity and human love. Yet as becomes clear during the interview, while they use the same terms, the two men seem to have entirely different concepts in mind.
At one point during the episode, Buckley asks if love is something, as the hippies had it, that one can simply “crank on, preferably under some narcotic impulse.” Is that truly love? Ginsberg counters that the drug usage and libertinism that defined the hippie movement stemmed from a desire to connect “separate, alienated, isolated individuals” who had supposedly been, until that point, pawns of the military-industrial complex. Buckley responds that “the fraternity of Christianity is exactly about that, to show that we are a community.”
When the topic shifts to the Vietnam War, Ginsberg declares that “dropping LSD” over American and Viet Cong lines would do far more to resolve the conflict than dropping napalm. In a key moment, however, when Buckley asks Ginsberg if, “having run temporarily out of LSD,” he would “drop napalm on a Gestapo unit on its way to Buchenwald to kill 100,000 Jews,” Ginsberg has no answer for him. He simply tells Buckley that the “goose is out of the bottle” and shifts the topic, saying that we need to use “our money” to “buy off Ho Chi Minh and buy off Mao Zedong.”
In this way, Buckley deftly exposed the limits of Ginsberg’s ideology. In a charged moment immediately following the above exchange, he asserts to Ginsberg, “You can’t effectively love anybody unless you are prepared to recognize the fact of sinfulness—any attempt to immanentize flower power is just going to lead you right to Buchenwald.”
The issue of Vietnam aside, can one truly love, in a broader sense, if one is unwilling to protect threatened innocence, even if one must use violent means to do so? Either there is a moral absolute—something worth defending with strenuous acts—or there is no true morality at all.
The two men, close though they may be on certain points, differ in their first principles. It is this same confusion that so bedevils today’s politics.
I would contend that the failure of Ginsberg’s radical worldview is that it does not allow for the moral boundaries that, in the final reckoning, are necessary for the defense of the innocent and the preservation of human freedom. As has been said, for dictatorship to work, every subject must bow to one ruler, but for free government to work, every citizen must rule himself.
Moral relativism is ultimately a philosophical absurdity, because to claim there is no moral absolute is itself an absolute claim. While a change in circumstances may incidentally change the moral import of certain acts, the underlying moral constants and laws always remain the same—semper eadem, as the old Latin phrase puts it.
If Buckley’s worldview holds any lesson for today’s politics, it must be that limits are a necessary precondition for freedom, and that a childish dismissal of moral rules, while seemingly liberating, is in fact the shortest way to fascism.
If Buckley and Ginsburg did not come to total agreement, their debate, at least, let them air their views in a clear way that demonstrated the philosophical superiority of Buckley’s argument. This style of intelligent, realistic, and open discourse is the best antidote to the “bubble” syndrome our politics are stuck in. Buckley demonstrated his belief—throughout his many newspaper columns, Firing Line episodes, and magazine articles—in a society where people could air and compare their differences, with an eye to achieving, if not total agreement, at least a constructive understanding of the issues.
The foremost factor behind today’s social division is this loss of common belief in, and understanding of, objective good. And until we can find our way back to a unity of belief, the best way forward is the “Buckley option”—balanced when circumstances call for it (and they increasingly do) with Dreher’s “Benedict option.”
First, to challenge the corrosive forces in one’s culture, and secondly to fight the fight intelligently, clearly, and analytically. These are William F. Buckley Jr.’s two great lessons for us all.
Jack H. Burke has contributed to National Review. He is also a former White House intern and served as a U.S. congressional staff member.