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While We’re Cancelling Counter-Majoritarians…

A William F. Buckley Fellow seeks to erase a certain brand of thinker from the canon. I have some bad news about his position's namesake.

William F. Buckley Jr. (Public Domain)

National Review believes that the South’s premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority.

These words were written in 1957 in defense of a reprehensible regime. We can only presume that Cameron Hilditch, a William F. Buckley Fellow at National Review, would seek to erase from the conservative canon not just the conclusion drawn—this would be sensible, and just—not just the conservative principles underlying the improper conclusion, but the man whose pen produced them.

That man, of course, was one William F. Buckley, Jr.

The editorial, “Why the South Must Prevail,” took an even stronger line than that quoted above:

The central question that emerges—and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalogue of the rights of American citizens, born Equal—is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the median cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists.

Buckley’s views on race in 1957 are appalling to the 2020 American conscience. (For what it’s worth, they were appalling to some in 1957—this was one of the first episodes to drive a wedge between Buckley and Brent Bozell, his old friend, brother-in-law, and early comrade at NR.) On the race question, Buckley was very much a product of his time; if anything, he was a ways behind it. By the grace of God, the times progressed, and Bill Buckley followed. By the end of the ’60s, he was a vocal supporter of racial equality and laws that might hurry it along. But the stain of the early days always followed him—followed him even to the grave, and still pops up from time to time among those who wish to discount his legacy.

If we are to apply Mr. Hilditch’s standards universally, “American conservatives looking for inspiration in the past mustn’t under any circumstances look to him.”

These are the words with which the Buckley fellow denounced John C. Calhoun, likewise a product of his time and place on the matter of race relations. In the latest installment in his anti-Calhoun, anti-TAC series, Hilditch insists that Calhoun cannot be forgiven for holding the standard opinions of a 19th-century Southerner because he did not hold to the most enlightened possible subset of opinion available at the time. Because Calhoun was not as rhetorically opposed to slavery as Jefferson (who was of course no abolitionist in practice) we cannot see past this sin into the great insight offered by Calhoun over a decades-long career. Following this logic, we will be obliged to cancel Buckley because he was not so enlightened as Bozell, Jefferson because he was far less liberal than Oglethorpe, and Abraham Lincoln for being rather less woke than the humane General Lee.

It’s an absurd standard, though surely a good bit easier than reckoning with the fact that history is not black and white. A great man can hold horrid ideas, and still be honored and admired for those things which are not horrid. This is especially possible (and, in fact, necessary) when we are speaking of men who lived in times when horrid ideas reigned. Calhoun’s great sin—shared by Buckley and the vast majority of humanity—is that he was alive at a time that Mr. Hilditch finds unpleasant, and he did not happen to be the most liberal man in town.

To adhere to such standards would be essentially to take a match to the canon after drenching it in gasoline. But Hilditch’s fanaticism is hardly limited to the cancellation of the imperfect and the unenlightened. In this latest jeremiad, the Buckley fellow writes:

Now, up until Donald Trump descended the escalator in 2015, one surefire way of forcing American conservatives to flip the safety on their rifles was to tell them that “a great leader functions as a father to the nation.” Few sentiments could possibly be more fascistic or less American than this one.

He’s quoting the subheading of a weekend piece at TAC. The article was penned by libertarian Nick Hankoff, the quoted subheading by yours truly. Hilditch—educated at the University of Oxford, mind you—decides that such language can only be employed by fascists. That a leader should care for the people, love the people, and (oh, I don’t know) lead the people—all fatherly roles, of which Hilditch’s ignorance saddens me a bit—is hastily dismissed as “a diametrically opposite role to the one that Americans have taken up ever since they spilled Papa George’s tea all over Boston Harbor.”

Hilditch seems blissfully unaware of the nuances of the early Revolution: the tea was not Papa George’s by any means, nor were the taxes on it. These were taxes imposed by Parliament, and it was against Parliament’s abuses that the colonists took up arms. The Petition to the King of 1774, issued by the Continental Congress, must horrify Mr. Hilditch. It opens with the brutally fascistic, “Most Gracious Sovereign: We, your Majesty’s faithful subjects” and builds to this: “Filled with sentiments of duty to your Majesty, and of affection to our parent state, deeply impressed by our education, and strongly confirmed by our reason, and anxious to evince the sincerity of these dispositions, we present this Petition…” Our founders, in fact, were quite eager for Papa George to step into the role of a fatherly leader. In fact, that’s exactly why they made the executive of their new system far more powerful than the king of England circa 1789.

This is the root of American conservatism—not the sterile, unfeeling liberalism Hilditch apparently prefers. (The source with which he attempts to rebut the concept of fatherly leadership is Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing” speech.) This true conservatism’s defenses against corrosive forces like mob rule were written into our venerable Constitution—by the same men who had sought the fatherly protection of the king just 15 years before. Such defenses have continued to develop over two and a half centuries, under the direction and curation of men like Calhoun and Buckley, and countless others who have understood conservative republicanism as anything more than liberal democracy.

Today, however, a magazine that defends this vision cannot dare to call itself The American Conservative and must, at Hilditch’s urging, “rename [the] publication and be done with it.” That‘s not what conservatism sounds like, we are assured—conservatives must speak only in the sanitized language of liberal democrats, must insist on keeping government a mile away from any concept of the good. If we seek anything more than an invisible gaggle of bureaucrats crunching the numbers to figure out how best to do nothing at all, our names go down in Cameron Hilditch’s Book of Fascists.

All those recorded in the book, of course, will be consigned to the ash heap of history. Standing alone above us all, unblemished, will be the one true American Conservative™, free from association with fascists and racists like Calhoun and Buckley and those of us at TAC: a twenty-something Belfast Tory who once skimmed Federalist 47 while at Oxford.

about the author

Declan Leary is the Collegiate Network Fellow at The American Conservative and a graduate of John Carroll University. His work has been published at National Review, Crisis, and elsewhere.

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