In 1971 Boston University Historian and author of “The People’s History of the United States,” Howard Zinn, debated prominent Conservative intellectual William F. Buckley, founder of the National Review. The debate topic was “Reform or Revolution?”
Zinn got the opening statement and spoke about how our whole society is geared away from democratic values and toward death, and that only revolution could change that (paraphrase, obviously). Zinn was articulate and insightful as usual.
Buckley is arguably the more interesting character. I would call him “Hitchenesque,” but it’s obvious that Christopher Hitchens was a mere epigone to Buckley, who must have a world record for saying so little with so many words.
Perhaps it’s petty to attack Buckley on his manner of speaking. Petty, that is, if you believe he had anything to offer behind that miserable, sneering cadence and dripping patronization. I do not. In fact, I believe his alleged erudition to be the sole source of his prominence. As Andrew Hart wrote in his Jacobin Magazine article titled “Trump is Buckley’s Rightful Heir,” “Following Buckley’s lead, conservatives…configured their entire thought apparatus to churn out decorously constructed arguments beginning with the unexamined premise that the past was good and ending with a conservative position on some economic or culture-wars issue (i.e., “Resolved: The women’s movement has been disastrous”). Buckley and his followers seemed to mistake their polysyllabic vocabulary and Socratic exertions for proof of their movement’s intellectual bona fides.” This is a near perfect description of Buckley: he is the ultimate “egg-head,” someone whose intelligence does nothing but scream “I exist!” and feels the need to robe itself in turgid, academic prose and strange sentence inversions. It reminds me of a tin-pot dictator, who, desperate to display power, awards himself absurd titles like “Grand Imperial Field Marshal” and wears dozens of colorful pins under golden epaulettes. Or maybe the stereotype of a balding, out-of-shape white man buying a Ferrari during his mid-life crisis is more appropriate.
Here’s an example of what I mean.
One of the topics brought up was the FBI and its use and abuse of power. During the Q&A, a man (I think a man of color, judging by the dialogue) challenged Buckley by pointing out that he had been shot at when he was in the south, and when he reported it to the FBI they didn’t care who to see who shot at him, but interrogated him heavily about who he was and what he was doing in that location and why he was “trying to figure out what was going on in Georgia.” I’ll post the response below (remember this was spoken, not written)
BUCKLEY: Well, if I were the FBI I would also have asked you why you were shot at, I don’t even know why you were shot at, and presumably you would’ve told me if you thought it relevant. The answer is, of course, that a great many people as i mentioned a moment ago, don’t get apprehended and tried and convicted. Whether that’s the FBI’s fault or others is something I’d be glad to argue about. It’s true that during the period during which there had been almost a doubling of people killed, not just wounded like yourself, there have been a series of Supreme Court decisions which have been interpreted by some people as crippling to the liberties of those who are victimized by the criminal element. It is also true that at the turn of the century there was an average of 300 lynchings per year in the south and that there haven’t been, thank God, more than a half dozen in the past four or five years, i consider that to be progress. Now, if it’s your point that FBI agents are trained to enjoy the spectacle of your being shot I would say they’ve been trained badly. While they were at it, why didn’t they see to it that you perish?
The line, “It’s true that during the period during which there had been almost a doubling of people killed, not just wounded like yourself, there have been a series of Supreme Court decisions which have been interpreted by some people as crippling to the liberties of those who are victimized by the criminal element” is a beautiful statement, one that reads like the stereotype of what Orwell wrote about in “Politics and the English Language.” “The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of latin words [criminal, element, liberty, and victim are all of Latin etymology] falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details.”
It’s easier to break down what Buckley is really saying if you approach it backward: Who is he referring to as the “criminal element?” This is a discussion about how people of color are treated by law enforcement, and the debate took place in 1971, when Republican President Richard Nixon was promoting “law and order” as a means of mass imprisonment of communities of color. Buckley was a supporter of Nixon. So the “criminal element” refers to people of color. Who are the people “victimized” by people of color? It is white people. So “there have been a series of Supreme Court decisions which have been interpreted by some people as crippling to the liberties of” white people. Interpreted by whom? Which liberties? Buckley doesn’t exactly say, but he then makes the connection to the reduced number of (reported) lynchings in the preceding years. So apparently he believes that the laws that reduced lynchings are “crippling to the liberties” of white people. This is racism, and Buckley knows it, which is why he obfuscates it with such “Socratic” exertions. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”
There are other instances of Buckley’s reactionary beliefs coming to the fore. In fact, his very opening statement is a defense of Strom Thurmond from a sarcastic remark made by a student by way of introduction to the event. The student, in informing the audience of upcoming events hosted by Tufts University, had claimed that in an effort to add comedy to the calendar, the university would be hosting a speech by Strom Thurmond. Buckley took to defending Thurmond, even appealing to that sacred value of “academic freedom” to condemn the joke.
Academic freedom has to do with the right of professors to express political views without worrying about losing their jobs, or about challenging dominant paradigms in their field without being threatened in some other way. It has nothing to do with a racist senator giving a speech at a university, and a student making a derisive comment about that avatar of political racism is not infringing on anyone’s academic rights. Buckley doesn’t give a damn; it doesn’t matter to him that Thurmond was one of the most vocal opponents of the Civil Rights Act, justifying it on the grounds that he was opposed to excessive government intervention. This is another Orwellism: the government intervention is in the maintenance of segregation and other racist institutions, not in their abolition. Buckley seems to believe that white supremacy is the natural order of things and that government intervention is necessary to undo it. The truth is that they would not exist if not for the government, and more specifically if not for the need for the Working Class to be divided so that the Owner Class can continue to reap the profits created by the workers. But Buckley seems to think that Thurmond, by virtue of being a Senator, deserves respect. I say, by virtue of supporting a racist system, none of them deserve respect.