Tuesday, March 4

The Mick Jagger Of American Conservatism

PANEGYRIC has its place; being forced to sit through it while maintaining a hypocritical silence is, like the occasional cold shower, not exactly the worst thing in the world. Bill Buckley himself waited over a week to slag the deceased Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, his major rival for the crown of Preeminent Psychopathic Chronicler of the 1960s in American Letters. But then noblesse oblige perched on Buckley's shoulders as naturally as the shoulders of those Pee Wee Herman suits of his.   

(It's interesting to note that Buckley and Thompson were not just polar opposites politically, but theatrically as well; one was left wondering how much Hunter just made up, while with Bill it was a question of just what, and how much, he was managing to keep bottled up with that twitchy ticciness. One always wondered--and I think I owe apologies to Roy here--whether a particularly bad performance, like his being depantsed   by Noam Chomsky, say, meant that his body servant would receive a particularly strenuous lashing that evening, or if that was just how he got himself up for a performance in the first place.)

The faster we're carried, the less time we have! my townsman Mr. Tarkington observed--in 1918--without ever dreaming that just over a lifetime later that would apply to how fast we hit the remote button when there wasn't a shirtless moron swallowing a Madagascar cockroach onscreen. But my quiet contemplation  and display of good manners (okay, by Internet standards, and, okay, except for that Vidal quote) was rewarded as first David Brooks, then Bill Kristol, turned out to have nothing to say about the man, and instead spent a total of over 1500 words worth of prime New York real estate reminiscing about Sophomore Year. (Which, I almost forgot, manages to make Kristol mention his 1970 prep school graduation, which sorta blows that whole "I was too young for Vietnam thing", huh?) 

So why is that? Neither the Last Cold Warrior Still Wobbling, nor the Libertarian AV Nerd, mentions a single book of Buckley's. In the dozen or so journalistic eulogies I read only George Eff Will mentioned anything other than God and Man at Yale, and that was something his quote boy dug out from the introduction to an essay collection. Most left it at "nearly fifty books", occasionally tossing in a discreet reference to his spy novels without mention of their dreadfulness. This, then, is the Father of Modern American Conservatism, the Intellectual whose allusions to Edmund Burke launched a thousand David Brooks columns. Half a century, fifty books, and one idea. And that not a very good one.

(Okay, so I haven't read them either, aside from wading into God and Man at Yale when a copy fell into my hands in college, but if Buckley's disciples can't cough up any contribution he made to serious thought then the matter's closed.)

I think we'd all be better off today if he'd have focused on yachting.

Okay, I take that back, at least to the extent that I was a regular, if not faithful, viewer of Firing Line in its heyday, if only for the bitter college-student satisfaction of noting that a freakish High Latin vocabulary combined with post-graduate dining club manners and the stage presence of a precocious fifteen-year-old essaying Miss Havisham in the Spring Play could convince any number of Americans that one was an Intellectual without the bother of genuine ideas or personal honesty. It was fairly amusing to read, multiple times (I think first at The Corner, but I managed to lose a page of notes to a cat-induced power outage and I'm not going back there to check) the Wither Bill Buckley? pieces which asked about how he might view the crew of  mental midgets bobbing in his wake (the Corner piece said something like "The Left is sure to bring this up") when, in fact, those people are his legacy, along with George Eff Will's bowties. "Conservatism" hasn't been dumbed down. It's been exhausted after producing a few ounces of low-grade ore and a mountain of slag. David Brooks is Bill Buckley after fifty washings; Jonah Goldberg after one-hundred-twenty, except he was beaten with a stick on a big flat rock, Old Skool.

The Dead Buckley was also given credit for "dekookifying" the American Right, by which is meant he kept Birch Society anti-fluoridationists and anti-Semites off the pages of his magazine, leaving more room for scholarly considerations of whether we were wasting time trying to cram Algebra into those smallish Negro skulls. Buckley's supposed opposition to the Iraq War got a nod or two, as did his brave decision to sail outside the then-Twelve Mile limit to do some bong hits. Here we repeat our gratitude that anyone on the Right who takes a reasonable, sensible, or nuanced position, or rejects any species of bigotry, hedged or no, is hailed as a Maverick, and our hope that the underlying point will some day soon be more widely appreciated. 

We're not going to quibble that his racism was left out of all the Buckley blather. He lived long enough to see it widely disseminated, thanks to new technologies, to see his crypto-Nazi AIDS stance jackboot its way up his own walk, and to receive an advance copy of Liberal Fascism. He lived long enough that even David Brooks, whose career he kick-started, could find precious little to say about him in the flotsam of that movement they share.  We do wish that whoever it was--the Times, maybe--who saw fit to mention his threatening to knock Gore Vidal's teeth down his throat had either not done so, or had refrained from editing out the "God damn" and the "you little queer".  (And we love the fact that Brooks--who keeps repeating that God damn story of his brilliant underclassman lampooning of Buckley as his single 'I was a Liberal' bona fide--is the only person on the planet left convinced that in offering him a job Buckley was demonstrating some sort of trans-partisan bonhomie, rather than a practiced eye for spotting the sniveling toady in his natural habitat.)

But that's just us, and at the end of the day we have to admit that the emptiness of the panegyric suits the man and his movement, but--as with the first of two disastrous Presidents it engendered--the nonsense should be buried with him. We add our own:  that thanks to Bill Buckley's movement the United States did not go Marxist in his lifetime, just as thanks to the lucky rock I keep under my pillow my home has not been overrun by marmosets.


aimai said...

Go Noam! Depantsed, I think he practically decapitated him. But I've been thinking a lot about the Buckley style of speech and realizing how much of the left's current style of potty mouthed commentary--of which I am a proud heir--comes in reaction to the utterly phony, measured, faux brit, gentlemanly lecturing of the buckleyites and would be aristocrats. My hat is off to chomsky for simply intervening in Buckley's incoherent and utterly meretricious monologue which hops from biafra (should we do something...hm? to accusing chomsky of calling the bombing of all of germany "terroristic" during the second world war, to wistful dreams that we were disinterested in supporting french imperialism in vietnam). My own rsponse really would have been to lean forward and say "cut the shit, Bill, your ostensible point, which is that america is good and noble at all times is contradicted by all of extant history, public and private, and you know it as well as I do. Stop playing to the rubes and actually make a truthful declarative sentence and we can start to talk." or, more shortly, "fuck off and die." Really, was there any point in engaging with that human canker? His utter worthless dishonesty simply bled from every pore.


heydave said...

You're not on decaf anymore, are you, aimai?

Just kidding, well said!

D. Sidhe said...

I love this place. Blogger and commenters alike.

is the only person on the planet left convinced that in offering him a job Buckley was demonstrating some sort of trans-partisan bonhomie, rather than a practiced eye for spotting the sniveling toady in his natural habitat.)

That brought a tear to my eye, as well.

aimai said...

I agree, that line was pure music of the spheres. "sniveling toady in his natural habitat" should be printed on our boots as we put them up david brook's rear.


anthony.cartouche said...

I would like to buy that rock.

Brendan said...


Not the first time by far that you've knocked one out of the park, but this one was a real tape-measure job.

Rightwingsnarkle said...

An empty plastic bag also keeps the marmosets at bay, but it's probably not safe to keep an empty plastic bag under the pillow.

And, BTW - Fuck William F. Buckley, Jr.

yellojkt said...

I'll mention a Buckley book: In Saving The Queen, Blackford Oakes gets to nail a thinly disguised Queen Elizabeth. I want to know how much of that from his Ivy League frat boy stint in the spook world was autobiographical and how much just wishful thinking.

Anonymous said...

One thing I'd contribute as an on-again, off-again Roman Catholic is how Buckley always struck me as having a project, conscious or unconscious, of doing a popular version of what our Church has been doing the last two centuries, ie, fighting any inclination that society ought to be run based on consent rather than sources of authority holding the revealed "truth." To the extent that his admirers hailed him as some sort of cosmopolitan intellectual, I always kinda laughed - the only thing that really distinguished him from the Opus Dei nutters was better social breeding and slightly less sociopathy. Just saying.

aimai said...

anonymous at 2:12 don't you think the project was conscious? I mean, that whole submission to authority thing is huge not only among the straussians but in the Narnia books (christianity for little people! No matter how crazy, always obey the talking lion!). You are pointing out something that makes the whole discussion with chomsky that much clearer--the obfuscation, the waffling, and the on the one h and/on the other hand is really just a holding pattern of some kind, a way of staving off actual discussion because it might lead to clearly laying out the alternatives and then even more clearly voting on them.


Mojo said...

I'd like to add my congratulations that your blog is the top hit when Googling "jonah goldberg beaten with a stick on a big flat rock". If that fact doesn't double your readership, there's no justice in the world.

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