Allan C. Brownfeld
Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute of Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.
William F. Buckley, Jr.: The Intellectual Father of Modern Conservatism
William F. Buckley, Jr., the intellectual father of the modern American conservative movement, died at his desk in his Stamford, Connecticut, home on February 27 -- working on a column.
In 1949, six years before the founding of National Review, critic Lionel Trilling wrote in The Liberal Imagination that:
In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact nowadays that there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.
This would soon change -- largely because of Bill Buckley. In 1951, he first came to public attention with his book God and Man at Yale, which critiqued his alma mater for its hostility to capitalism and religion. Four years later, at the age of 29, he founded National Review.
In its first editorial, Buckley promoted "the superiority of capitalism to socialism, (and) of republicanism to centralism." He vowed the magazine would be different: "It stands athwart history, yelling 'Stop,' at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or have much patience with those who urge it."
It was Buckley's achievement to create a united or "fusionist" conservative movement by bringing together its divergent constituencies -- anti-Communists like Whitaker Chambers, libertarians like Frank Meyer, and traditionalists such as Russell Kirk. He was instrumental in the founding of Young Americans for Freedom, and all of this quickly led to the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
William Rusher, publisher of National Review for 31 years, said:
Unquestionably, he was the principal founder of the modern American conservative movement, who had a major influence on the country, the party, and the world. He was a wonderfully vivacious, effervescent friend, full of fun, a great sense of humor. He just changed the entire image of American conservatism.
In remarks at National Review's 30th anniversary in 1985, President Reagan joked that he picked up his first issue of the magazine in a plain brown wrapper and still anxiously awaited his copy every two weeks -- "without the wrapper." He said:
You just didn't part the Red Sea -- you rolled it back, dried it up and left exposed for all the world to see, the naked desert that is statism. And then, as if that weren't enough, you gave the world something different, something its weariness desperately needed, the sound of laughter and the sight of the rich, green uplands of freedom.
Buckley spread his ideas through National Review, his television program "Firing Line," dozens of books, and thousands of columns. "Before Bill Buckley, there was nothing -- there was no conservative movement," said William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard. "No Bill Buckley, no President Reagan. You can't overstate his importance."
President Bush, a target of Buckley criticism in recent years over the Iraq war, budget deficits, and the growth of executive power, said Buckley "helped lay the intellectual foundations for America's victory in the Cold War and for the conservative movement that continues to this day."
Sam Tanenhaus, who is writing a biography of Buckley, said that he brought together thinkers, activists, cultural figures, and politicians to form a movement of historic impact. At the same time, Tanenhaus said, Buckley fought against isolationism and Anti-Semitism, which had marred conservative politics before the 1950s. "He was the man who made conservatism serious and respectable in America," Tanenhaus said.
Buckley's life had many facets. In 1965, he ran for mayor of New York City under the Conservative Party banner. Asked what he would do if he won, Buckley said, "demand a recount." His works included a series of spy novels in which he reinterpreted the history of the Cold War through the adventures of CIA operative Blackford Oakes. It was at age 50, when he crossed the Atlantic Ocean in his sailboat, that he decided to become a novelist. Among his books is a historical novel with Elvis Presley as a significant character, and one about the Nuremberg trials.
Unlike his brother James, who served in the U.S. Senate from New York, Buckley generally avoided government posts. He did serve from 1969 to 1972 as a presidential appointee to the National Advisory Commission and as a member of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations in 1973. He was a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
While so much of today's political debate is contentious and often personalized, Bill Buckley was able to disagree with others without being disagreeable. He became close friends with a number of his intellectual adversaries such as John Kenneth Galbraith and Murray Kempton. Editorially, The New York Times declared:
There are not many issues on which Mr. Buckley and this page agreed or would agree -- except, perhaps, the war in Iraq. . . . Yet despite his uncompromising beliefs, Mr. Buckley was firmly committed to civil discourse and showed little appetite for the shrillness that plagues far too much of today's political discourse.
In his last years, Buckley was increasingly discouraged with the drift of American conservatism. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal in 2005, he noted that "I think conservatism has become a little bit slothful." Editorially, The Wall Street Journal notes that:
In private, his contempt was more acute. Part of it, he believed, was what used to be living ideas had become mummified doctrines to many in the conservative political class.
At the Yale Political Union in November 2006, his last public audience, Buckley called for a "sacred release from the old rigidities" and "a repristinated vision." The challenge, he argued, was to adapt eternal principles to new realities.
Buckley's view of the world had an important transcendent component. In God and Man at Yale he wrote:
I believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world. I further believe that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on an another level.
In Buckley's view, those who did not possess a spiritual dimension and a sense of awe at God's creation, lacked the proper imagination to make sense of the world. In his book, The Fish Can Sing, the Icelandic writer Halldor Laxness confronts one of his characters with a young man who believes in neither ghost stories nor any things unseen. In response, he states:
Mandkind's spiritual values have all been created from a belief in all the things the philosophers reject. . . . How are you going to live if you reject not only the Barber of Seville but also the cultural value of ghost stories. If it were to be proved scientifically or historically or even judicially that the Resurrection is not particularly well authenticated by evidence -- are you then going to reject the B-minor Mass? Do you want to close St. Peter's Cathedral because it has come to light that it is a symbol of a mistaken philosophy and would be more useful as a stable? What a catastrophe that Giotto and Fra Angelico should have become enmeshed in a false ideology as painters, instead of adhering to realism. The story of the Virgin Mary is obviously just another falsehood invented by knaves and any man is a fraud who allows himself to sigh, "Pietra Signor."
Too many men and women in contemporary America are guilty of what Quaker writer Elton Trueblood called "the sin of contemporaneity," thinking that modern thinking has replaced that of the past, and that the proper question to ask of a proposition is whether it is "modern" or "progressive," not if it is valid. Bill Buckley rejected such an approach, agreeing instead with C. S. Lewis when he said:
We must condemn . . . the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find out why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted? And if so by whom, where, and how conclusively? Or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also a "period" and certainly has like all periods its own characteristic illusions.
Any search for truth, Buckley believed, should not discount the wisdom of the past, what G. K. Chesterton called "the democracy of the dead." In his book Orthodoxy, Chesterton wrote:
If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men in great unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history. . . . Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around.
This writer first met Bill Buckley in the late 1950s and had many pleasant encounters with him over the years. One of these occurred in 1972 when we met by chance in Hong Kong at a shop selling "Silk for Siam." Few individuals in 20th -- and 21st -- century American life have had as lasting and beneficial an influence upon our political and intellectual life as Bill Buckley. The Economist made the point that:
Few intellectuals change the political weather. Even the most successful . . . usually tilt into the prevailing wind and enjoy the sail. William F. Buckley . . . was a weather-changer.
Debate Over the Rev. Wright and Liberation Theology Ignores Dramatic Gains by the Black Community
The extreme declarations of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, former pastor of Senator Barack Obama, have led to a widespread discussion of how familiar the senator was with Wright's views and how he could have remained a member of such a church for so long. There is, beyond this, the need to focus attention upon the black church and liberation theology which characterizes some of its most outspoken clergymen.
Some of the Rev. Wright's statements -- charging the U.S. Government with developing HIV/AIDS in order to destroy black Americans, or declaring that the CIA engaged in distributing drugs within the nation's inner cities to harm the black community -- are demonstrably false. His overall thesis, that ours is a racist society which prevents black Americans from advancing, represents something of a time warp, as if segregation had not been eliminated long ago, as if civil rights legislation -- going back to 1964 -- had not been passed and ensured the rights of all Americans.
"I've know preachers like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr.," wrote Jonetta Rose Barras, a political analyst for National Public Radio.
Like many of them, he no doubt sees his congregation as full of victims. . . . Once upon a time, I saw myself as a victim, too, destined to march in place. In the 1970s and 1980s, as a clenched-fist-pumping black nationalist. . . . I reflected the self-contempt in my speech. . . . More than a few times, I, too, damned America loudly, for its treatment of blacks.
As time went by, however, Barras declares that:
I turned away from such rhetoric. . . . That other African-Americans and I were able to overcome seemingly insurmountable hurdles is undeniably due, in part, to Wright-like prophetic speech. Like Negro spirituals, it helped us organize, motivate and empower ourselves. But just as spirituals eventually lost their relevance and potency . . . so, I believe, has Wright-speak lost its place. It's harmful and ultimately can't provide healing. And it's outdated in the 21th century.
Barras notes that she came to the realization gradually:
As I expanded my associations and experiences. . . . I came to know that we are all more alike than different. I saw that our dreams sat inside each other. All of us wanted a better America, not so much for ourselves as for our children, and their children. Achieving this meant we had to get beyond our past segregated lives and work together, inspiring the best in ourselves -- not the bitterness and the biases. . . . Today there is an entire generation of young people who know nothing of segregation, who see one another as individuals, not as symbols of a dark past. They do not look into white faces and see, as I once did, a burning cross, a white sheet, and a vicious dog on a police officer's leash. This is the coalition pushing for a new America.
Economist Walter Williams points out that Senator Obama's
. . . success is truly a remarkable commentary on the goodness of Americans and how far we've come in resolving matters of race. I'm 72 years old. For almost all my life, a black having a real chance at becoming president of the United States was at best a pipe dream. Mr. Obama has convincingly won primaries in states with insignificant black populations. As such, it further confirms what I've often said: The civil rights struggle is over and it's won.
In Williams' view:
While not every single vestige of racial discrimination has disappeared, Mr. Obama and Mr. Wright are absolutely wrong in suggesting racial discrimination is anywhere near the major problem confronting a large segment of the black community. The major problems are: family breakdown, illegitimacy, fraudulent education, and a high rate of criminality. Confronting these problems, that are not the fault of the larger society, requires political courage . . .
Discussing Afro-centric ministers such as Jeremiah Wright, E. Ethelbert Miller, an Afro-American studies expert, points out that "Some of these ministers are like some hip-hop artists. Their language is not healing."
Beyond not being healing, the notion that racial progress in recent years has not been dramatic, and that our society is mired in the racism and divisions that characterized earlier periods, is simply wrong.
The poverty rate for black men and women who finish high school or college, take a job and hold it, and have children only after 21 and married, is 6.4 percent. The overall poverty rate, based on 2002 census data, for black Americans was 21.5 percent. By 2004, the poverty rate for those who follow the formula of education, work, and marriage, was 5.8 percent while the overall poverty rate for blacks was 24.7 percent. In fact, white Americans have a higher poverty rate than blacks who finished high school, married, and worked for at least a year.
The problem with the inner city black community is not the result of white racism, but a breakdown of values within that community. In 2002, most black children -- 68 percent -- were born to unwed mothers. These numbers have real consequences. Thirty-five percent of black women who had children out of wedlock live in poverty. Only 17 percent of married black women are in poverty.
In 2005, 1.1 million black Americans over age 25 had advanced degrees -- compared to about 677,000 in 1995. In their recent book Come on People, comedian Bill Cosby and psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint, declare that, "The doors of opportunity are no longer locked and we have to walk through." In 2002, the number of black-owned businesses stood at 1.1 million -- a rise of 45 percent since 1997.
Sheryl McCarthy, a Distinguished Lecturer in Journalism at Queens College of the city of New York declares that:
The amount of progress African-Americans have made in this country over time is phenomenal. The indicators include the steady increase in the number of blacks with high school diplomas, who have college degrees or are attending college; the decline in African-Americans living in poverty; the increase in the number of black elected officials and the number who have held cabinet positions; the presence of four African-Americans as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies; the dominance of black athletes in pro-sports; and, whether or not one likes their music, or the roles they play, the high visibility of black performers in the music, television, and movie industries.
With regard to the education gap between blacks and whites, Prof. McCarty notes that:
It's important to acknowledge that the education gap is at least as much the result of the reluctance of blacks to engage in positive ways with the system as it is the result of underfunding or school officials' disdain for black children. And the vaunted "crisis" among black men is as much a personal development and community values issue as it is a discrimination issue.
Discussing the 40th anniversary of the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson argues that:
We sometimes talk about race in America as if nothing has changed. The truth is that everything has changed -- mostly for the better -- and that if we're ever going to see King's dream fulfilled, first we have to acknowledge that this is not an America he would have recognized.
Robinson points out that:
On April 4, 1968, it was possible to make the generalization that being black in this country meant being poor: fully 40 percent of black Americans lived below the poverty line. . . . Today, about 25 percent of Africans are mired in poverty. In many ways, being black and poor is a more desperate and hopeless condition now than it was 40 years ago. For those who managed to enter the middle class, however, most of the old generalizations no longer apply. There remains a significant income gap between whites and blacks in this country, although it shrinks when educational life is factored in. . . . Still, African-Americans control an estimated $800 billion in purchasing power. If that were translated into gross domestic product, a sovereign "Black America" would be the 15th or 16th richest nation on earth. Forty years ago, not even 2 percent of black households earned the equivalent of $100,000 a year, in today's dollars. Now, about 10 percent of black households have crossed that threshold. George and Louise Jefferson aren't so lonely anymore in that "deluxe apartment in the sky."
The Rev. Jeremiah Wright is, in many ways, an inauthentic figure. He presents himself as a spokesman for those who have suffered from poverty, deprivation and racism. Yet his own background was decidedly privileged. He lived in a tree-lined neighborhood of a large stone house in Philadelphia's Germantown section. Wright's father was a prominent pastor and his mother was a teacher and later vice principal of Philadelphia's High School for Girls, a distinguished school. Both of Wright's parents held earned Ph.D.s. Wright attended the highly selective, and overwhelmingly white, Central High School.
This inauthenticity is not unique. Middle-class blacks sometimes claim to be from the inner city to achieve success and "authenticity." Rapper Russell Jones -- known by a variety of names including ODB (Ol' Dirty Bastard) -- died at the age of 35. The New York Times reported that:
As ODB he was . . . uncomfortable spinning a public mythology, saying, for example, that he had grown up on welfare, or that he had not know his father.
Neither was true. "Our brother looked at things as selling records," said his sister Monique Jones. "So he dismissed whatever lies he told as just a way of getting publicity."
Jeremiah Wright's message has little relationship to the reality of today's America, which is far more open, tolerant and accessible to men and women of all races than his parishioners would ever imagine from the sermons of his which have been made known. *
"An unlimited power to tax involves, necessarily, a power to destroy; because there is a limit beyond which no institution and no property can bear taxation." --John Marshall