Thursday, February 28, 2008

Why I miss William F. Buckley

"This classic footage shows William F. Buckley & a young Noam Chomsky discussing the Viet Nam war. In only the way Buckley could, he threatens Chomsky by casually injecting, "Because, as you would, I'd smash you in the God-damned face." Don't you wish some of our current day leaders had as much chutzpah?"

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Frankly, yes - and as you will also note, the inherent self respect to actually allow Noam to make his point before (as I'm sure he did) shooting it as full of holes as he could manage. There's not a single talking head on the right now who has the stones to wait until they see the white of Noam's eyes. Since it cannot be that those of the intellectual rigor and high personal standards reflected by Buckley are no more, we must presume that for some reason that level of conservatism is thought to be too challenging, too intellectual for the godbothering 30 percenters.

Or it could also be that it's very difficult to imagine a conservative of such rigor putting up with the requirement to pander to the tender sensibilities and laughable delusions of both Cultural Conservatives and the Trickle-down theorists.


First - let me say that WFB often infuriated me with positions that I thought indefensible. And yet his arguments, in many cases, either caused me to grudgingly reconsider the absolute, reflexive moral superiority of my position - or if not that, to softly and silently pocket the rhetorical technique.

He described himself as a Libertarian Conservative, but I regret to say that in that regard, our views of what Libertarianism - and the related topic in both our minds of what politics informed by faith should look like - differ. Wildly.

Nonetheless, the thing I loved about WFB was that one could never dismiss his arguments out of hand. Nor could one seriously credit that he might be making his arguments for any reason other than passionate, personal conviction that he also held at ransom to reason and rationale.

Indeed, he reversed his opinions on many issues over the years, and he was never apologetic of having done so. One of the best things about this great man of the Right was that he was never afraid to be wrong - nor unwilling to amend the wrong, with passion equal to the trespass.

On the other hand, I doubt very much that popularity had anything whatsoever to do with the evolution of his principles.

Now, the only thing that could convince Limbaugh or O'Rielly to change their minds on a topic is the same thing that convinced them to first pick their topics - large sums of money. Ideally placed in an offshore bank.

I learned a great deal from WFB over the years. I learned how important rigor in argument is. I learned to respect fact more than assertion. And frankly, being on the side of his guests as often as not, I learned that while a great and intimidating facade is a valuable thing indeed, there has to be something behind the facade to turn posture into poise.

I loved the fact that he was as unapologetically upper-class northeastern white intellectual with the same "and you can choke on it" 'tude of any rapper from south-central LA.

The most important thing I learned from him was this; how a gentleman behaves when confronted with an idea they find distasteful. They argue, with the goal of ensuring that it's far more effective to get the person advocating a distasteful idea to fully explain it and demonstrate that it is, indeed, distasteful than to simply assert with a patrician snort that it's distasteful nature requires that it be dismissed unconsidered.

Oh, and of course one has to admire a man who was quite capable using words such as cretinous correctly in casual discourse. When a teacher referred to me once as "A little William F. Buckley," I took it as a profound complement. Nor would I consider being compared to him at all insulting today.

3 comments:

Casey said...

I particularly agree with your last point, Bob, and Buckley used words that were a lot more esoteric than cretinous. Reading his work over the last 24 hours I've found a similarity to Vladimir Nabokov, the only person in my mind who comes close to Buckley's erudition. Would you agree?

hawa said...

I haven't read this post yet, but I just want to compliment the new blog format... I'll return and read about William F. Buckley...

Christopher said...

I've heard it said that Buckley's circumlocutary, labyrinthine, and polysyllabic writing and speaking style, came out of his not speaking English until he was six (or was it seven?).

He began life by speaking Spanish. Thus for Buckley, as with with Nabokov (and Joseph Conrad) English was only his acquired language, and so it could never be taken for granted.

Therefore Buckley took special care always to write and speak English perfectly.

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