I read and occasionally write on Doug Henwood's list-serve, lbo-talk. I am not proud but I find that this list serve gets my blood moving in the morning and so I find it useful. |
Sometimes I look away from the list and when I come back I am surprised that the "conversation" has been taken over by subjects that seem to me in no need of thought. The Obama-phenomena is analyzed endlessly, or some piece of gossip is magnified into a world-historical event. So what do I do? Do I ignore the needless noodling over meaningless mites? No, of course not, I jump right into the fray.
So instead of ignoring the fact that so many on the left were offering praise to William F. Buckley as if he were an old friend -- a little bit cranky, a little crusty and full of harrumphs and grumps, perhaps, but still someone that will be missed -- I filled myself with my own harrumph and cranked my way through a few posts. So here I reprise, pretty-up, and expand my warranted invective against William F. Buckley. I salute the news of William F. Buckley's disappearance from the world of the living and hating. This is my anti-obituary for a man who we should have never had paid attention to in the first place.
It is said that we should speak well of the dead or not speak at all. Such beliefs are enforced by superstition though they are more than superstition. It is not simply because we are afraid that speaking ill of the the dead will bring the haunting spirit back to plague us that such norms exist. You can gossip about the living but gossiping about the dead, at least soon after their death, can bring bad tidings in a tightly knit society.
Think of it this way. Historically, when city-states were first emerging from the rule of a single family, or alliance of families, into a political formation that looks like the establishment of "the rule of law," some of the first laws recorded are usually concerned with funerals. Funerary Legislation were part of Solon's reforms in the forms that followed on the establishment of the Republic in Rome. When we have information on the laws pasts by emerging city-states they often contain Funerary Legislation. Why? Because the political alliances in a small city usually revolve around extended families. The main "coin" of family rule is reputation; reputation of particular family traits and characteristics and, especially, the reputation of the character and greatness of ancestors. An emerging "Republic" or "Democracy" needs to contain the rule of aristocratic families and the potential for "civil"l war between feuding families. Funerary rites and celebrations were often occasions for violence, reaction, and reciprocal revenge between feuding family alliances. Thus it was necessary for the stability of emerging city-republics to introduce regulations on funerary rites, limiting the amount that could be spent on funerary games, the size of funeral processions. The introduction of the rule of law into emerging city-states always began with ways of limiting family rivalries and family dominance. There were also substantial laws that would limit privilege in other ways.
Along with the funerary laws there were also restrictive social norms against speaking bad of the dead for much the same reasons that the funerary laws existed. Gossip is important in a small society, but the main thrust of gossip about the dead was to denigrate a family as a whole In such a situation speaking of the dead could begin a cycle of revenge that could tear apart a small society. Gossip in a small society is often a regulatory mechanism but it was important to wait a decent interval when gossiping of the recently deceased in order to separate the gossip that was specifically about the person and gossip that could rebound onto a whole family. The problem of honor and reputation of a dead family member was not merely a "personal" problem. Honor and reputation, and the gossiping that circulated around such attributes, were essential sources of public "knowledge" about who to trust and who to follow in such small societies. Gossiping in such a society was the act of a citizen. It was "news", it was the grease of that facilitated the circulation of knowledge about reputation.
Gossip in mass society functions in a much different way We are allowed to have the illusion, the feeling of gossip as a controlling mechanism and a public act, but in fact it has become its opposite. In mass society celebrity gossip gives us the illusion of control and intimacy without actually providing the real thing. Gossip in fact has become a private act.
Perhaps it is a hangover from the old ways that so many liberals have found it in their heart to praise William F Bucklwy or to gossip about his urbanity. Or perhaps it is mistaking the intimacy of gossip for the public acts of rhetoric.
Katherine vanden Heuvel writes in Newsweek:
But rather than rehearse our many ideological differences, I come to NEWSWEEK not to bury Buckley, but, believe it or not, to offer some respect for the man and the editor. More important than any of the particular ideas in which Buckley believed was his belief in the power of ideas themselves. When the audacious, young Yale grad founded National Review in 1955, he hoped to accomplish more than anyone really expected a magazine to be capable of. He sought not only to rejuvenate the conservative movement, but also, simultaneously, to remake it.
Despite his uncompromising conservative beliefs, Buckley reveled in transpartisan friendships, most notably with the late John Kenneth Galbraith. (One of Galbraith's favorite phrases—"Modesty is a vastly overrated virtue"—may well have been coined to describe his skiing partner Buckley.) While he could deploy a sometimes vicious wit—which could descend into cruelty—Buckley disdained the kind of partisan shoutfests that too often pass for political debate on our TVs today.
Doug Henwood said on his list:
Hey, he used to be one of my heroes. And he was pretty influential. So I'm interested in the old bastard's passing.
His son Christopher was in my college class. My class listserv is having an outpouring of grief over WFB's death. They're almost all liberal Dems - many to the left of Clinton. But he's one of them, or us, or whatever. The NYT said today that while he hated liberal ideas he never hated liberals. He was, you know, civil, unlike now.
There is a feeling that I get from most of the liberal meditations on the death of Buckley that this is a family drama of the intellectual elite. They all went to Yale or Harvard, they all lived through the time when Bill Buckley was a witty guy on the other side. So they are losing an old friend.
There is no reasons for liberals to be polite about a man such as William F. Buckley. I think that any kind of admiration for this man is a kind of malfunction of liberal intellectual culture. On the LBO list I said:
Buckley was a racist, a sexist, homophobic, and an extreme militarist. He was anti-worker, anti-working class, and anti-union. He was an unapologetic supporter McCarthyist witch hunts. He felt personally insulted by anyone who questioned privilege. As far a I know he never apologized for supporting segregation, or for in fact believing that Jim Crow was a good thing in his youth. In short he was a model intellectual. Why would anyone admire him at all? He was occasionally amusing and if he could have done stand up on the page the way his son Christopher Buckley does, at least I would say he earned his living.
Questions: Why should anyone on the left pretend he was anything but a bad influence on U.S. intellectual culture? Why should anyone admire him in any way whatsoever? He was also bad for intellectual Catholicism.
P.S. Buckley's spy novels were the worse of the genre and I have read them all. I am glutton for spy novels.
Doug Henwood asked after this tirade, "Who does pretend that [he was anything but a bad influence on U.S. intellectual culture]?"
Well, vanden Heuvel, for one. But also Doug himself who diverts himself from the ugliness of William Buckley by speaking of his personal relations with him. Everybody who would rather talk about his poise and his poses, his grace and mannerism, and the wonder that is the great personality of William F. Buckley instead of focusing on his role as right wing enforcer of intellectual reaction. Everyone who praises the gestures of his "private" life instead of the fact that he was a supporter of murder regimes, terrorist dictatorships, and deathsquad republics in every part of the world. Pretending that he was anything but a supporter of mass murder in, say, El Salvador is accepting his own public persona as his real face. It is to confuse public with private, which as I will explain, is the political function of celebrity gossip.
In the context of the usual sober celebrations of his life in the bosses media, for leftists to contribute to the misapprehension of William F. Buckley is quite annoying. At least Ann Coulter was half-honest about why she liked Buckley -- she states plainly that he was a vicious intellectual enforcer of privilege and an advocate of U.S. dominance, and that she admires him for it. She leaves out his racism and support of Jim Crow, but such old fashion marks of "conservatism" are no longer mentionable in polite society.
If liberals or leftists pay attention to Buckley at all why not analyze his role as intellectual enforcer and trainer of intellectual bullies? Why talk about how nice he was to have a conversation with? His ability to mix a great martini is irrelevant to his role in society. I am savvy to the idea of trying to understand the individual psychology of a Ku Kluxer or a Podhoretz by understanding how he treats his wife and family but that is not what is happening with the liberal appraisal of Buckley. There is no attempt to understand him as a contemptuous intellectual bully who established around him a coterie of college boys who looked up to him. There is only talk about "how good he was to his dog". (The fallacy that it matters that immorality or evil is more "interesting" because the evil person loves dogs or treats his children well is the usual liberal substituting of the personal for the social.)
Gore Vidal called William F. Buckley a crypto-Nazi. He later corrected himself and said he meant to say that Buckley had a "fascist mind set." This is perfectly true. Alexander Cockburn quotes Buckley as saying the following:
Everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals.
As an example of his white supremacist world-view, how about this from William F. Buckley in 1957?
The central question that emerges 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. The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage. The British believe they do, and acted accordingly, in Kenya, where the choice was dramatically one between civilization and barbarism, and elsewhere; the South, where the conflict is by no means dramatic, as in Kenya, nevertheless perceives important qualitative differences between its culture and the Negroes', and intends to assert its own. National Review believes that the South's premises are correct. The great majority of the Negroes of the South who do not vote do not care to vote, and would not know for what to vote if they could. Universal suffrage is not the beginning of wisdom or the beginning of freedom The South confronts one grave moral challenge. It must not exploit the fact of Negro backwardness to preserve the Negro as a servile class. It is tempting and convenient to block the progress of a minority whose services, as menials, are economically useful. Let the South never permit itself to do this. So long as it is merely asserting the right to impose superior mores for whatever period it takes to effect a genuine cultural equality between the races, and so long as it does so by humane and charitable means, the South is in step with civilization, as is the Congress that permits it to function.
Maybe Pinochet was good to his dog but who cares? Why should those of us on the left treat Pinochet as a dog lover instead of anything but a brutal dictator? To treat the personal humors of Buckley as serious, to treat him as a dog lover, is to confuse the public and the private. To treat Buckley as someone good to his servants is to confuse his public role as an intellectual in the forefront of anti-working class intellectual propaganda with his private role as pater familias.
Sometimes the excuse for all of this talk is that it is good gossip.
I too love gossip but part of the function of gossip is to make us believe that we are still in a small village society with few class divisions. That is what gossip does for us in mass society. It helps us to confuse the private and the public in such a way that we forget the public role, the ruling class role, of this very public intellectual. So yes, I would prefer that leftists treat him as a public intellectual who did all in his power to harm the bourgeois commonweal as well as the working class. But instead even among people I would prefer to think of as comrades this despicable reactionary man is treated as an object for gossip. I agree that gossip is fun. But this systematic confusion of public and private should be addressed by those of us on the left because it is how the U.S. rulers run their elections and make their entertainment. Instead of being analyzed it is imitated. It is imitated even by those who should know better.
I certainly agree with John Thorton's sentiments. He says:
I don't see [Buckley] as an intellectual. He was a pompous pseudo-intellectual. The gift of an expansive vocabulary along with a certain level of polish does not make WFB an intellectual. What original idea did the man ever have? What insight did he show into anything?
I'm one of those people who has an instrumental definition of intellectuals -- Anyone who does intellectual work can qualify. (Thus all lawyers qualify, as do all teachers and all journalists and pundits. Writers and artists too.... and even accountants.) I generally agree with Sartre's division between classical intellectuals, technical intellectuals, and ruling class ideologists. (Somewhere in among these classifications there is room for the working class intellectual.)
So I would prefer to say that WFB was pseudo-intelligent but none-the-less an intellectual. I am not saying he wasn't intelligent but part of his public persona was to imitate intelligence by literally tipping back his head and looking down his nose at anyone who questioned ruling class privilege. He rarely used his intelligence, but substituted for thinking the gestures of intelligence to enhance his intellectual bullying. And this is where the problem of gossip comes in again. One can accept him on his own terms and talk about Buckley's gestures and masks, the acting persona he used to enhance his role as ruling class intellectual bully, but to do so is simply to subtly give into the legitimacy of his class role.
John Thornton also said:
As an ex-Catholic I believe Catholicism itself would be bad for intellectual Catholicism so I'm uncertain how much damage WFB could do in this area.
As far as what I said previously about his influence on Catholicism I would like to explain a little. (Warning: I am an ex-Catholic and an atheist.)
Buckley lived through a transformation of Catholicism during the Second Vatican Council. Vatican II convened in 1962 by Pope John XXIIi attempted to drag Roman Catholicism kicking and screaming into the 19th century and it nearly succeeded. Buckley was part of the intellectual reaction to the transformation of the Catholic Church. He wished to keep the Church back in the 14th century. Basically Buckley had a 14th Century mindset about who should rule and who should be ruled and he looked at the Church as one of the props for the ruling class. In the 1980s one of the few consistently liberal elite groups left in the U.S. was the Conference of Catholic Bishops. During this time Buckley kept right-wing reactionary Catholicism alive. His campaign to organize right-wing Catholics to oppose the Catholic Bishops helped to undermine the Bishop influence on public policy. The Conference of Catholic Bishops was one of the few mainstream groups to consistently oppose U.S. policy in Central America in the 1980s which produced mass slaughter of whole villages. Buckley supported the terror regimes in Central America and Brazil, regimes that murdered more Catholic church supporters -- priests, nuns, and lay practitioners -- than any governments since the Catholic Church has come into existence. He supported the reactionary torturers and murderers of priests and nuns and he never once even acknowledged that this was anything but a "good." When liberal bishops in this country spoke out against the murder of their brethren in Brazil or Central America he condemned them, and provided intellectual cover for all Catholics who would prefer to look the other way instead of confronting mass murder. In short William F. Buckley made it respectable for right wing Catholic intellectuals to justify mass murder.
I am not a Catholic and I am not a Christian. But I see no reason why I should pay homage to any aspect of this man who helped to justify mass murder.
In my youth I could express much animosity toward the Church for its reactionary role. And William F. Buckley certainly represents the continuing attempt to return to this reactionary role of the Catholic Church. But over the years I have met many Catholic intellectuals I admire and so slowly I changed my mind about the overall function of religion while still remaining anti-religious in general and an atheist in particular. The people I met were Dorothy Day, the Berrigan Brothers, and a number of priests and lay workers in base communities in El Salvador and Brazil. Their examples and their writings have impressed me as radical and hopeful and their record of consistent support for working class and peasant solidarity and organization has impressed me even more. So I am not willing to condemn all Catholic intellectuals. Still the Church, with the help of the likes of Buckley, has mostly abandoned such people or persecuted them. I tell you though, one Dorothy Day is worth any number of Bill Buckleys.
music: Keith Stanovich - Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin