Thursday, February 28, 2008

The death of a conservative prophet: William F. Buckley

Right-wing pundit William F. Buckley was found sitting at his desk, dead. Compared to today’s conservatives Buckley was a pillar of virtue. But I find it hard to lament the loss of this man.

I still remember the vile and vicious obituary he published when Ayn Rand died. Now in his death I hope he is spared the sort of treatment he dished out to her.

Let us be clear as to Buckley’s impact. First, it was he who gave voice to a bevy of “ex-communists” through his publication National Review. Many of them swapped communism for Catholicism but never really converted to supporting classical liberalism. They often remained statists to the end simply preferring the pabulum of Jesus to the Marxist snake oil.

Buckley was also a key figure in destroying the Old Right. The Old Right had long embraced America’s traditional foreign policy of non-interventionism. The Democrats and the Progressives were the parties of empire building and war making. Republicans tended to find such things distasteful and destructive of traditional freedoms. But come the Cold War the Buckley crowd came to dominate the conservative movement and opponents of their incipient statism were thrown onto the trash heap of the conservative movement.

This is not to say that Buckley’s excommunications weren’t always a bad thing. National Review also drummed the lunatic Birchers, with their banking conspiracies, out of the movement. And eventually they also gave similar treatment to the anti-Semites like Joseph Sobran and others.

But Buckley’s leanings toward a Wilsonian foreign policy helped push the bipartisan policy that exists today. Both major parties are still the war parties. And WFB is largely responsible for the Republican’s abandoning the policies of men like Robert Taft. In this sense Buckley is partially responsible for the Bush debacle.

Nor should we forget that Buckley tried to justify a free society on the basis of religion. Everything he did was driven by his Catholicism. By justifying capitalism on the basis of religion Buckley was a recruiter for the Religious Right. I have little doubt that Mr. Buckley found much of the fundamentalist Christianity to border on the absurd and he would shy away from the kind of Jesus-campaigners one finds among the born again. But Mr. Buckley help hang out the welcome sign for these people.

In the end Buckley did much to encourage the two most destructive forces within the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Each force went much further than Mr. Buckley himself would have felt comfortable in doing. But that is the nature of the doctor’s monster -- it does things of which the creator never conceived.

So, yes, compared to the monster he helped create Mr. Buckley appeared erudite, witty and moderate. But we can’t forget the forces he helped unleash because he failed to see the threat they posed.

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