Skip to comments.Nostalgia for Buckley, et al is Misplaced
Posted on 08/04/2010 7:02:28 AM PDT by Kaslin
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Conservatives, being conservatives, have a soft spot for the good old days, but this is getting ridiculous. It seems every day another colleague on the right wants to click his ruby-red slippers (or Topsiders) and proclaim, "There's no place like home" -- "home" being the days when conservatism was top-heavy with generals but short on troops.
The latest example comes from my old National Review colleague David Klinghoffer in the Los Angeles Times. "Once, the iconic figures on the political right were urbane visionaries and builders of institutions -- like William F. Buckley Jr., Irving Kristol and Father Richard John Neuhaus, all dead now," Klinghoffer lamented. "Today, far more representative is potty-mouthed Internet entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart."
As someone who knew Buckley and Kristol (and was a brief acquaintance of Neuhaus), I think David's got it wrong. For starters, no one confuses Breitbart for Buckley -- first and foremost, Breitbart himself -- and the only people making that comparison are those wishing to indict contemporary conservatism for one reason or another.
Let's start with the left, which certainly has different motives than Klinghoffer's. The urge to lament how far today's conservatives have fallen from the "golden age" of Buckley & Co. is a now-familiar gambit. You see, this is what critics on the left always say: "If only today's conservatives were as decent or intellectual or patriotic as those of yesteryear."
The best conservatives are always dead; the worst are always alive and influential. When Buckley and Kristol, not to mention Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, were alive, they were hated and vilified by the same sorts of people who now claim to miss the old gang. The gold standard of the dead is always a cudgel, used to beat back the living.
As for the right, there are many competing agendas among those lamenting the populist enthusiasms of the right today. Some seem to want to displace and replace today's leaders; others are simply beautiful losers in forgotten struggles eager to tear down the winners.
But what undergirds a lot of this is simply nostalgia. A conservative populism is sweeping the land, and although I think it is for the most part justified and beneficial, you cannot expect millions of people to get very angry -- deservedly angry -- and expect everyone to behave as if it's an Oxford seminar.
Buckley, Kristol and Neuhaus (and Reagan and Goldwater) understood and appreciated the hurly-burly of American democracy. Buckley famously insisted he'd rather be governed by 2,000 random names in the Boston phone book than the faculty of Harvard. He passionately defended Joseph McCarthy, and he admired J. Bracken Lee, the 1950s Utah governor who makes Sarah Palin look like Sandra Day O'Connor on Ambien. Oh, and he was a Rush Limbaugh dittohead. Kristol was an admirer of the Christian right and a supporter of the populist tax revolts of the 1970s. Neuhaus was a leading champion of the religious revival on the right.
Nostalgia, wrote the great sociologist Robert Nisbet, "is even at best a rust of memory, often a disease." Nostalgia causes us to exaggerate what we liked about the past while editing out what we didn't. Indeed, Klinghoffer is doing precisely that when he says that Buckley, Kristol and Neuhaus were "iconic." Buckley, sure; he was a true media celebrity. But Kristol and Neuhaus? Kristol famously thought that having anything more than a few thousand subscribers to his magazine, the Public Interest, was a sign of failure. Both could walk through most airports unrecognized.
These men are my heroes, too, and their influence was staggering. But those who pine for the good old days fail to grasp that the good old days were, in the ways that matter, often quite bad. The heyday of the "institution builders" was a low-water mark for conservatism's political success. (That's why they built institutions!) Conservatism hardly lacks for top-flight intellectuals these days, but the intellectuals aren't the avant-garde anymore. Thanks to their success at building institutions and spreading ideas, the battle has been joined. And now is not the time to wax nostalgic for the planning sessions.
Don’t worship the person, embrace his principles.
Jonah is right,
Revere the leaders of the past and pay proper homage to them. But don’t opine for the old days. March on and move forward!!
Make a Lefty happy: Die!!! Die!!! Die!!!
We need both political movement conservatives and ideological/intellectual conservatives working in unison to turn this country from the destructive course it is on. We need a reuniting of the social conservatives and the fiscal conservatives for the common goal of taking back our country. Will it happen? Nobody knows...
Buckley was a great man, and we owe him an enormous debt.
That said, most FReepers are better conservatives than Buckley. We are standing on the shoulders of a giant.
Sorry, Jonah -- the problem is that you're trying to invoke an either/or condition. Either intellectual depth, or an angry sort of populism.
You mentioned "long on generals, short on troops," and that's a fair knock against the old conservatism.
Worse, though, is a movement that's long on troops and lacking generals. (Although, actually, if election results are any guide, modern conservatism is not long on troops, either.) In that case you get what we've got now -- an unfocused sort of anger, and a bunch of single-issue groups at war with each other as much as with the left. There is no core strategy -- something that relies on the generals more than the troops.
To continue the military metaphor, that's a perfect setup for a defeat in detail: "the tactic of bringing a large portion of one's own force to bear on small enemy units in sequence, rather than engaging the bulk of the enemy force all at once. This exposes one's own units to a small risk, yet allows for the eventual destruction of an entire enemy force."
Is that not exactly what's happening today?
Here is where conservatives need to swallow our pride(fulness) and look at what animates the long-term success of the left: they've got both generals and troops.
Unlike conservative populists, the left is not afraid of intellectuals; and unlike conservative intellectuals, the generals and troops on the left actually tend to work with each other.
But I'm not sure that conservatives are ready for that, yet. The current tone is definitely anti-intellectual.
William F. Buckley was a great man. Imho, Goldberg misses the mark here.
It does get tiresome.
1) There is nothing wrong with nostalgia every now and then.
2)Conservatives are genuinely lacking strong leadership right now.
3) The period of the "conservative movement" from the late 1950s into the 1980s was a special time in which the genius of figures like Buckley and Reagan had an impact on American culture in a way which you do not exactly see repeated by certain so-called "conservatives" right now.
4) Some would argue (and have argued) that the old National Review had a conservative edge which has been tamed to some degree. American society has also changed, so the culture that produced Buckley and Reagan has also been disappearing. That is more obviously the case for the Catholic Buckley as the Church has changed even more dramatically. It would be an understatement to say that, at least as far as conservative matters go, things have gotten a little less coherent and a little strange on the Right in church circles. Leadership is lacking there as well. If there is a voice one could point to there who immediately generates an audience, it would be interesting to know the name.
The next conservative will need the Catholic vote.
Will he get it?
But I'm not sure that conservatives are ready for that, yet. The current tone is definitely anti-intellectual.
Indeed, yet I can not understand why we on the Right don't work with each other.
What I’m trying to say (and not too well I’m afraid) is that we need both. It seems that there is a dearth of high profile acedemia type conservative intellectuals. If we had more of them we could fight the left on two fronts: the political and the ideological. We need to be debating and in the halls of congress and the halls of acedemia...We have the momentum right now, let’s use it.
“Unlike conservative populists, the left is not afraid of intellectuals”
They’re afraid of *conservative* intellectuals.
“the generals and troops on the left actually tend to work with each other.”
As Alexander Solzhenitsin said, “Evil people always support each other; that is their main strength.”
“Conservatives are genuinely lacking strong leadership right now.”
Oh, Hell yes. But is there anyone who could pull everyone together? I was astounded to see people badmouth Sarah Palin on FR.
“Some would argue (and have argued) that the old National Review had a conservative edge which has been tamed to some degree.”
“The next conservative will need the Catholic vote. Will he get it?”
He will not get the votes of those Catholics whom Pope St. Pius X termed “enemies of the Church.”
“and the halls of acedemia...”
How many conservatives are there in academia. Two? Three?
How could a conservative get hired, or, if hired, how could he survive? The leftist swine would stop at nothing to get rid of a conservative.
It's an important point.
Buckley (and National Review) were able to bring together forces and people which had previously not been allied. For Buckley, as a Catholic and based on the east coast, but also connected with conservative intellectuals in academia, southern Protestants, and conservatives from the West, like Goldwater.
Critics should not overlook what was achieved in that. Catholics who had previously been supporters of JFK or in the FDR camp became conservatives in the conservative movement. The rhetorical side, in publishing, in National Review and other journals, and on television on Firing Line, all of this helped to create the infrastructure of the conservative movement.
You can't compare Palin to that, although some of the populism is related to Reagan's popularity in the '80s. Reagan closed the gap which Buckley never would have been able to, by appealing to all of those Reagan Democrats. Now, to get conservative and pro-life Catholics and Protestants together with fiscal conservatives, intellectual conservatives, Reagan Democrats, and even some of a libertarian mindset on taxes (Kemp, etc.), focused on a common political agenda as a coalition with a media presence and direct-mail grassroots networks (Richard Viguerie, Paul Weyrich)- behind a charismatic candidate like Reagan - that was a real achievement in U.S. politics.
But at the moment at least, it doesn't look like there is a Catholic conservative figure providing similar leadership, or even a Reaganesque figure who could provide similar leadership. Despite the establishment chatter and cheerleading, Romney is not going to do that and the people talking this up are deceiving themselves.
So it's not true that nostalgia for Reagan, Buckley, and the good old days is pointless. Conservatives are lacking in leadership these days and the "conservative demonstration" is in need of intelligent voices that can make the case to the American people without some of the silliness or weaknesses that make political figures open to being dismissed as kooks, extremists, or unqualified and inexperienced populists. But in 1980 the liberal media wanted people to dismiss Reagan as a kook - remember the bit about plants and trees causing pollution, that he was a "warmonger" who would start a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, and a religious nut who believed in a literal Armageddon. They tried all of that.
The Firing Line style of debates was also a little different than talk radio which can get a little on the lowbrow side and turn some people off. That is one of the liberal talking points - how bad and how mean conservative talk radio is. There are things that can be learned from discussions about what was good about the conservative movement from the 1950s through the 1980s. Some of that just has to do with what was good about American Christians during that period, the values being defended and preserved, etc. For Reagan and Buckley, the values of American Catholics and Protestants during the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. A lot of conservatism just has to do with restating those values in different ways. How do you explain self-control, conventional morality, or personal responsibility to a liberal? Someone should put together an anthology of Reagan and Buckley quotes which tried to do that. That might prove interesting.
Reagan could be great at that. Wise cracks. One time he said something like, "Having sex is not the same as having a ham sandwich." Having both worked in Hollywood (with Errol Flynn) and taught Sunday School, maybe he was a little unique.
There is a lot that can be learned by studying the conservative movement.
The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk. Not just nostalgia. Some of what they are talking about is not just conservatism but educated and intelligent discussion in general. We shouldn't downplay the role of the conservative movement in that.