James Baldwin and William Buckley, Fifty Years On

Here’s some video from a  symposium I was honored to take part in, at Linfield College, on the famous Cambridge Union debate between James Baldwin and William Buckley. In this opening panel, Patrick Allit and I take sharply differing angles on the evident decline of racism in mainstream American conservatism.

Unfortunately (from a video point of view), I  made the for-me unusual move of reading my remarks instead of speaking from notes, so most of what you’ll see is the top of my bald head. That’s what I had to do for the piece I wanted to bring, but Patrick does it right — extempore. C-SPAN was there, so maybe some of this will be aired there too.

Great talks from other symposium participants: Eddie Glaude’s moving, challenging keynote; two brilliant papers mainly on Baldwin from Lawrie Balfour and Susan McWilliams; and Joe Lowndes and Will Barndt taking on Buckley.

Thanks to Nick Buccola and all the students and faculty at Linfield who made this event come off so well.

James Baldwin and William F. Buckley, Jr. . . .

. . . had their famous debate at the Cambridge Union (somewhere in print, I once called the Oxford Union) fifty years ago this month. Later this week, I’ll be giving a talk on Buckley’s legacy regarding race rhetoric in American conservative politics, at this symposium at Linfield College:

Linfield hosts symposium on the Baldwin-Buckley debate.

The Frederick Douglass Forum on Law, Rights, and Justice at Linfield College will host a scholarly symposium on “James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the American Dream.”

The symposium, scheduled May 7-8 at Linfield, will commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the classic 1965 debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr. at the Cambridge Union on the motion: “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” Eddie Glaude, professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University will give the keynote speech “James Baldwin and #BlackLivesMatter” Friday, May 8, at 12:30 p.m., in Nicholson Library.

The symposium schedule is. . . :

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William F. Buckley and George Wallace

gone, gone with the wind?

Further strangeness in William F. Buckley’s career and its fabled connection to the right wing’s ascendency in the 1960’s: Buckley vs. Wallace.

What’s really impressive to me about Buckley is that he held his own, as a larger-than-life public elitist, within the right-wing insurgency that took over the Republican Party; indeed he helped lead it. That insurgency famously gained most of its ground by evincing not old-school country-estate elitism but extreme populism. The right began attacking Democratic Party inheritors of the New Deal, not wrongly, as privileged and patronizing; even more significantly, and at least as accurately, it ganged liberal Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller in with them. Yet Buckley, a self-created cartoon of privilege and condescension, and in his early adulthood a questing romantic for elite glories, managed to help lead the new-right populist charge.

“Liberal Republicans”: Many younger people today may presume these were oddball edge cases. That misperception shows the overwhelming success of the right-wing effort that began during the period we’re talking about. Both parties then had strong liberal-establishment elements, today often called “moderate” on the Republican side, as the right wing (then led by Robert Taft) was always so immoderate that the Republican Thomas Dewey warned against letting the right take over the party: if it ever did, he predicted, Republicans would lose every future election.

Dewey was wrong, of course, and Kevin Phillips, who got it right — he was an author of the populist “new conservative” strategy of the era — scorned William F. Buckley, calling him “Squire Willie.” It makes sense. What place could a newly populist right have for a Yale man whose hot-potato accent rivaled FDR’s and Rocky’s (Buckley’s was evidently put on), who made a career reveling in Bach, using big words, writing books about private sailing trips, and suggesting that uneducated people shouldn’t vote?

One of the more interesting moments in this conflict within the insurgent right came when Buckley interviewed George Wallace on Buckley’s TV interview show “Firing Line.” Although Buckley did the questioning, the program was marketed as a debate, moderated, supposedly, by one C. Dickerman Williams. (A story for another time, and maybe the only Gore Vidalish moment I’ll ever get: I expose the UES/Litchfield County line of my heritage by noting that this C.D. Williams moved in circles in which my maternal grandparents also moved — mainly liberal-establishment Republican ones! — when I was kid. I remember him well and was amused to discover him on “Firing Line” actively not moderating the Buckley-Wallace “debate.”) Despite the presence of a fake moderator, Buckley’s interview of Wallace is really an O’Reilly-like “this is my show” attack.

Since Wallace was poster-boy for racial segregation in the South, Buckley’s attack on him provides Buckley admirers with yet another basis for claiming that Buckley repudiated racism on behalf of conservatism. But again the realpolitik of the moment suggests more interesting readings to me. Continue reading

“The National Review,” Racist Writing, and the Legacy of William F. Buckley, Jr.

political operative as romantic egoist

[UPDATE: I give a better developed version of some of this stuff at a panel on racism in conservatism.]

In a Boston Review essay, I had occasion to explore the early writings of William F. Buckley, Jr., on racial segregation. I argued then that Buckley’s famous 2004 apology for having once held racially regressive positions — an apology cited by his fans both conservative and liberal, part and parcel of a contention that, despite a perhaps unfortunate history together, racism and American conservatism aren’t ineluctably connected — was no apology at all. The aged Buckley was renouncing a position entirely different from the one he’d actually advanced in the 1950’s.

Writing in 1957, Buckley insisted that whites in the South were “entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, where they do not prevail numerically,” because the white race was “for the time being, the advanced race.”

In 2004, asked whether he’d ever taken a position he now regretted, he said “Yes. I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow. I was wrong: federal intervention was necessary.”

Neatly done. Where in ’57 he’d asserted a right even of a minority of whites to impose racial segregation by literally any means necessary, including breaking federal law, in ’04 Buckley expressed regret for having supposedly believed only that segregation would wither away without federal intervention. Stupid the man was not. He gets credited today both with honesty about his past and with having, in his own way, “evolved up.” Modern conservatives, more importantly, get to ignore the realities of their movement’s origins.

The persistence of the most virulent kind of racism and white supremacism in some National Review writers, leading to their recent firing, doesn’t mean to me that all of American conservatism is racist. But I think the firings, and ensuing discussion of them by, for two, Joan Walsh and Alex Pareene at Salon, support a suggestion I made in that essay regarding the nature of Buckley’s evolution away from his 1957 position. Buckley did evolve — but not in the way his fans like to imagine: Continue reading