A journal of political, social, and other important, possibly even somewhat related affairs, including but not limited to: Central European Society, The European Union, HC Kometa Brno, American Politics, Film, and Beer.

28 February 2008

A while ago....

I read an article in an old Economist special edition called "The World in 2000." It was written by Chris Patten, the EU's former Commissioner for External Relations. He wrote about the idea of how "liberal values trampled into the mud" were the tragic hallmark of the 20th Century.  For Patten, the 21st Century, hopefully, belonged to the heirs of Karl Popper and Friedrich von Hayek.

However, he forgot one important thinker.  William F. Buckley was not exactly a "philosopher" in the traditional sense of the word. Buckley was an activist, an analyst, and an aural artist. He was a champion of Conservatism before it deserved a capital "C."  Buckley proved that conservatives were not just the people who hadn't yet wised up to conventional "wisdom" -- he revolutionized what it meant to be wise.

Bill Buckley was a man who not only walked the walk, but also spoke "the talk" better than anyone had for 30 years.  His movement essentially gave Barry Goldwater the Republican nomination for President in 1964, an extremist in defense of liberty.  Like most politicians, the extremist lost -- Goldwater only won 6 states. But the 1964 election set the conservative movement and the entire nation on a trajectory whose ascension would be felt even today.  If you doubt this, consider the fate of Democrats after Michael Dukakis, who lost 40 states in what was considered a landslide. No Democrat looks at the 1988 election as a "turning point" or a "teachable moment" -- instead, Democrats have turned to the right, and have only elected a Southerner whose signature achievements were international free trade and welfare reform. Extremism was no longer defined as a commitment to states' rights on principle, free markets, cutting away the stifling gauze of the state, and calling the largest totalitarian empire in history "evil;" liberty itself became quite mainstream.

Buckley published a book named "God and Man at Yale" in 1951; over the years, he continued his attack on the moral relativism, atheism, and collectivism taught in academe, but also learned to play the harpsichord, write a few spy novels, show up on a TV show or two, write some columns (5600, according to the New York Times), sail a boat, run for mayor of New York, and argue against communism better than almost anyone.  It is wonderful that he lived to see Castro step down; it is tragic that communist regimes continue to exist in North Korea, Cuba, and China, and are on the rise in Venezuela. His work is not completed, and he would probably cite T.S. Eliot and tell us that it will never really be done. But what an inheritance we have!

What we have learned from Buckley is that sometimes it takes a great long time, even a generation or two, to win the good fight.  He taught us that winning good fight is possible in spite of the pitfalls of democracy, which (as Tocqueville reminds us) usually takes the easy way out, and that it is joyously worthwhile at the end. Buckley dared to take the long view. He redefined wisdom in 1951, and looked to the future optimistically, even while he stood athwart history.  We have a half century of ideas to work with.

Chris Patten wrote that the 21st Century belonged to liberal values of the rule of law, and democracy in the service of freedom. It is because of William F. Buckley and his allies -- the allies of freedom -- that we can be so bold to agree.


Blogger Robert Spuhler said...

Wonderful tribute, sir.


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