Friday, February 29, 2008

Hanging Down Bill Buckley's head

Confronting the tsunami of hagiography that has greeted his demise, it may be timely to correct the impression that conservative litterateur and laide-lettrist William F Buckley was some kind of saint. In fact, as I write, the pampered Ivy Leaguer is facing the traditional challenge of rich men at the gates of heaven: trying to squeeze a camel through the needle's eye. If the Gospels have any truth, then it is a Bactrian camel with two humps and very small micro-surgical needle, since Buckley combined inherited riches with acquired callousness to those who had not been so fortunate in their choice of parents.

I cannot say definitively that the millions of words penned by Buckley, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, completely eschew concern for the poor or underprivileged of the world. However, I think we can safely say that they were not prominent in his works.

A Catholic of the school of Torquemada and Franco, whom he described as "an authentic national hero", whose victory brought "forty years of relative prosperity, peace and independence", to Spain, he seemed to overlook the modern Church's teachings on social justice.

He could be witty, and relished shocking received opinion, in contrast to many of his would-be successors in American conservatism who would can George Bush's farts and sell them as deodorants. But even that independence of thought was the arrogance of an American aristocrat of the old school for whom the purpose of government was to keep the plebs in their place while civilisation and culture were guarded and developed by the elite.

"Who else, on so many issues, has been so right so much of the time? I couldn't think of anyone," he crowed in the New York Times, but was of course only accurate if "Right" had an uppercase "R".

Supporting the Vietnam war, opposing civil rights for African-Americans, cheerleading for murderous (but anti-communist) regimes across the globe, may have been modernised versions of the family's deep Ku Klux Klan tradition, but have hardly been vindicated by history.

But when you see obituaries praising his principles for opposing Nixon after Watergate, they miss the salient point. Buckley was unhappy with Nixon because he considered him too liberal, which in the demonology of the American right meant socialist, which meant communist.

Even the free markets that he espoused so firmly and, according the hagiographers, played such a large part in bringing about, have hardly been unmitigated triumphs. The era of deregulation that came from Ronald Reagan's reign quickly brought the savings and loans debacle, in which the taxpayer picked up the tab for trillions of dollars, followed recently by Enron and the other scandals and of course now by the subprime mortgage scandal, where taxpayers abroad are picking up the tab.

For Buckley's people, Roosevelt's New Deal, which rescued most of the nation from poverty, was a communist conspiracy whose effects needed reversing. That is a work still in progress, but sadly well-advanced.

Interestingly, the spectacle of an American behaving as a braying, brainlessly snobbish, aristocratic cad from Black Adder gave him a certain cachet in Britain - and of course the convicted Conrad Black has rushed out with a fittingly fawning tribute.

As Buckley's form of braying elitism held sway, the US ran up the biggest fiscal and trade deficits in history, putting itself in hock to the Chinese Communist party, and for 30 years of a growing economy saw the plebs' income static or declining while his pals, like Black, amassed wealth on a scale unseen for a century.

During his overlong life Buckley gilded the fungus by casting a gossamer-thin veil of erudition on the brawling mélange of crude bigotry, racism, self-satisfied ignorance and isolationism that characterised American conservatism until the neocons turned up. It takes more than yachting and harpsichord-playing, more even than sense of humour and a belated admission that Iraq was a big mistake, to weigh the balance in his favour.

I wish a long life to Gore Vidal, equally aristocratic but with a sense of noblesse oblige totally missing in Buckley, and a genuine intellectual who has indeed been correct and not "Right" about most off the issues of the last century. But I almost look forward to the tide of unthinking vituperation with which Buckley's hagiographers on the right will greet the demise of a much better person.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Finally, an accurate accounting of the legacy of this pompous, supercilious prig. "Speak no ill of the dead," but of their works, tell the truth. Ian Williams has done this eloquently, a match for the perfervid prose of his belated subject. Buckley over his lifetime did much damage to the American nation and to a once great University in New Haven.