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Erik Visits an American Grave (IV)

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I was driving through northwestern Connecticut yesterday. It was utterly lovely, with the leaves changing. An ideal bucolic American landscape. Among the nice places I drove through was the town of Sharon, near the New York border. But as I drove through, a horrible smell arose from the bowels of the Earth. Was this awful smell a mine or a mill? Was it an entryport to Hades? No. It was the rotting putrescent corpse of one of the worst human beings to ever foul the land of this fine nation, William F. Buckley.

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There’s barely any point in documenting Buckley’s many crimes against decency and humanity. But why not go ahead anyway.

Buckley himself had developed two arguments against civil rights, both of which were little more than disguised racism, both of which led the line at National Review. The first emerged early in his career. Since the 1950s, Buckley had argued that civil rights should be opposed not because black people were biologically inferior to white people, but because they were not yet “civilized” enough to take part in democratic government. Or, as Buckley put it in 1959, “There are no scientific grounds for assuming congenital Negro disabilities. The problem is not biological, but cultural and educational.”

This “lack of civilization” argument has a long pedigree dating back to the country’s earliest thinkers on the subject, including Thomas Jefferson. Even some black leaders, like Booker T. Washington, expounded on the idea, if with different motives. In the 1950s and 1960s, the argument pushed Buckley in surprising directions. After repeated questioning, he was sometimes forced to admit that, in his view, all uneducated people, black, white, brown, red, or yellow, should not be allowed to vote if they didn’t pass some sort of competency test. This was an undemocratic stance to say the least, but at least it was consistent with his idea that only “civilized” people should rule.

As he pushed this line of thought in the pages of National Review, Buckley argued that no one knew what levels of education should be mandatory to participate in a democracy better than local arbiters. Thus, for Buckley, the federal government had no business declaring equal access when it couldn’t differentiate between uneducated black people in Alabama and black graduates of Harvard. The federal government should butt out; states should decide. If Massachusetts wanted to limit the franchise based on an IQ test, that should be its prerogative.

Of course, no one in Massachusetts was advocating restrictions on voting rights for uneducated white people, and thus Buckley’s argument displayed a willful ignorance about the abuses that had taken place throughout the South during the previous one hundred years, when literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses kept the vast majority of black people from voting. Nevertheless, Buckley relied on this states’ rights argument for much the rest of his life. Buckley’s reaction to Brown, for example, was that it was “one of the most brazen acts of judicial usurpation in our history, patently counter to the intent of the Constitution, shoddy and illegal in analysis, and invalid in sociology.” He later added, “Support for the Southern position rests not at all on the question of whether Negro and White children should, in fact, study geography side by side, but on whether a central or a local authority should make that decision.”

He didn’t stop there. In 1957, Buckley wrote National Review’s most infamous editorial, entitled “Why the South Must Prevail.” Is the white community in the South, he asked, “entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically?” His answer was crystal clear: “The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because for the time being, it is the advanced race.” Buckley cited unfounded statistics demonstrating the superiority of white over black, and concluded that, “it is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority.” He added definitively: “the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage.”

And what method should be used to enforce the maintenance of “civilized standards”? According to Buckley, it should be a no-holds-barred defense, even including violence. “Sometimes,” he wrote, “it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way, and the society will regress; sometimes the numerical [white] minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.”

In other words, it was up to the white community to decide when violence was appropriate. Through its White Citizens’ Councils, the resurgence of the Klan, and the general refusal to prosecute crimes committed against black Southerners, by the 1960s the white South had made its decision. And rather than condemn it, Buckley stayed the course. In 1958, National Review printed a cutting article on the black politician Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., entitled, “The Jig Is Up.” Buckley professed not to know the racial connotations of the word “jig.” In his 1959 book, Up From Liberalism, Buckley responded to an African nationalist, saying, “Your people, sir, are not ready to rule themselves. Democracy, to be successful, must be practiced by politically mature people among whom there is a consensus on the meaning of life within their society.” In his next breath, Buckley turned to American civil rights leaders, saying, “In the South, the white community is entitled to put forward a claim to prevail politically because, for the time being anyway, the leaders of American civilization are white—as one would certainly expect given their preternatural advantages, of tradition, training, and economic status.”

Then there was Buckley’s position on apartheid:

In 1985, William F. Buckley, founder and editor of National Review, wrote a column defending — or, to put it more accurately, expressing — his sympathy for the Apartheid government of South Africa. Buckley wandered through a series of points that would embarrass his successors today, most notably his opinion that Nelson Mandela belongs in jail. Most interesting, Buckley argued not only that the South African government served the strategic interests of American foreign policy, and that Mandela was a dangerous radical, but that South Africa should not dismantle Apartheid:

President Botha of South Africa is incontestably right in saying in effect that he was not elected leader of his government in order to preside over the liquidation of the South Africa he was elected to govern. Critics are perfectly free to contend that his election does not suit our political criteria. But having admitted that his government does not do so, it hardly makes sense to criticize him for proceeding on the basis of his (misbegotten) criteria. If you criticize somebody for being mean to his mother, don’t be surprised if he goes on to be mean to his mother.

Buckley’s logic here, while circular, is also completely airtight. You can’t blame a white South African president for continuing a policy of white supremacy. He was elected by whites! If the whites-only electorate wanted to dismantle white supremacy, it would have chosen somebody else. So there. Buckley does allow that the principle of white supremacy may be “misbegotten,” but later in the column he explains that it’s not entirely wrong, either. (“One-man one-vote is a fanatical abstraction of self government that not even the United States tolerates institutionally,” Buckley argues, citing the malapportionment of the Senate.)

How did Buckley think we should deal with Vietnam?

The pity is that we are saving our tactical nuclear weapons for melodramatic use, for use, presumably, at the apocalypse towards which we may very well be headed in the long term. Take, for instance, the discussion of the use of tactical nuclear weapons in the defense of Khesanh. By this time, so much attention has been given to the plight of Khesanh that to use these weapons, for the first time in military history, in the defense of Khesanh, suggests a mood of total desperation, perhaps even of panic. That interpretation feeds on itself, even as a bear market is said to justify itself.

The time to introduce the use of tactical nuclear arms was a long time ago, in a perfectly routine way, then there was not a suspicion of immediate crisis, of panic. In 1964, Senator Goldwater was burned in oil not even for advocating the use of low-yield atomic bombs for defoliation, but for reporting that the plan was under consideration by the Pentagon. Everyone got so worked up at the idea, that nobody thought to ask the question: Why not? The use of limited atomic bombs for purely military operations is many times easier to defend on the morality scale than one slit throat of a civilian for terrorism’s sake…

Did you ever care what Buckley had to say about The Beatles?

The Beatles are not merely awful; I would consider it sacrilegious to say anything less than that they are god awful. They are so unbelievably horribly, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art that they qualify as crowned heads of anti-music, even as the imposter popes went down in history as “anti-popes.”

I could go on and delineate his positions on Joe McCarthy, the women’s movement, hippies, etc. But I can’t deal with this anymore. I think I will go shoot some heroin in my veins instead.

William F. Buckley is buried in the St. Bernard Cemetery in Sharon, Connecticut.

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