Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- March 11, 2008

My Encounter with William F. Buckley, Jr.

With Some Reflections on His Legacy.

Ernest Partridge

“The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman.”

Shakespeare, King Lear

Some forty years ago, I interviewed the late William F. Buckley, Jr. although I had to bribe him to agree.

But it wasn’t so bad. I bribed him with a song – or more precisely, with a couple of Bach lute pieces.  Buckley was renowned as a Bach aficionado.

At the time, I was a graduate student at the University of Utah, and I also hosted a talk show at a local AM radio station, KSXX.  I was a rare liberal among a solid roster of right-wingers.

When word got out that Buckley was in Utah to enjoy “the greatest snow on earth,” the right-wingers at the station fell over themselves trying to grab an interview with the great man. No dice, they were told, Buckley was in-state for a ski vacation, and he took his vacations very seriously.

My weekends were also spent on the Wasatch Mountain slopes, and I subsidized this expensive pastime by playing classical guitar weekends at the Alta Lodge. (“It was a gas,” as we used to say, whereby I got to jam with Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary, and meet such notables as John Lindsey and Senator John Glenn.  But I digress).

So with no hope of meeting, much less interviewing, Mr. Buckley, I did my usual Sunday gig at the Lodge including, as always, a few Bach lute pieces. Afterward, an elegant lady approached and said, “Oh, that was simply mahhvelous! If only my husband were here to listen to you. You will be here tomorrow, will you not?”

“Regretfully, Mrs. Buckley, I don’t play on Mondays.”

Somewhat surprised that I recognized her, she replied, “Oh I’m so sorry he can’t hear you.” 

Seizing an opportunity, I added, “but I will happily make an exception and drive up later this week for a special performance, if Mr. Buckley will consent to an interview.”

She promised to convey the offer to her husband.

The next day, I received a phone call from Buckley’s traveling “Go-Fer:”  “Mr. Partridge,” he said, “I hear that you play a mean classical guitar!” Whereupon the deal was made.

If J. S. Bach didn’t close the sale for me, there was an added incentive. In Utah at the time, most self-identified conservatives, and particularly those who called in to KSXX, identified “conservatism” with the paranoid rants of the John Birch Society and its founder, Joseph Welch. Buckley and Welch detested each other. When I told Mrs. B. that I wanted to separate her husband’s “conservatism” from that of the crazies, she also conveyed that intention to Buckley, and he apparently took the bait.

I opened the interview with the promised topic: “Many people in Utah,” I said, “equate ‘conservatism’ with the position of the John Birch Society.”

After all these years, I vividly remember his reply: “with all due respect, and I do have that respect, I find it difficult to believe you.”

Typical Buckley: flattery followed immediately by a put-down.

My purpose was not to engage in a debate but rather to conduct an interview, and in particular to disassociate Buckley’s conservatism from John Birchite paranoia. He was more than willing to do so, for he was genuinely embarrassed by the ravings of radical, soi-dissant “conservatives” such as JBS founder, Joseph Welch.

For my part, I confess to a cowardly disinclination to tangle with this world-class debater. At one point, as he began to expound on one of his outlandish political opinions, I said “well, I suppose that we might go into that...” With his trade-mark raised eyebrows and mischievous grin, he finished my sentence: “... if you wanted to.”

I found Bill Buckley in person to be the same suave, witty and charming person that he appeared to be on his long-running PBS “Firing Line” series. I understood immediately how he was fully capable of enduring friendships with his ideological opposites such as historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and economist John Kenneth Galbraith.  Buckley’s suite at the Alta Lodge glowed with humor and hospitality.  He was, in a word, instantly likeable and, to a person with contrary political opinions, disarming.

On reflection, to this liberal there was much to “disarm.” In the inaugural issue of his publication, National Review, he wrote that the purpose of the magazine,  and of the conservative movement,  was to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop!”

A hopeless enterprise, of course. History stops for no one, not even for Bill Buckley and all the accumulated wealth and power of his conservative allies. Nevertheless, Buckley is on record for trying to stop the humiliation and downfall of Senator Joe McCarthy, as well as to halt feminism, gay liberation, environmentalism, desegregation and the civil rights movement. Regarding the latter, he argued that the property rights of the discriminating owners of motels and restaurants were sacrosanct. Furthermore, he believed that blacks (and he later added “poor whites”) were “not ready” to participate in self-government. It appears not to have occurred to him that if they were not, then the state had an obligation to educate these unfortunates to the required level of competence. To his credit, by the mid-60s, Buckley renounced his earlier racism and came to admire Martin Luther King, Jr.

Buckley endorsed the conservatism of Edmund Burke – selectively. Like Burke, he regarded society as “a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection... Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primaeval contract of eternal society....” Eloquence aside, it comes to this: tradition – woven into a complex fabric of tried and true mores and institutions – is not to be trifled with, any more than a complex instrument should be taken apart by an ignorant tinkerer.

What Buckley failed to appreciate was (1) that “traditions” are varied and contrary, and that it is the task of each generation to choose among them, (2) that there are liberal traditions, notably the innovations of the founders of our republic, which have become established as our national traditions. Thus the civil rights movement of the sixties was not a dismantling of tradition; rather, it was a fulfillment thereof. And finally, (3) respect for established traditions does not mean that one must “stand athwart history, yelling Stop!” As Edmund Burke himself correctly observed, “a State without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation,” and also, “we must all obey the great law of change. It is the most powerful law of nature.”

Buckley was the Thomas Aquinas of conservatism. Like “the Angelic Doctor,” he employed formidable erudition and rhetoric to weave an elegant logical structure on the foundation of a few unquestioned dogmas. Among them:

  • Edmund Burke’s affirmation of the sanctity of established traditions.

  • “Market absolutism:” an unregulated marketplace of self-serving “utility maximizers” will, in almost all circumstances, yield better results than the deliberations of public policy-makers.

  • Accordingly, “government is not the solution, government is the problem.” (Ronald Reagan). Taxation for any purpose other than the protection of life, liberty and property, is theft.

  • Poverty is a sin and not the result of economic injustice. People are poor because they choose to be. Welfare assistance only encourages indolence. There are no “victims of society.”

  • The wealth of the privileged few “trickles down” to benefit the masses. Only these privileged, the trustees and protectors of received “culture” and “traditions,” are fit to rule.

  • If carefully “cultivated” by an elite mass media and an official “Ministry of Truth,” the masses have a boundless capacity to tolerate their political and economic oppression. Those workers who create and  sustain the wealth of people like William Buckley have no claim on that wealth and no right to share it fairly with the owners of the capital that is equally essential to the production of that wealth.

  • Those who disagree with the above precepts are “communists” (or, at the very least, “socialists”) who, as such, are enemies of the state whose ideas must be suppressed and whose citizen rights must be forfeited.

These dogmas amount to what Friedrich Nietzsche called a “master morality” – an ethos devised and functioning to rationalize and secure the status of wealth and power in society.  In this regard, Buckley's conservatism is similar to the Calvinist doctrine of wealth as the sign of divine grace, the doctrine of the divine right of kings, and Carnegie's and Rockefeller's "Social Darwinism."  (This is not to say that Buckley was a “Nietzschean” – he most emphatically was not. But the concept that class privilege generates a justifying moral theory, an idea shared by Machiavelli, Marx, and virtually all sociologists, applies in this case).

All of these articles of faith can be readily demonstrated to be false, immoral, or at best half-truths lending credence to abominable falsehoods. And with the dissolution of these dogmatic foundations, the entire eloquent logical structure of “conservatism” collapses in a heap, reducing the Bucklian rhetoric to sound and fury, signifying nothing. (I cannot, in this space, justify these bold assertions. However, I can refer you to my almost completed book that attempts that justification: Conscience of a Progressive  –  still in search of a publisher, by the way).

Buckley’s conservatism contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction, and Buckley lived long enough to see the germination of those seeds.  Despite the awesome propaganda mill of the corporate mass media, ordinary American citizens are finally beginning to understand full-well that they have been had. They are losing their jobs, their homes, their health care, and their pensions, while the cost of essentials such as food, home heating and transportation fuel rise. They can no longer afford to send their children to college to obtain the skills necessary sustain a tolerable standard of living. Instead, many of those children are forced to join the military to fight and die in imperialistic foreign wars. The citizens’ privacy and civil rights are being dismantled along with the Constitution that once secured them. After years of GOP fiscal policy of “borrow and spend,” the U.S. economy is on the brink of collapse, with nothing left in the federal treasury with which to effect a rescue. At long last, the public is beginning to realize that with the privatization of elections and with it the use of unverifiable “black-box” voting machines, the right to vote is no longer a reliable instrument of political change and thus that the government is out of their control – it no longer “governs with the consent of the governed,” as demanded by the founding Declaration of the American republic.

The radical change that William F. Buckley Jr. resisted throughout his life is imminent, brought on by the very success of the conservatism that he championed.

It remains to be seen how the ruling conservative elites will respond to the magma of public discontent that is rising beneath their feet.

We can, at the very least, be confident of the validity of John F. Kennedy’s warning: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, will make violent revolution inevitable.”

Copyright 2008 by Ernest Partridge


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .