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William Buckley's Puzzling Legacy

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Message David Cogswell
After the recent death of William Buckley, who founded the National Review in 1955 and is widely credited with pulling together the disparate elements of conservatives and founding a movement that produced Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, enigmatic questions hover. In an interview with David Gergen in 2004 on The Lehrer News Hour, William Buckley said, "My conservative position is ultimately based on my conviction that the individual is supreme, that you can't mess with the individual. In this sense, I think Jesse -- Martin Luther King said really the same thing."

Perhaps it is just the essential yin/yang character of nature and the universe, but while Buckley proclaims the supremacy of the individualism, the conservatism that we are left with today has distinctly drifted toward corporatism, which is severely anti-individual. As Chomsky and others have pointed out, the development of corporations can coherently be drawn back to Hegelian ideas about organic institutions that are seen as greater than the individual. These were the same ideas that gave rise to fascism and Soviet communism.

The affinity of fascism and communism in their totalitarian authoritarianism is not hard to see, though it is ignored when theoreticians place them on opposite ends of the political spectrum as "extreme left" and "extreme right". How one moves left on the spectrum and ends up on the right has always been puzzling to schoolchildren, but perhaps it is one of the early steps in miseducation with the purpose of obliterating the critical functions of children before they have a chance to develop mental defense systems.

In any case, all three share this lineage and this affinity with large institutions that dominate over individuals. In fact, Mussolini did not distinguish between fascism and corporatism, said they were the same thing, and we should also recognize the identity. So again, it is very odd that an ideology, modern American conservatism, would start on a premise of the individual as supreme and end up with corporatism, in which the individual is trampled to the ground by the corporate elite as we see today, or by the Supreme Soviet as we saw in Stalin's day.

If we are to size up Buckley by his belief in the individual, then I am a fan and I will call myself a conservative. If we are to take him at his word that the source of his belief was Christianity, pointing out his affinity with Martin Luther King, for whom, "Christianity as the source of his feeling that man should be free," then I am again sympathatic to his beliefs. I am sympathetic not in that I am a fan of Christianity in terms the kinds of behavior it has produced, but in terms of the essential spirit that inspired it. As Lenny Bruce said, "If you call yourself a Christian, then I love you because I know you will try to relate to the world in the way that Jesus did." That rarely seems to be the case with today's so-called Christians, at least not the one's whose names and faces often appear in public places.

So what happened? How does a religion based on love, kindness, tolerance turn into such a hateful intolerant way of life? And how does an ideology based on the primacy of the individual, the limitation of the powers of government and frugality in economics turn into precisely its opposite as we see in the Bush-Cheney rogue administration? Buckley did not definitively comment on these contradictions as far as I know up until his death a few weeks ago, but it is interesting that he was proclaiming an affinity with Martin Luther King in his last book. He said he regretted in hindsight that conservatism had not supported the civil rights movement. 

He also lived to call down the Bush administration, which he said would be judged by the failure of the Iraq war (See Truthdig). But he went along with the motivation for the war and claimed to believe that Cheney was "misled" by faulty intelligence rather than the reverse, that Cheney forced the intelligence agencies to produce the reports he wanted to justify his agenda, which is proven by the record.

Buckley's Christian assertions notwithstanding, however, he is seen in a 1970s clip from his TV show "Frontline" (included in the movie Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media) telling Chomsky, "I'll smash your f*cking face," which was hardly a Christian sentiment and made Chomsky, a Jew, look clearly more Christian in contrast.

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David Cogswell is a writer based in Hoboken, N.J. He 's written thousands of articles on business, travel, politics, and the arts for various print and online publications, including Online Journal, Democratic Underground, Bushwatch, Prison Planet, (more...)
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The Half Empty Glass

William Buckley's Puzzling Legacy

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