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Lamb Amongst Wolves
March 11, 2008

William F. Buckley Jr. in Perspective
by Kevin Lamb

William F. Buckley’s death two weeks ago generated the usual avalanche of glowing tributes and commentary. Every major newspaper repeated the usual stale anecdotes of the suave and sophisticated National Review founder and raconteur. Newsweek featured Buckley on the magazine’s cover. The day after Buckley’s death The Washington Post published four separate items on him: a front-page obituary, Henry Allen’s appreciation in the “Style” section, an op-ed by Mona Charen, and a newspaper editorial that credited him for turning a movement that lacked “intellectual respectability” into an “influential conservative intellectual establishment.”

According to legend, Buckley defined the modern conservative movement. He served as the guiding force in consolidating articulate conservative intellectuals with the launch of National Review in the mid 1950s. In essence, he redefined the Flynn-Taft isolationist Old Right — the post–New Deal Right — that over the years morphed into a politically correct form of conservatism. The gist of recently published commentary suggests that had Buckley not arrived on the scene, the post–New Deal Right would be dominated by bumbling, unsophisticated misfits and deranged kooks!

Buckley’s launch of National Review admittedly was a pivotal event for providing an early outlet for the views of an eclectic group of conservative writers. As J. David Hoeveler Jr. notes in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, “He brought a measure of cohesiveness to a disparate group of dissenters from the liberalism that dominated the American intellectual community.” National Review became an outlet for thoughtful conservative writers, such as Mel Bradford, James Burnham, M. StantonJames J. Kilpatrick, Russell Kirk, Joseph Sobran, and Richard Weaver.

However, the amorphous and fluid intellectual trajectory of National Review over the years — its inconsistency on civil rights and the immigration issue — ultimately proved problematic for the publication and the larger conservative movement.

As a political force that Buckley helped to forge, the transformation of conservatism from maverick to establishment status compromised principled positions on topics that by today’s standards are beyond taboo for polite society. Controversial or provocative commentary, some of which defined the early contents of National Review, would gradually disappear with the rise of the publication’s celebrity status. Any sustained analysis of racial differences, the impact of racial integration on American society, or the overreach of civil-rights legislation is now rendered beyond the pale.

Over the course of his life, Buckley had reached celebrity status by recasting “conservatism” in acceptable terms to the arch-egalitarian Left. His ultimate legacy: making “conservatism” chic. Buckley’s embrace of the neoconservatives, the Trotskyite Right, ensured that the “conservative movement” would morph into its present-day Social Democrat status.

Proof that Buckley attained acceptance by the establishment’s ruling elite is the glowing tributes published in the nation’s leading newspapers, notably the flattering front-page obituaries in The New York Times and Washington Post. These appreciations speak volumes about him and about the fact that the deceased was ideologically not of the “Right” — a “modern conservative” perhaps — but center of “Right” in the traditional sense of the political spectrum. A “conservative” by today’s standards seems to encompass anyone who is to the right of Che Guevara.

For all the sentimental back-slapping of Buckley by conservatives, what exactly are the accomplishments of the conservative movement in the past half-century? A smaller federal government? Fiscal responsibility? The protection and advancement of liberty and freedom? What are the lasting achievements of the conservative movement? An alternative media? Stopping America’s cultural slide to the far Left? The single most important beachhead for liberalism is the vice-like grip on our cultural and social institutions through public education and the mass media. Conservatives have punted to reverse what James Burnham once referred to as the “Suicide of the West.”

It is precisely “Chairman Bill’s” thumbprint on the “conservative movement” that led to intellectual stagnation on a host of critical issues facing the West: mass immigration, multiculturalism, ballooning of the welfare state, racial preferences, and opposition to racial egalitarianism. If preserving one’s cultural and ethnic heritage isn’t a worthy goal of the “conservative” movement, what is? The tepid reaction from conservative quarters to an exploding demographic shift — one that is transforming America’s dominant European roots into a Third World culture — is simply mind-boggling!

Marcus Epstein rightly points out on VDARE.com that the “prevailing structure of taboos” has shifted considerably to the Left. Buckley and the modern conservative movement are largely to blame for not resisting this cultural climate, which has festered to the point where men can lose their career for speaking too freely.

In the mid 1950s Richard Weaver once noted in National Review, “Most of us readily admit that this nation owes both its independence and its happiness to the principle of self-determination. That principle is now in danger of being suppressed by a blind zeal for standardization and enforced conformity. To oppose that trend, we do not have to become sectionalists. We need only grant the right of distinct groups to exercise some liberty of choice in the ordering of their social and cultural arrangements. If that liberty is denied, there will be no ground left on which to assert any other liberty.”

Weaver’s admonition that it was a mistake for conservatives to drift just to the right of the Left as the country lurched ever leftward culturally and politically was remarkably prescient. This is precisely what has defined the “conservative” agenda over the years. The legacy of American “conservatives” has been to reassure liberals they aren’t really that conservative; and to prove that they really are not bigots and racists they have no intention of conserving our European heritage.

Thank you, “Chairman Bill,” for this heralded achievement.

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Lamb Amongst Wolves column by Kevin Lamb is copyright © 2008 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfbooks.com.
All rights reserved. Permission is granted to reprint if credit is given to the author and the Foundation.

Kevin Lamb is managing editor of The Social Contract magazine. His articles have appeared on VDARE.com and in National Review, Human Events, Chronicles, Middle American News, and the Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies.

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