'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Reflections on the Death of William F. Buckley 

Cruising around, I've seen very little comment that places William F. Buckley, Jr. within the proper social context, although Jane Hamsher of firedoglake came close when she posted the video of his acrimonious 1968 television confrontation with Gore Vidal.

Buckley was a representative of a unique species, the postwar political intellectual, much in the same way as Vidal, Satre, Debord and Mailer, just to name a few. And, like Debord and the situationists, he created his own social scene, defined through its stark contrast with the liberal world around it and an alternative ideological perspective. Indeed, his whimsical 1965 run for mayor of New York can be seen as a uniquely American variant of a situationist public display, a a dialetical unification of art and life for the purpose of exposing the contradictions within the purportedly tolerant, liberal society of the 1960s. Mailer, of course, did something similar in his own combative way, when he ran for mayor in 1969.

Intellectuals like Buckley attained a public notoriety in the postwar modernist period, a notoriety based upon the notion that their opinions about most anything, but especially politics and social life, possessed an importance beyond those of anyone else. Education was a priority and the workers of that time emphasized a college education for their children, almost to the point of obsession, so there was, I think, a naive deference that people exhibited toward figures like Buckley and Vidal. The feud between the two was ignited when they were invited to comment upon events at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago by a major television network, something that would be incomprehensible today.

With the passing of that era, and the entry into the postmodern one in which we now live, intellectuals are no longer considered essential arbiters and moral voices on the critical issues of our time. Buckley and and Mailer lived through it, and the diminishment in public attention associated with it. Buckley's opinions were no longer taken seriously, even as they became more urgent and compelling, such as his support for the legalization of drugs and his contention that Bush's invasion of Iraq was inconsistent with conservative values because it involved a willful flight from engaging reality, and he was increasingly isolated from the movement that he had contributed so much to create.

In this postmodern era, US conservatism is, as implicitly recognized by Buckley in his criticism of war in Iraq, more populist, evangelical, and hence, more idealistic, more utopian, and nothing aroused Buckley's ire more than utopian visions. He considered them inherently corrupt, if not prone towards the emergence of authoritarism. In other words, he was not a neoconservative, and may have privately shared Justin Raimondo's belief that neonconservatism is an offspring of Trotskyism. Buckley was a product of his time, as is Vidal (and it might serve Vidal well to graciously recognize their kinship, even in virulent opposition), and no suitable replacements can be seen on the horizon.

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