Buckley: Mixed Signals, Mixed Legacy?

While Thomas is on a sabbatical from the blog, I will continue my occasional guest posts – Postmodern Conservative.

When William F. Buckley passed away in February, I found myself harboring mixed emotions. I probably wasn’t the only one. The man had quite a legacy, fostering a major movement that was an improvement on the conspiracy-obsessed and isolationist John Birch variety of right wing politics that had become a stereotype of conservative thinking in the mid-20th century. At the same time, I could not embrace Buckley as a hero. He believed in the legalization of marijuana and, more importantly, adopted the pose of an urbane sophisticate who winked at the seedier side of popular culture. What seemed to be his main gripe was not so much bad morals as a lack of panache. Thus he would write witty pieces for Penthouse magazine and his National Review rather infamously celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Playboy in the 2003 article by Catherine Seipp (a fact which alienated social conservatives). Was this just fashionable posing? Even Buckley’s take on the issue was infuriatingly contrarian and ambiguous. There is something sanctimonious in that, like wanting to have your cake and eat it too.

I don’t think anyone believes conservatives must be puritans, but the obvious problem with Hugh Hefner’s Playboy is that it took a cultural sideline—eroticism and sexual irresponsibility—into the mainstream. The barrier was down and worse things would follow. It was not possible to keep things in little boxes, as the libertines (conservative or liberal) imagined. After all, Hefner and his lobby worked heavily to promote abortion and homosexuality. If nothing else, the whole STD dilemma that we are still grappling with is due in large part to the attitudes fostered by the Playboy lifestyle.

If it’s true that the conservative movement that came out of Buckley’s experience was an intellectual improvement, it was not necessarily a philosophical one. There is a difference. While it’s important to reach people through the common culture, it does not mean dumbing-down beliefs in favor of short-term ideological gains. It is this glib attitude that, rightly or wrongly, caused many people to split off from Buckleyite conservatism into the paleo-con movement.

As John Henry Newman put it: “Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility….” Newman was as much an intellectual as Buckley, but he knew that in the end people are converted from error not because an argument is clever but because it is right. And one has to wonder how long Buckley’s influence will last. Will it be as defining as that of Malcolm Muggeridge, Russell Kirk, and Thomas Sowell? Time will tell.