George Will notices that bad people are getting conservatism dirty.
In 1950, the year before William F. Buckley burst into the national conversation, the literary critic Lionel Trilling revealed why the nation was ripe for Buckley’s high-spirited romp through its political and cultural controversies. Liberalism, Trilling declared, was “not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” in mid-century America because conservatism was expressed merely in “irritable mental gestures.” Buckley would change that by infusing conservatism with brio, bringing elegance to its advocacy and altering the nation’s trajectory while having a grand time.
Today, conservatism is soiled by scowling primitives whose irritable gestures lack mental ingredients. America needs a reminder of conservatism before vulgarians hijacked it, and a hint of how it became susceptible to hijacking.
[Buckley], to his credit, befriended Whittaker Chambers, whose autobiography “Witness” became a canonical text of conservatism. Unfortunately, it injected conservatism with a sour, whiney, complaining, crybaby populism. It is the screechy and dominant tone of the loutish faux conservatism that today is erasing Buckley’s legacy of infectious cheerfulness and unapologetic embrace of high culture.
Chambers wallowed in cloying sentimentality and curdled resentment about “the plain men and women” — “my people, humble people, strong in common sense, in common goodness” — enduring the “musk of snobbism” emanating from the “socially formidable circles” of the “nicest people” produced by “certain collegiate eyries.” Buckley, a Bach aficionado from Yale and ocean mariner from the New York Yacht Club, was unembarrassed about having good taste and without guilt about savoring the good life.
Of course a Yalie elitist is so much better than a back-to-the-land bumpkin farmer–regardless of said bumkin’s own “good taste” or education. There’s a funny thing, however, about him attacking the “sour, whiney, complaining, crybaby populism” of Whittaker Chambers. First of all, the idea that Witness is the “canonical text of conservatism” is absurd. Chambers described himself as “a man of the right” explicitly stating he was NOT a conservative. There are more than a few passages in Witness that struck me as being close to a proto-alt-right take on things. All the more reason for Will to hate him. But most interesting of all is a quote from Chambers included in the forward to the 50th anniversary edition of Witness written by Buckley himself.
[I]f the Republican Party cannot get some grip on the actually world we live in and from it generalize and actively promote a program that means something to the masses of people–why somebody else will. Then there will be nothing to argue. The voters will simply vote Republicans into a singularity. The Republican Party will became like one of those dark little shops which apparently never sell anything. If, for any reason, you go in, you find at the back an old man, fingering for his own pleasure some oddments of cloth. Nobody wants to buy them, which is fine because the old man is not really interested in selling.
It’s a wonder Buckley didn’t write him out of the conservative movement–perhaps it is Chambers denial of the lable that saved him. But it’s more the wonder that Buckley could have included this in his reminiscence and been completely unaware of its implication. Even fifty years ago Chambers could see where the Republicans were headed. They haven’t got anything meaningful for the masses and they will be replaced. Buckley should have listened.
Then again maybe he did. Maybe he simply didn’t care. For as Vox Day, one of those scowling primitives, writes, Buckley “was, without question, a significant part of the problem; he was no true soldier of the Right, but rather, the treacherous captain of the Left’s Cuckservative Guard.” He built up conservatism all right–a conservatism doomed to failure.