Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Atlantic has published a glowing eulogy of William F. Buckley by Garry Wills which I highly recommend -- but with the proviso that one read the following passage from Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead shortly before or after:

Isn't that the root of every despicable action? Not selfishness, but precisely the absence of a self. Look at them. The man who cheats and lies, but preserves a respectable front. He knows himself to be dishonest, but others think he's honest and he derives his self-respect from that, second-hand. The man who takes credit for an achievement which is not his own. He knows himself to be mediocre, but he's great in the eyes of others. The frustrated wretch who professes love for the inferior and clings to those less endowed, in order to establish his own superiority by comparison . . . . They're second-handers . . . .

They have no concern for facts, ideas, work. They’re concerned only with people. They don't ask: "Is this true?" They ask: "Is this what others think is true?" Not to judge, but to repeat. Not to do, but to give the impression of doing. Not creation, but show. Not ability, but friendship. Not merit, but pull. (605, and more here) [bold added]
Wills praises Buckley in turns for such exploits as using "big words" he does not know the meanings of, beating a CIA polygraph test, being let off the hook as a favor by the police at a traffic stop, defying other Catholics in political squabbling over papal encyclicals, attending Spanish Masses with his servants, and habitually riding a motorcycle without a helmet. Wills marshals all these things in an attempt to portray a man of physical courage, moral strength, and common appeal. Too bad that the real common thread is an elevation of the perceptions of others over all else, including the facts of reality.

Revealingly, Wills praises Buckley for being "basically egalitarian" "[d]espite [sic] his religious and ideological preferences" -- and then goes right along with Buckley's lack of concern for facts (and hypocrisy) with the following passage under the heading of "Ideological Snob?"
By the time of his death, even Bill's earlier critics admitted that he had done much to make conservatism respectable by purging it of racist and fanatical traits earlier embedded in it. He distanced his followers from the southern prejudices of George Wallace, the anti-Semitism of the Liberty Lobby, the fanaticism of the John Birch Society, the glorification of selfishness by Ayn Rand (famously excoriated in National Review by Whittaker Chambers), the paranoia and conspiratorialism of the neocons. In each of these cases, some right-wingers tried to cut off donations to National Review, but Bill stood his ground. In doing so, he elevated the discourse of American politics, making civil debate possible between responsible liberals and conservatives.
Buckley's egalitarianism apparently went out the window when he thought his "preferences" might not be deemed "respectable." I hold no esteem for egalitarianism and think ideas far too important to relegate to the realm of whim, so I leave it to Wills to explain the above discrepancy. Intellectual standards cannot be based on whim and, as such, cannot coexist with egalitarianism. Buckley and Wills's deliberate injustice towards Rand bears this out. History is also bearing this out: Read on.

It is of interest that, other than advertising links to books, the above hyperlink is the only one in the article. The fact that the Whittaker Chambers piece is a review in name only speaks volumes about Buckley's (and Wills's) "concern for facts" and reveals that Ayn Rand understood him far better than he understood her or, I hazard to guess, cared to understand himself.

But yes, I'll grant that Buckley was selfless. Fortunately, if relative book sales figures for God and Man at Yale and Atlas Shrugged are any indication, it would appear that the facts of reality so blithely flouted by Buckley and his boy Wills are vindicating Ayn Rand, and leaving Buckley's intellectual legacy where it belongs: in the same ash heap to which his followers continue trying to consign her.

Wills devotes an entire article to debunking the charge that Buckley was a snob, going so far as to address three distinct types of snobbishness: social, ideological, and intellectual. Nevertheless, Buckley was a snob, but more important, his snobbishness is rooted in his second-handedness. Wills might not see this, and Buckley's other admirers might not see this, but anyone with an independent mind will, as soon as he spends any time with the man through the verbiage he left behind.

Egalitarianism, as an intellectual fashion, often goes hand-in-hand with snobbishness, and a truly selfish man who understands the potential value of other people will not be a snob. Nor will he read Buckley and fail to see either the egalitarianism or the snobbery.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

Good post. Also worth reading...

William F. Buckley, Jr.: The Witch-Doctor is Dead

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks, and yes, that article is definitely worthwhile.