WFB RIP

I hadn’t looked at that tattered copy of William F. Buckley’s “Up from Liberalism” which sits on my shelf since I picked it up as a freshman in the basement of Harvard Book Store. I don’t know why I purchased it then, except that I had a freshman’s vague sense that Buckley was “important” and that I should know what he thought.

The book’s yellow highlighting tells me that I indeed read through the entire book, and looking back now it tells me what I found noteworthy then. My judgment wasn’t all that bad.

Consider Buckley on the hesitation people feel about identifying themselves with a party or movement: “Many people are not satisfied to be unique merely in the eyes of God, and spend considerable time in flight from any orthodoxy.”

Or his witticisms about fallacies put forward by fuzzy-thinking liberals such as, in his view, Eleanor Roosevelt: “I grant that following Mrs. Roosevelt in search of irrationality is like following a burning fuse in search of an explosive; one never has to wait very long.”

I had not even heard of “God and Man at Yale” then but found Buckley’s remarks on education telling. Education he insisted was inevitably indoctrination, in one form or another: “Socrates was neither unintelligent nor shallow, nor, for that matter, were Adam Smith and Lenin. But they did not approach a classroom as a vast hippodrome, where all ideas ‘start even in the race,’ where teachers must interfere with none, because the right idea will automatically come romping home ahead of all the others.”

I can tell you after sitting through many university sessions on teaching methods that something like the hippodrome approach remains official doctrine. Yet even so, professors necessarily “indoctrinate”--since the pretense that they cannot or should not instruct itself implies a doctrine (which students will mindlessly echo).

To prove his point about indoctrination, Buckley pointed to a survey showing that, whereas Yale Freshman favored the Republican candidate by at 2:1 margin, the proportion was reversed by senior year, and that students in Yale Law School voted Democrat by a proportion of 14:1. This is the forerunner of similar surveys today which show, for instance, that only about 1 percent of university and college professors are pro-life.

In response to those who would brand him as “intolerant” because he was a severe critic of Soviet-style communism, Buckley wrote: “Let those who understand this to be a call to intolerance bear in mind the dictum of Etienne Gilson: tolerance is a meaningless concept except as practiced by a fervent believer. How can the modern relativist exercise tolerance if he doesn’t believe in anything to begin with?”

But any paragraph written by Buckley contains something equally intelligent.

William F. Buckley was 82 years old when last February 27 he died at his desk in the early morning hours, working before dawn as was his custom. His “God and Man at Yale,” the sensational bestseller of 1951, accurately foretold the path toward institutionalized secularism that most of American higher education would take in subsequent decades.

Buckley dedicated the first half of his life to fighting communism and by the end of his life could justly claimed to have won. The movement which Buckley founded when he began the magazine, National Review, created the political conditions in which Ronald Reagan might be elected president, and Reagan together with John Paul II helped bring down communism in a miraculously bloodless revolution.

Buckley gets maligned on a false charge in some Catholic circles. For instance, in a column curiously published six years to the day before Buckley’s death, an eminent American churchman claimed that Buckley was the originator of “cafeteria Catholicism”:

“When Pope John XXIII’s great 1961 encyclical, ‘Mater et Magistra,’ first appeared, conservative author William Buckley, who didn’t like the pope’s economics, wrote a famous column called, “Mater si, Magistra no!” -- mother yes, teacher no. That led Louise and Mark Zwick to later characterize him in the Houston Catholic Worker as ‘the inventor of cafeteria Catholicism and the pro-choice stance (at least in economics), who accepted encyclicals he agreed with and rejected others.’ I think they’re right.”

But Buckley never wrote any such column, or even used the phrase. The phrase was coined by Gary Wills, then a protege of Buckley, in imitation of the chant made famous by Fidel Castro’s followers, “Cuba Si! Yanqui No!” Buckley did indeed criticize the encyclical for being “inopportune” (i.e. true but unhelpful in the conditions in which it was stated), and also for not explicitly criticizing communism or discussing the conditions of wealth creation. He also thought that the encyclical was written in such a way as to make it easily co-opted by social theorists on the left, who actually were at odds with fundamentals of Catholic social thought.

These seem to be prudential judgments that a faithful Catholic would be free to hold. In retrospect they may even appear to be true.

Or perhaps God has his own ideas about what counts as opportune, and that, although it might have seemed to some that John XXIII was soft on communism, this “softness”--or call it “discretion”-- was somehow necessary if there was to arise, not simply a great man, but rather a great saint, who would show through the example of his prayers, as much as by his writing and speaking, the way in which evil empires actually do topple.

Michael Pakaluk is a visiting professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of America.

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