probably had to live through the times to better appreciate the real
significance of William F. Buckley. A deserving plethora of
encomia—wouldn’t he use a word like this?—currently suffuses
conservative media outlets, cataloguing the great man’s kindness,
humility, extraordinary intelligence, his peerless wit, his fundamental
civility, and his importance to modern conservatism especially and
contemporary thought generally.
Among greybeards and those mesmerized by
appeals to the better angels of our nature, this last item on the list
stands out, because it would have been absent without that single
quality that propels all historical greatness, which is courage. Above
all, Bill Buckley possessed intellectual courage, of the sort that
insists a flickering candle of truth can successfully challenge the
darkness of ideological bigotry, provided it is wielded by a person who
shields the flame with courage. Kindness and humility are admirable,
but not unique; intelligence, learning, and articulation can flow from
safe havens of college lecterns; wit can be purchased, and civility,
though constantly in short supply, can be learned. But courage stands
alone. Without it, nothing else can have an impact on individuals, or
indeed, on civilizations.
Again, one probably had to have been there. You
had to have attended high school and college during a time when
conservatism was treated as a mental disorder, a dangerous atavism that
hosts authoritarian personalities best exemplified by the unspeakable
evils of recently dispatched totalitarian leaders and their
henchmen—Hitler, Mussolini, Mengele, Eichmann. To be a conservative
during the 1950s and 1960s was to be associated with the most macabre
inhabitants lurking in stories penned by Poe, Lovecraft, or Machen.
After all, weren’t conservatives the real culprits in The Paranoid Style of American Politics, or Anti-intellectualism in American Life? Hadn’t conservatives grasped the message in The End of Ideology? And weren’t conservatives the grand manipulators in The Power Elite?
In short, weren’t conservatives the Alley Oops of the
era—knuckle-dragging troglodytes targeted for extinction by Big
History, that metaphysical beast that lumbers through time, crushing
everything in its path?
A few distinctions are in order here: Small
history comprises those details of ordinary life—waking, preparing for
the day, working, living, loving, retiring, passing away. Small history
can be orderly but also capricious, exhilarating but unpredictable,
adventitious and often nasty. By contrast, Big History, universal
history with a capital “H,” takes a grand sweep of events and declares
their pattern, the inevitability of designated stages. Big History is
progressive and linear; hence, the phrase, being on the right or wrong
side of history.
Though inspired by Jewish and Christian
thought, Big History more recently traces its roots to the
Enlightenment, especially in France and Germany. Socialism, fascism,
and communism were the prevailing big histories to emerge from the
speculations of enlightenment thinkers, several of whom seemed to
conclude that everything that had happened prior to them conveniently
came to fruition in their own ruminations about the past and future.
Hegel’s grandiose philosophy of history rested on this view, and the
fever swamp of Karl Marx’s imagination almost parodied intellectuals’
arrogance about their abilities to comprehend and expostulate on the
ultimate meaning and direction of world events. Capital “H” historians
differ in the details of interpretations, but they all have this in
common: the passage of historical stages is inevitable, and there’s not
much you can do about it, except perhaps “speed it up” in some fashion
along deterministic lines.
To all this William Buckley said no, especially
to the variant of Big History dominant at the time, the liberal-leftism
of post-war New Deal thought and its 1960s offspring, The Great
Society. Therein lay Buckley’s real historical significance, in that he
demonstrated that there are no inevitabilities in history, beyond one’s
personal origins and passing from this world. In three global
conflicts, western liberalism prevailed against the monstrous big
histories of the twentieth century, but became smug and supercilious in
the process. Against it stood a single person who spurned the casual
arrogance and intolerance of the day, by insisting that wisdom teaches
humility in attempts to comprehend the great dramas of history, and
that only a morality based on individual human dignity can withstand
assaults of totalitarian believers in Big History. Such views required
a person of great intellectual and moral courage. Such a man was
William F. Buckley, Jr.