Thursday, September 26, 2013

In 1965, William F. Buckley Threatened a Race War

(But don't worry. He assured his audience that Whites would have the best interests of Blacks at heart as they fought them).

Ta-Nehisi Coates linked to this a couple days ago. It turns out that William F. Buckley and James Baldwin went across the pond in 1965 and had a debate at Cambridge on the question: "Is the American Dream at the Expense of the American Negro?" Buckley, that vaunted conservative founding father, got his clock cleaned by the gay Black man. 

Baldwin's oration was moving on an emotional level, but was undergirded by a really big intellectual idea about the nature of reality and how we perceive it. Buckley claimed that he essentially agreed with all the moral sensibilities of the civil rights movement but disagreed about the way to go about it. He was laughed at repeatedly, and even took a couple crass personal shots on Baldwin himself. By the end, he was reduced to arguing that Black activists were threatening  traditional American principles of economy and government, and that their gains must not be made at the expense of the American way of life. If forced to choose between American principles and Black rights, he warned, White Americans would choose the former, and be willing to fight for them.

So ironically, he ended up arguing the very opposite of what he set out to defend: that the American Dream was not at the expense of the Negro. Perhaps, his argument was more nuanced. The American Dream was not at the expense of the Negro, but radical Black activists threatened to make it so. So, yeah, it's all Black people's fault. The most astonishing thing about the end of Buckley's speech is that he compares a theoretical war between White and Black Americans to Britain's war against Nazi Germany. You can guess which group is the British and which group is the Nazis in this American scenario.

This is astonishing, even though I already knew about his pro-segregationist editorials in the 1950s.  This is one of the most influential and respected intellectual figures in the rise of modern conservatism. And modern conservatism has yet to grapple with the true nature of its intellectual inheritance.

But its also a much broader question than conservatism. We should think about the degree to which Buckley was right. Of course he was wrong in envisioning an apocalyptic war. But his bigger point -- that White Americans would always choose what they consider to be the essential American way of life over Black rights when they are perceived to be in conflict -- has not been disproven. If anything, it has been borne out. The broadest economic indicators reveal that Blacks have made no meaningful progress in relation to Whites since the civil rights movement. White economic supremacy remains unchallenged. The systemically unequal education structure remains unchallenged. To combat these and other issues would require steps that many Americans might consider a departure from the American Way. What Buckley perhaps didn't realize is that Whites would be able to defeat the push for racial equality without needing to resort to violence. Speaking in 1965, he didn't yet realize just how strong his position was and how many Americans agreed with him.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Thoughts for Sunday

Another selection from Langston Hughes:

To Certain "Brothers"

You sicken me with lies,
With truthful lies.
And with your pious faces.
And your wide, out-stretched,
     mock-welcome, Christian hands.
While underneath
Is dirt and ugliness,
And rottening hearts,
And wild hyenas howling
In your soul's waste lands.