In the last months of his life, William F. Buckley, Jr., the founder of the iconic National Review magazine and leader of the conservative movement for nearly half a century, saw his life’s work in shatters, writes Buckley’s brother Reid in his new book, “The Idiocy of Assent.”
“He evidently knew…that all his work was disintegrating around him and there was nothing he (nor anyone else) could do to resuscitate it,” Reid Buckley writes.
Buckley’s book seeks to fill the void with a blistering assault on American culture he sees as faltering due to moral decay, universities steeped in post-modernism and a conservative movement smugly pleased with itself and narrow in its focus.
Buckley rails against the baby boomers’ sense of entitlement, fitness “freaks” who put their faith in the “corruptible body” and, in six consecutive chapters, “American stupidity.”
He discusses resigning from a teaching position at a university out of disgust at the dismal work of his students, the big spending betrayals by Republicans during the Bush years and urges the right to make “the true, the good and the beautiful” its top priority.
Though the GOP made huge gains in the midterm elections, Buckley views conservatives’ – and America’s — overall situation as dire. Buckley urges radical spending cuts, but concedes the right will need to somehow make peace with big government or find itself soon on the fringes of American political life.
The Daily Caller talked with Buckley about his book, why expected Speaker-to-be John Boehner should resign, and what East Coast elites can learn from Sarah Palin:
Republicans just won over 60 seats in the House and made major gains in the Senate, in part because of the energy of a protest movement, the Tea Partiers, who demand a smaller government. Yet you see a dark future for conservatives?
I think it’s sort of the last gasp of an expiring base. It’s delightful and I hope that the Tea Party-backed people in the Congress have their way, but I think, still, that we’re talking about a base that is bit by bit disappearing.
Number one, the American public is almost incredibly ignorant [about] the founding of the Republic. Number two, there is a paganization in our culture. And number three, we have to absorb a whole bunch of Hispanics and also Asians, who in all their history, going back before the middle ages, have never experienced free government or the notion of a republic. That takes a huge change in their native reflexes, and it requires acculturation which is not done by the immigration services.
My wife was born in Spain, raised in Spain, she’s now an American citizen. And I can tell you, the instructions she got to become an American citizen were incredibly superficial — none of the major philosophical questions that brought up our republic.
She doesn’t really have much understanding of the structure of the government. And why should she? Nobody is really giving that kind of instruction any more.
What about the GOP’s congressional leadership that presided over the electoral victories?
In general, I think the becoming thing for them to do is to resign, resign their posts and then have election and see who comes up. I think John Boehner should resign his position. And he may be reelected, but lets let that happen with the authority of the new members of Congress.
It would clean out the good old boys. These good old boys were the ones who under the Bush administration started the terrible spending.
Do they have the stomach to actually talk about Social Security? How are we going to get spending under control unless we actually talk about Social Security? And not only talk about it as a program that is out of control fiscally, but talk about it as a program that should never have started.
At one point there was a vibrant conservative movement led by William F. Buckley, Jr., your late brother, but now you say the conservative movement is in peril. What happened?
It’s the victory of the baby boomers. The 1960’s were big. And all the attitudes, all the materialism, all the egoism, the narcissism of that era have [invaded] our politics. The harm gets done through the universities. The education of liberal arts is woeful. It’s almost non-existent. And what it does teach is generally wrong. In most cases, it is totally materialistic, with no input on the spiritual status of the human being at all, and ignorant of the history of the United States.
You write your brother was saddened by the state of conservatism in the waning years of his life.
I think his sadness was extraordinary. His sorrow was so deep. He saw the conservative movement, I believe, go downhill and the Bush administration offended him. He was very anti-Wilsonian and he was offended by Iraq, number one.
Number two, he was deeply offended by the domestic agenda of the Bush administration, for example the outrageous farm bill, the outrageous steel bill. The extraordinary deficit that it was leading to. I think what also offended him was the idea of keeping the cost of the Iraq war off budget, because it was dishonest.
But I think largely what Bill worried about was that we had lost the edge. And that the movement had become establishmentarian. He was a natural rebel.
What role did National Review play in the conservative movement faltering?
National Review still has some wonderful articles in every issue. But it’s lost wit, it’s lost bite, it seems to me. And it seems to be satisfied. There’s a smugness about the writing and an arrogance that rubbed me the wrong way.
What I would like to see injected there is somebody from rural America from across the Mississippi and to inject a different kind of philosophy in the leadership of National Review.
And in this I include the Weekly Standard – the neoconservatives there – and the American Spectator.
In isolating education as where “the damage is done,” what would you like to see students taught?
I’d like them to be instructed in vision of the city on a hill. That this was a special, an extraordinary event, it was almost guided by the Holy Spirit that there should exist this continent between two immense oceans, and that we should be permitted to try to build a small republic here.
This is an ontological vision that young people have to understand in order for them to understand why we have such a thing as equality. Equality makes absolutely no sense to anyone unless you believe that we are heirs, all of us, to kingdom of the hereafter. Christ made us equal. Without Christ, equality is a delusion that was savagely demolished by Jacques Barzun in his recent book, “From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present.”
You have said conservatives need to make peace with big government. How would they do that?
Well, I would like to find a theoretician who can make this concordant. I don’t know of one right now. We need a philosopher who can bring us together.
One of the things that arouses my hope in the recent election is that we do have the Tea Party people there who really attack spending.
What I’m hoping they do is to refuse to raise the limit on our debt.
And, for example, I would like to see Republicans work for the abolition of the departments of Energy and Education, the Rural Electrification Board [now called the Rural Utilities Service], the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Army Corps of Engineers – just to begin with. Then abolish or sell Amtrak.
Curtail the ambitions of the EPA by specifying exactly what that agency is authorized to do. Freeze all spending associated with Obamacare, raise the Social Security retirement age to 70, eliminate all payments by Medicare for drugs to the people who can afford it, and also payments by Medicare for health care for people who can afford it.
Reduce Medicare funding by those amounts. Reduce the salaries and expenditures of Congress by 25 percent. Ditto for the White House. Reduce by withholding funds all government employment by 25 percent including the Department of Defense. Authorize no spending beyond subsistence for the DOD unless it is accompanied by a cut in spending elsewhere. This will make future military expenditures pay as you go.
And all these things, right now, I think should be brought up.
Your spending proposals will, I’m sure, warm the hearts of many Tea Partiers. But in other areas, your views depart from conservative orthodoxy. One of those is on the environment.
Conservation and conservatism should be on and the same thing.
That there is conservative establishment irks me, because we should anti-establishmentarians always. But what we have is the petty bourgeoisie of the beltway trying to run our conservative philosophy. I resent it.
These people are urban. They have practically no exposure to anything beyond the beltway. I don’t think half of them have lived two months in a foreign country. They probably have never visited Mexico, Peru and Chile or any of the other countries who are our neighbors. These people have little understanding of what makes America tick.
This is where somebody like Sarah Palin makes fools of them. She comes from the rural northwest. She speaks like a person from the Dakotas. She speaks like a person from Wisconsin. She drops her present participles.
This is something that is reacted to by snobs in the wrong fashion. They should try to learn from people like Sarah Palin.
Is she the type of leader who could rectify the conservative movement?
Well, I don’t know. [Paul] Ryan or Sarah Palin or somebody who is raised in that philosophy.
Nobody is equipped to be President of the United States. The bureaucracy has not been contained. You can’t possibly do everything well. The government’s become too large.
We have to find out some way to reduce the size of the government without actually attacking any of its agencies. I think the way to do that is to emphasize the policy of subsidiarity. That no public agency should do what a private agency could do better, and that no larger public agency should do what a smaller public agency could do better. That’s the principle of federalism and that’s what, I think, we have to get to.
If we want to have a Department of Energy, this should be through the states, not through the federal government.
The way to do it is to start from the premise that the indispensible social unit in any republic has to be the family and that the family has to be made responsible for its members. In other words, sons and daughters should be responsible for their aging parents. Their parents should be responsible for their sons and daughters.
If any member of that family becomes ill, the other members of that family should be the first people to respond, not the federal government, not even the state.
If someone happens to be so unfortunate as to be completely alone, then we should rely on the church, the community hall, the county, and then — only then — move onto the state in cases of total neglect.
In your book, you lament America’s moral decay, including a sense of entitlement in the baby boomers and subsequent generations. How would conservatives ever restore the sense of responsibility necessary to recreate a society in which sons of daughters care for their aging parents, for instance?
The first thing that has to be done is to tell people, “you don’t deserve anything.” They’re told they deserve everything, that everything is an entitlement. But we should be very clear that the only thing they deserve is the liberty of their conscience and justice under the law.
Otherwise, it is up to them. If, for example, they want to go to college, well, they have to work hard enough to get a scholarship or in the summers to save money.
This attitude that is not narcissistic has to be implanted in young people.
I think what does that, I point back to the old time religion. That is something that has to be revived, and in a hurry.
The republic, without its Judeo-Christian base, cannot survive. Only with a strong Judeo-Christian base can this republic move forward and exercise the kind of compassion that is necessary in so many circumstances.
Another thing you discuss in your book is the loss of beauty as an end of American culture and politics, including blasting ugly strip malls and chain stores.
I think we have to go back to the idea of beauty and the true and the good, that those things are integrally related.
If you savage the countryside, one way or another, you are hurting the beautiful. And if you hurt the beautiful, you will also then deter the good. If you offend the aesthetic sense of human beings, then you will also harm their ability to make distinctions in an examination of the good.
We don’t have distinctions about the actual worthiness of what we are trying to do with the government or locally, anymore.
We have to go back to an understanding that these things are interrelated and that one cannot harm the beautiful without harming the true and the good also. We should be very careful about ravishing our countryside.
People who are raised in urban circumstances have very little appreciation of natural beauty. Their aesthetic sense is largely blunted by their upbringing.
There was an example of children raised in New York city, many of whom didn’t know where milk came from and had never seen a live chicken. I think these were serious problems.
I don’t think we need to go back to an agrarian republic. But I do think we have to give that a place in a general concept of a republic. If we commit sacrilege against some of the beauties of this countryside, we are hurting ourselves. And the immediate gain of, say, a Wal-Mart, does not satisfy the loss to a community when you have that old hardware store that’s been there for years all of the sudden goes down because it can’t stand the competition.
What’s your beef with fitness “freaks”?
It’s the ultimate narcissism. And it’s also solipsistic. Nothing is more important than their body parts. And what they are putting their faith in is the corruptible body, which I think is very stupid. So I feel that anything that leads to this kind of narcissism is bad for society and bad for human beings individually.
This is my argument against why I think republican government is very difficult to make work nowadays. People who are nobody until they win an election, in Washington they are in the lap of idolatry there and they are petted, they’re fawned over. And all of the sudden they’re a big person. So it makes it very difficult for these people to vote against enhancing the government and enhancing their prestige. You have to be a [Republican South Carolina Senator] Jim DeMint.
Who are the neoconservatives and what is their role in the state of conservatism?
The neoconservatives did a wonderful service in the United States of America when the communist ogre was still alive and the Soviet menace. They did a wonderful service then.
But the neoconservatives are largely agnostic. As agnostics their understanding is, to me, limited. They don’t understand the Judeo-Christian basis on which this republic was created and without which the republic I don’t think can withstand the pressures of the modern world.
Bill Kristol is one of them, I greatly admire his father. And of course Fred Barnes, who is one of the most amiable human beings to ever walk the earth and a wonderful writer.
I lean to the Krauthammers.
Is Charles Krauthammer the theoretician who can bridge the chasm?
I think he has that kind of reach. I think what we need is a philosophical understanding of post-modernism, its virtues and its faults. And what we need to do is to try to inject our individualism and our desire for small government somehow within that context.
We cannot ignore modern communications. We cannot ignore globalism. It’s preposterous to even think we can do that.
So if we keep preaching small government to people, our audience will be progressively smaller. And we will end up being on the fringes of politics in the sense that the Rands [the followers of Ayn Rand] still are today.
One thing that symbolizes our current situation is a howlingly funny anecdote that regards a museum that received two packages in the mail. It rejected one package, which was the bust of somebody and accepted the second package that turned out to be the plinth of the bust. The plinth became honored as a work of art. And that I think summarizes the wrongheadedness of post-modernism.
Post-modernism is not only lacking in humility, it is filled with arrogance. Post-modernism rejects the Christian religion absolutely.
Walk into an art show in New York today, and it’s pretty desolate.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.