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William F. Buckley, Jr. (1925-2008), Remembering a Respected Adversary February 27, 2008

Posted by twilightandreason in Affirmative Action, race, William F. Buckley.
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As I type this blog entry, major media outlets around the nation are responding to the breaking news that William F. Buckley, the 82 year-old conservative thinker, pundit, television host, and founder of the bi-weekly National Review, was found dead this morning by his cook, at his home in Stamford, Connecticut. May he rest in peace.

While I never met Mr. Buckley, I followed his career with great interest. Rarely did I share his conservative perspectives, especially when it came to issues of race. Still, I found in Mr. Buckley’s articulation of his ideas two elements that are missing from so much of today’s right-wing political commentary — critical thinking and intellectual rigor.

This brief biography, excerpted from an obituary by Associated Press reporter Hillel Italie,  charts Buckley’s rise to the rank of conservative icon:

Buckley founded the biweekly magazine National Review in 1955, declaring that he proposed to stand “athwart history, yelling `Stop’ at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who urge it.” Not only did he help revive conservative ideology, especially unbending anti-Communism and free market economics, his persona was a dynamic break from such dour right-wing predecessors as Sen. Robert Taft.

Although it perpetually lost money, the National Review built its circulation from 16,000 in 1957 to 125,000 in 1964, the year conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater was the Republican presidential candidate. The magazine claimed a circulation of 155,000 when Buckley relinquished control in 2004, citing concerns about his mortality, and over the years the National Review attracted numerous young writers, some who remained conservative (George Will, David Brooks), and some who didn’t (Joan Didion, Garry Wills).

“I was very fond of him,” Didion said Wednesday. “Everyone was, even if they didn’t agree with him.”

Born Nov. 24, 1925, in New York City, William Frank Buckley Jr. was the sixth of 10 children of a a multimillionaire with oil holdings in seven countries. The son spent his early childhood in France and England, in exclusive Roman Catholic schools.

His prominent family also included his brother James, who became a one-term senator from New York in the 1970s; his socialite wife, Pat, who died in April 2007; and their son, Christopher, a noted author and satirist (“Thank You for Smoking“).

In memory of William F. Buckley, Jr. and his ever articulate, always provocative ideas, I give you this excerpt from the August 1, 2000 edition of “On the Right,” a regular Buckley column. In it he critiques General Colin Powell’s stance on affirmative action, an issue of great interest to this blogger:

 Gen. Colin Powell is a formidable asset of the GOP and indeed the nation. That he is himself black is providential. If he were a Scandinavian, one likes to think that he’d have risen as fast as he has. But a dirty little doubt in the matter would probably nestle in the closet of suspicion. His gifts are manifest, indeed radiant, so much so that anyone inclined to cultivate suspicion that his ascendancy depended on white patronization is quickly reassured by mere exposure to his strengths.

Now these aren’t always quite sufficient to keep him out of rhetorical difficulty. The New York Times wasted only three introductory paragraphs before showcasing Gen. Powell’s reference to affirmative action. “We must understand the cynicism that exists in the black community. The kind of cynicism that is created when, for example, some in our party miss no opportunity to roundly and loudly condemn affirmative action that helped a few thousand black kids get an education. But hardly a whimper is heard from them over affirmative action for lobbyists who load our federal tax codes with preferences for special interests.”

That is a paralogism of the first order. (1) The case against affirmative action is the same as the case for equal treatment under the law. (2) The purpose of lobbies is to engage legislative or regulatory attention in behalf of an entity. That might be a corporation, or it might be a class, or it might be a minority. Lobbies are sometimes pleading for equal treatment, sometimes for special treatment. If yours is a sugar lobby pleading for higher tariffs, you are engaged in the traditional exercise of special pleading, and the pain is borne by the consumers, who pay more for sugar.

(3) Affirmative action, of the kind opposed by public officials from Sen. Hubert Humphrey to Ward Connerly, targets individual victims, the non-black, non-Hispanic, non-Asian turned down for reasons other than competitive disqualification. There should be as many voices raised up against sugar tariffs as against racial discrimination, but the two contests are at entirely different moral levels. In the 1850s, the Yankees argued in favor of high tariffs and against human slavery. They’d have been disappointed to hear themselves indicted for cynicism.

Gen. Powell, so clear in his vision on so many matters, gets swallowed up every now and again when the matter touches on race and discrimination. Thus he mourns that there are 2 million convicts and that “most of them are men and the majority of those men are minorities.” That is a conceptual tongue-twister, the business of majorities being minorities. And Gen. Powell was less than satisfying in his failure to plumb the question: Why should this be so? Why are there more blacks and Hispanics in jail?

On the other hand he was telling the Republican Convention and the American people at large that a successful approach to the problem has been made in Texas, under Gov. George Bush. Bush “expanded the charter school movement. Seventeen thousand Texas kids are now in charter schools. Seventy-eight percent of those kids are minorities. Their parents had a choice, and they decided what was best for their kids. The results in Texas have been dramatic. The number of students passing all parts of the standardized tests since 1994 has increased by 51 percent. Even more exciting, the number of minority students passing the tests has increased by 89 percent.”

Along that narrow road, avoiding the abyss of affirmative action on the one side, neglect on the other, Gov. Bush came out with a formula that Gen. Powell has embraced. “Governor Bush has guaranteed acceptance at public universities for the top 10 percent of every high school graduating class in the state.” If the cynicism Gen. Powell so much deplores is to be avoided, the world needs to know that some schools in Texas don’t become de facto conduits for noncompetitive minorities.

 Posted by Ajuan Mance

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