Imagine a Martian landing on Earth and trying to make any sense of it. That was me, 47 years ago almost to the day.
When I arrived in America from the Soviet Union, my baggage included some conservative instincts and a total ignorance of how to relate them to life in the West.
A week later, when visiting a Washington friend, I first saw an episode of Firing Line, a weekly talk show hosted by William F Buckley. “He’s conservative but very good,” said my host, for whom the conjunction ‘but’ was a necessary partition between ‘conservative’ and ‘good’.
I was instantly captivated. The first thing that enchanted me was Buckley’s language. Even though I had devoted my life to studying and eventually teaching English, I had never heard it spoken that way.
My English vocabulary was good, or so I had thought. That smugness turned out to be unfounded: practically every sentence Buckley uttered in his lazy mid-Atlantic drawl contained some words I didn’t know. More important, the ideas discussed on the show, and the sources cited, showed me a clear path for my instincts to follow in search of a rational base.
During my subsequent 15 years in America I never missed a single episode of Firing Line, nor a single issue of Buckley’s magazine, The National Review, which boasted among its contributors some of the most brilliant conservative minds of my lifetime.
Soon I began to devour all the primary sources Buckley and his colleagues mentioned, and consequently they lost some of their ability to enlighten me – a TV interview or a magazine article can’t compete with books. However, their ability to delight me was intact, and both the show and the magazine continued to do just that.
Then I moved to Britain and lost touch with Buckley and his work. Those were the pre-Internet days, when reruns of old shows weren’t readily available. And I began writing magazine articles myself, steadily veering way off the American path Buckley followed.
Then, a month or so ago I started binge-watching old episodes of Firing Line, now available at the touch of a computer key. The nostalgic element was strong, as was the forensic desire to retrace my steps.
I’ve found, with some lamentable self-satisfaction, that my vocabulary has grown exponentially since I first saw Firing Line: I now know every recondite word in Buckley’s lexicon. Also, at the risk of sounding immodest, I’ve moved even further beyond the intellectual level of a TV talk show, even one as luminous as Firing Line was.
But luminous it was – I’ve never seen a talk show in America, Britain or France that comes anywhere near the depth, wit and erudition of Firing Line. Its old shows also remain useful.
Even though I no longer learn from these reruns anything I don’t already know, they have lost none of their capacity to stimulate my own thoughts, especially on the leitmotif of Buckley’s life’s work: exegesis and propagation of conservatism.
Buckley was both a conservative (although he sometimes also referred to himself as a libertarian) and a true American patriot. However, he constantly struggled with the difficulty – I’d say impossibility – of reconciling the two.
Just yesterday I saw a 1984 instalment of Buckley talking to a Republican congressman. The battle lines were drawn between Buckley’s orthodox conservatism (these days called ‘paleoconservatism’ courtesy of my friend Paul Gottfried) and his guest’s moderate version.
Neither party bothered to define conservatism: the definition was self-evident to both. Yet perhaps had they agreed on that essential premise to begin with, the whole discussion would have gone in a different direction.
As it was, all they talked about was economic policy, things like farm subsidies, caps on public spending, the comparative value and compatibility of balanced budgets and tax cuts, inflation, etc.
Such things are doubtless important, but they have little to do with conservatism. They may indirectly derive from it, but they aren’t it. Such subjects would only be essential to a very different debate, one between libertarianism and statism.
Conservatism starts with an answer to the question of exactly what it seeks to conserve. The only sound reply has to be: as much of the legacy of Christendom as is possible to preserve without sinking into obscurantism and Luddism.
Economic libertarianism, desirable though it may be, has a barely discernible link to that tradition. It touches only tangentially on the real legacy of Christendom, which is religious and cultural.
That tradition was destroyed, deliberately and cruelly, by that great misnomer, the Enlightenment. It ripped the religious heart out of Christendom and secularised, which is to say vulgarised and perverted, the rest.
Thus love (and therefore the sovereign value) of all human beings simply because they are indeed human derived in Christendom from God who is love. The Enlightenment sidelined God and produced a secular theology of human rights as its core. That was tantamount to sawing off the base of a pyramid, then putting it on its tip and watching it fall.
The West tumbled on a slippery slope and began to slide downhill at an ever-increasing speed. The cultural and social debacle we are witnessing today is close to the bottom of the abyss.
Hence the problem Buckley couldn’t solve or perhaps even acknowledge. For the US is the first and most consistent Enlightenment state, constituted as such from birth.
If Western European conservatives, especially in countries where monarchy is extant, can still fight some rearguard action under the banner of God, King and Country, American conservatives are obliged to worship the Constitution, which abolished the middle element of that triad and marginalised the first.
Buckley was blessed with a formidable intellect, and he was a cultured, multilingual conservative who knew every note of Bach and could play many of them. Moreover, he was a devout orthodox Catholic who detested Vatican II and could eloquently enunciate his opposition to it.
However, he refused to see that the US and all the cultural and social perversions he despised had the same progenitor. As an American patriot, Buckley simply couldn’t afford the freedom of questioning the core assumptions of modernity, and therefore of his native land.
Had he done so, he would have realised that real conservatism is impossible in any Enlightenment construct, be that America or, perhaps to a lesser extent, France. What’s possible are either easy surrogates, such as economic libertarianism, or else apophatic proclamations of what conservatism is not, i.e. socialist, statist, extremist and so forth.
Apophatic theology can exist, but apophatic political science can’t: sooner or later its practitioners will find themselves at an intellectual dead end. At that point they’ll either have to admit defeat or state unequivocally what their conservatism is and how it can relate to practical life.
That was a problem Buckley faced, through no fault of his own. However, he fought his way out of the systemic cul-de-sac with an élan, wit and sheer brilliance never seen on television before or since, and seldom ever seen at all.
I’ll continue watching and re-watching Firing Line with pleasure, gratitude – and some nostalgia for the innocence of youth I’ve lost since first illuminated by the dazzling light that was William F. Buckley, Jr. (1925-2008).