I cannot pretend to have been much influenced by William F. Buckley Jr. Nonetheless, even for those of us who were not in America the 1960s and 1970s, when his most remarkable work was done, he still existed as an emblem of a thinking, rational, non-doctrinaire conservatism. He helped many understand more deeply that left-liberalism is a profoundly unsatisfying account of human nature and human history. He helped remind us that communism was as evil as socialism was mistaken. By legitimizing the concept of a conservative intellectual, he helped deepen and broaden conservative thought.
He lived long enough to see this precious inheritance grotesquely squandered by the conservative establishment he helped build. Like many of us, he came to see the administration of George W. Bush as in some ways the deepest, darkest betrayal of conservative values, and the hideous hateful movement that sustained it unthinkingly as part of the problem rather than the solution. But he was surely not surprised. A skeptical, thinking conservative knows that in time, great, abiding ideas can ossify into ideology and ideology can become propaganda and propaganda can degenerate into toxic factionalism. It is part of human nature and human history. There is no reason why conservatism as a political movement should be immune from its own critique of all such movements. He was polite about this, of course - much politer than many of us. But he had enough intellectual integrity not to disguise it either.
What did he know? That there will never be heaven on earth; that there will never be an end to poverty or bigotry or discontent. That there is more wisdom in tradition than we might first believe, and freedom is indispensable for tradition to shift and adapt and move responsively to changing human needs and wants. That ideology is always and everywhere a lie. That government is best when small and adept and aware of its own limits. That a society that seeks to extirpate transcendent religious truths is as doomed as one that regiments itself according to divine will.
These truths were once unspeakable heresies. That they have survived at all in mass democracy is a small miracle. But Buckley knew that all that conservatism needs to survive is the freedom to think and a willingness to rethink and an eagerness to debate. These virtues he exemplified. May we all try to recapture them in his vast, choppy wake.
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