Have you ever seen this video of a 1965 Cambridge Union debate on “the Negro problem” between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley? If not, you need to sit down and watch it. Whatever you have to do can wait. The video, especially Baldwin’s speech, is riveting.
Though Baldwin is the highlight (he won the debate by a vote of 544 – 164), pay attention to Buckley’s speech, too. In fact, the video is one of three pieces of rhetoric from Buckley I want to share today: the others are this 1957 National Review editorial entitled “Why the South Must Prevail” and this 1961 opinion piece from The Saturday Review on the question “Desegregation: Will it Work?”
I’ve been thinking about Buckley lately as I read all the handwringing from social conservatives (Rod Dreher is probably the best example) about what future awaits them now that the culture seems to be rejecting their view of marriage. If you’ve read Dreher lately, you’d think the Lavender Shirts of the Pink Police State are about to kick in his door and take his laptop any minute now. In this post, in particular, Dreher goes full Godwin.
But Dreher’s histrionics are hardly unique. As Jack Jenkins writes, whole swaths of the religious right think they’re “having a Dietrich Bonhoeffer moment.” A great example of what he’s talking about: John Zmirak writing about “Gay Totalitarianism and the Coming Persecution of Christians.”
The religious right takes two articles on faith these days: 1) progressives (incorrectly) see themselves as heirs to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s and 2) when given power, progressives (who are not Christian) will ruthlessly stamp out dissent and torment true Christians.
Obviously, these two beliefs don’t work well together. The Civil Rights Movement did notresult in Nazi-like repression of people whose views challenged civil rights “orthodoxy.” It made open racism an unpopular stance to take in public, sure, but in fact, people who challenged that “orthodoxy” in a variety of ways retained (and still retain!) power and prestige. See Ferguson, MO.
Or see Buckley: he was no Klansman, no Alabama sheriff, but he argued against integration and the Voting Rights Act, he argued in favor of South Africa’s apartheid regime, and writers in his National Review sided with Orval Faubus over Dwight Eisenhower and the Little Rock Nine. He may not have been racist—if by “racist” we mean someone who categorically dislikes people of other races, who sees them as essentially different and inherently beneath whites—but his arguments gave intellectual cover to racists, and they certainly propped up a racist status quo.
Did Buckley die in a gulag? Was he executed in the public square? Was he hounded from that public square? Sent to a re-education camp?
No. He hosted a TV show on PBS until 1999; he wrote spy novels, one of which won a National Book Award; he was appointed as a delegate to the United Nations. As William Hogeland points out, all this came without his ever really recanting his ugliest rhetoric, or reckoning with its effects and implications.
Is the religious right worried that this will happen to them? Is this what’s causing such consternation? Is this what’s making Rod Dreher build a bunker in his backyard? Or whatever the hell he’s doing with his “Benedict Option”?
I get it, sort of. Buckley never really rid himself of the stink of his opposition to every single civil rights initiative. Who wants to be associated with that?
Let’s look at the texts.
The 1957 one is the most shocking: in it, Buckley argues that Southern whites have a moral right to withhold the vote from African Americans, because “for the time being, [the White community] is the advanced race.” The claims of civilization, Buckley says, supersede those of suffrage.
But more interesting to me are the two pieces from the 1960s. Buckley is still arguing that blacks can’t be trusted (yet!) with power, but he’s suddenly less sure of the cultural superiority of the white race—an illusion that must have been hard to maintain in the face of fire hoses and church bombings, and that Baldwin does a great job of demolishing in his speech. “I think that what is wrong in Mississippi,” Buckley quips, “is not that not enough Negroes are voting but that too many white people are voting.”
But what really gets me in these later texts is Buckley’s self-positioning. John Warner says that Baldwin faced an uphill struggle at the Cambridge debate, as nearly the only black man in that sea of white faces. But it’s Buckley, not Baldwin, who takes on the role of underdog. “You cannot go to a university in the United States,” he tells the Cambridge crowd, “in which Mr. Baldwin is not the toast of the town.”
And, “in virtue of the fact that you are a Negro,” he says, Baldwin is used to “surrounding protections” and that he is treated “from coast to coast in the US with a kind of unctuous servitude which, in point of fact, goes beyond anything that was ever expected from the most servile Negro creature by a Southern man.”
[BTW, God bless the cameraman who captured Baldwin’s reactions to these comments.]
As Hogeland writes, by 1965 Buckley knew that he was fighting a “rearguard action on civil rights,” that his side was losing the public. And, like today’s anti-equality writers, he took the occasion to act like a man besieged. You see it again in his insistence, near the end of the debate, that the Civil Rights Movement is no longer seeking equality, but instead “the regression of the white race.” Sound familiar? The paranoia? The protestations of powerlessness?
The tendency shows up in his 1961 piece, too. Check out this passage:
The list of sanctions available to the government is endless. The economic power of the Federal Government has in our time reached the point where it cannot be denied; cannot, in fact, be defied. If Congress can seriously entertain the question whether to spend money to aid public schooling in any state whose schools are segregated, why can’t Congress debate the question whether it is prepared to spend money for road-building in a segregated state? Or for unemployment? Or for farmers’ subsidies? Already the Attorney General has hinted he is considering (for purely punitive reasons) recommending to his old friend the Commander-in-Chief the removal of our large military installations from segregated areas.
In a word, the Federal Government is in a position to visit intolerable economic sanctions against the defiant state. Not to mention the government’s arsenal of legal weapons.
Just like today’s religious right, Buckley was painting himself as part of a beleaguered minority, set upon from all sides by powerful forces: the government, the academic elite…
And the mob. Early in his debate with Baldwin, Buckley makes a crack about Baldwin’s speaking voice. Specifically, he accuses the writer of putting on a British accent to impress the crowd (though from what I can tell Baldwin spoke with his normal, careful enunciation). The crowd erupts in disapproval—watch the smirk on Buckley’s face when that happens! Or watch how he finds his footing when, after he says that there is no easy solution to the race problem, someone from the crowd shouts You can start by giving the black man the vote in Mississippi!
I think Buckley went to the debate knowing he was in for a drubbing—I think he actually took pride in getting drubbed. I think it confirmed to him and his partisans, perversely, that he was right. And this is precisely where I see the clearest comparison between Buckley and the contemporary religious right. After all, when the government, the academic elite, and the “mob” line up against you, you’re in the same position as the victims of fascism, aren’t you?
Of course, we know today that Buckley was drubbed not because his opponents were fascists but because his arguments were stupid. From dismissing as a “rhetorical device” Baldwin’s evocation of “the entirety of the Negro ordeal” to insisting that “My great-grandfather worked,too,” to comparing situation of American blacks to the Irish and Italians, Buckley embarrassed himself that day.
I really hope today’s religious right takes heart from Buckley’s example. I hope they’re encouraged that a man can be that wrong without being forced from the public square. At the same time, I hope they watch that video, and read those articles, and cringe.
Dreher once asked if gay rights supporters “really want to portray half the country as the equivalent of Bull Connor and George Wallace?” I sure don’t. I know that the people I address here on this blog are more like William F. Buckley than Bull Connor. But, watching that tape, that’s not a comparison I’d want attached to me, either.