Monday, August 22, 2016

The Best of Apologists

If liberals have an Achilles' heel, it is our quickness to accept the conservative narrative. This is not simply limited to going along with how the right frames the issues. Liberals are too quick to accept conservatives' manufactured facts. Conservative spin is establishment consensus - especially with centrist Democrats.

I know this will carbon-date me, but my favorite example is when George Stephanopoulos sermoned his own party on the nastiness of politics: “As a Democrat, I will say the Democrats should rue the day when they made one simple act: the day they subpoenaed Robert Bork’s videos.” Many Dems claimed the same. 

Except congressional Democrats did no such thing to Ronald Reagan's Supreme Court nominee. What had actually happened was a newspaper reporter wondered how easy it would be to obtain Bork's video rental records and decided to find out. Bork had famously declared that there is no such thing as a right to privacy, so the issue had been raised. Contrary to the story, liberals immediately condemned the reporter's violation of Bork's privacy and one positive upshot was that Congress promptly passed a law to prevent this from happening again. In short, privacy-defending liberals had behaved consistently with their principles, and yet the opposite impression was cultivated by Republicans and Democrats alike.

This is part of a larger pattern of liberals lying by omission or lying outright to make their conservative opponents seem more sympathetic. We routinely ignore important facts when they settle issues in a decisive fashion, hoping that such polite omissions and distortions will be taken as olive branches and lure conservatives to the table and open a dialogue. Of course, it never does. Coddling conservatives never pays.

For example, in Ken Burns' lengthy PBS documentary series "The Civil War," he neglects to mention the Articles of Secession - the documents in which the southern states openly declared that they were breaking away over the issue of slavery. That would have made things too clear-cut. Were reactionaries appeased? Of course not. Liberal tolerance and generosity are never appreciated by conservatives - who are frequently the biggest beneficiaries. With enemies like these, who needs friends?

Bear this in mind when watching Robert Gordon's and Morgan Neville's The Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal. To be clear, the documentary is both informative and immensely entertaining. I highly recommend it. In a masterstroke of especially apt casting, Kelsey Grammer voices the writings of Willam F. Buckley. Everything about the editing is perfect and their argument that the heated debates between these two men in 1968 shaped all television political commentary to come is compelling.

Unfortunately, there is an elephant in the studio that the producers studiously ignored and it was not the GOP mascot.  The climax of the Buckley-Vidal debates is also the climax of the documentary. It is that famous / infamous moment when Vidal calls Buckley a "crypto-Nazi" and Buckley calls Vidal a "queer." That Vidal was bravely out about his fluid sexuality and wrote openly about homosexuality in the 1940s is not in dispute, but the documentary details it just the same for viewers who are unfamiliar with him. But Buckley's crypto-fascism and racism is never investigated beyond showing his defenders calling it a slur.

Spoiler Alert: It's not a slur. It's not even close to one. The documentary is littered with little missed opportunities to explore this issue. Time and again, I thought "Here it comes." But it never came.

For example, among the "Crossfire" clips is one where Godfrey Cambridge good-naturedly laughs, "Your're marvelous! I adore you! You're the only man who can ask your question and convict the man before he can answer the question!" Couched as this was in so much praise for Buckley's sparkling wit and debate prowess, it is easy to miss that Cambridge had given the very definition of prejudice. The title of the episode was "Was the Civil-Rights Crusade a Mistake?" which sounds like a leading question to me. (1)

When patronizing Muhammad Ali in another clip, Buckley claimed "You sit and tell me that we white people like to divide and conquer. I grew up as a white child. I heard so much more talk against Democrats than I did against black people." Apart from the salient fact that anecdotal evidence is a logical fallacy - something a "great debater" like Buckley should know - this begs the question: How much talk against blacks had he heard growing up? It is not an unreasonable question considering that his family was insanely racist. His father was a rabid antisemite and fascist sympathizer and his older brothers had burned a cross outside a Jewish resort in 1937. (Little William was too young to go at the time.) Of course, nobody should be convicted for having a terrible family, but Buckley was citing his childhood to refute Ali's claims about racism in America and thus being outrageously dishonest as well as uselessly anecdotal.(2)

Incidentally, the loudest voice in the documentary denouncing the "slur" that William F. Buckley is a fascist is his younger brother Reid Buckley. He was also too young to go on that nocturnal outing in '37.

But William F. Buckley was not just dishonest about his family. He was racist himself well into adulthood. He had written a National Review editorial in 1957 entitled “Why the South must prevail,” which defended both white supremacy and the use of violence to uphold it:
The central question that emerges – and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalogue of the rights of American citizens, born Equal – is whether the white community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not prevail numerically?
The sobering answer is Yes – the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the median cultural superiority of white over Negro: but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists. The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage. The British believe they do, and acted accordingly, in Kenya, where the choice was dramatically one between civilization and barbarism, and elsewhere; the South, where the conflict is by no means dramatic, as in Kenya, nevertheless perceives important qualitative differences between its culture and the Negroes’, and intends to assert its own.
National Review believes that the South’s premises are correct. If the majority will what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority. Sometimes it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way, and the society will regress; sometimes the numerical minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.(3)
I used this quote in my book because my central thesis was that conservatives are contemptuous of the three interdependent ideals of liberty, equality, and democracy - and here Buckley conveniently dismisses all three, thereby illustrating their interdependence.

But what is important here is the racist nature of Buckley's enterprise. He staffed the magazine he had founded with plenty of white supremacists and fascist enthusiasts. After giving the Buckley quote above I added, "Later, Buckley publicly backed off this awkward argument, but he continued to support, employ, and promote those who still held this worldview. Pat Buchanan was deeply influenced by National Review foreign policy columnist James Burnham, who wrote The Suicide of the West, and The National Review later endorsed Buchanan for president in 1992." (As a nod to his idol, Buchanan later wrote a book called The Death of the West.) "These Review contributors regularly portrayed places like Apartheid South Africa and the white minority regime in Rhodesia as citadels of civilization to be defended against what they saw as egalitarian barbarism." And Buckley might have disavowed his editorial defending Jim Crow, but he continued to defend Apartheid for as long as it lasted. That does not sound quite contrite.

This cannot be emphasized enough. Polite society regards Buckley as an intellectual and Buchanan as a thug, but they are both intellectual thugs. Both men were well-read in history and used their pens to celebrate nightsticks. Their backgrounds were similar as well. Both were conservative Catholics who grew up regarding the Spanish fascist dictator Francisco Franco as a great defender of the faith. Accordingly, they were dismissive of democracy and sympathetic toward other military dictators like Chile's Augusto Pinochet. Simply put, Buckley made Buchanan's career. It was as if Buchanan had sprung from Buckley's skull like Athena from Zeus. To quote Liz Phair, "Think about your own head and the headache he gave."

But Pat Buchanan was not the only fascist in the attic. Another Holocaust denier, the late Joseph Sobran, was an editor there. The Review had also viciously defended Revered Pat Roberson's antisemetic rants. As I wrote in my book, "When Michael Lind tried to drive Robertson out of the conservative movement, the Review drove Lind out instead." This makes the claim that Buckley "drove antisemites out of the movement" particularly absurd. Then there's Charles Murray, who works for the magazine today. His book, The Bell Curve, is largely based on the Nazis' eugenicist junk science. (Amusingly, the Pioneer Fund, a eugenicist group that Murray had leaned on for a lot of his research, also objects to being called "crypto-Nazis.") The Review's staff has always been rife with racists.

And yet none of this is mentioned in the documentary. Perhaps because the producers thought the conflict is more dramatic if you like both adversaries. This way, you can be a good liberal and see both sides of both sides and feel conflicted by the conflict. Cataloging Buckley's unsavory employees would have rather spoiled the effect. I suppose you could protest that such information is tangential or irrelevant, but you would be telling a rather shabby and transparent lie. Like I said, it is part and parcel to the climax.

Like Ken Burns, the directors preferred to ignore deciding factors. A balanced presentation is not about applying the same standards to both sides but getting the same result for both sides. "Giving both sides" often means spinning the one in the wrong - almost always the conservative one. So, of course, we must treat William F. Buckley with the same discrete, nonjudgmental courtesy we confer on college athletes who are also rapists. The toxic dishonestly is even worse when the subject is dead.

But do the conservative beneficiaries appreciate such fudging on their behalf? Do they ever say, "Thanks for the whitewash. You kept our reptilian editor respectable"?

The sobering answer is No. The National Review is unhappy with the documentary which is regards as liberal bias. The Review's reviewer objects to the notion that Richard Nixon's "Law and Order" platform had anything to do with race-baiting. Of course he does.

You cannot please everyone. So you might as well share all the relevant facts.


(1) Alas, only the beginning of it is available online and it does not include the clip in the documentary. However, I think I have sufficient context to infer.

(2) The clip used in the documentary starts at 25:57 in this You Tube video of the "Firing Line" episode. At the time, Muhammad Ali was still pretty militant and deep into Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam movement. Whatever you think of the later, Ali's point - that white society engages in divide & conquer in order to control is a matter of historical record. Before the 1700s - and well after - black slaves and white indentured servants joined forces when revolting. Eventually, slave colonies started giving away land to freed white indentures in order to secure their loyalty. Cultivating racism among poor whites was also part of this process. In the industrial era, immigrant groups that did not get along - like Germans and Poles - were routinely put to work in the same factories to frustrate unionizing efforts. It's an old story.

(3) William F. Buckley, “Why the South must prevail,” National Review, August 24, 1957, 148-149.

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