Buckley and Me: An Immigrant’s Journey into American Conservatism

National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr.
Not the ideology, that is, but the attitude, an authentic way of intellectual life.

You could say that I always had conservative tendencies. But I prefer to call them American. I was born and grew up in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Up until the start of the Bosnian war (the Siege of Sarajevo began in April 1992), I lived an ordinary life like most people there. That is, if you consider living in Communist Yugoslavia normal. The Soviet Union it was not, but neither was it “socialism with a human face.”

I was born a Muslim, and for the most part I considered myself a cultural and ethnic Muslim rather then a fully practicing one. I began to think more deeply about my identity only once the war began. Muslims were targeted and eliminated. The Bosnian war brought the phrase “ethnic cleansing” into the public sphere.

As much as I was close to death more times than I’d care to remember, I was spared. I left my home by the end of 1992 in a convoy of women and children bound for a refugee camp in the Czech Republic.

Having spent almost four years in the camp, I did not want to go back to Bosnia. I was set on coming to America, and so I applied through the refugee resettlement program. My application was rejected and, out of both anger and desire, I wrote an appeal. That was a success, and I found myself on American soil in May 1996, just a few months shy of my 17th birthday.

Parallel to my geographic travels and constant uprooting was an odyssey of the mind. In many ways, books saved my life and kept me from being overcome by the darkness of my painful memories.

As I got older, I found myself navigating through the world of politics. Everything was political then, trending toward the absurd. On the surface, I subscribed to many of the liberal theories du jour. University space has a way of leading you into that abyss of identity politics, political correctness, and the worst offender of them all, collectivism. And yet, I was growing more and more restless. I was always interested in the order of things. By nature, I am a seeker of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, and I found myself increasingly surrounded by acts that were contra naturam.

Then I discovered William F. Buckley, Jr. It’s not that Buckley necessarily introduced me to conservatism. It’s that he awakened what was laying dormant within me. I had let ideological forms suppress who I truly was. Buckley’s way of thinking affirmed my way of life. I was thirsting for something other than empty words, platitudes, and anger.

Of course, immediately upon the discovery, I voraciously read everything he wrote (including his spy novels), and I have watched practically every episode of Firing Line available. I was attracted to the format of the show and greatly admired Buckley’s ability to draw into the debate people from many different points of view. He knew how to engage his opponents without ever really discrediting or harming the their humanity or dignity, even if some of them behaved in a rather undignified way.

The instant conservatism becomes a movement, it ceases to be conservatism.

It wasn’t conservatism as an -ism that I found but an authentic way of American intellectual life. In a time when intellectual discourse in the public square is practically non-existent and all we hear is an ideological noise, or worse, just rantings of too many lunatics, we must ask where are we going. But in order to do that, we must ask where have we been. To me, this, in essence, is what Buckley represents.

My life thus far has been lived through encounters. Encounters with people of all kinds of backgrounds, cultures, languages, and intellectual persuasions. And even an encounter with God, in which I once considered conversion to Catholicism. Firing Line is an experiment in encounters. And a successful one. That is another aspect of WFB that I deeply respect. The only way to begin to speak to one another and to listen to one another is by acknowledging the difference. Buckley did not provide a “safe space” where identity politics and political correctness reign supreme. Rather, the format of Firing Line provided an exchange of ideas. The intellectual encounter that Buckley was interested in relied completely on each person’s intellectual ability.

It is very easy to look back into the past and say, “Oh, those were the days, when . . . ” I’ve done it. You feel out of place, out of time, or you’re an “old soul,” and so you feel like you don’t fit anywhere. But, I am still aware that this weird sense of nostalgia won’t help anything, and it certainly won’t solve any present issues.

In an interview with Malcolm Muggeridge, in 1968, Buckley asked him to elucidate some notions of what it means to be on the left or, rather, of what it means for him to be on the left. Muggeridge proceeded to speak about the “current” (as in 1968) state of political discourse: that it was difficult to have it because people relied heavily on categories. Whatever it meant to be on the left, one was obligated to follow it completely.

Muggeridge was speaking about a public problem that is present today. Perhaps it never really went away. Categories are not necessarily bad. Aristotle made some crucial delineations in an effort to understand who we are as human beings. But categories, which Muggeridge speaks of, and categories, which are overwhelming the public square today (such as in the case of identity politics), are superficial and non-thinking. Buckley’s efforts through National Review and Firing Line, among other venues, provided the intelligent option of a discourse that drowned out any non-thinking noise. This is something we can aspire to.

I have no interest in categoricalor ideological conservatism or liberalism. And I don’t think that Buckley did either. I have interest in philosophical and truly intellectual conservatism (call it classical liberalism), which is what Buckley believed in and what he promulgated. Being a conservative has a universal appeal, but that appeal also carries a certain level of tension. In his book Up from Liberalism (1961), Buckley wrote:

Up where from liberalism? There is no conservative political manifesto which, as we make our faltering way, we can consult, confident that it will point a sure finger in the direction of the good society. Indeed, sometimes the conservative needle appears to be jumping about as on a disoriented compass. My professional life is lived in an office battered by every pressure of contemporary conservatism.

Conservatism’s existence relies on the fact that is does not participate in organizing. In his essay “On Being Conservative”(1956), Michael Oakeshott defined conservatism as a disposition. He writes:

My theme is not a creed or a doctrine, but a disposition. To be conservative is to be disposed to think and behave in certain manners; it is to prefer certain kinds of conduct and certain conditions of human circumstances to others; it is to be disposed to make certain kinds of choices.

Or, to use Jacques Maritain’s and Flannery O’Connor’s phrase, this is about “the habit of being.”

If conservatism is based on a disposition, on a reality that transcends en vogue realities, on the notion that man always creates something out of another something (since only God creates out of nothing), then conservatism is not a movement. The instant conservatism becomes a movement, it ceases to be conservatism. A conservative must be in order to do.

“No man is an island,” wrote John Donne. We become fully ourselves in an encounter with another. However, despite the fluidity of thought and being, there must be a set of principles we live by. For me, they involve individual freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They involve a recognition of our Creator and giving thanks to Him. They involve being charitable toward others, in whatever form we may choose. They involve a recognition of my own humanity as well as the humanity of another — only then can we truly talk about rights. And they involve creating a community, rather than a collective. These are the principles that shape the character of America, this place I have come to call my home.

Although we are finite beings, we have the capacity to move toward the infinite. Buckley, I think, knew this quite well. He writes: “Conservatism must insist that while the will of man is limited in what it can do, it can do enough to make over the face of the world; and that the question that must always be before us is, What shape should the world take, given modern realities?” In other words, the question is what must we do to defend the sacred from the assault of the profane? Let us not be naïve: Various vulgarities have existed in the very far and recent past. Today, however, we have ceased to recognize the difference between the sacred and the profane. Buckley not only understood the difference, he also enacted that understanding through an authentic intellectual life.


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