Magazine | March 23, 2009, Issue

Standing Athwart History

Half a Century Later

EDITOR’S NOTE: On the first anniversary of the passing of William F. Buckley Jr., we asked a few conservative writers to reflect on his famous publisher’s statement from the first issue of National Review, dated Nov. 19, 1955.  The original statement appears below, followed by their responses.

There is, we like to think, solid reason for rejoicing. Prodigious efforts, by many people, are responsible for National Review. But since it will be the policy of this magazine to reject the hypodermic approach to world affairs, we may as well start out at once, and admit that the joy is not unconfined.

Let’s face it: Unlike Vienna, it seems altogether possible that did National Review not exist, no one would have invented it. The launching of a conservative weekly journal of opinion in a country widely assumed to be a bastion of conservatism at first glance looks like a work of supererogation, rather like publishing a royalist weekly within the walls of Buckingham Palace. It is not that, of course; if National Review is superfluous, it is so for very different reasons: It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.

National Review is out of place, in the sense that the United Nations and the League of Women Voters and the New York Times and Henry Steele Commager are in place. It is out of place because, in its maturity, literate America rejected conservatism in favor of radical social experimentation. Instead of covetously consolidating its premises, the United States seems tormented by its tradition of fixed postulates having to do with the meaning of existence, with the relationship of the state to the individual, of the individual to his neighbor, so clearly enunciated in the enabling documents of our Republic.

“I happen to prefer champagne to ditchwater,” said the benign old wrecker of the ordered society, Oliver Wendell Holmes, “but there is no reason to suppose that the cosmos does.” We have come around to Mr. Holmes’s view, so much so that we feel gentlemanly doubts when asserting the superiority of capitalism to socialism, of republicanism to centralism, of champagne to ditchwater — of anything to anything. (How curious that one of the doubts one is not permitted is whether, at the margin, Mr. Holmes was a useful citizen!) The inroads that relativism has made on the American soul are not so easily evident. One must recently have lived on or close to a college campus to have a vivid intimation of what has happened. It is there that we see how a number of energetic social innovators, plugging their grand designs, succeeded over the years in capturing the Liberal intellectual imagination. And since ideas rule the world, the ideologues, having won over the intellectual class, simply walked in and started to run things.

Run just about everything. There never was an age of conformity quite like this one, or a camaraderie quite like the Liberals’. Drop a little itching powder in Jimmy Wechsler’s bath and before he has scratched himself for the third time, Arthur Schlesinger will have denounced you in a dozen books and speeches, Archibald MacLeish will have written ten heroic cantos about our age of terror, Harper’s will have published them, and everyone in sight will have been nominated for a Freedom Award. Conservatives in this country — at least those who have not made their peace with the New Deal, and there is serious question whether there are others — are non-licensed nonconformists; and this is dangerous business in a Liberal world, as every editor of this magazine can readily show by pointing to his scars. Radical conservatives in this country have an interesting time of it, for when they are not being suppressed or mutilated by the Liberals, they are being ignored or humiliated by a great many of those of the well-fed Right, whose ignorance and amorality have never been exaggerated for the same reason that one cannot exaggerate infinity.

There are, thank Heaven, the exceptions. There are those of generous impulse and a sincere desire to encourage a responsible dissent from the Liberal orthodoxy. And there are those who recognize that when all is said and done, the market place depends for a license to operate freely on the men who issue licenses — on the politicians. They recognize, therefore, that efficient getting and spending is itself impossible except in an atmosphere that encourages efficient getting and spending. And back of all political institutions there are moral and philosophical concepts, implicit or defined. Our political economy and our high-energy industry run on large, general principles, on ideas — not by day-to-day guess work, expedients and improvisations. Ideas have to go into exchange to become or remain operative; and the medium of such exchange is the printed word. A vigorous and incorruptible journal of conservative opinion is — dare we say it? — as necessary to better living as Chemistry.

We begin publishing, then, with a considerable stock of experience with the irresponsible Right, and a despair of the intransigence of the Liberals, who run this country; and all this in a world dominated by the jubilant single-mindedness of the practicing Communist, with his inside track to History. All this would not appear to augur well for National Review. Yet we start with a considerable — and considered — optimism.

After all, we crashed through. More than one hundred and twenty investors made this magazine possible, and over fifty men and women of small means invested less than one thousand dollars apiece in it. Two men and one woman, all three with overwhelming personal and public commitments, worked round the clock to make publication possible. A score of professional writers pledged their devoted attention to its needs, and hundreds of thoughtful men and women gave evidence that the appearance of such a journal as we have in mind would profoundly affect their lives.

We have nothing to offer but the best that is in us. That, a thousand Liberals who read this sentiment will say with relief, is clearly not enough! It isn’t enough. But it is at this point that we steal the march. For we offer, besides ourselves, a position that has not grown old under the weight of a gigantic, parasitic bureaucracy, a position untempered by the doctoral dissertations of a generation of Ph.D.s in social architecture, unattenuated by a thousand vulgar promises to a thousand different pressure groups, uncorroded by a cynical contempt for human freedom. And that, ladies and gentlemen, leaves us just about the hottest thing in town.

 – WM. F. BUCKLEY JR.

DAVID FRUM

Standing athwart history” is certainly a memorable phrase. But think how much worse a place the world would be if Bill Buckley had actually succeeded in calling a stop to history in 1955. Eastern Europe would still be ruled by Communists. The federal government would still regulate prices on everything from natural gas to brokers’ commissions. Racial segregation would remain American practice. People would continue to die unnecessarily of cigarette smoking or in unseatbelted automobile accidents . The country would be poorer, more regulated, less innovative, less educated. All in all, there’s been a lot of progress since 1955.

And much of that progress is due to the very movement Bill Buckley created. Conservatives talk about tradition, but despite that talk, over the past half century conservatives have mostly worked to change America — and for the better.

No matter how much things improve, however, the predominant conservative outlook remains pessimistic. Buckley’s friend Whittaker Chambers famously said that in moving from Communism to conservatism he was leaving the winning for the losing side. Richard Weaver warned that the West had been in more or less uninterrupted decline since the 14th century. James Burnham, Ludwig von Mises, Russell Kirk: Few of the founding fathers of modern conservatism were exactly blithe spirits.

Among Bill Buckley’s greatest gifts to conservatism was his temperament. In life, he was a man of infectious cheerfulness. That cheerfulness shines through in his publisher’s statement, which begins by outlining all the reasons that NR cannot succeed and ends by promising that it will. Can we who learned so much from Bill Buckley not learn this as well?

True, the news is mostly bad these days. America is governed by leaders determined to veer far and fast to the left, to build a hugely bigger government, and to step back from the struggle against dangerous enemies abroad. Yet for all these problems, our situation is better in almost every way than was the situation of 1955. Let us study history and learn optimism. Stop? No — forward!

– Mr. Frum is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

DAVID GELERNTER

This famous statement is stunningly clear-sighted. In 1987 Allan Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind, but 32 years earlier WFB had seen the trap shutting: “There never was an age of conformity quite like this one.” He saw the weak-mindedness and sanctimonious smugness of the establishment Left. He would not have been surprised by the intellectual collapse that made the Democrats into the party of reaction, stasis, and passionate special pleading, the party that learns nothing and forgets nothing.

In many ways WFB’s statement sounds defensive, but so does “The Star Spangled Banner,” and for the same reason: Something precious was (and is) under attack. I can’t presume to guess how Bill would write the same sort of manifesto today, but he would surely stick to big principles, to culture and not just politics — and might, perhaps, connect the big principles to the big problems. Conservatives stand for freedom, then and now and always: the freedom of every American to make his own way, free speech on the radio and everywhere else, free elections for workers and other people, a federal voting process that suppresses fraud instead of encouraging it, new schools and new judges unfouled by political bias and the self-hating anti-Americanism that breeds like the Black Death in the gloomy swampland of intellectuals, each citizen’s right to understand and evaluate his own tax code and every law passed by his own Congress, rejection of appeasement in every form, freedom to acknowledge and celebrate the nation’s rootedness in Christianity, Judaism, and the Bible, and a Lincolnian party platform built on unflinching patriotism, love of liberty, and love of God.

WFB might also, perhaps, have accepted an inevitable shift in terminology. In 1955 he wrote about the “generous impulse” of NR’s supporters. Another word for generous is “liberal.” For years, conservatives have called themselves the “classical” liberals, the true liberals. Today the Left no longer even wants the word. Today’s conservatives are (not the classical nor the true but the only) liberals, Democrats are reactionaries, and WFB’s ideas are more important than ever.

– Mr. Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale and a contributing editor of The Weekly Standard.

ROGER KIMBALL

How innocent, not to say halcyon, it seems now — 1955, I mean: the “radical social experimentation”; “the inroads that relativism has made on the American soul”; “the intransigence of the Liberals, who run this country.” If those yelling Stop in 1955 were “out of place,” how much more out of place are they now, in 2009, when “the relationship of the state to the individual” in the United States is poised to undergo its most thoroughgoing transformation in history. Hyperbole? Ponder (for starters) these phrases: “stimulus package,” “spread the wealth around,” “nationalized health care.” Just before the election, the current president of the United States promised he was only a few days away from “fundamentally transforming” the country. If you didn’t believe him then, perhaps the last several weeks will have convinced you. Nearly $800 billion appropriated blindly, without debate, discussion, or review because the president told us that “catastrophe” was the only alternative.

Ideas, Bill observed, “rule the world.” The United States was “conceived in liberty,” as Lincoln put it. Individual freedom was its cynosure, its guiding principle. By 1955, that principle had been insidiously undermined by the well-intentioned dispensations of “literate America,” intoxicated as it was by “radical social experimentation.” Think of it: “There never was an age of conformity quite like this one.” And today? Looking back, we understand that the dampening spirit of conformity and the assault on freedom were then in their infancy. They have suddenly come of age. The question is not whether Bill’s inaugural bulletin is still pertinent; it could hardly be more so. The question is whether those “uncorroded by a cynical contempt for human freedom” will command the wit, rhetoric, and moral courage to stand athwart tomorrow whispering, confiding, explaining — sometimes even yelling — Stop, in order that freedom might have an opportunity to prevail.

– Mr. Kimball is publisher of Encounter Books and co-editor and co-publisher of The New Criterion.

WILLIAM KRISTOL

National Review is out of place, in the sense that the United Nations and the League of Women Voters and the New York Times and Henry Steele Commager are in place. It is out of place because, in its maturity, literate America rejected conservatism in favor of radical social experimentation.”

Not so out of place anymore. Thanks in large part to the man who wrote these words, conservatism has over the past half century made a place for itself in American public life, and in passing helped defeat Communism, discredit socialism, and debunk many of the claims of liberalism. After all, who now believes in the U.N. and the League of Women Voters and the Times and Henry Steele Commager?

Conformist liberalism has lost its grip. And pace some conservative fears about the Obama administration, Americans haven’t signed up for an epoch of “radical social experimentation”; to the degree the new administration tries to move in that direction, it will fail.

Still, for all its impressive political and intellectual triumphs, conservatism hasn’t triumphed. The danger today is less a bold radicalism or an intransigent liberalism than what Bill Buckley identified in 1955 as “the inroads that relativism has made on the American soul.” It is this soft relativism, easygoing and fearful, not a confident and aggressive liberalism, that could do us in. And soft relativism isn’t easy to take on; it won’t be defeated by mindless or wishful dogmatism.

Under the leadership of Bill and others, we stood athwart history and came up from liberalism. Can we today stand athwart the end of history and come up from relativism?

– Mr. Kristol is the founder and editor of The Weekly Standard.

MYRON MAGNET

That Bill Buckley’s eloquent manifesto sounds so fresh in 2009 reminds us that no political battle ever stays won. The Obama Left seems set to replay the New Deal that Buckley despised and Reagan partly undid; and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel’s quip that no administration should let a good crisis go to waste is fair warning that, like FDR, Obama aims less to end the slump than to wield it as a tool for remaking society. Markets and capitalists have failed, he says — only government can save the day. We’re back to the world Bill deplored, filled with doubts about the “superiority of capitalism to socialism.”

This time conservatives face two problems in confuting the perennial socialist temptation. First, although Democrats set the economic crisis in motion with the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, which forced banks to lend to the uncreditworthy, once bankers jettisoned their bankerly prudence and found it profitable to lend wildly to all comers, Republicans failed to rein them in. They failed (through not trying hard enough) to rein in government-sponsored Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose securitization of dubious mortgages facilitated the lending frenzy and spread poison throughout the world financial system. The Republican SEC let investment banks self-regulate and loosened their capital requirements, allowing them to speculate in such instruments with mountains of borrowed money, which proved fatal to themselves and toxic to their lenders. So the GOP conspired in what the Democrats began, and we have to admit that. Conservatives need to articulate clearly the familiar conservative idea that freedom depends on rules that we enforce — even in markets.

Second, Alexander Hamilton, the founding father of free-market conservatism, would have spun in his grave when some Republican congressmen, in the name of free-market fundamentalism, voted down the first version of the TARP in September, imperfect as it was. Part of government’s role is keeping the banking system sound, Hamilton argued, so that people don’t lose faith in it and make it collapse completely. Those Republicans who would have let big chunks of our financial system fail would have found that some destruction is not creative but merely catastrophic.

The U.S. free-market system that conservatives cherish and that the world envied depends on government regulation to keep it transparent and sound. Otherwise you have just a bazaar. If conservatives can’t agree on what role — limited but positive — government should play in a free economy and state that vision plainly, then Obama will give us regulation that stifles rather than ensures freedom.

– Mr. Magnet is editor-at-large of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

CHARLES MURRAY

Putting aside the sadness — to reread that magnificent publisher’s statement is to feel anew the enormous magnitude of Bill’s loss — here is the sentence that I think speaks most directly to the present condition of conservatism: “Radical conservatives in this country have an interesting time of it, for when they are not being suppressed or mutilated by the Liberals, they are being ignored or humiliated by a great many of those of the well-fed Right, whose ignorance and amorality have never been exaggerated for the same reason that one cannot exaggerate infinity.” He could have been describing the treatment of conservatives by the Republican party since roughly 1996. And we (I am happy to call myself a conservative if it is Bill Buckley’s conservatism) have put up with it, grumbling only mildly and respectfully about “compassionate conservatism,” unprecedented federal intrusion into local education, support of mortgage policies that made it possible for clever bankers to get rich by lending money to people who were unlikely to pay it back, and a massive new unfunded Medicare entitlement. On top of that, we have had to watch a Republican Congress prove that, given power, they are every bit as corrupt and cynical as any Democratic Congress.

Now I suppose we will hear: “See how much worse Obama is than McCain would have been?” Let me propose an alternative interpretation of history: An Obama victory is what we get after a decade during which Republicans cut themselves loose from principled, coherent conservatism. It is the well-fed, ignorant, and amoral Republican party that has led us to what looks likely to become a catastrophe for the American project. The sooner conservatives cut themselves loose from fealty to the Republicans, the sooner we can once again offer a position “unattenuated by a thousand vulgar promises to a thousand different pressure groups, uncorroded by a cynical contempt for human freedom.” And once again become the hottest thing in town.

– Mr. Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. 

RAMESH PONNURU

To read William F. Buckley Jr.’s statement in the first edition of NR is to be shocked at how relevant it is to contemporary conservatism. The reverence for the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, the fusion of traditionalist and libertarian impulses, even the delight in tweaking the New York Times: All these recognizable features of conservatism today are present in embryo.

One might have expected Buckley’s hostility to Soviet Communism to date it, but that menace is very nearly off the essay’s stage. Buckley is more concerned with the weakness and confusion of our response to the Soviet threat. Their sources — here identified as the liberal conformity of the academy and the media and the spread of relativism — have outlived that particular threat. The type of relativism Buckley had in mind has, indeed, spread further, so much so that the implicit description of Fifties America as a hotbed of it now sounds quaint.

In at least one respect, however, our historical distance from 1955 clouds our understanding of the essay. The line about “standing athwart history” is often taken to express either pessimism or a resistance to change or both. It is probably better understood as a denial of liberalism’s pretension to represent an inevitable future. (Note the capitalization in the reference to the Communist’s “inside track to History.”)

Few people now think that the future means a planned economy and a collectivist society, but inevitabilism, in the form of a historically fated leftward march toward social democracy and liberal secularism, is still very much with us. It has gotten a big boost from the election. We should stand athwart history, and change the future, again.

– Mr. Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review.

WILLIAM RUSHER

The most fascinating thing about Bill Buckley’s 1955 statement is how wildly it is at odds with the American political scene today.

As Buckley rightly pointed out, one of the most striking things about 1955 was the near-total absence of a recognized conservative viewpoint. There were, of course, individuals who were resolutely conservative, but there was nothing remotely approaching a body of conservative political principles, being applied aggressively to the nation’s problems.

How all that has changed in the course of the last half century! To be sure, there are almost as many liberals as there ever were. But they are confronted now by a movement — the conservative movement — with its own numerous publications and spokesmen and a well-thought-out array of principles and doctrines, grounded in history and philosophy and thoroughly able to contend in the arena of political ideas.

Moreover, this viewpoint has captured the imagination of millions of Americans, to the point of becoming the foundation of a powerful political mass movement. Indeed, it is today one of the two major political viewpoints contending for dominance in American society.

That is a massive achievement, and one that bodes well for the future of this country.

– Mr. Rusher was a longtime publisher of National Review.

NR Symposium — National Review symposia are discussions featuring contributors to and friends of the magazine.

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