It’s always upsetting to realize that you’ve admired a racist. Even when, as is often the case, you suspect that a cherished intellectual or cultural figure was probably a racist (for example, because of the time in which they lived), it’s always unpleasant to be presented with the proof.
I have always been a casual fan of William F. Buckley, Jr. He was a beautiful writer, and he could be very funny, in a supercilious way (I happen to like superciliousness). Despite the fact that I disagree with many of his positions and conclusions, I have always thought of him as an extremely smart man, and I admired that.
But, then, the other night, I watched the 1965 debate at the Cambridge Union between Buckley and James Baldwin. The proposition was ‘The American dream has been purchased at the expense of the American Negro’. Baldwin spoke pro, Buckley against, the proposition.
James Baldwin is magnificent always, but never more so than here. He is, for my money, the best crafter of prose who has ever written in American English, but he was also a wonderful speaker, and there are several moments in during his argument which have become rightly famous:
“It comes as a great shock to discover the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and your identity has not in its whole system of reality evolved any place for you.”
“I am stating very seriously, and this is not an overstatement, that I picked the cotton, and I carried it to market and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip, for nothing. For nothing. The southern oligarchy which has until today so much power in Washington and so some power in the world, was created by my labor and my sweat and the violation of my women and the murder of my children. This, in the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
“It is a terrible thing for an entire people to surrender to the notion that one ninth of its population is beneath them.”
Buckley has the admittedly thankless task of following Baldwin. No one should have to follow Baldwin’s blinding moral clarity, but Buckley, it immediately becomes clear, is a particularly terrible choice. He proves this by saying, almost with his first breath:
“I propose to pay him [Baldwin] the honor this night of saying to him, ‘Mr. Baldwin, I am going to speak to you without any reference whatever to those surrounding protections which you are used to in virtue of the fact that you are a negro.”
It reveals the enormity of the error in Buckley’s thinking that he believes, in 1965, and after hearing Baldwin’s own, wrenching words, that being African-American has afforded Baldwin any protections at all. He does seem to feel that an enormous amount of unnecessary angst goes into discussions of America’s racial troubles, because he goes on to say:
“I challenge you to name me another civilization any time any where in the history of the world in which the problems of the minority which have been showing considerable material and political advancement is as much a subject of dramatic concern as it is in the United States.”
Which quote implies, at least to me, that Buckley doesn’t think that the treatment of African-Americans deserves so much “dramatic concern”.
That this attitude was (and still is) common makes it no less unforgivable. Buckley acknowledges that there is racial discrimination, but he seems to wish that everyone weren’t so worked up about it. This view is only possible if you believe that it is not urgent that the rights and the humanity of black Americans be observed to the exact degree they would be if they were white. And to feel that any discrepancy is not urgent can only arise from an intrinsic lack of feeling that black Americans are equal to yourself.
All of which was bad enough. But then, then, Buckley said something which was so chilling and menacing that I believe it has permanently rearranged my opinion of him. He promised the Cambridge Union (and Baldwin, who surely knew better) that Americans were essentially decent, and that “the fundamental friend of the Negro people in the United States is the good nature, and is the generosity, and is the wishes, is the decency, the fundamental decency that do lie at the heart of the spirit of the American people”. And, then, Buckley threatened them:
“Because if it does finally come to a confrontation, a radical confrontation, between giving up what we understand to be the best features of the American way of life…then we will fight the issue, and we will fight the issue not only in the Cambridge Union but we will fight it as you were once recently called to do on beaches and on hills and on mountains and on landing grounds and we will be convinced that just as you won the war against a particular threat to civilization, you were nevertheless waging a war in favor of and for the benefit of Germans, your own enemies, just as we are convinced that, if it should ever come to that kind of a confrontation, our own determination to win the struggle will be a determination to win the war not only for whites but also for Negros.”
In case that is unclear, what Buckley is saying is this: if African-Americans force white Americans to confront their own lack of decency, the whites will meet them in war, and that this battle will be done for the sake of the blacks themselves. Because, according to Buckley, it is in the interests of black Americans that everyone find white Americans fundamentally decent.
Buckley served during World War II – he understood what it meant to be compared to Nazis (he famously threatened to punch Gore Vidal for doing it to him). And yet he is here comparing African-Americans to Nazis. And he is equating the defense of white decency with the defence of civilization, and he was doing it at a time, let us be very clear, when white society in the United States was not decent (which is not to say that it is decent now).
The fact that you are willing to defend an idea with arms does not make the idea right or true; anyone who fought against Nazis should have known that. This is a shameful performance on Buckley’s part: it should be remembered, and held against him. I admired his mind once, but it was used here to dispicable effect. I’ll admire it no longer.