On Conservatism and Racism

           Buckley and Reagan: Icons of American Conservatism

 Conservatives Deny their Racist Roots

 The Racism-Conservatism Link: What Love in Utah and West in Florida need to know about why there are so few of them.   My colleagues in our Embassy in Montevideo Embassy gave me that year’s “William F. Buckley Award for Eloquence in Policy Advocacy.” They thought that was an honor for me and were surprised and dismayed when I declined to accept that ‘recognition’ and cited racism of the person for whom the award was named as my reason.

I proposed they re-name the award for Carlton B. Goodlett or James Baldwin. “Who?” was the collective response from this group of forty Foreign Service and military officers. At that moment, I remembered very keenly from my Orange Park school days many of the loftily disparaging, intellectually disguised things Buckley had written about African-Americans.

We all (I hope to include West and Love) know Buckley founded the National Review and was considered the guiding light of intellectual ‘conservatism’. This magazine’s early positions regarding race and the legacy of its founder and guiding spirit were critical to the rise of public face of postwar right-wing interests.

Mainstream ‘conservatism’s’ supposed renunciation of racism depended in large part on a little-examined notion that having defended white supremacy in the South in the 1950s, Buckley later apologized for that position. His fans across the socio-political spectrum cite that (non) apology. It’s part and parcel of a contention that racism and conservatism are not ineluctably connected.

The newly enlightened Buckley was renouncing a position entirely different from the one he’d actually advanced in the 1950s.  Writing in 1957 in defense of jury nullification of federal voting laws, Buckley insisted that whites in the South were “entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, where they do not prevail numerically,” because the white race was “for the time being, the advanced race.” In 2004, asked whether he’d ever taken a position he now regretted, he said: “Yes. I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow. I was wrong: federal intervention was necessary.”

Where in ’57 he’d asserted a right even of a minority of whites to impose racial segregation by literally any means necessary, including breaking federal law, in ’04 Buckley expressed regret for supposedly having believed only that segregation would wither away without federal intervention. Stupid the man was not. He gets credited today with honesty about his past and with having, in his own way, “evolved up.” “Modern conservatives,” think they get to ignore the realities of their movement’s origins and continuing racist makeup.

Buckley did evolve, just not in the way his fans like to imagine. His effort to construct working-class white Southern racists as an advanced race was brief. (Given Buckley’s ideas of what advanced races like to do — sail, listen to Bach, defend high culture against barbarity — it’s not surprising if they disappointed him.) Remember in 1965, at the famous Oxford Union debate with the more erudite, clear-thinking and articulate James Baldwin, Buckley foolishly chose to fight a rearguard action on civil-rights legislation, and took a new position.

Claiming now that “everybody already agreed that race prejudice is evil,” he accused the civil-rights movement of “no longer seeking equality but the actual regression of the white race.” He announced that if it “ever came to race war,” he was “prepared to fight it on the beaches, in the hills, in the mountains.”

Then Buckley even tried to joke that what he really objected to was “any uneducated Southerner, black or white, being allowed to vote.” That’s less a turnabout on equal rights for blacks than a retreat to a more logically consistent, Yale-bred snobbism, and the joke was serious: that same year, barely cloaked racist “commentator” James J. Kilpatrick put forth in the National Review an argument mixing states-rights populism with ruling-class prerogative, warning that “federalism would be destroyed unless states were free to impose voting qualifications, and that such qualifications must discriminate equally, not racially.”

Needless to say, the greatest mind produced in the USA- James Baldwin- tore Buckley a new rear end. Baldwin’s analysis and synthesis of Buckely’s nonsense deeply impressed the Oxford Union crowd and the BBC television audience. The Oxford Union voted overwhelmingly in favor of Baldwin’s erudition, logic and exposition. Buckley tried to smile away his shame and comeuppance. (In later years after moving to London, I made a priority trek to the site of Baldwin’s destruction of the conservative icon.

I had to see and pay my respects at the altar where Baldwin had laid Buckley to rest a decade earlier. A decade after London, I had to greatest of all experiences when my wife and I had James Baldwin as a dinner guest with eight of our friends in Madrid).  Race long remained a defining conservative issue for the National Review. In the 1970s the magazine persistently defended apartheid South Africa on the same basis that it had once defended Jim Crow.

James Baldwin: Novelist, Essayist and Dr. King Modern Prophet
A Witness and Drum Major for Justice!

The problem isn’t that old Bill Buckley gets a pass. If conservatives today really mean to mark out an American conservative ethos with no remaining ties to racism, wouldn’t they need to reckon, far more seriously and realistically than they seem prepared to do, with the painful legacy of the postwar right when it comes to what was then called racial integration? With the Cold War, integration was the hot issue of the day — and that was the day when the right wing was taking over the Republican Party under Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.”

Nelson Rockefeller was a fire-and-brimstone Cold Warrior but hyper-liberal on race; he was just the type the Buckleyites were knocking out of ‘conservative’ and Republican party leadership. Ties between ‘conservatism’ and straight-up, hardcore, undisguised disgust at the presence of African Americans in any position other than servile were once so tight that for some of us with long enough memories it is annoyingly bizarre even to have to review them. And the deeper one digs into the history of race and the right wing, the trickier things get.

There’s another remark of Buckley’s that gets him routinely credited with acknowledging, in old age, postwar conservatives’ error on race and personally recanting it: a comment he made during an interview (with Judy Woodruff) in 2006 regarding his imbecilic opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. “The effect of that bill should have been welcomed by us,” Buckley told Woodruff.

He framed his old objection to the act in terms of William Rehnquist’s supposedly having persuaded him and Barry Goldwater, when developing positions for the Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, to view opposition to the act as an inescapable conclusion of the supposed strict constitutionalism on which Goldwater was running, a position that Buckley told Woodruff he’d since come to regret for its “constitutional formalism.”

Buckley’s 2006 frame is a false one. Advancing states-rights and anti-judicial-review arguments against civil-rights laws was nothing new to Buckley in ’63-’64, and his arguments certainly didn’t depend on any “formalist” urging from Rehnquist. By the time of the Goldwater campaign, nearly 10 years of unrelenting objection to every form of civil-rights legislation had appeared in the National Review, weirdly blending the (supposedly race-neutral) “strict-constitutional” argument with Buckleyite claims for the right of cultures deemed superior by Buckleyites to violate the Constitution.

The ‘conservative’ icon continued to push the view that even a minority of whites has a right — nay, a duty! — to take measures necessary to prevail against a majority of blacks. Goldwater and running-dog Rehnquist appealed to majority and states’ rights in resisting federal enforcement of removal of racial segregation laws. Buckley’s view, to Goldwater-Rehnquist, revealed too much. It allowed the discerning public to see clearly that “states’ rights” was the code phrase for white supremacy. I understood that in junior high school. It still is.

Rehnquist actually advised Buckley during the 1964 platform discussions to tone down, to get with the program of pushing the rights of majorities in local communities over those of the federal judiciary and legislature, the right-wing party line regarding segregation: “The effect of that bill should have been welcomed by us.”

More likely the cagey old bastard meant conservatives should have welcomed the effect of the Civil Rights Act on white voters in the South. They of course did respond to its passage by flocking to the Republican Party, just as Nixon wished, an effect explicitly “welcomed” at the time by Buckley, and by others who would soon be leveraging that effect for the election.

What do well-educated, rich white men have in common with southern and rural Midwestern whites? Nothing, but color. It is clear they are using race as a wedge issue to establish numerical hegemony and maintain leadership over this untutored lot. Their policies in no way benefit their party base.

Their economic interests differ in every particular, but try explaining that to a Haley Barbour Mississippian. It would be interesting, however, to see educated ‘conservatives’ (oxymoron?) engaging in intellectual honesty by digging into and acknowledging their history. We can’t wait for that.

Former Mississippi Governor Hailey Barbour

The face of the Republican South

Double Click on link below to see the Baldwin -Buckley Oxford Dbate



By: Bernard Fennell

Foriegn Service Officer – Retired

Blue Springs Missouri

April 27, 2012

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