When one declares oneself to be a conservative, one is not, unfortunately, thereupon visited by tongues of fire that leave one omniscient. The acceptance of a series of premises is just the beginning. After that, we need constantly to inform ourselves, to analyze and to think through our premises and their ramifications. We need to ponder, in the light of the evidence, the strengths and the weaknesses, the consistencies and the inconsistencies, the glory and the frailty of our position, week in and week out. Otherwise we will not hold our own in a world where informed dedication, not just dedication, is necessary for survival and growth.
William F. Buckley Jr., Feb 8, 1956, National Review, as cited by Kathryn Jean Lopez at The Corner yesterday without a hint of irony.
On this day after what would have been William F. Buckley Jr.’s birthday, it’s worth reflecting on the man’s legacy. I am not the proper individual to evaluate Buckley’s legacy completely – but I think it’s accurate to say that Buckley is one of the dozen intellectuals who has most influenced my life. I take from him lessons both positive and negative – from his wonderful, timeless, definition of conservatism as standing athwart history shouting, “Stop!” to his determined resistance to Brown v. Board of Education.
There are a number of things that struck me about Buckley – his confidence, even arrogance; his style, almost delicate; his incredible life – from spy to magazine publisher; his magazine – brash, often wrong, generally provocative; his intellectual force, especially in that book which introduced me to him, Up From Liberalism. But what struck me most of all was that he was sensible. I mean that as the highest compliment.
He opposed Brown v. Board of Education, as poor of a decision as that might have been, for sensible reasons – in an attempt to preserve a system of federalism and social harmony. He opposed liberalism for sensible reasons – preferring the status quo to attempts to remake humanity. When liberalism became overripe and overreached – he was there condemning it. When conservatism became corrupted and overly ambitious, he was a voice of warning.
Buckley was not always right – but he was generally sensible – and it’s hard to expect more in a public intellectual.