Monday, March 31, 2008

Book Selection of the "Month Without Buckley" (which ends today): William F. Buckley's "Getting It Right"


One other book-related note before we begin: my review of Matthew Parker’s Panama Fever, about the building of the Panama Canal, was in the Sunday New York Post (delayed from last week). As it happens, the next page had a review of a book about the 1950s Congressional hearings that were used to persecute the comic book industry, and the page after that had reviews of books on the pharmaceutical industry and Gen X pop culture, all topics close to my heart.

The evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould attributed some of his core insights to his youthful Marxism, but one of them strikes me as being far more conservative than Marxist: the idea of “radical contingency.” This is not an escape plan for dealing with street warfare during an insurrection but rather the point — very difficult to impress upon narrative-loving human brains — that each step in history (whether biological or historical) must simply follow causally from whatever the prior step is. There is no (apparent) master plan, teleology, or “direction” to things (no evidence for either Marxist Iron Laws of History or a Divine Plan). If rat-like creatures come to dominate the Earth in a million years, it will be in part simply because there were rats all over the place in preceding centuries rather than because ALL PRIOR HISTORY WAS DIRECTED TOWARD THE PLATONIC IDEAL OF RATNESS. Or as my science-buff friend Chuck Blake once put it, evolution is just a bunch of “lame hacks” based on whatever was at hand in the previous generation.

Similarly, one of the chief virtues of conservatism as opposed to radicalism (even the libertarian kind of radicalism, which I like) is that it recognizes (or at least is supposed to) that the world cannot be remade from scratch just because someone comes up with a fantastic idea for how things “ought to be.” That is not to say — as non-ideological people all too often do — that because some course of action would be a big departure from current practice, it ought not even to be attempted or used as a measure of real-world progress. It just means that to get to There, you have absolutely no choice — none — but to start from Here, no matter how much you despise Here.

So, much that now appears “inevitable” in retrospect — solidified in our minds as it is by post hoc narrative retellings — could have gone quite differently. You might never have met your spouse if you’d gone back for that second drink at the party, despite what the romantics tell you — and the conservative movement, for good or ill, might well have been dominated by the anti-Communist conspiracy theorists of the John Birch Society or the libertarians associated with Ayn Rand had things gone differently in the early 60s, as Buckley reminds us in his novel Getting Things Right, in which the Society, Rand, Buckley himself, and numerous other real-world political figures play roles big and small, held together by the fictional romance of an assistant to Robert Welch (founder of the John Birch Society) and an assistant to Barbara Branden (a member of the Rand circle).

For people uninterested in political history, this novel might just seem like a bunch of odd anecdotes strung together, filled with unfamiliar names. For the rest of us, this is ideological crack of the finest quality.

Even if, as is entirely likely, Buckley used a ghostwriter and young researchers more eager than he to dig up details about Rand and company, the novel suggests just how seriously he took his rivals for leadership of the movement. I’ve often heard about Buckley reading the Birchers and Randians out of the movement, but this novel makes clear that was no casual, high-handed, or dismissive move — it was, or certainly seemed at the time, a tactical necessity for holding together the Goldwater campaign coalition, the watershed event that made conservatism the dominant force (it wasn’t always) within the Republican Party.

From the novel, too, one gets the impression that if other conservatives thought they could do without Rand, it wasn’t because they didn’t understand or didn’t care about her radical anti-statism but because at that time, all conservatives took it for granted that the good guys would fight against Communism abroad and creeping socialism at home. Why add Bircher conspiracy theories or divisive anti-altruist atheism to the mix when everyone, in essence, was already a libertarian, more or less?


Alas, much has been forgotten or lost since then — and if we had it all to do over, maybe we would have been better off with more Rand and less religion, even if it meant more time in the electoral wilderness. But it’s still a tough call. As Al Regnery — both a publisher of and character in the Buckley novel — noted in his recent speech to the New York Young Republican Club, it is fair to see the predominance of the religious right today as a sad commentary on the withering of other conservative factions — yet in Congress, it is often the religious-right politicians, even more so than those ostensibly elected for “fiscal conservative” purposes — who hold fast to free-market principles, for the simple reason that religious zealots are accustomed to holding fast to principles without much regard for earthly consequences.

Who am I, a marginal anarchist-atheist-determinist, to tell people pursuing a potentially-popular blend of constitutionalism, religion, and by-your-own-bootstraps belief in free will (three things Americans clearly love, according to polls, and three things I’m not sure I’d want them to discard overnight) that they don’t know how to build a successful conservative political coalition? As the commenter nicknamed “Brain” said in response to my prior post, if I find myself looking with even the slightest interest at a Mike Gravel/Bob Barr coalition for salvation, my plan for victory has probably already failed badly.

Then again: there is something to be said for the long-term battle for clear ideas, present-day electoral coalitions notwithstanding. In some ways, things like David Mamet’s conversion to free-market conservatism — or simply the growing willingness of intellectuals to talk openly about changing their minds on things — are more promising signs than the teeth-gritted ability to hold together a ramshackle and sometimes-winning coalition (as a certain Rand-inspired rock band sings, “the men who hold high places must be the ones to start…”). Intellectual history, like biology and political history, has to start from Where We Are Now — but it doesn’t have to end there. And though this year’s presidential election and whatever legislation is currently up for debate matters more in the short run than philosophy, philosophy has a way of subtly steering things in the long run.

And if the goal is not merely “getting it right” in the sense of “being perfectly, truly conservative (or libertarian, or what have you)” but really “figuring out the truth even if it means discarding some beloved ideas, adopting some previously-hated ones, and altering others,” then we should never let battles over labels and tribal affiliations become a substitute for the deeper, subtler, harder, and more humbling work of figuring out how the universe works. I’m not sure what the winning mix of ideas a century from now will look like, but I hope it will closely approximate the truth rather than closely approximating the winning-mix-of-2008, and I for one am very interested in getting at least a century ahead of the game.

P.S. And, yes, for anyone who was wondering: that was an actual case of radically conjoined twins in the picture accompanying yesterday’s post: one body, two twin heads with independent and fairly normal personalities, and let anyone who desperately needs distinctions and definitions and dividing lines to be clear-cut dwell on that for a while. And if you get bored with that, feel free to post comments about whether you could date two women with one body, if it came to that. I’m inclined to think men would be more willing to date two heads with one female body than women would be to date two heads with one male body, but I admit this is tangential to the political themes addressed above.

P.P.S. And tomorrow I discuss my April (Fool’s) Book Selection of the Month, Rapture Ready! by Daniel Radosh, who, remember, you can meet the next day, Wednesday, April 2 at 8pm at the debate I’ll host at Lolita Bar featuring him vs. Brian McCarter on the question “Does Christian Rock Suck?”

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