Sunday, March 2, 2008

Crossroads of Civilization: Who Goes in the Space Capsule?

If all goes according to plan, a brief, impromptu bar gathering will occur today that will include some people with slightly different ideas about what the most essential element of civilization is, including:

•Arkansas state representative Dan Greenberg, with whom I once discussed the half-joking question “What one human being would you put in the escape pod if only one could survive the destruction of the Earth?” — to which Dan’s reply, fittingly for this month’s overarching blog topic, was William F. Buckley

•Me, whose answer to the question was undeniably more punk than conservative: David Bowie (I was thinking, in a sci-fi-influenced way, that he’d probably be particularly adept at making distinctively human contributions even to an alien culture and in strange new media, art-chameleon that he is — seems like the role he’s been preparing for all his life, really)

•Dawn Eden, who can see us only very briefly on this NYC visit before heading off to Mass and so would almost certainly say Jesus, if Jesus needed an escape pod, but of course, even Captain Kirk knows that God has no use for a starship (as seen in Star Trek V, which my friend Paul Taylor, who was also briefly in town today, coincidentally, was lucky enough to misinterpret as an extended “imaginary story” because of the campire-stories framing sequence — that interpretation would certainly spare a lot of Trekkies serious pain)

Since I don’t think God exists and think now that my Bowie answer may have been a bit hasty and over-enthusiastic (like rock n’ roll itself), let’s focus on Dan’s answer, Buckley (indeed, Dan and I would probably join another group of friends in drinking a toast to Buckley today if we weren’t already scheduled to attend a Heartland Institute conference on global warming — it’s a busy day).

Looked at in a static, time-slice way (as opposed to a historically-informed way, which I’ll get to shortly), Buckley might have seemed to some an elitist, even a parody of an elitist: rich, harpsichord-playing, politically retrograde, enamored of some big words most people don’t understand, a proponent of classical music, etc. In fact, even conservative writer J.R. Taylor has sometimes been critical of Buckley for precisely these reasons (not that he wished him dead or anything). J.R. (through whom I first really got to know Dawn, as it happens, both of them starting out as rock writers) fears that Buckley was as much a useful living parody of the liberal media’s expectations of what a conservative is as Ann Coulter, in her very different way, is (J.R., by contrast, sees conservatism as the defense of the average Joe, normal Americans including the middle-class slobs who rent the kind of movies J.R. reviews on his excellent site RightWingTrash).

The liberals — even the ones saying very nice things about Buckley over the past several days — believe conservatives to be defenders of the rich and privileged, don’t really believe us when we say we are motivated by other concerns, and are in some sense relieved when a Buckley seems to tell them what they expect to hear (at least to the extent his vibe and image, superficially, scream WASPy New England yacht club). Like almost everyone you ever see on TV, he was perfect for his pre-assigned role.

But looked at in a more long-term, historical way (just as we should not morally judge differential incomes in a single time-slice without regard to the history by which those differences arose, perhaps as a side effect of what are overall some very beneficial processes and principles), Buckley was not so much a snob or member of the upper crust as someone who tried, I think, to encapsulate and carry forward everything about his civilization that he admired, to be a humble conduit (as T.S. Eliot suggested good poets also are) of its artistic, literary, political, and religious achievements rather than just one more person myopically enjoying the present-day details of his own life in, say, 1974.

That’s why he deserves to be thought of as a guardian of the culture in a way that many slovenly ingrates do not — and why he would be an excellent choice for putting in the escape pod, if you see what I mean.


Jacob T. Levy said...

I’m hereby adopting Paul’s interpretation of ST5.

David said...

Technically we can’t call WFB a WASP, since he was Catholic, even though he seemed a walking dictionary entry for the term. It reminds me of when someone once referred to me as a golfer. “But I’m not a golfer; I’ve never golfed,” I protested. “Accept it, David; you’re a golfer” was her cryptic yet understandable reply.