Thursday, July 21, 2011

Book Selection: “Miles Gone By” by William F. Buckley (and a banjo player) Book Selection: Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography by William F. Buckley

David Barnes of the thinktank e21 tonight moderates a discussion at the Cato Institute about the causes of the recent divorce between the conservative and libertarian factions and the odds of reconciliation.  Even though I’ve had my differences with editors at National Review – including being plagiarized by William F. Buckley himself – I still think they are close to the truth about how to maintain the “fusionist” alliance, so I won’t quite dismiss them (or him) as part of a sinister cabal just yet.  (And Buckley’s almost line-for-line recreation of my column on Howard Stern in the mid-90s might well have been ghosted for him by a harried intern anyway, given how these things work.  I am nothing if not a tolerant and forgiving man, as the world knows.)

But Buckley’s collection of columns called Miles Gone By is much more about Buckley’s unique crypto-aristocratic persona than his plans for maintaining the right-wing political alliance.  Then again, the book does include an essay about his recurring ski vacations with Milton Friedman, which I suppose compensate for all the time he spent hanging out with John Kenneth Galbraith. 

The book was explicitly regarded by Buckley, in his 2004 introduction, as a likely life-capping quasi-autobiography, given its emphasis on personal, almost non-political pieces about Yale, growing up fancy in Connecticut (his sister, for instance, snubbing FDR during an equestrian show she rode in as a child when the Buckleys were growing up), music teachers from his childhood, and the like – and indeed he passed away four years later, and I wish we still had him around.  If you like Buckley the man, politics mostly aside, enough to enjoy hearing him wax ironic about sailing or vacationing or language-use, this is a fun collection. 

(One small example of his distinctive tone and his amusing ability to sound especially lofty while counseling humility: asked during his failed NYC mayoral campaign whether he had been called “delusional” by fellow candidate John Lindsay for saying they’d known each other at Yale, Buckley replied, “I’m told he said I’m having ‘delusions of grandeur.’  Grandeur was not defined, while I was at Yale, as having the knowledge of John Lindsay.”)

Buckley’s attitude was not wholly unrelated to his policy positions, of course – he embodied an attachment to old, traditional, refined things, but he was also a free-marketeer and occasional party animal, so he often served as a model for keeping the factional peace.  He notes in one essay here that editing both fusionism-founder Frank Meyer and paleoconservative Russell Kirk was perhaps the greatest strain on his diplomatic skills. 

Lest conservatives reading this blog entry take this as evidence that libertarian sympathizers like Meyer never belonged in the coalition in the first place, though, it’s worth remembering that Frank Meyer stayed on good terms with NR and the conservative establishment, whereas Kirk, despite all their lionizing of him, grew to detest mainstream conservatism, thinktanks, and the Republican Party, as his widow, who speaks fondly of Rand, is only too happy to tell people.  There are fewer party-line people in the party than you’d think, and diversity is a good thing (in fact, Kirk often said so in his writing, seeing homogenization as one of the ugliest aspects of modernity).

If Buckley had outlived the 2008 presidential campaign, I could imagine he might even have become an ardent Ron Paul fan in time, which would have helped speed the right’s education along immensely.  Buckley was anti-Iraq War, after all.  Paul is admittedly a radical, but given the urgency of our economic situation (with complete collapse perhaps arriving in two weeks as I type this), I think we now need radicalism – economics-focused radicalism – instead of the slow cultural turning of the ship of state that was conservatism’s forte for a half-century.  That we’ve run out of time for such subtle methods is almost as tragic for the right, in its way, as the fact that regulating and spending have now come to naught is for the left. 

Libertarianism is our only practical option now, and we’d better use it quickly.  I am not oblivious to the nuances that may be lost in the process, but despite what David Brooks might tell you, we can’t afford them.  We cannot expect everyone to learn sensible economic policy overnight, but we ought to be able to agree on this: The Federal government is bankrupt and must now be shut down altogether – simply get rid of it and let the states take over, since it has failed and has run out of money (even NASA, as Austin Petersen, who gave me my copy of Miles Gone By, knows).  The states will then be free to experiment with different economic models – single-payer healthcare for Vermont, Perry-led growth in Texas – as they so choose.  Everybody wins instead of ending up in the poorhouse together. 

Instead, right now, liberal pundits like young Ezra Klein are coming perilously close to self-parody, very nearly literally claiming that government spending for the sake of spending really is the key to rescuing an economy, even if government can’t spend wisely.  The technocratically-inclined liberal wonks will admit that spending our way out of bankruptcy seems counter-intuitive.  And goddam it, they ought to more seriously consider the possibility that it’s counter-intuitive for a reason.

I want to go back to the not-so-distant days when we could
have long, leisurely debates about ideal political models.  (The only time Buckley ever spoke to me, he was providing me with my only other autographed Buckley book, or rather a sci-fi anthology in which Buckley had one story, about defecting cosmonauts – and he said, “Science fiction is rather conducive to libertarian values,”  Amen, Mr. Chairman.)  But even though I’m planning to launch a new series of events (including debates) in Williamsburg in the fall, under the name the Brooklyn Forum, I don’t know how much leisure any of us are going to have, the way things are going economically, unless we all lean radical and econ-focused a lot harder than we have. 

I was just reminded that it was only a few summers ago – 2007 – that I heard a newspaper editor friend at a picnic say he couldn’t imagine Ron Paul getting much traction as a candidate because radicals are for times of crisis, and people didn’t then feel as if we were in a crisis.  I think times have changed.  (And it’s not just some hotheads in the House who think so.  If you think the “Cut, Cap, and Balance” legislation sounded too drastic – or to some ears too cautious, since it would still allow raising the debt ceiling – check out Sen. Tom Coburn’s marvelously-titled Back in Black report offering $9 trillion in cuts over the next decade.)

Aristocratic reserve can too easily become fiddling while Rome burns if mainstream practices have become so unsustainable that stubborn adherence to them is self-destructive instead of conserving.  If concerns about Bachmann’s headaches diminish her popularity as a candidate and we end up with something like moderates coalescing around Romney, conservatives around Perry, and libertarians around Ron Paul, it may be time to just push Paul as hard as possible and say, weirdness be damned, he is the only ideological hand grenade powerful enough to clear the mess in DC.  It’s not that I want us to need him, it’s just that we appear to need him.

Afterwards, we can get back to playing the harpsichord and talking about Vienna, I hope.  (In the meantime, I will unwind after this rant by watching a neocon play the banjo – or, strictly speaking, the banjolele, which is a sort of cross between a banjo and a ukulele – tonight at the fittingly-named club Banjo Jim’s, where Hannah Meyers goes on at 7pm tonight.)

APPENDIX: The Simpsons

And as a reminder that Buckley was not the most retrograde person to come out of Yale, herewith the tragically-deleted list of anachronisms that used to grace the “Mr. Burns” entry on Wikipedia:

Mr. Burns uses archaic phrases and antiquated expressions that have either changed meanings or fallen out of common usage in American English, including score (meaning 20), twain (two), post-haste (quickly), petroleum distillate (gasoline), gay (jolly), dean (principal), velocitator and deceleratrix (a car's accelerator and brake), aeromail (airmail), lollygagger (slacker), fourth form (fourth grade), ahoy-hoy (hello), jumping box and picto-tube (television), Autogyro (helicopter), DictaBelt (dictation machine), the New York Nine (New York Yankees), horseless sleigh (snowmobile, although it could just mean that he was trying to be a mysterious character), crackleberries (peanuts), talkie (movies with sound), thrice (three times), and mater (mother). He also answers the telephone in the same way that the man widely credited for the Invention of the Telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, is purported to have answered it ('Ahoy, Hoy?'). In one episode, he also calls Smithers and says "Smithers, come here, I want you.", a take on what are reputedly the first words spoken by Alexander Graham Bell on his telephone ("Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you").

He also displays mannerisms which are considered outdated, such as practicing phrenology, writing with a quill pen, driving a 1936 Stutz Bearcat while wearing a Edwardian motorist's outfit which includes hat, driving gloves and goggles, carrying a mace for self defense (though the weapon actually shown was a flail), driving without regard to traffic laws in the manner of early 20th century motorists, and using an antique view camera to take photographs.

Burns appears unaware of 20th century political and social developments, such as Fidel Castro replacing Fulgencio Batista as the President of Cuba, Siam changing its name to Thailand, the Belgian Congo changing its name to the Congo-Kinshasa, Prussia being absorbed into the German Empire, India gaining its independence from the British Empire, New Mexico entering the United States, the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Idlewild Airport changing its name to JFK Airport, the disbanding of the Negro Leagues, the desegregation of the Major Leagues, Joe DiMaggio no longer being a rookie, the extinction of the dodo, the demolition of the Polo Grounds, the ceasing of publication of Collier's Weekly, the demise of the DuMont Television Network, believing tires need to be re-vulcanized, confusing The Ramones with The Rolling Stones ("have the Rolling Stones killed"), thinking cars are still operated by levers, believing mail may still be delivered by auto-gyro (once asking for a package to be delivered by auto-gyro to the Prussian Embassy in Siam) and the occurrence of the 1939 World's Fair.

Mr. Burns' investment portfolio includes long-defunct shares in "Confederated Slaveholdings, Transatlantic Zeppelin, Amalgamated Spats, Congreve's Inflammable Powder, U.S. Hay", and an "up-and-coming Baltimore Opera Hat Company".

Burns commonly refers to deceased persons as if they were alive, including Al Jolson, Tallulah Bankhead, Louise Brooks, Honus Wagner, Cap Anson, and Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown.

He also believes some social institutions and inventions are novel or nonexistent, such as musicals about "the common cat" and "the King of Siam", the Packard automobile, the Fire Department, ice cream (or "iced cream"), vending machines, recycling, strip clubs, the DuMont, the word "into", silent films like the 1929 Lulu [presumably meaning Pandora’s Box – TS], and the synonymy of ketchup and catsup. While trying to chat up a young woman, Burns offers to play the clavichord and show stereotypical [stereoscopic? –TS] images of the Crimean War.

1 comment:

Eric Hanneken said...

I have little hope that the U.S. government is going to avoid a sovereign debt crisis. Most voters don't see it coming, and will fight to defend the future Medicare and Social Security benefits they imagine will be paid to them. Even most self-described Tea Partiers consider those programs to be off-limits to cuts.

If the federal government implodes, then maybe we'll see the radical decentralization and experimentation you described, and that would be a good thing. Getting there will, I suspect, be painful. I wish seasteading technology were ready now.