Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Bill Buckley, RIP

Tibor R. Machan

William F. Buckley, Jr., has died, at age 82. I want to reflect a bit on him because he was the persons whose writing awoke in me my political passions.

In 1960 or 61 I was in the US Air Force, stationed at Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington, D.C., and among the many more or less serious reading materials I ran across an article by Mr. Buckley in Esquire magazine. It was titled, “Why Don’t We Complain.” Its thesis, advanced by means of a couple of anecdotes, was that when people fail to speak up about matters that amiss, they get all pent up and eventually lose their cool. Like when they tolerate fuzzy pictures at a theater instead of getting up to ask that they be repaired right away; or when a railroad car is overheated and no one complains but then when the conductor comes around he gets mobbed.

This was, of course, a fairly lightweight analysis of one of the sources of revolution. I found it right on the money. I read the piece while flying west and immediately penned a short note of congratulation and sent it to the offices of National Review. I also decided to subscribe to that magazine, although by then I knew I was not quite a conservative.

Buckley replied to my note and we began a correspondence that had lasted for many decades. When I once asked why he makes use of such erudite vocabulary in making his points, he said that the folks who need convincing are the erudite ones. We argued about God and about whether Ayn Rand had philosophical and literary merits. I was very annoyed with his repeated publication of an essay, in which he claimed that Rand’s first best seller, The Fountainhead, is popular because of the “fornicating bits,” which was quite silly as well as false.

In time I managed to get invited to appear on Firing Line, his long running interview program on PBS TV, where I was very well treated and pitted against one of Mr. Buckley’s favorite intellectuals, Ernest van den Haag, who became a friend until his death a few years ago at age 86.

At the time when I appeared on Firing Line, I also interviewed Buckley for Reason magazine, which had a short history of interviews with prominent men and women concerned about the free society—Nathaniel Branden, F. A. Hayek, Thomas Szasz, Edith Efron, Yale Brozen, Milton Friedman, Paul Craig Roberts and James Buchanan were some others whom I and others at Reason managed to interview for the magazine.

One of Buckley’s most impressive performances occurred at the Cambridge Union, in England, where he debated John Kenneth Galbraith, who was an old adversary as well as close friend of his. In this debate Buckley came off as a dedicated individualist (and trounced Galbraith good and hard). And that to me was more important than some of his more conservative notions, so despite the fact that I found a good deal of what he wrote difficult to take, I remained a fan.

Once when I visited Buckley at National Review’s offices, I noticed that while all dressed up in black tie, his fly was open, so I pulled him aside to let him know. He was very thankful and we had a nice laugh about it all. This was in line with his mainly gracious and jovial personality.

American conservatives are not like others who simply embrace a method of reasoning about public affairs, namely, to consult tradition and be guided by it. That is unprincipled. American conservatism is tied to the ideas of the Founders. Buckley was indeed an American conservative. He did, in my view, combine his loyalty to the Founders with some infelicitous convictions but he must be credited with fostering a long overdue post-New Deal awareness of what America is really about, namely, the rights and sovereignty of the individual human being. I will forever be grateful to him for that.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Unabashed Prejudice at The Times

Tibor R. Machan

These matters tend to show up without much fanfare but that’s exactly what makes them interesting and significant. When Eleanor Randolph of The New York Times wrote these lines [Sunday, 2/24/08], I am sure she was being quite unselfconscious. It was simple common sense to her to say, as she wrote about the program “Law & Order”--which she and I both seem to have watched from its inception--that these shows “elevate Sam Waterston to his ethical pedestal, even though he appears elsewhere pitching investments.”

Notice that as a fictional make-believe Assistant District Attorney--and now the DA himself--Waterston’s ethics are deemed impeccable. But as an actually pitchman for investment services provided by TD Waterhouse he is besmirched. “Even though” this is what he does both for part of his living and in service to millions who are seeking to place their money with a trusted outfit that will help them put it away for a rainy day! Why? What is morally, ethically not to applaud about Sam Waterston because he is making these pitches? What on earth is morally objectionable about advertising the services of TD Waterhouse or of any other legitimate enterprise?

Perhaps Ms. Randolph is upset with investment firms because they try to make people well off here in this world and she wants, like so many philosophers and theologians throughout human history, direct our attention to our spiritual selves and to the possibility of everlasting salvation earned through various measures of earthly asceticism. Nah, I don’t think so. Or perhaps she is just expressing a prevalent, unexamined prejudice in our culture in which, despite the concern about economic downturns, about poverty, about unemployment, the intelligentsia is scornful toward people in business. Kind of like the aristocracy had been about the nouveau riche because they dirtied their hands with productive work!

It is interesting that someone so closely linked to the liberal establishment in America would have no self awareness about her rank, irrational disdain for those who work in the financial community. This blindness, manifest here only as a casual throwaway line, has a serious impact on the health of the nation’s economy. For example, it fosters an atmosphere of disdain toward millions of young people who are considering entering the business professions. They are bombarded with the prejudice against their choice of career in TV programs, newspaper columns, movies, pulp fiction, popular music, and elsewhere and no righteous indignation is expressed by the mainstream moralizers in the country when it happens.

Apart from a few voices way outside the mainstream, politicians and others have no compunction about bashing business, denigrating people’s efforts to prosper, to make a profit in the market place, no. Attempting to thrive economically, while considered imperative for the country as a whole, is treated as a sin or some kind of lowly drive when exhibited by individuals.

Nevertheless, of course, most people, when they act on the basis of their personal common sense, show that prudence about their money is a decent, praiseworthy thing. They know well and good that seeking out good financial advice and acting on it are a wise course for them to take. They often stress such prudence as they raise their children. They frown upon recklessness in the market place by friends and neighbors.

Yet, somehow, they do not protest when pundits like Ms. Randolph and many, many others deride commerce and business. When a politician aligns himself or herself with those in the business world, if only to free up avenues for trade, he or she is derided for siding with “big business.” Never mind that it is such trade, carried out by those in the world of business that creates the jobs that keeps people off the unemployment lines, that makes it possible for them to provide for their needs and wants and dreams!

Isn’t it time that this kind of schizophrenia is abandoned, that the prejudice, the unjust discrimination against commerce and business is cast aside as nearly as insidious as racism and sexism?