STERN: The Buckley fetish

We have a habit of canonizing the dead. Michael Jackson went from alleged pedophile to tragic god of pop music. Ted Kennedy went from heartless, manslaughter-committing politician to storied liberal lion. William F. Buckley is utterly idolized — across the country and particularly at Yale.

Yale students across the board respect and admire Buckley for his wit and intellect, if not for his conservative views. In 2008, the Yale Alumni Magazine called Buckley “a symbol of Yale.” In 2010, a group of Yale undergraduates founded the popular William F. Buckley Jr. Program, which, according to David Frum, “animates conservative discussion on the campus where it all began.”

Robert Massie, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and a classmate of Buckley’s at Yale, wrote, “Buckley was the most prominent and visible member of our class, as I suppose he has been ever since. Everybody was aware of what he was doing and what he thought, and many of us admired him even though we didn’t agree with his views.”

Even in a place as ostensibly liberal as Yale, William F. Buckley is still admired by students as the conservative intellectual—anathema to many of today’s openly anti-intellectual conservatives.

Yet this unabashed admiration of Buckley bothers me. For while the man was undeniably intelligent, and while his writings heralded the beginning of modern conservatism, many of his views are totally abhorrent — and totally overlooked at Yale.

William F. Buckley gave a speech in his senior year saying that Yale needed to be promoting “active Christianity.” Later, after graduating, he wrote “God and Man at Yale,” which charged, among other things, that Yale should return to its Christian heritage. While I have complete and total respect for Buckley’s personal religious convictions, I find the idea that Yale should only promote one religious point of view appalling.

Buckley wrote dozens more books, including one openly defending Senator Joseph McCarthy. This does not feel like modern, intelligent conservatism.

Nor does Buckley’s expressed desire to brand every single person infected with AIDS. (He wrote in The New York Times that everyone with AIDS should be tattooed on “the upper forearm” and on “the buttocks.”) Nor does when Buckley called Gore Vidal a “queer,” an “evangelist for bisexuality” and an “addict” of homosexuality.

I also don’t see how Yale students so respect Buckley when he apparently did not respect them. Buckley, leading fellow alumni of Skull and Bones in obtaining a court order, alleged that admitting women into Skull and Bones would end in “date rape.” This was in 1991! (Skull and Bones would later allow women, against Buckley’s strenuous objections.) That is how he views the moral character of a Yale student organization of which he was an alumnus?

But the coup de grace is Buckley’s views on integration. Though he would later qualify his views, Buckley wrote an editorial in 1957 titled “Why the South Must Prevail.” Buckley endorsed white supremacy and wrote, “The question is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes — the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.”

Are these the views Yale students want from the man universally called the father of modern conservatism? No! So many of us forget his true convictions, instead dwelling on his sheer intelligence, candor and fiery convictions. But the man who influenced Goldwater and Reagan, who founded The National Review and who wrote prolifically and influentially on conservatism held these views.

I am not attacking conservatism at Yale, just outdated and abhorrent views that are too often glossed over in the conservative movement’s zeal to find an intellectual icon. To Yale conservatives, I say, find a better icon! As C.J. Cregg said on the ever-quotable show “The West Wing,” “Liberals are coy about our mistakes. You won’t catch us naming anything after, well, pretty much anybody.” But conservatives are content with Buckley?

Columnist David Brooks wrote on the William F. Buckley Jr. Program’s website, “I was lucky enough to know and benefit from William F. Buckley’s wisdom and presence when I was young. That blessing is no longer available, but the Yale community can still hear from people who were influenced by his views. How could that not be a wonderful thing?”

Yes, how could it not be a wonderful thing that Yale students can hear from those influenced by Buckley’s “views”? Wanting Yale to actively promote Christianity? Supporting McCarthyism? Forcing everyone with AIDS to be tattooed? Calling homosexuality an addiction? Opposing women in certain Yale clubs? Claiming that whites were, at the time, the “advanced race”?

How … wonderful?

Scott Stern is a freshman in Branford College. Contact him at scott.stern@yale.edu.

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