Last week, the William F. Buckley Jr. Program hosted its 10th annual conference, titled “Sixty Years Since the Sixties,” bringing together academics and attendees from across the globe over Zoom.
Since its founding by a group of Yale undergraduates in 2010, the Buckley Program — which works to promote intellectual diversity and conservative thought on campus — has organized an annual conference every fall. Usually, the conference features an afternoon panel discussion followed by a gala dinner. This year, to adapt to a virtual setting, the event instead consisted of four Zoom webinars spread throughout the past week. The program welcomed 13 speakers, who discussed topics ranging from the sexual revolution to American adventurism. Jasper Boers ’22, the speakers director for the Buckley Program and the moderator of the first panel, said that although hosting the conference virtually presented challenges, it did allow some people to attend who would not have been able to otherwise.
“I know it was nice for a lot of our donors and alumni to be able to come and watch the panels, who wouldn’t normally otherwise be able to come to an in-person conference because they have jobs, or, you know, physically can’t travel,” he said.
The webinars, which drew an average attendance of over 100 students, faculty and community members, focused on a different topic each day.
The first, titled “The Great Society and American Economic Stagnation from the Sixties to Today,” took place on Nov. 9 and featured author and columnist Amity Shlaes ’82, economist Michael Strain and American Affairs founder Julius Krein. Krein and Shlaes both critiqued the Great Society — a set of policy initiatives, legislation and domestic programs spearheaded by former president Lyndon B. Johnson that aimed to work against poverty, crime and inequality. Shlaes attributed the Great Society’s failings to “the folly of well-meaning people.” She then drew a comparison between the Great Society and the ongoing COVID-19 response — noting that the most promising updates have come not from the government but from a private company, Pfizer, through a potential vaccine. Strain offered another perspective, arguing that the notion of current American economic stagnation is “misplaced.”
“The evidence suggests that hard work pays off,” Strain said, after noting that the average wage of workers has increased by one-third over the past 30 years. “The evidence suggests that people can better their circumstances. The evidence suggests that America is still an upwardly mobile society. But if you believe that those things aren’t true, then you may not work hard, you may not aspire as much as you otherwise would have and you can end up not doing as well.”
For Strain, this kind of economic pessimism is self-reinforcing.
The second panel of the conference, “Woodstock, the Sexual Revolution and the Decay of American Social Order,” took place on Nov. 10. Its four speakers discussed the causes and effects of the sexual revolution, a 1960s social movement that challenged norms regarding sexual attitude and behaviors. At the panel, journalist and former senior editor of The Weekly Standard Christopher Caldwell linked the sexual revolution to the invention of the inexpensive and effective birth control pill. Senior editor of The American Conservative Helen Andrews disagreed, arguing that the most shocking societal changes have been cultural, not technological.
“If you fell asleep and woke up in 80 years and saw flying cars, you wouldn’t be shocked, you’d say, ‘Yep, that seems about right,’” Andrews said. “Whereas if you woke up and found that cannibalism was okay now and you can get a human flesh burger at McDonald’s, you would think that was really strange.” She compared this to a hypothetical time traveler from the ’40s, who, when placed in any modern American city, would be shocked by the change in cultural norms.
During the panel, Christine Rosen, senior editor of conservative journal The New Atlantis, lamented the sexual revolution’s idea that the personal is political, a belief that Rosen said elevated “individual lived experience and feelings as indisputable proof of the righteousness of a cause.” Meanwhile, author and essayist Mary Eberstadt presented what she sees as three “paradoxes” of the sexual revolution: that the birth control pill led to more abortions, that a revolution meant to liberate women actually decreased female happiness by harming the institution of marriage and that a movement meant to be private created massive public consequences in splintered families and identity crises.
The third conference took place on Nov. 12 and focused on “Yale in the ’60s.” The three panelists — former University Secretary Sam Chauncey ’57, senior lecturer in history Jay Gitlin ’71 GRD ’02 and former visiting assistant professor Geoffrey Kabaservice ’88 GRD ’99 — all weighed in on Yale’s culture during that time period, based both upon personal experiences and academic research.
According to Chauncey and Gitlin, Yale students, before the ’60s, were interested less in academia and more in developing their social lives and finding employment. Students mainly matriculated from the same few college preparatory schools, were usually Republican and socially conservative and were not particularly interested in politics.
“[Before the 1960s], Yale didn’t really see itself … as a university on the forefront of scholarship and learning,” he said. “I think it would have more seen its role to keep the ideals of the WASP upper class safe from rot and rust.”
All three panelists characterized the ’60s at Yale as a time of great change, during which the University began moving away from its conservative and white roots towards a more liberal, as well as “intellectual,” environment.
“In the Shadow of Vietnam: America’s Legacy of Adventurism Abroad,” the last event of the series, took place on Nov. 13 and featured lecturer Charles Hill, professor Andrew Bacevich of Boston University and professor Walter Russell Mead ’76 of Bard College. Bacevich began by outlining repercussions of the Vietnam War, including the separation of the American people from their armed forces and the subsequent lack of accountability for the military’s actions. The repercussions, Bacevich argued, resulted in the military and strategic failure in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Hill discussed the United States’ role in the war, while Mead challenged the idea that the Vietnam War had a large impact at all.
“I think it was the aftermath of the Vietnam War that may have been more decisive in some ways than the actual war itself,” said Mead.
For Tanzi Sakib ’23 — who currently studies political history — the conversation on the Vietnam War was especially engaging.
In particular, he agreed with Mead’s argument on the impact that the war had both internationally and in the United States.
“I think one point raised in the conversation that I agreed most strongly with is that at the end of the day, for one reason or other, the Vietnam conflict and the fall of South Vietnam did not [have] quite as extensive of a geopolitical effect on the South-East Asian region as some might have predicted at the onset of the conflict,” Sakib wrote in an email to the News. “On the other hand, it had a far greater impact on the American mindset through a surge of anti-war and left leaning movements and also on the American foreign policy which became somewhat liberal in dealing with communist countries other than the USSR (namely: China).”
Meanwhile, Boers told the News that he particularly enjoyed the panel on Yale in the ’60s and listening to speakers from three different generations shed light on how campus life has evolved. He also noted that the discussion on American adventurism involved some friendly debate between the panelists, which he felt added interest to the conversation.
The Buckley Program will next host a conversation with biologist and evolutionary theorist Bret Weinstein on Nov. 18.
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