Thursday, February 28, 2008

On the death of William F. Buckley, Jr.

I don't usually make a habit of devoting blog space to conservative figures, much less to one the New York Times recently called "the architect of modern conservatism." I believe conservative policies on the whole have been extremely detrimental for the nation and the world. As such, I tend to reject them, along with their underlying philosophies.

I didn't always, though, and I owe my political turn around in part to William F. Buckley, Jr., who passed away late Tuesday night.

I grew up in a Republican household--a very Republican household. My father was quite active in the New York Republican party at both the local and state levels. I recall accompanying him to a smoky Republican party headquarters one cold November night in the early 1980s, where we cheered the victories of "our" candidates. The community in which I was raised also was staunchly Republican. It was something of an enclave in this regard, since New York State on the whole tended to be more Democratic, at least, at the time.

Most of my friends' parents were Republicans, and most of my friends knew nothing else but. Consequently, we considered ourselves to be junior members of the Republican party, the inheritors of the GOP. We campaigned for aid to the Central American Contra insurgency during our mock-government conventions. We thought Ollie North, with his perfect posture, crisp uniform, and sad eyes, had been wronged by the liberal establishment. We celebrated the Reagan-Bush landslide of 1984, and in 1988, some championed the cause of the next Republican administration by affixing Bush-Quayle signs to their lockers at school.

We all knew a few, simple things. Democrats or, worse yet, Progressives, obviously were Communist loving softies who wanted to tax the nation into bankruptcy. They also wanted give all sorts of breaks to groups who clearly didn't deserve them. At least, that's what we all believed, swept up as we were in the rising tide of the Reagan Revolution.

My father passed away in 1986, and thereafter, my maternal grandfather became more of a presence in my everyday life. He, too, was an arch conservative. (His father had been a federal court judge, however, whom Franklin Roosevelt had appointed to the bench.) When I headed off to college, in 1991, my grandfather worried. He was a prodigious reader of conservative publications and was well aware of the culture wars taking place around that time on college campuses. He also knew U.S. colleges were "bastions of liberalism," and so he wanted to do what he could to shield me from almost certain ideological indoctrination by the left-wing thought police.

His solution was to subscribe me to the conservative news magazine William F. Buckley had founded in 1955, the National Review. Every two weeks a new issue arrived at my dorm room. I recall thumbing through most of them, more or less interested. Some I read quite intently. One contained a fascinating book excerpt that asked what would have happened had the U.S. not entered the Second World War. Another issue contained a story in which the author argued that the South African anti-Apartheid movement really was a Communist front, and that it should be resisted by the United States at all cost.

It was with the latter article that I began to recognize something was wrong. Why in the world would anyone advocate sustaining Apartheid? This was racism--bald, state-sanctioned racism. How could "godlessness" or "collectivism" be worse than that type of injustice? And how could someone associated with the "party of Lincoln" maintain such a position? Despite my questions, I continued to hold fast to my Republican ideals and passed off the article as one bad apple amid an otherwise okay bunch.

I proceeded to take a political science class during the second semester of my first year at college. The professor was an avowed conservative who had been educated at Georgetown. We read What I Saw at the Revolution, a political memoir penned by Peggy Noonan, Reagan's most famous speech writer. The Professor liked my work and even told me that it reminded her of the kind of thinking she used to encounter at Georgetown. I was proud of that compliment, and even prouder when I earned an A in her class. At the end of the school year, I happily reported to my grandfather that colleges--at least, the one I was attending--maybe weren't great bastions of liberalism after all.

And then it happened. In 1991, Rodney King, an African American man, had been beaten by a group of police officers in Los Angeles, following a traffic stop. The acquittal of all but one of the policemen by a mostly white jury, in April 1992, prompted a wave of riots in L.A. All, clearly, was not well with race relations in this country. I'd seen the infamous videotape of the beating many times. Though I knew there was some room for interpretation--the NR had told me so--it was crystal clear to me that the officers had well exceeded the amount of force necessary to subdue Mr. King. And they were all white.

What horrified me beyond the verdict and the violence, though, was a mailing I received during the summer of 1992: a solicitation of support for the Sargeant Stacey Koon legal defense fund. Koon was one of the ringleaders of the beating, and here I was being asked to help him out. I wondered for a moment why I had received this mailing, when it dawned on me: Koon and his buddies must have gotten my name and address from the National Review.

That was the turning point. I knew then conservatism wasn't for me. There was no going back. And I have William F. Buckley, Jr. to thank for this, my political awakening. Surely it wasn't the one he would have endorsed, much less have expected, but for this reason, he'll never be the "architect of modern conservatism" for me. If anything, he and his magazine helped demolish my conservatism and pave the way for my progressive education.

So thank you, Mr. Buckley, and godspeed.

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