Wednesday, March 21, 2012

reading retreat

I took a couple nights last weekend at a retreat cabin in the mountains. I finally finished William F. Buckley's God and Man At Yale, and it is a slog. 60 years on, and myself having worked my way through 90s liberal arts education at the tail of political correctness, it's hard to understand what he's so exercised about. I have that problem with conservatives in general, which is why I picked this book up. I'm hoping that in reading books that matter to conservatives, I'll develop a more charitable understanding of a worldview where someone just can't decide whether to vote for Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum.
"I just don't know, Larry. Do I vote for the guy who hates fags as much as I do, or the guy who promises to cut Medicare and use the savings to build a base on the moon?"
I finally found a couple of quotations that illustrate the thrust of the book. He spends some time establishing that there are actually some limits professors have to operate within--no Communists, for example.
In short, I maintain that sonorous pretensions notwithstanding, Yale (and my guess is most other colleges and universities) does subscribe to an orthodoxy: there are limits within which its faculty members must keep their opinions if they wish to be "tolerated."

Now these limits are very wide indeed, and they are limits prescribed by expediency, not by principle. My task becomes, then, not so much to argue that limits should be imposed, but that existing limits should be narrowed. [p. 151, his italics]
He's arguing in part for what he calls "values inculcation," which is to say that Yale professors should teach the obvious and absolute truths of Christianity and capitalism as the highest goods. You could maybe forgive this as a product of his age, except that he insists repeatedly that students must learn the methods of skepticism and free that they can come to the conclusions Buckley approves of. I thought this encapsulated the idea nicely:
There is great and decisive freedom to be found within the sense-making limits of orthodoxy. [p. 174]
Or, as Stephen Colbert put it:
Though I am a committed Christian, I believe that everyone has the right to their own religion, be you Hindu, Jewish or Muslim. I believe there are infinite paths to accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior.
I think all I've learned from this is to confirm that the supposed intellectual foundation of conservatism is a crock. Buckley was a repellent human being, and he was supposed to be the grown-up in the movement. American conservatism amounts to saying that the world was created by white capitalist Christians, and that's the way it should be. You can see this in their insane, apocalyptic continuous freakout about President Obama: one popular trope has it that "we don't know anything about him," that somehow the media gave him a pass during the election. Or that he's some kind of overprivileged affirmative-action hire. The abundant documentation and the autobiography that predates his running for office tell his history pretty clearly, but the American right can't accept the true story it tells: a successful, hard-working, self-made, intelligent black man.

I dunno. I keep hoping there's a non-loony viewpoint in there somewhere, and I guess there used to be some: I'm all in favor of making changes carefully and thoughtfully, which is something conservatives used to advocate when they needed a civilized public story while privately lamenting that women and blacks ever got the vote. Now they just lament publicly, and there's a population segment that loves it. I appreciate the honesty, in a way. Shine some sunlight on all that hatred and anger and fear. Maybe we can talk about it. Maybe some people can get a hug, and a nap and some graham crackers.

Then again, Rick Perlstein wrote a great piece for Rolling Stone about how none of this is new.


  1. The first two acts in are the closest I've come to understanding why some people are in the Republican party. I hadn't read the Rolling Stone piece before. It's interesting.