The formidable Germaine Greer; William Buckley had the courage to debate her. Photograph by Anthony Browell, from an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery of Australia.
Here are some excerpts:
If you’re a leftist it’s fairly easy to hate William F Buckley. A quick survey of his life reveals a long list of his ideological crimes: McCarthyism, fascist fellow travelling (“General Franco is an authentic national hero.”), youthful racism, late-life homophobia (ie wanting to tattoo Aids victims on their butts) and all-purpose demented war-mongering (ie, urging a preemptive attack on the Soviet Union in the 1950s, even at the risk of a nuclear holocaust and blithely arguing, “And if we die? We die.”).
But the proper response to a hugely influential historical figure like Buckley is not simple rejection of his bad ideas.
The fact is that Buckley enjoyed a remarkable successful life. In 1955, when Buckley started National Review, American conservatism was in disarray. A quarter century later, Ronald Reagan, a National Review charter subscriber, was elected president. I wish to God that there was a leftist Buckley or for that matter even a liberal Buckley. There is much to learn from the man’s career, a stellar example of how an intellectual can be politically effective.
4. Be willing to debate smart enemies.
Buckley made a name for himself partially because he didn’t just go after easy targets but instead debated the best liberalism and the left had to offer: John Kenneth Galbraith, James Baldwin, Noam Chomsky, Germaine Greer, Michael Harrington. Debating thinkers of this calibre not only kept Buckley’s own mind in fighting trim, it also demonstrated his seriousness and raised the stature of his political movement. In arguing with conservatives you could make a full-time career combating the dim. God knows, I’ve spent some time criticising Jonah Goldberg, the author of Liberal Fascism. But there is a lot to be said for fighting your strongest foes.
5. Make time for culture.
I’m not sure if this was part of Buckley’s political success, but it certainly made him a more appealing figure and gave balance to his life: he cared about culture, especially music. He also had a taste for quirky prose, as seen by his friendship with the great literary critic Hugh Kenner. Being political doesn’t have to mean being a philistine. Temperamentally Buckley wasn’t a stodgy conservative at all but a neophile. He loved new gadgets, new ideas, new writers. There’s a life lesson here as well.