As I’ve noted before, the death of a bigot presents a problem for obituary writers. Politeness dictates that we skimp over the misdeeds of the dead while honesty requires a fuller reckoning with the past.
Joseph Sobran, onetime National Review editor, died earlier this week. Outside the circles of the far right, Sobran was known, to the extent he’s known at all, as someone who made repeated statements about Jews that were so embarrassing that his mentor William F. Buckley had to upbraid Sobran in the pages of the magazine they both edited. Eventually, Buckley’s magazine severed its ties with Sobran over the Jewish question.
Irving Kristol died yesterday and I’ve been wrestling with the issue of whether I should write a note on his passing or not. When a political adversary leaves the scene, I’m inclined to follow the principal of “de mortuis nil nisi bonum” (of the dead, speak no ill). The passing of William Buckley, who had much the same baneful impact on the world as Kristol, was met by me with an attempt to capture the impact of his charming literary voice. That’s harder to do in Kristol’s case since his prose was bluntly utilitarian: effective at making a point but rarely memorable.
What good can be said about Kristol? He was by all accounts a genial personality and a good family man. He was smart enough to realize that he wasn’t as intelligent as his wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, a respected historian and the real intellectual giant of the family. He was a very gifted editor, with an eye for pressing issues and young writers (as witness his tenure at Encounter in the 1950s and The Public Interest from the mid-1960s until a few years ago). As an editor, he was at his best when he partnered with a co-editor with a more moderate and temperate sensibility (like Stephen Spender at Encounter or Daniel Bell in the early days of The Public Interest).
Spite, malice, vindictiveness: these are all poison for the soul, but given the right dramatic form they can also be quite entertaining. Of Shakespeare’s incomparably rich array of characters, I’ve always had a fond spot for Iago, the toad-like underling who plotted Othello’s downfall. Petty, full of schemes, quick to offense, chaffing at his lowly status, Iago is spite made flesh-and-blood. He’s also a busy little go-getter: he doesn’t just nurse his grievances, he harnesses his anger to give him the energy he needs to orchestrate a catastrophe. As the greatest dramatist who ever lived, Shakespeare must have felt a secret affinity for Iago, who spends most of Othello directing the other characters from place to place, creating misunderstandings, keeping the plot moving forward. Iago is a playwright within a play.
If I had to encapsulate Peter Brimelow in a phrase, I’d say he is William F. Buckley’s Iago. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, Brimelow was a rising star in the world of right-wing American journalism, often publishing in the pages of National Review. Which is to say that Brimelow was one of Buckley’s many minions and subalterns. This all ended in 1997 when Brimelow was fired from National Review. Since then Brimelow has eked out an existence at the fringes of American political discourse as the editor of VDARE.com, a haven for white nationalists and sundry neanderthals (Marcus Epstein, a star columnist at VDARE, was recently convicted of assaulting a black woman, whom he karate chopped and called a “nigger.”)
National Review loves Donald Rumsfeld; doesn’t care for Christopher Buckley or Jeffrey Hart.
Perhaps because so many of its founding editors were erstwhile Stalinists and Trotskyists, the editors of National Review have always had a propensity for purges, ideological house-cleanings that involve black-balling those who don’t follow the party line. Some of these purges have been entirely justified: the conservative magazine did well to kick out kooks like Revilo Oliver and the Birchers in the early 1960s. And good riddance to the Randians as well. Other purges have been regrettable: anti-war libertarians were a strong presence on the American right till National Review started boycotting them. It would have been nice if those anti-war voices had remained part of the conservative conversation.
Now the magazine seems to be going through another one of its periodic ideological civil wars, kicking out anyone who might have a kind word to say about Barack Obama. As has been widely discussed, Christopher Buckley, son of founding editor William F. Buckley, lost his column in the magazine after he wrote an endorsement of Obama (an article that ran in another publication, The Daily Beast).
The death of a man at age 82, after a productive, successful, event-filled life enriched by an unusually close-knit family and an enormous circle of friends and admirers, should hardly be the cause of sadness. I do have to say though that the passing of William F. Buckley, whose death has just been announced, makes me feel wistful and at a loss. Like countless other readers, I read Buckley not for his ideas but for his voice, that languid self-assured upper-crust tone that was saved from being offensively twee by a certain tart wit and generous capacity to engage with other points of view. No less a radical than Noam Chomsky once observed that Buckley treated his interlocutors with a courtesy that other mainstream debaters, whether liberals or conservatives, lacked. [Note: see POST SCRIPT below]. Buckley was simply a part of my mental furniture; it’s difficult to imagine a world without him, a world where that unique voice is silent.