Monday, March 3, 2008

God and Man at Yale, by William F. Buckley

william f. buckley god and man at yaleI had actually borrowed this book from my local library a few days before Buckley died, making this post somewhat awkwardly apposite.

I don't really wish to deal with the many obituaries and salutes that have been written; I wish to deal simply with this book.

Buckley promotes his views coherently, if tediously. The fact that his premises are absurd (and that he never argues for their validity—"this essay will not attempt to prove either the divinity of Christ or to defend the advantages of conducting our lives with reference to divine sanctions. Nor shall I attempt to demonstrate the contemporary applicability of the principal theses of Adam Smith. Rather, I will proceed on the assumption that Christianity and freedom are 'good,' without ever worrying that by so doing I am being presumptuous") is taken in stride. Buckley is not in the least interested in convincing those who dispute those premises that his thesis has any worth; his sole audience are those men who agree with him on the inviolability of Christianity and free-market fundamentalism, but are less sanguinary when it comes to forcing those inviolate orthodoxies upon others. His point is to convince his fellow travelers that they need to get moving, and not to convince his opponents that his is the right direction. As I count myself among the latter group, the book is not for me.

It is rather revealing, though, on one core point which nicely illuminates much broader issues in modern conservatism. Buckley insists that the academic marriage of research and teaching is an innately adulterous one, or rather that it is a marriage of economic convenience: "since the scholar, like his fellow-man, must earn his keep, tradition has it that in the afternoon he will utilize the university's libraries and laboratories, generally to satisfy his own desires, while in the morning he will use the classrooms to satisfy other people's desires." Buckley takes this dubious division and runs with it, using it to argue that "the researcher must satisfy consumer demands during those hours of his working day during which he earns his income. Research may occupy him as an avocation, as it has so many scholars. More likely, far-sighted individuals will continue to contribute funds to autonomous research. We can assume, or at least we can hope, that there will continue to be 'consumers' of 'untrammeled research.'" Because that's what "untrammeled research" is there for, after all—to be consumed.*

Buckley's sharp division of research against teaching allows him to assert that research alone has been the motor of intellectual progress, in isolation from teaching. And this segmentation process, coupled with Buckley's desired marketization of both research and teaching that you can see above, allows him to cast research—and therefore progress—out of the academy proper and into the dim netherworld of grant-writing and midnight-oil hobby-horsing. Nice job, Bill.

But the fascinating aspect of this line of argumentation is the dynamics of change it presumes: Buckley believes that only research initiates change because he sees research as a peripheral activity. Indeed, for him change always starts as a peripheral force which succeeds only by displacing the previous "truth," and displacing that "truth" cleanly, as a simple substitution, like a new homeowner who doesn't do much with the place—maybe repaints a few walls, puts in a new bookcase. In some cases, Buckley acknowledges, the new "truth" merely is subletting and will be gone soon.

The deficiencies of this view should be clear, and one can find in them the seeds of a great number of failings in American politics (like Iraq, where we would supposedly take up residence smoothly, a neat substition—and tremendous upgrade at a discount!—over Saddam) as well as much of its appeal. The remarkable ending of the Cold War, which played out (at least on television) in spectacular fulfillment of this philosophy of change, gave conservatives a whole world of vindication. The fact remains that the ostensible smoothness of the fall of Communism was both anomalous and the result of numerous highly contingent forces, but try telling that to a National Review reader.

The origin of these deficiencies is the unwavering confidence Buckley and those like him have in the governance of both historical and mundane actions by rational choice (a good term for what it really is—the rationing of choice—some get big bowls of choice, others a spoonful). Buckley (and others, notably Allan Bloom) see choice—and therefore change—as discrete. Buckley refers obsessively to "value alternatives," and to a very large degree, "alternative" is the word (and the reality) he prefers to "choice." While the word "alternative" can refer to "two or more" choices, its force comes from its insistence on natural limits to the number of options that exist (cf. "select" vs. "choose") and discreteness in terms of the divisions between options. One can't select one of a number of alternatives and get part of another just by sloppiness. "Alternative" also calls to mind "alternate" (the verb), "to perform or do in succession or one after another," which suggests that change is carried out linearly, along one axis of selection or action.

But change is not discrete and it is not naturally limited and it is not linear. Change is messy, and it doesn't always work steadily from the outside in. I'm going to guess that as world and national events begin validating this view of change, Buckleycons will fade away, although that change too will not likely be smooth.

*And there's this great quote too: "It is of the essence of freedom that citizens not be made to pay for what the majority does not want, and there is no exception to this rule that does not entail a surrender of freedom and a substitution of minority for majority rule." So corporate-perpetrated environmental degradation is the biggest abridgment of freedom imaginable? After all, what majority wants to pay for sulfur-water? Or super-hurricanes? Could the market... fail... to account for... this? Egad.

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