Saturday, May 12, 2012

From the bookshelf: A blogger before there were blogs -- review of Inveighing We Will Go by William F. Buckley, Jr.

It is hard to get terribly excited about most contemporary collections of an opinion journalist's pieces, at least when one somewhat keeps up. The news junkie who follows websites like RealClearPolitics or Townhall has probably read most of it already.

Back in the day, though, when one was at the mercy of one's local newspaper regarding which columnists it carried (and even if you were lucky enough to have a conservative columnist at all, newspapers tended to pick and choose which individual columns they would carry from that writer,) such collections were often the only way that one could get a full shot of the good stuff. Thus, every three years, regardless of what was going on in the world, William F. Buckley Jr. fulfilled the the contract with his publisher by compiling a volume that selected, collected and collated the output of the previous triennium.

Inveighing We Will Go, is one such volume. Having never read one of these collections, I decided to give one a go, and was surprised to find myself devouring it. I chose this particular one for a couple of reasons: first, I've always loved the title since I first saw it in a list of WFB's books; second, it is the one volume of which new copies are still available at National Review. An untouched stash, reputedly from the man's own basement, is for sale at the modest price of $75. We are serious readers and book-buyers in the MH household, but not collectors, so I must confess to buying a used copy online -- inexpensive and in excellent condition these 40 years later.

It is interesting to note the heft of some of Buckley's collections. This one weighs in at 400 pages in the hardback. I just don't think modern publishers do that anymore. Most such collections, when they occur, have provocative titles, colorful cover art, and a svelte profile on the shelf that helps keep the cost of such a volume down.

And yet, Inveighing, with 100+ entries, represents only a fraction of the prolific Buckley output for the period of 1970-72. With his thrice-weekly syndicated column (in the era of old-fashioned typewriters and literally "phoning in" columns, such a commitment sounds a bit like an act of literary self-mortification,) his dozen-odd longer articles and book reviews for various major publications, plus whatever he wrote for his National Review, the total number of pieces to choose from in a three-year period would easily have exceeded 500. Understandably, Buckley was known to comment that such collections were actually the most work of any of his books to produce, since he had to wade through clippings of everything he had written in order to find the best.

With his writing schedule, it wasn't surprising that Buckley wrote a fair number of throw-away columns, so he would indeed have to be selective. Fun anecdote: (I believe it was from Overdrive, but not sure) Buckley recounted a conversation with a learned friend who asked him how he wrote that many columns. Buckley replied that one got into a sort of rhythm about it, and commented that he could write a column in as little as 20 minutes. The friend nodded solemnly, and then replied, "Yes, I think I read that one." It is that sort of story that puts the lie to the idea of Buckley's pretentiousness -- few writers would tell such a story on themselves, but Buckley was nothing if not transparent.

Indeed, as a reviewer of Inveighing stated at the time, "Buckley has left the metaphysical chores to various deep thinkers and joyously set out to smite the liberals hip and thigh. And he is good at it. No commentator has a surer eye for the contradictions, the hypocrisies, the pretensions of liberal and radical pontiffs." Indeed, Inveighing is not the place to go for deep and systematic expositions of conservative principles and programs. You want that, read Russell Kirk's lengthy but readable books. (Really, do.)

Buckley in his column was, one now realizes, a blogger before there were blogs, although with distribution to more than 300 newspapers in what was still a golden age for newspapers, he had a readership that would make the Daily Kos swoon. What made Buckley in his column so blog-like was his stream-of-consciousness writing and the reactive nature of his pieces. In one of his autobiographical works, he described picking up the newspapers each day all too often not with a sense of enjoyment or seeking information but rather with a sort of search-and-destroy mission of finding something to write about, since the next deadline was never more than a day or two away. Modern political bloggers can certainly relate, which is part of the reason that this blog has evolved into an output even more varied in content than in earlier years.

So, with all that preliminary, what about Inveighing itself? Readers at the time, with war in Vietnam still being waged, the Cold War still frigid, and Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign underway, were doubtless captivated by those great issues, which filled half the pages of the book. They are still fascinating period pieces, even though we all know how the stories ended: helicopters lifting off from the roof of the abandoned U.S. Embassy, leaving countless Vietnamese supporters of U.S. policy to violent deaths; the fall of the Berlin Wall -- unthinkable then; and the dragon slaying St. George.

It is hard, even for those of us old enough to remember the looming presence of the Soviet Union during the latter half of the Cold War, to recreate the immediacy of the threat and even harder to convey the crisis of uncertainty amongst America's elites regarding whether the U.S. was on the winning (let alone the right) side in this global conflict. The book thus appropriately begins with a lengthy Playboy interview with WFB on the subject of Vietnam (yes, the magazine apparently was worth buying for the articles -- since pornography sells, they could afford to pay top dollar to the best writers. Whether anyone actually did buy it for the articles is quite another discussion.)

The political articles convey the very deep skepticism that conservatives felt toward Nixon. He was a loyal and dedicated Cold Warrior (conservative anger at the China gambit notwithstanding,) but beyond that, he was unclear at best, unsound at worst. All of this skepticism was being directed by Buckley toward Nixon before Watergate had happened, let alone been exposed. Conservatives had tried to mount a belated campaign to win Reagan the nomination in 1968, and while no-one was surprised at the outcome, Nixon was hardly a consolation prize worthy of savoring.

Buckley touches on everything. A sampling: a series of fascinating pieces on the election of the Marxist Allende in Chile, a review of a biography of the inimitable Clare Boothe Luce, and a piece on the recently published Compact Oxford English Dictionary (which compressed 13 volumes of the original OED into 2 large volumes with print so small it required a magnifying glass to read.)

On the latter, Buckley proposed a number of ideas for updating future editions, yet...

No doubt the enterprise hasn't been revived because the economic cost of typographical collation is discouraging.

And then a flash of Buckley brilliance proposing a most outlandish idea:

But -- but -- now we have the computer print-out! Why not an edition of the OED, made current say every ten years, in which the new words are fed alphabetically into place on the mastertape. The user would buy the tape, which would come in a unit that would look like a portable typewriter, a small screen perched on top of the carriage. Whereupon -- you guessed it -- you would need merely to type out the word you wished to explore, and there you'd have it, illuminated on the screen.

My, my. What quaint things the ignorant savages once thought!

The whole book is a trip back in time made particularly fascinating for me because the events and people in these volumes were recent enough for me to be vaguely aware of them during my own political education, yet they were too long ago to allow for much direct knowledge of my own, thus making it all both a first-time voyage and also inchoately nostalgic at the same time.

The most fascinating thing to me, however, was taking a journey through the cultural revolution that was coming to a peak, particularly on college campuses in the first couple of years of the 70's. It is nothing less than astounding to see the paralyzation of the ruling class in America, showing nothing but kow-towing deference to the spoiled-rotten self-absorbed baby-boomers of the late 60's. It is nothing short of amazing that an entire generation of supposed adults nervously bit their fingernails for nearly a decade, wondering just what "the kids" (as WFB refers to them in short-hand) wanted -- and trying desperately to figure out how to give it to them (as if giving them the luxury of 4 or more years of leisure in college in which to do fake revolutions and real dope weren't enough indulgence to last several lifetimes.)

In reading Buckley's account of those years, it is logical for the writer of 2012 to reflect on the differences with "Occupy (whatever)" In short, at the time, the entire media was shocked into inaction and shamed into silence by "the kids" and their supposedly higher consciousness. There being no other voices of note, "the kids" largely had the public field to themselves.

Today, there is no shortage of media outlets (both mainstream and alternative) that point out the absurdities, self-contradictions, and hypocrisies of the "Occupy" crowd, providing a vigorous counterpoint that is more than just a hypothetical "Silent Majority."

On the one hand, our society is more coarsened, our politics more cynical, our cultural institutions more decimated, and our political future bleaker than was true in Buckley's day at the height of the counter-culture's revolution.

On the other, there is today a genuine and vocal opposition that has developed over the last 40 years, in no small part thanks to WFB and National Review.

It isn't much with which to console ourselves, but it will have to do.

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