June 21, 2009

The Liberal's Tempered Perspective

Justin Katz

The first thing to note about Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne's after-dinner speech at the Portsmouth Institute's conference on William F. Buckley's conservatism is his mention of something that struck me for the duration of the event: namely, that religious life does not preclude real life, much less intellectual life. Stream, download (52 sec). Experience with the monastery and admiration for the monks, Dionne said, saved him "from a sometimes popular and always foolish prejudice against men and women of faith."

That perspective brings into relief the difficulty of Dionne's task at the conference, as the lone liberal speaker in the program as well as an alumnus of the school, a personal friend to many in the audience, and an ideological dissenter handed a microphone at what was, after all, a multiday tribute to WFB. Still, I would have preferred his going a good bit further in challenging his audience, because the debate that he might have sparked would have exposed a more comprehensive picture of what Buckley actually accomplished.

Dionne described, for example, what he takes to be "the many contradictions of contemporary conservatism," and the messiness and continual threat of collapse that such composition implies: stream, download (47 sec). Missed in his convenient observation (for a liberal) is, first, that reality itself is messy and seemingly self-contradictory and, second, that Western civilization itself is more a brilliantly contrived pile of loose stones than a solid monolith. He speaks of conservative fusionism as an idea that "never fully cohered" without apparently seeing that an ideology that would accurately address the world as it stands must necessarily involve an organic process of adjusting to infinite semblances of incoherence in the universe and human nature.

Of a piece is Dionne's characterization of Buckley's conservative counterculturalism as a paradox: stream, download (46 sec). Dionne describes Buckley's work as a reaction to the stultifying conformity of the '50s, but he seems not to understand that the objection to "middle of the road qua middle of the road" is that making moderation a goal is not only incoherent, but points to emptiness.

WFB's accomplishment, in this regard, is that he manifested the age's aesthetic preference for rebels but pointed it toward an intellectual structure concerned, at its soul, with a higher order, compared with the deliberate (and selectively beneficial) chaos underlying the prescriptions of radicals.