Standing Athwart History: Lessons for Wabash Conservatives in God and Man at Yale
The legacy of William F. Buckley, Jr. is perhaps nowhere more pertinent than on the American college campus. But it is perhaps among college-aged Americans where it is most taken for granted. It is difficult for most current Wabash students, being born during the Reagan presidency, to imagine the world before conservatism was a powerful force in the political arena — but that was the world in which Buckley’s career began. In the bubble of academia, conservatism was seen as nothing more than a reactionary superstition — in the halls of government, a dying political philosophy. It was against that dreary backdrop that Buckley was able to band together a group of marginalized intellectuals of varied ideological backgrounds and form a viable conservative movement based on mutual goals.
While Buckley’s intellectual coalition was eventually expanded into Reagan’s electoral coalition, the gains conservatism made in national politics were never quite replicated in academia. Buckley’s initial foray onto the national stage, in fact, was an attempt to change the academic environment of his alma mater — and it failed miserably.
God and Man at Yale, Buckley’s first book, was his attempt to rally Yale alumni to withhold their financial contributions and force the school to change its far-left policies. He had originally intended to make his argument at an Alumni Day speech, but when the deans of the school attempted to censor his provocative remarks, he refused to speak and decided to write a book instead. Few would make the argument that the Yale University of today does not tend to the far left, so it is safe to say that Buckley’s book failed in its stated goal. The book — and its writer — were scorned rather harshly by the Yale establishment, especially by professors whom Buckley singled out by name, and members of entrenched Yale families who saw the need to protect their beloved school from his attack. At Yale, the book was seen as a temporary nuisance at the most. In the American public, the story was quite different.
The brilliance of God and Man at Yale is reflected in its title. Buckley’s assault on the University was two-pronged. He criticized Yale both for undermining students’ Christian beliefs (God at Yale) and for undermining individuality by teaching economic collectivism (Man at Yale). He thus tied together two ideologies sometimes (incorrectly) seen as contradictory, Christianity and rugged individualism, in a manner through which adherents to both could find common ground. In God and Man at Yale, we see the beginnings of the so called “conservative coalition,” which would eventually begin to materialize at the ballot box. The book appealed to America’s large Christian population, which was outraged that their faith was being undermined at a prestigious university. It also appealed to the generally patriotic public. The generation that had defeated the Nazis was not, for the most part, interested in having America’s new enemy — Communism — taught enthusiastically in higher education. So the book’s arguments formed a recipe for popular success, which explains why its influence was strongest outside the bubble of Yale.
It has been over half a century since the book, now widely viewed as one the most influential works of modern American conservatism, was first published. But it contains some lessons that are still relevant today — lessons which Wabash conservatives would do well to heed.
Attack Ideas, Not People
Buckley was not afraid to name names in God and Man at Yale. The entire book reads like an exhaustive indictment, going through each of Yale’s departments and discussing its professors and their curriculum. While he singles professors out for the views they teach, he never attacks them personally.
Personal attacks, nonetheless, were the means through which some chose to retaliate. McGeorge Bundy, a prominent Yale graduate soon to become one of John F. Kennedy’s “wise men,” called Buckley a “violent, twisted, and ignorant young man.” He was compared to Tomás de Torquemada, told that he should have joined the Ku Klux Klan, and labeled — what else? — a “fascist.”
Buckley, however, remained above the fray, never denying the brilliance or character of his professors, but arguing instead against the beliefs they held — and questioning how the University can truly be committed to “academic freedom” when the majority of professors held them.
There is a certain temptation in modern conservatism to stray from the realm of ideas and be politically-incorrect at all costs. Liberalism’s often irrational emphasis on political correctness is so aggravating that it is sometimes difficult to resist the temptation to utter something merely for its ability to shock and buck the establishment. But there is line to be drawn between political-incorrectness and ungentlemanly behavior. Arguing for a new definition of “diversity” is politically incorrect but intellectually defensible. Calling a professor’s wife “fat and ugly” is politically incorrect and ungentlemanly. Conservatives should always seek to emulate the former, and never resort to name-calling or personally attacking individuals with whom they disagree.
Of all the intellectual and moral flaws of mid-twentieth century liberalism, its greatest flaw was its arrogance. After the New Deal, the Second World War, the extreme popularity of Franklin Roosevelt, and the five consecutive presidential election victories, American progressives became complacent. They began to feel that they had the perpetual support of the people and thus began to take that support for granted. Once a population is taken for granted, its value decreases, as does the respect it is afforded. The liberal establishment in 1951 was looking down its nose at everyone else. The American people suspected it. Buckley exposed it.
Conservatism must never fall into this trap. This is not, as some may claim, a call for conservative populism. There is a difference between tailoring ideas to adhere to the majority beliefs of the public and respecting the majority beliefs of the public — arguing why they are wrong if need be. As with people, ideas are devalued when they are taken for granted. Campus conservatives should never be so secure in their beliefs that they pontificate their views from an impenetrable pulpit and shun everyone else as thoughtless plebes. The ideas of those who refuse to be challenged will eventually be shunned.
This is particularly relevant at Wabash and on other college campuses where conservatives are generally in the minority when it comes to academic discourse. Though we are often very confident that we are right, we should never be reluctant to explain why we think so. It is not demeaning to engage an argument you think to be ridiculous. It is a necessity. If we do not do so, we are no different than those who reject us without listening to us, or publicly criticize lectures they refuse to attend.
Don’t Be Too Negative
It may be important to analyze not just the book’s successes, but its main failure as well. Why did Buckley not succeed in his goal of rallying Yale alumni to withhold their financial contributions to the University and force the administration to change its practices? Surely there were a considerable amount of Yale graduates who were sympathetic to his arguments.
Most people want to support their alma maters. Regardless of the political leanings of the faculty or the administration, the experience of college, especially for those who give, is usually a good one. They give to their alma maters despite the areas where they disagree because overall they feel the good outweighs the bad. It is fair to assume that many of the more conservative alumni Buckley targeted already knew that Yale was undermining Christianity and individuality but gave anyway. If that were the case, Buckley’s proposal was dead on arrival.
The phenomenon of the Christian Studies Centers that have been established across the country, and proposed here at Wabash, seems in part to be a reaction to the failure of Buckley’s campaign. The idea behind a Christian Studies Center is not to ask alumni to stop giving to their school altogether, but rather give in a different way. Instead of being asked to cut off support for their alma maters because the schools have a secular bias, they are asked to give money to a positive cause — the establishment of a center to nurture students of the Christian faith — in order to balance the playing field. That way, alumni do not feel that they are harming their schools or the experiences of the students, and instead provide an extra contribution of their own. Positive campaigns such as these seem to be more successful than the primarily negative campaign Buckley attempted to start.
Stand Athwart History
When, upon the founding of National Review, Buckley famously declared that the job of conservatives was to “stand athwart history, yelling Stop,” he spoke not of halting progress but of halting what was perceived, at the time, to be history’s inevitable path. Socialism was seen as the way of the future, and capitalism’s fracture and decline was all but inevitable. Buckley and the coalition of conservatives he built were able to do what to a Marxist was unthinkable — they stopped the inevitable flow of history.
Today there are similar claims made of history’s inevitability. William F. Buckley’s death prompted nearly every mainstream magazine and newspaper editorial in the country to declare that conservatism had died with him. The conservative movement is fractured and failing, they declared. Its leaders are nowhere near as thoughtful or articulate as Buckley. It is no longer acceptable to the larger public. And it is bound to be slain once and for all in 2008, at the hands of liberalism’s anointed savior, Barack Obama. Even many in the conservative movement itself, dispirited after watching the Republican Party nominate a maverick for President, seem to have bought into the narrative.
But if there is one lesson from Buckley’s book, and his entire life, it is that conservatives should never accept what everyone tells them is inevitable. The predictions of those who have their own political agendas are only inevitable if those who oppose them accept them as inevitable. William F. Buckley, Jr. spent his entire career standing athwart history. It is our turn to do so now.