Mar 1, 2008

Captain O My Captain

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head
It is some dream that on the deck
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
- Walt Whitman

Try as we might, even the finest brandies and most sublime of cigars are not enough to conjure the ghost of our dear friend for just one more chat. So be it, for his is a well-earned respite. And the occasion of Mr. Buckley’s passing has given us cause to review our vast store of his genius, and delight yet again in its inspiration.

The eulogies have and are being made. Well intentioned but none so profound as his own would be. But alas, he is not here to compose it. Let then his life and words be his eulogy here, for even we can add little to them.

In our reminiscing, we have come across a favorite bit of Bill’s which we share with you now, his chapter in the Heritage Foundation's publication, The March of Freedom: Modern Classics in Conservative Thought. Entitled The Conservative Framework and Modern Realities, Mr. Buckley's essay articulates - as only he can - the distinction between Liberalism and Conservatism in this modern era.

He challenges readers with questions such as, “Can one make homemade freedom, under the eyes of an omnipotent state that has no notion of or tolerance for, the flavor of freedom?” And dishes up such delicious Buckley-isms as, “Subsidies are the form that modern circuses tend to take, and, as ever, the people are unaware that it is they who pay for the circuses.”

Most valuable, perhaps, in this essay, however, is Mr. Buckley’s masterful illustration of the distinctions between liberalism and conservatism. He writes:

“It is the chronic failure of liberalism that it obliges circumstance--because it has an inadequate discriminatory apparatus which might cause it to take any other course. There are unemployed in Harlan County? Rush them aid. New Yorkers do not want to pay the cost of subways? Get someone else to pay it. Farmers do not want to leave the land? Let them till it, buy and destroy the produce. Labor unions demand the closed shop? It is theirs. Inflation goes forward in all industrial societies? We will have continued inflation. Communism is in control behind the Iron Curtain? Coexist with it. The tidal wave of industrialism will sweep in the welfare state? Pull down the sea walls.”

What then ought be the conservative response?

“The direction we must travel requires a broadmindedness that, in the modulated age, strikes us as antiquarian and callous. As I write there is mass suffering in Harlan County, Kentucky, where coal mining has become unprofitable, and a whole community is desolate. The liberal solution is: immediate and sustained federal subsidies. The conservative, breasting the emotional surf, will begin by saying that it was many years ago foreseeable that coal mining in Harlan County was becoming unprofitable, that the humane course would have been to face up to that realism by permitting the marketplace, through the exertion of economic pressures of mounting intensity, to require resettlement that was not done for the coal miners (they were shielded from reality by a combination of state and union aid)--any more than it is now being done for marginal farmers; so that we are face-to-face with an acute emergency for which there is admittedly no thinkable alternative to immediate relief--if necessary (though it is not) by the federal government; otherwise, by the surrounding communities, or the state of Kentucky. But having made arrangements for relief, what then? Will the grandsons of the Harlan coal miners be mining coal, to be sold to the government at a pegged price, all this to spare today's coal miners the ordeal of looking for other occupations?”

The failure to employ this seemingly “antiquarian and callous” broadmindedness, grossly lacking in present Western leadership, produces consequences predictable and tragic.

“Deal highhandedly as he (Galbraith) would have us do with the mechanisms of the marketplace, and the mechanisms will bind. Preempt the surplus of the people, and surpluses will dwindle. Direct politically the economic activity of a nation, and the economy will lose its capacity for that infinite responsiveness to individual tastes that gives concrete expression to the individual will in material matters. Centralize the political function, and you will lose touch with reality, for the reality is an intimate and individual relationship between individuals and those among whom they live; and the abstractions of widescreen social draftsmen will not substitute for it. Stifle the economic sovereignty of the individual by spending his dollars for him, and you stifle his freedom. Socialize the individual's surplus and you socialize his spirit and creativeness; you cannot paint the Mona Lisa by assigning one dab each to a thousand painters.”

We would add that the consequences of liberalism are equally dismal for national security. As this essay was written in 1994, however, American interests, and Mr. Buckley’s, were at the time primarily economic.

But Mr. Buckley leaves us here as always, not wanting, but wiser, for he provides direction to his shipmen, keeping us on course in ever turbulent seas.

“What then is the indicated course of action? It is to maintain and wherever possible enhance the freedom of the individual to acquire property and dispose of that property in ways that he decides on. To deal with unemployment by eliminating monopoly unionism, featherbedding, and inflexibilities in the labor market, and be prepared, where residual unemployment persists, to cope with it locally, placing the political and humanitarian responsibility on the lowest feasible political unit. … Let the two localities experiment with different solutions, and let the natural desire of the individual for more goods, and better education, and more leisure, find satisfaction in individual encounters with the marketplace, in the growth of private schools, in the myriad economic and charitable activities which, because they took root in the individual imagination and impulse, take organic form, And then let us see whether we are better off than we would be living by decisions made between nine and five in Washington office rooms, where the oligarchs of the Affluent Society sit, allocating complaints and solutions to communities represented by pins on the map.”

And, as ever, he inspires; lancing the bureaucratic knight of Do-Nothing with the Shakespearean verve of his mighty pen!

“I will not cede more power to the state. I will not willingly cede more power to anyone, not to the state, not to General Motors, not to the CIO. I will hoard my power like a miser, resisting every effort to drain it away from me. I will then use my power, as I see fit. I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth. That is a program of sorts, is it not?

It is certainly program enough to keep conservatives busy, and liberals at bay. And the nation free.”

To carry on without such a master of language and thought is a daunting prospect to be sure. But we must. Indeed it is the value of Mr. Buckley's life and words that they have made us all wiser, and stronger, and better able to carry out what is right and necessary for the free world to remain thus.

We shall miss you my friend, my Captain. But we are so much wealthier for having known you, and for the words you have graciously condescended to leave behind amongst we mere mortals. Honor points the path of duty, and our path is all the clearer for the light you have given. Well done Bill Buckley. Rest well my friend.



P.S. Heritage Foundation President Edwin J Feulner Jr.’s magnificent forward to The Conservative Framework and Modern Realities is a fitting tribute to Mr. Buckley and an excellent read in its own right!


The Daily Elephant said...

Thanks for this. Words of wisdom and intellectual power are far too rare, and it's always nice to find some....

Mr. Buckley will be missed.

Roger W. Gardner said...

Thank you Charlie. A fitting tribute to a great force of nature.
Well done.