In 1965, the year of the Selma-to-Montgomery marches and the Watts riots, an ancillary skirmish played out across the Atlantic. James Baldwin, then at the height of his international reputation, faced off against William F. Buckley Jr., the “keeper of the tablets” of American conservatism, in the genteel confines of the Cambridge Union. The proposition before the house was: “The American dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” For Baldwin, who would roll his eyes more than once during the debate, the question indicated glaring ignorance. The American dream was a nightmare from which he was trying to wake. For Buckley, the American dream was a giant bootstrap that American blacks refused to employ. “We will fight … on the beaches and on the hills, and on mountains and on landing grounds,” he told the audience of students that evening, channeling Winston Churchill. Only Buckley invoked the imagery of plucky guerrilla resistance not against a Nazi invasion of the British Isles, but against Northern radicals bent on uprooting the Southern way of life.
Nicholas Buccola’s “The Fire Is Upon Us” is both a dual biography of Buckley and Baldwin and an acute commentary on a great intellectual prizefight. Baldwin and Buckley were, to put it mildly, from opposite sides of the tracks. Buckley was the son of an oil speculator who grew up in a Connecticut mansion stocked with tutors and servants. He honed his debating skills at the family dinner table and at Yale, where he was triggered by the presence of secular, left-leaning faculty members on campus, and later, in “God and Man at Yale,” called for a ban on hiring them.
Lack of godliness was less of a problem in Harlem. James Baldwin learned how to lock and load the English language as a child prodigy storefront preacher. Buckley’s postcollege trajectory included a stint in the C.I.A., while Baldwin’s extra-literary activities earned him a thick F.B.I. file. By the early 1960s, Buckley had gathered disparate right-wing tribes together in his magazine, National Review. Baldwin, despite his growing renown, would remain more of a loner. By the time he reached the Cambridge Union, he was already at odds with both the separatist agenda of the Nation of Islam and the arid progressivism of the Johnson White House.
Enshrined on YouTube and in countless documentaries, the Baldwin-Buckley debate remains an uncanny exchange. The grainy black-and-white BBC footage shows an overpacked Cambridge Union, with a sea of mostly young white men in jackets. The way Baldwin swings his body and thrusts his hands in his pockets and barely refers to his prepared notes makes him seem much closer to our moment than to the one that surrounds him. When he finally stands up after the two brittle speeches on either side of the motion by Cambridge undergraduates, he twists his eyes to the upper gallery where his sister Gloria was seated. Slowly, then quickly, he makes the alien hall his own.
Buccola, a professor of political science at Linfield College, deftly guides the reader through the rhetorical and philosophical moves of Baldwin’s speech. Baldwin adopted the tone of a preacher — “a kind of Jeremiah,” as he put it — who wants to readjust his audience’s “system of reality.” He tries to get them to imagine the black American experience from the inside. “It comes as a great shock to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians — when you were rooting for Gary Cooper — that the Indians were you.” Did the American dream come at the expense of the American Negro? For Baldwin, the obtuseness of the question demanded a pronoun switch: “I am stating this very seriously, and this is not an overstatement, I picked the cotton, and I carried it to market, and I built the railroads, under someone else’s whip, for nothing. For nothing.”
“The Fire Is Upon Us” becomes revelatory in its interpretation of Buckley’s performance. We learn, for instance, that the Cambridge students had first tried to get Strom Thurmond or Barry Goldwater to debate Baldwin, only later settling on Buckley, who seems to have been eager for the publicity. We also learn that Buckley’s speech that evening was based on an article he had commissioned for National Review by Garry Wills. Wills, a young Catholic ultra, who would later break with Buckley over racial questions and become an indispensable interpreter of the American scene, drafted a fierce response to Baldwin’s famous New Yorker essay, “Letter From a Region in My Mind.” Part of the trouble with Baldwin for Wills was that he was treated as a savior by his white liberal readership and not afforded the dignity of scrutiny that he would have received if he were white. Wills believed that Baldwin went too far in his condemnation of the West. “When a Dachau happens,” Wills wrote, “are we — as Baldwin suggests — to tear up all the Bibles, disband the police forces, take crowbars to the court buildings and the libraries?” This was a selective reading of Baldwin, who, as his Cambridge speech makes clear, was if anything more committed to upholding the legacy of the Enlightenment than National Review’s editorial board was. But what would come to gall Wills even more than Baldwin was that his boss Buckley not only lifted from his piece (before it was published) for one of his own columns but also distorted Wills’s honest reckoning with Baldwin in the interest of his own, more facile and racialist prong of attack.
Buccola shows how Buckley in his Cambridge speech was developing a new kind of conservative maneuver. In his war on the New Left, Buckley’s method — both on his television show “Firing Line” and in other public appearances — was less to engage than to expose. (The method backfired on occasion, as when Huey Newton, a founder of the Black Panther Party, began a segment of “Firing Line” by out-Buckley-ing Buckley with a loyalty oath question: “During the Revolution of 1776 … which side would you have been on?”) Charm, wit, eye-twinkling and rapid deployment of stray factoids were among Buckley’s chief rhetorical assets. His main form of reasoning consisted of forced analogies. The Freedom Riders were compared to National Socialists in the pages of National Review.
In the Cambridge speech, Buckley dialed the comparison down, comparing the Irish in England to American blacks. Had the Irish gotten the vote because of, or in spite of, English civilization? Buckley asked. “The engines of concern are working in the United States,” he assured his audience. “The presence of Mr. Baldwin here tonight is in part a reflection of that concern.” The full force of Buckley’s argument was that blacks should aspire to the condition of whiteness, however unattainable that might turn out to be. The suffering and humiliations of blacks were real, he conceded, but this was more a testament to the fallen state of man than something that could be corrected swiftly. “I am asking you not to make politics as the crow flies,” Buckley told his audience, quoting the philosopher Michael Oakeshott. Buckley’s stress on the gradualness of any accommodation told Baldwin all he needed to know: Why, after 400 years of being in America, did blacks not have access to the same bounty as their fellow Americans, including those who, like the Kennedys, “only got here yesterday?”
Baldwin’s views of race relations seesawed considerably in the ’60s, from a kind of cosmic resignation that, in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, “perhaps struggle is all we have.” But on that February night in Cambridge, Baldwin envisioned a different endgame. “We are trying to forge a new identity for which we need each other,” he told his audience. He suggested it might be possible to create a new political synthesis if white Americans were prepared to recognize what they had done, both to blacks but also, crucially, to themselves. Alongside his more apocalyptic visions, Baldwin harbored a wary utopian presentiment that Buckley believed ignored man’s true nature and endangered America’s delicate hierarchies.
It is tempting to view the Baldwin-Buckley debate as a small victory for the idea of racial equality: Baldwin carried the floor vote 544 to 164. But part of the wisdom of “The Fire Is Upon Us” is that it leaves the import of the evening open to question. The debate, and his subsequent encounters with Buckley, left Baldwin with a bitter taste: “He’s the intellectuals’ James Bond,” he once said.
Buckley believed he had gained much more from their night in Cambridge: “the most satisfying debate I ever had.” He would lose again, badly, later that year when he ran for mayor of New York. Curiously, his main support came not from the WASP establishment of Manhattan but from white voters in the outer boroughs. Buckley’s knack for historical analogies continues to flourish. The money manager Stephen Schwarzman compared an Obama administration proposal to raise taxes on hedge funds to the Nazi invasion of Poland. After the last presidential election, Buckley’s son, Christopher, took to Vanity Fair to argue that his father’s politics had nothing to do with those of the outer-borough vulgarian who had landed in the White House. It would have been more becoming had he simply tipped his hat to one of the shrewder authors of our predicament.
Richard D. Wolff is Professor of Economics Emeritus, University of Massachusetts, Amherst where he taught economics from 1973 to 2008. He is currently a Visiting Professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School University in New York City. He wrote Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism and founded www.democracyatwork.info, a non-profit advocacy organization of the same name that promotes democratic workplaces as a key path to a stronger, democratic economic system. Professor Wolff discusses the economic dimensions of our lives, our jobs, our incomes, our debts, those of our children, and those looming down the road in his unique mixture of deep insight and dry humor. He presents current events and draws connections to the past to highlight the machinations of our global economy. He helps us to understand political and corporate policy, organization of labor, the distribution of goods and services, and challenges us to question some of the deepest foundations of our society. For more of his lectures, visit the Democracy at Work YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/democrac….
They arrived dirt poor and uneducated in the 1840s. After decades of struggle, they achieved prosperity.
The peasants fleeing Ireland had a shorter life expectancy than slaves in the U.S., many of whom enjoyed healthier diets and better living quarters. Most slaves slept on mattresses, while most poor Irish peasants slept on piles of straw. The black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that freed slaves were poor by American standards, “but not as poor as the Irish peasants.”
The Irish who left for America were packed into the unused cargo space of wind-driven ships returning to the U.S., and the voyage could take up to three months, depending on weather. These cargo holds weren’t intended to carry passengers, and the lack of proper ventilation and sanitation meant that outbreaks of typhus, cholera and other fatal diseases were common. Emigrants slept on 3-by-6-foot shelves, which one observer described as “still reeking from the ineradicable stench left by the emigrants of the last voyage.”
In 1847, 19% of the Irish emigrants died on their way to the U.S. or shortly after arriving. By comparison, the average mortality rate on British slave ships of the period was 9%. Slave-owners had an economic incentive to keep slaves alive. No one had such an interest in the Irish.
The 19th-century immigrants from Europe usually started at the bottom, both socially and economically, and the Irish epitomized this trend. Irish men worked as manual laborers, while Irish women were domestic servants. But not all ethnic groups rose to prosperity at the same rate, and the rise of the Irish was especially slow. They had arrived from a country that was mostly rural, yet they settled in cities like Boston and New York, working “wherever brawn and not skill was the chief requirement,” as one historian put it. In the antebellum South, the Irish took jobs—mining coal, building canals and railroads—considered too hazardous even for slaves.
In the 1840s, New York City’s population grew 65%. By midcentury, more than half of the city’s residents were immigrants, and more than a quarter of those newcomers had come from Ireland. At the time, half of New York’s Irish workforce and nearly two-thirds of Boston’s were either unskilled laborers or domestic servants. “No other contemporary immigrant group was so concentrated at the bottom of the economic ladder,” writes Thomas Sowell in his classic work, “Ethnic America.”
It wasn’t just a lack of education and urban job skills that slowed the progress of the Irish in America. So did social pathology and discrimination. The Irish were known for drinking and brawling. Irish gangs were common. When an Irish family moved into a neighborhood, property values fell and other residents fled. Political cartoonists gave Irishmen dark skin and simian features. Anti-Catholic employers requested “Protestant” applicants. Want ads read: “Any color or country except Irish.”
The Trump election likely signals a new era of extreme voter discontent and improbable national election results. Why? Because the so-called American Dream — that each generation would live better than its predecessor — has ended for most of our citizens. Half of the young adults in this country will earn less over their lifetimes than their parents did. Indeed, the whole idea of rising living standards, which defined this country for so long, is a thing of the past for most Americans. More and more voters realize this and are angry about it.
.. Are wages rising? Looking back over the past 40 years, the answer is no.
According to the Hamilton Project, overall U.S. wages, adjusted for inflation, are essentially flat over this period — registering about 0.2 percent growth. Which means that purchasing power, a good proxy for living standards, is flat, too.And a stunning one quarter of adults cannot pay their monthly bills in full... A series of powerful, entrenched factors have brought the American Dream to an end. Economists generally cite
- accelerating technology,
- increased income inequality and
- the decline of unions.What’s noteworthy is that these are long-term pressures that show no signs of abating... there continues to be a debate among political scientists and sociologists as to whether these income pressures or cultural factors such as a rebellion against the establishment contributed more to the Trump upset. But, in reality, the two factors are interrelated. Household financial troubles increase cultural resentment and the sense that there are two Americas. Especially with the share of national income going to the lower 80 percent of earners at a 100-year low.