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.
In the 2016 presidential elections, America defeated itself. The Russian intervention, intelligent as it was, could only work because of our own failures: in media, in democracy, and in social justice. In the second episode of “Timothy Snyder Speaks,” historian and author Timothy Snyder shows what the Russian attack can teach us about ourselves.
Timothy Snyder is a historian at Yale University, specializing in eastern Europe, totalitarianism, and the Holocaust. His books have received widespread acclaim. His most recent book, “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century,” explores the everyday ways a citizen can resist the authoritarianism of today. He is also the author of “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning” and, forthcoming in April, “The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America.”
“How Do Democracies Fall Apart (And Could it Happen Here)?”
A conference of the Yale Program on Democracy (http://ypd.macmillan.yale.edu) and Bright Line Watch (http://brightlinewatch.org).
A former dean of the Yale Law School sounds a warning.
Anyone who has followed the news from college campuses over the past few years knows they are experiencing forms of unrest unseen since the late 1960s.
Now, as then, campuses have become an arena for political combat. Now, as then, race is a central issue. Now, as then, students rail against an unpopular president and an ostensibly rigged system. Now, as then, liberal professors are being bullied, denounced, demoted, threatened, sued and sometimes even assaulted by radical students.
But there are some important differences, too. None of today’s students risk being drafted into an unpopular, distant war. Unlike the campus rebels of the ’60s, today’s student activists don’t want more freedom to act, speak, and think as they please. Usually they want less.
Most strange: Today’s students are not chafing under some bow-tied patriarchal WASP dispensation. Instead, they are the beneficiaries of a system put in place by professors and administrators whose political views are almost uniformly left-wing and whose campus policies indulge nearly every progressive orthodoxy.
So why all the rage?
The answer lies in the title of Anthony Kronman’s necessary, humane and brave new book: “The Assault on American Excellence.” Kronman’s academic credentials are impeccable — he has taught at Yale for 40 years and spent a decade as dean of its law school — and his politics, so far as I can tell, are to the left of mine.
But Yale has been ground zero for recent campus unrest, including a Maoist-style struggle session against a distinguished professor, fights about “cultural appropriation,” the renaming of Calhoun (as in, John C.) College, and the decision to drop the term “master” because, to some, it carried “a painful and unwelcome connotation.”
It’s this last decision that seems to have triggered Kronman’s alarm. The word “master” may remind some students of slavery. What it really means is a person who embodies achievement, refinement, distinction — masterliness — and whose spirit is fundamentally aristocratic. Great universities are meant to nurture that spirit, not only for its own sake, but also as an essential counterweight to the leveling and conformist tendencies of democratic politics that Alexis de Tocqueville diagnosed as the most insidious threats to American civilization.
What’s happening on campuses today isn’t a reaction to Trump or some alleged systemic injustice, at least not really. Fundamentally, Kronman argues, it’s a reaction against this aristocratic spirit — of being, as H.L. Mencken wrote, “beyond responsibility to the general masses of men, and hence superior to both their degraded longings and their no less degraded aversions.” It’s a revolt of the mediocre many against the excellent few. And it is being undertaken for the sake of a radical egalitarianism in which all are included, all are equal, all are special.
“In endless pronouncements of tiresome sweetness, the faculty and administrators of America’s colleges and universities today insist on the overriding importance of creating a culture of inclusion on campus,” Kronman writes.
This is a bracing, even brutal, assessment. But it’s true. And it explains why every successive capitulation by universities to the shibboleths of diversity and inclusion has not had the desired effect of mollifying campus radicals. On the contrary, it has tended to generate new grievances while debasing the quality of intellectual engagement.
Hence the new campus mores. Before an idea can be evaluated on its intrinsic merits, it must first be considered in light of its political ramifications. Before a speaker can be invited to campus for the potential interest of what he might have to say, he must first pass the test of inoffensiveness. Before a student can think and talk for himself, he must first announce and represent his purported identity. Before a historical figure can be judged by the standards of his time, he must first be judged by the standards of our time.
All this is meant to make students “safe.” In fact, it leaves them fatally exposed. It emboldens offense-takers, promotes doublethink, coddles ignorance. It gets in the way of the muscular exchange of honest views in the service of seeking truth. Above all, it deprives the young of the training for independent mindedness that schools like Yale are supposed to provide.
I said earlier that Kronman’s book is brave, but in that respect I may be giving him too much credit. Much of his illustrious career is now safely behind him; he can write as he pleases. Would an untenured professor have the guts to say what he does? The answer to the question underscores the urgency of his warning.