Pete Seeger, William F. Buckley, Jr., and public history
May 1, 2008
May 1, 2008
31 Min read time
The eighty-nine-year-old musician and activist Pete Seeger, who is largely responsible for connecting folk music to the American left, joined the Communist Party in his twenties. Seeger has been candid, if at times self-serving, about his early support for Stalin, but the recent PBS “American Masters” documentary on Seeger is so disingenuous, when it comes to his and the Party’s activities, that it gives an impression of 1930s communism as a program for nothing more than peace, equality, and down-home music. The young Seeger comes across as a cheerleader not for Stalin’s Russia, but only for the sorts of social reforms any progressive might advance today.
Equally misleading in its portrayal of an unsettling early position has been press coverage of the career of William F. Buckley, Jr., who died in February. Buckley made his name by providing intellectual leadership to those who did much, in the 1940s and ’50s, to punish Seeger, other former Party members, fellow-traveling liberals, and certain bystanders. Appreciations of Buckley’s contribution to conservatism blur not his embrace of McCarthyism—some of his admirers remain fairly proud of that—but his support for white Southern efforts to prevent black citizens from voting.
Buckley and Seeger share, along with fake-sounding accents and preppie backgrounds, a problem that inspires forgetfulness, falsification, and denial in their supporters. Fired by opposed and equally fervent political passions, both men once took actions that their cultural progeny find untenable.
But these two men—their careers strangely linked in the hunt for communists, the struggle for equal rights, and the emerging “culture wars” of the postwar era—are worthy of consideration without air-brushed reminiscence. Their names alone may evoke, for those who lived through it, the anxiety and turmoil that marked American cultural and political life during the Cold War. Mutual hostility between Seeger types and Buckley types devolved on fears of imminent, world-ending invasions; plans for preventing evil from ever recurring on a mass scale; and stark disagreements over what is legitimately American. When the Soviet Union was annexing its neighbors, filling gulags, and making swaggering predictions of world dominance, and the United States was toppling elected leaders in favor of authoritarians and hounding domestic dissenters, all amid the stockpiling of nuclear weapons, the division among Americans could feel, to those on both sides, like the last battle for humanity’s soul. What Seeger and Buckley’s youthful actions meant in their time, deliberately obscured by today’s lionizers, continues to mean something crucial now.
• • •
Pete Seeger inherited communism from his father, a decisive event in the history of American vernacular music that has no place in the “American Masters” documentary. Charles Seeger, an arch-WASP bohemian born in 1886, taught musicology at Harvard and Berkeley. During his time in California, he formed an alliance with the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, an especially lively labor-organizing effort, which planned global working-class takeover through one, vast, general strike. Soon, like many others, he was connecting his radicalism to the more tangible success of the Marxist revolution in Russia. He joined the Communist Party and started a radical group called, in the exciting new lingo, the Composers Collective, which encouraged pieces by left composers like Aaron Copland and Marc Blitzstein and published a magazine called Musical Vanguard.
American leftists like Charles Seeger did not interpret the expression “international communism” to mean “Soviet dictatorship and expansion.” They saw the young Soviet state as the first in a series of concerted revolutions through which workers would take ownership of the means of production and humankind would advance toward a future without the awful poverty that was destroying the lives of so many laborers, blacks, and poor people in America and elsewhere. American communists wanted to build a homegrown movement that would bring together factory laborers, dirt farmers, mineworkers, fruit pickers, and sharecroppers. They hoped to shatter elite privilege, end race discrimination, and distribute fairly the wealth of the United States and the world.
Charles Seeger also wanted to connect Marx-Leninism to his own discipline. The Wobblies were famous for singing on picket lines, but Seeger was trained in the high classical tradition and called for modernist concert pieces—in a Soviet official-culture vein—celebrating the workers’ collective virtue. He wrote articles on music theory for The Daily Worker, the paper through which the Party updated communists and sympathizers on Communist International, or Comintern, policy. By the late 1920s, and especially in partnership with his second wife, the composer and musicologist Ruth Crawford Seeger, he began seeing in traditional American music an art form already owned by the masses. Folk music, Seeger thought, existed outside the corruption and alienation of bourgeois culture; it needed only integration with Party ideology to become a means of worker empowerment. By the late 1930s—when his son Pete was becoming a politically passionate Harvard student, and the Great Depression was deepening American leftists’ desire for change—the elder Seeger was discovering much of value in old ballads, work songs, blues, and traditional dance music, still thriving mainly in the south.
The American folk revival was not, however, the exclusive province of the left. In Europe, folk collecting and the promotion of traditional arts had long been emblematic of nationalist patriotism. In the U.S., an early promoter of folk music was the inveterate reactionary Henry Ford, who saw the music as unsullied by the immigrant and urban cultures he despised and the salaciousness he associated with jazz and vaudeville. American folk music and dance—which Ford believed, fancifully, to be essentially Anglo-Saxon—would be the musical component of the hygienic culture he wanted to promote among workers in factory towns—places where, for the supposed good of the workers and company efficiency, everything from labor to education to recreation was to be controlled and supported by the owner. To that end, Ford spent a great deal of money encouraging the first fiddlers’ contests, community sings, and square dances from which an important strain of the American folk revival emerged.
Fired by opposed and equally fervent political passions, both men once took actions that their cultural progeny find untenable.
For leftists, too, folk music was free of corruption, but that meant free of Ford-style mass production, which was, in their view, oppressive in a way that Soviet mass production was not. Old songs and tunes—which some of today’s folkies still imagine being handed down from time immemorial in backcountry communities—seemed to embody the inherently cooperative spirit of the people, a natural sense of union. To them, radio pop seemed aesthetically vapid and socially regressive.
Yet most of the music heard in homes in the southern backcountry actually had roots in commercial pop—the medicine and minstrel shows, Tin Pan Alley, Victorian parlor sheet music, ragtime and jazz, and, by the 1930s, downmarket “race” and “hillbilly” seventy-eight-rpm recordings and clear-channel broadcasts of “barn dance” radio shows. The genius of people living in neglected parts of country often lay in adapting pop music to cheap, sometimes handmade instruments and whooping it up. One can only wonder what the bottleneck-guitar-picking sharecropper or the fiddling miner, steeped in a fecund mixture of tradition and commercialism old and new, might make of the arrival of a left-wing academic, complete with notepad and giant tape recorder, eager to preserve southern music’s supposed purity.
That strange relationship between homemade music and left politics was further complicated in the 1930s by changes in both the U.S. government and the Comintern. In 1935 Stalin announced “The Popular Front”—a worldwide coalition of communism with liberal politics that the Party had formerly excoriated. A goal was to restrain the rise of Nazi-allied fascism at any cost. The Daily Worker started encouraging communists to collaborate with liberals. Many leftists—some of whom were disaffected by Stalin’s nationalism and dictatorship in Russia—found a place in the New Deal government. Among them were Charles Seeger and Alan Lomax, a left-wing folklorist who gave Pete Seeger a job at the Library of Congress.
But the coalition of communists and liberals did not last. In 1939 Stalin made a nonaggression pact with Hitler and repealed the Popular Front, leading many to flee the Party in disgust at the alliance with fascism. In this new ideological environment, Pete Seeger’s career blossomed. Having traveled in the South and become adept at five-string banjo, the younger Seeger put his music to the service of the new Party line, which now opposed New Deal liberalism and U.S. war against Germany. In 1940 and ’41, with the approval and guidance of Party elders (against whose dictates Seeger sometimes chafed), the group that would become known as the Almanac Singers, most notably featuring Seeger on banjo and Woody Guthrie on guitar, yoked “people’s songs” to the Party agenda in a way that neither the philosophy of Charles Seeger, nor the musicians of the Southern backcountry, ever could. As stars of Party-inspired organizing, playing for strikers and at New York rent parties, the Almanac Singers invented the music that leftists had failed to find among the actual folk.
The Almanacs gave the old songs new lyrics, celebrating unions and mocking FDR as a warmonger. (In his book Where Have All the Flowers Gone, Seeger is refreshingly self-deprecating about his “peace” verses’ doggerel and thin satire.) They began the vogue for wearing work clothes—overalls, jeans, denim shirts—to denote membership in the people. According to Joe Klein, in his definitive biography of Woody Guthrie, they adopted fake Southern accents and concocted biographies of hard travel. Most importantly for American music, The Almanacs invested their sound, which was far smoother than the real thing, with a mood of authenticity that the real folk never aspired to. Heads thrown back and mouths wide open, strumming and “singing out” with rousing, clean-cut intensity, they conjured a communist American future that was a fantasy of the rural American past.
Seeger was playing a rent party in June of 1941 when somebody rushed in with the news: Germany had invaded Russia. The pact was broken. Another reversal of the Party line immediately ensued. To the relief and bemusement of the Almanacs, they were now required to sing against Hitler. But they were also required to ally with Churchill, whom the Party had been calling an irredeemable imperialist. In his book, Seeger recalls his hilariously rushed conversation with Guthrie about how to adjust to supporting Churchill. “‘Why, Churchill said “All support to the gallant Soviet allied!’”‘Is this the same guy who said twenty years ago, “We must strangle the Bloshevik infant in its cradle!”?’‘Yep. Churchill’s changed. We got to!’” Seeger, Guthrie, and the Almanacs started writing and singing pro-war songs full of glib jingoism that may have surpassed, for sheer dumbness, their anti-war ditties: “Round and round Hitler’s grave / Round and round I go.”
For six months, the group rallied the U.S. to enter the war, per the Party line. Then, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December and the declaration of war, they began singing rah-rah songs for victory. Soon Seeger was in the Army and Guthrie was a merchant mariner and the pre-war phase of Seeger’s career, and of the American folk revival, came to an end.
The major theme of the documentary is the lifelong connection between Seeger’s music and his social activism. Yet it erases that connection’s formative moment—formative not only for Seeger, but also for leftist politics and American music. Even a passing reference to Charles Seeger’s radicalism would seem pertinent to Pete Seeger’s early development as both artist and activist. Truly disastrous, though, are the few moments that purport to deal with Pete Seeger’s communism. We see footage of Hitler, and then see Seeger, in a recent interview, recalling collegiate arguments over what to do about Nazism. Some argued for pacifism, Seeger says, but “communists said the whole world should quarantine the aggressor. And I thought they were right.” Snippets of Seeger’s interviews then get stitched into a hasty and vacuous summary of his Party activities. Over a still of an “International of Youth” pamphlet, which gives way to a shot of Harvard’s gates, Seeger’s voiceover runs: “I ended up joining the Young Communist League, and let my marks slip, and I lost my scholarship to Harvard. Few years later,”—now over a still of young Seeger playing for a dance, with a group singing “Solidarity Forever” in the background—“just before World War Two, I think I—” cutting back to Seeger being interviewed “—actually joined and became a card-carrying member.” Over footage of communist picketers, he says: “I was against race discrimination, and Communists were against race discrimination. I was in favor of unions, and Communists were in favor of unions.”
That’s pretty much all the film has to say about the role of communism and global politics in Seeger’s early music and career. The Almanac Singers are introduced over stills of handbills for their performances (one reads “leading American Balladeers in a program of songs for peace”), followed by a still of the group itself, with Seeger saying in choppy voiceover: “The goal of the Almanacs—if anybody asks us—‘we want to build a singing labor movement.’ But we’d barely got started on that job before World War Two broke out.” Then, over a still of people reading about the Pearl Harbor attack in newspapers, and a faint, crackling voiceover saying “Remember Pearl Harbor,” Seeger says, “All the idea of strikes and everything [a cut or a mumble], ‘after the war is won, then we can think about that.’”
In the edit, there is no mention of the Party’s decisive role, which had Seeger singing against the war, then had him singing in favor of it, well before Pearl Harbor. Lost with all salient fact is any feeling for the high political emotion of the period. Nor is there any mention of Stalin or the pact, although Seeger himself has not been afraid to discuss these issues before. When he says, for example, that the communists wanted to quarantine Hitler, he is probably reviving an argument he made in his book: the great powers were actually hoping Hitler would knock out communist Russia; when ambassador Litvinov asked, in the late 1930s, for a plan to bottle Hitler up, the liberal democracies turned their backs. While some might take a more critical view of Stalin’s hope for quarantine, in the book Seeger is making a point with a basis in fact. An authorized biography by David King Dunaway (who appears as a talking head in the film) presents the young Seeger as unhappy about the pact but taking a “wait-and-see attitude.” As recently as last year, in a widely published letter to the conservative Ronald Radosh, Seeger discussed his delusions about Stalin.
In the film Seeger’s comments become meaningless. His declaration that strikes would have to wait until after the war only makes sense in a context that the film cannot give, as doing so would reveal Seeger’s tailoring his music to Communist Party instructions. When FDR asked U.S. labor unions for a wartime no-strike pledge, the non-communist part of organized labor gave it. Significant for Seeger’s career is that the Comintern sent word to the radical end of the labor movement to support the no-strike pledge too. Seeger might have had something interesting to say about ambiguities in Party labor policy. Dunaway’s biography suggests that he found the Party’s support for the no-strike pledge frustrating: strikers were a key Almanacs audience.
Like Charles and Pete Seeger, Buckley looked to the Soviet Union as the fulfillment of an idea—one that he called satanic.
What Seeger has said before about the Almanacs’ anti-war stance, the knee-jerk relationship to Party prescriptions, and his own support of Stalin are all absent. Cleansing the story of anything possibly upsetting or even nuanced, the filmmakers must be hoping to certify Seeger, despite former Soviet attachments, as an unimpeachably great American cultural figure of the kind often celebrated on PBS “American Masters.” Gained at the cost of falsehood, certification not only does no good, it weakens our grasp on the truth. There probably will not be another well-funded, closely researched, carefully edited, widely broadcast documentary on Pete Seeger, complete with interviews. This one has failed each of the astonishing things it purports to celebrate: the folk revival, American activists’ passions, the past century’s idealisms, and the long, strange career of Pete Seeger. The film degrades our understanding of the man, his ideas, and his era.
• • •
William F. Buckley, Jr., who died this year at eighty-two, enjoyed a busy and influential career as the most famous galvanizer of American conservative thought. Buckley made The National Review—the magazine he founded, edited, and published—a kind of think tank for postwar conservative ideology. In its pages, he and his ideological compatriots championed strictly limited government, assertive law enforcement, rollback of the welfare state, free markets, and ceaseless war on communism at home and abroad. As a result, friends and foes alike have credited him lately with ending liberalism’s intellectual hegemony, which prevailed in the U.S. political establishment from FDR’s accession in 1932 until 1968, the bitter end of the Johnson administration.
The young Buckley’s hopes lay partly in knocking out the then-vibrant liberal wing of the Republican Party. As George Will, one of the many leading conservative writers who once worked at The National Review, eulogized him in The Washington Post: “Before there could be Ronald Reagan’s presidency, there had to be Barry Goldwater’s candidacy. It made conservatism confident and placed the Republican Party in the hands of its adherents. Before there could be Goldwater’s insurgency, there had to be National Review magazine.”
The acceleration of conservatism involves an irony: in the magazine’s widely quoted inaugural essay, Buckley described the publication standing “athwart history, yelling Stop.” He wanted to stop the modern tendency of government to engage in what he called “radical social experimentation” in the form of such things as the New Deal and the United Nations, which he saw as products of a moral relativism that had become monolithic in the halls of American power. What he most wanted to stop was tolerance for what he considered modern error’s extreme form, the Marx-Leninist view of humanity’s advancement, through philosophically discernible stages, toward a condition of perfect equality fostered by an all-powerful state. Like Charles and Pete Seeger, Buckley looked to the Soviet Union as the fulfillment of an idea—one that he called satanic.
Buckley often referred to the Soviet empire by a single word, “gulag.” On TV in the 1960s and ’70s he’d purr the second syllable, eyebrows shooting past his hairline to show-stopping effect. By then, almost everybody was looking at the Soviet Union in moods ranging from concern to fear and loathing. Pete Seeger quit the Communist Party in the late 1940s. Even he and much of his prewar cohort had grown painfully aware of the awful oppression imposed on Russians and more and more Europeans. The Iron Curtain, as Churchill dubbed it, had fallen; the nuclear buildup had begun; Soviet tanks had rolled. International communism now meant, flagrantly, Soviet takeover of the world, including, in the famous words of President Khrushchev, the grandchildren of Americans. Today, Khrushchev’s words may seem defensive braggadocio. Few took them that way at the time.
To Buckley and likeminded others, the socialist threat to American liberty lay not only in massive programs like Social Security, but also in the New Deal practice of giving government jobs to semi-secret communists and more open “fellow travelers”—the Alan Lomaxes and Charles and Pete Seegers and, more seriously, their counterparts in sectors involving national security. After the war, communists were officially included among subversives seeking to bring, in the words of the McCarran Act of 1950, “totalitarian dictatorship” to the United States. Party members and others had long been eagerly accepting instructions for domestic revolution from a police state with which the U.S. now verged on what seemed a war for the future of humanity. Having quit the Party was no defense, hence the famous question “are you now or have you ever been . . . ?”
Despite his avowed reservations about Senator Joseph McCarthy, the young Buckley gave strong support, as did much of the liberal establishment (in Buckley’s view weakly and perhaps insincerely), for what McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee defined as a hunt for Russian spies, Party members, and communist sympathizers in government, entertainment, the arts, and business.
Buckley’s inaugural essay for The National Review ascribed such great and entrenched power to liberalism, and such frailty to nascent conservativism, that even small successes could be greeted with shouts of astonished joy. And few would now deem conservative successes small. While welfare and entitlement programs that Buckleyites attacked appear likely to survive, the ambitious young Buckley of the 1950s turned out to be on, and to play a part in determining, what some consider the winning side of history.
But in one area—the civil rights movement—Buckley conservatives were decisively not on the winning side. “Why the South Must Prevail” is the title of a 1957 editorial by Buckley addressing efforts to enforce federal laws ensuring blacks the ability to vote. The piece argued in part:
The NAACP and others insist that the Negroes as a unit want integrated schools. Others disagree, contending that most Negroes approve the social separation of the races. What if the NAACP is correct, and the matter comes to a vote in a community in which Negroes predominate? The Negroes would, according to democratic processes, win the election; but that is the kind of situation the White community will not permit. The White community will not count the marginal Negro vote. The man who didn’t count it will be hauled up before a jury, he will plead not guilty, and the jury, upon deliberation, will find him not guilty. A federal judge, in a similar situation, might find the defendant guilty, a judgment which would affirm the law and conform with the relevant political abstractions, but whose consequences might be violent and anarchistic.
The central question that emerges—and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalogue of the rights of American citizens, born Equal—is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.
At the time, Buckley had been editing The National Review for only two years, having founded his magazine at twenty-nine. Though the editorial is unsigned, there can be little doubt that it is his work: editorial policy was his domain; more tellingly, its idiosyncratic blend of elegance and provocation was already becoming a Buckley trademark.
The National Review would reject the very term “civil rights movement” as “ludicrous,” insisting instead on “the Negro revolt” as late as 1964. Not only did the effort to keep blacks from voting fail, Buckley’s carefully articulated justification for illegally denying them the vote failed too, so utterly that today’s Buckleyites, celebrating the great sweep of the man’s pervasive influence, can’t seem to recall a thing about it.
The New York Times obituary did mention, briefly, that Buckley supported the segregationist South on the grounds of white cultural superiority. More typical of mainstream assessment was the long summation of Buckley’s career in Newsweek, which said only that Buckley “tolerated” segregation and supported white southerners’ “protesting.” That characterization, misleading in its vagueness, softens the conservative position on integration—the defining issue of the day, along with the Cold War. Readers of recent articles on Buckley’s career could be forgiven for having no idea that The National Review described Martin Luther King Jr. as a “rabble-rousing demagogue” who taught “anarchy and chaos” and identified integration with Soviet communism.
The more textured, less temperate discussion of Buckley’s politics developed online, where some bloggers and commenters loudly celebrated Buckley’s death as the end of an evil phony, whom some called, among other things, a racist, citing part of the ’57 editorial. Buckley fans responded that the civil-rights position was a glaring exception to a tough, not bigoted program; that the position amounted to states-rights advocacy, not racism; that Buckley later took a more enlightened view (Newsweek said that too); and that he’d acknowledged and taken responsibility for his error. Many defenders cited Buckley’s answer to a question in a 2004 Time interview: “Have you taken any positions you now regret?” Buckley’s answer: “Yes. I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow. I was wrong: federal intervention was necessary.”
There Buckley admits to having been wrong about a position far different from the one he took in “Why the South Must Prevail,” quoted above, which asserts a right—even a duty—of southern whites to preserve Jim Crow, on the basis of the white race’s supposedly greater advancement. While Buckley’s essay may therefore strike readers today as typical of 1950s racist objections to civil-rights legislation, its impact lay in how sharply it departed from the typical, which can be revisited in a statement by Robert Byrd, today a U.S. Senator and in 1945 a twenty-eight-year-old member of the Ku Klux Klan: “Rather I should die a thousand times,” young Byrd said, in the cadences that have lately made him a darling of anti–Iraq War liberals, “and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.” That comment appeared in a letter to the segregationist Senator and former Governor of Mississippi Theodore Bilbo, also a Klansman, who wrote a book entitled Take Your Choice, Separation or Mongrelization, and filibustered an anti-lynching bill by invoking the “blood of the raped and outraged daughters of Dixie.” (A period ditty sung by Pete Seeger was called “Listen, Mr. Bilbo”—“Well, you don’t like Negroes, you don’t like Jews, / If there is anyone you do like, it sure is news.”) Wearing white sheets and following Exalted Cyclopses and Grand Wizards, the Klan did not make sustained arguments in polished prose. As anti-intellectual as they were anti-black, Jim Crow supporters could be readily dismissed by educated liberals and made unappealing allies for educated conservatives.
Until the arrival of Buckley. His 1957 essay, a masterpiece of intellectual agility and verbal confidence, sounded like The New Republic, not The Fiery Cross. The essay’s occasion was the recent success of Senate conservatives in preventing passage of legislation that would have required federal judges, not juries, to render verdicts in prosecutions of political operatives who failed to count black votes. The law was meant to hamper white juries’ tendencies to free such defendants regardless of evidence. A striking feature of the essay is Buckley’s outright support for jury nullification. Even more daringly he identifies a right for white southerners, when in the minority, to “take such measures as are necessary to prevail.” He presents that right as beyond the law, which he associates with “political abstractions,” and beyond even the Constitution, which he calls not adequate to cope with issues raised by Jim Crow and the struggle against it.
Buckley is making the kind of “natural law” argument for rights transcending charter and legislation that late-18th-century Americans made against the British Parliament’s incursions on their liberties. It was a case that Bilbo and Byrd, sunk in hysteria and ignorance, needed a Yale man to make for them. Instead of denying or glossing over the consequence of the bill’s defeat, Buckley announces it: “The effect of it is—and let us speak about it bluntly—to permit a jury to modify or waive the law.” Buckley calls the supposed fact that whites are morally entitled to prevail by any means necessary a “sobering” one, admits that it is “unpleasant to adduce statistics” proving the white race superior (and does not actually do so), and appeals to the better angels of southern nature, closing with a veiled threat that, if the South does not behave as Buckley expects it to, his support may have to be withdrawn:
[The South] must not exploit the fact of Negro backwardness to preserve the Negro as a servile class. It is tempting and convenient to block the progress of a minority whose services, as menials, are economically useful. Let the South never permit itself to do this. So long as it is merely asserting the right to impose superior mores for whatever period it takes to effect a genuine cultural equality between the races, and so long as it does so by humane and charitable means, the South is in step with civilization, as is the Congress that permits it to function.
That is the evolution Buckley was calling for in 1957: not that “we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow,” as he said in 2004, but that “the Negro” might, during some period determined and overseen by the superior race, evolve upward from the backwardness that had made Jim Crow not only permissible but necessary.
While this early entry is characteristic of Buckley’s lifelong approach to argument, his fans and protégés cannot claim and celebrate it, because its most important theme—about which Buckley is also blunt, and which bears on his conservatism as a whole—comes down to the three-part statement that undergirds the essay and that few conservatives today would want to affirm:
The claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage . . . If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened . . . sometimes the numerical minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.
Civilization over democracy, even at the calculated, possibly tragic price of violence, taken up more in sorrow than in anger and then fought to the finish. That is the stance with which Buckley began creating a persona that may be unique in our cultural history. Buckley ordained himself the leisure-class warrior-philosopher, roused to militancy by ubiquitous barbarism, defending on behalf of conservatism not mere intellect but the highest cultural sophistication and refinement. That persona would make him not only a conservative leader but also a household name. On his TV show “Firing Line,” which ran from 1966 to 1999, he did the eastern establishment one better, at once a parody and epitome of upper-crust manner, with an over-the-top hot-potato drawl that made FDR sound salt-of-the-earth. Buckley’s perfectly phrased insults and languorous polysyllabery made him the pop-culture model of intellectual, cultural, and verbal advancement, an unflappable connoisseur, guardian of the best ever thought and said by man. Delighting in the joys of rationality, beauty, hierarchy, imagination, humor, and awe, as expressed especially in the music of Bach, he seemed called from his fig tree by an Athenian sense of citizenship, battling to push back both the mob and the weak-willed mob-enablers who were ruining the civilization that had produced his own gorgeousness.
Hence a contradiction, which seems to have become evident to Buckley early on: Southern workingmen out to prevent “mongrelization” made poor exemplars of advanced culture. Soon he was letting go of his hopes for the white south.
At a famous 1965 Oxford Union Debate with James Baldwin, for example, fighting what was already a rearguard action on civil rights, Buckley took the opportunity to argue against wholesale condemnation of American civilization for failing to live up to what Buckley now called its highest ideals. He averred that everybody agreed that race prejudice is evil; accused the civil-rights movement of no longer seeking equality but the regression of the white race (though he also continued to call slow progress on equal rights necessary); announced that if the issue must come to race war, he was prepared (echoing Churchill for his Oxonian audience) to fight it on the beaches, in the hills, in the mountains; and suggested, for a laugh, that what he really objected to was any uneducated southerner, black or white, being allowed to vote. That joke distilled an unusual mix of states-rights populism and upper-class prerogative put forth at length, that same year, by James J. Kilpatrick in The National Review: federalism will be destroyed unless states are free to impose voting qualifications, but those qualifications must discriminate equally, not on the basis of race.
It is unfortunate that each side, in accusing the other of bad faith, so often seems to be right.
It is not clear what requirements Buckley thought poor blacks and poor whites below the Mason-Dixon line should fulfill, or be denied access to the franchise. What is clear is that Buckley’s later thinking on integration was not, as his defenders claim, a turnabout on race but a retreat to a more logically consistent snobbism. The National Review lost its all-out fights against school integration and the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts, but race long remained a defining conservative issue. Among many examples is a 1969 column in which Buckley hymned the research of Arthur Jensen on race and IQ, which showed blacks testing lower than whites on abstract reasoning skills, a finding from which Buckley deduced a racial imperviousness to improvement by education. In the 1970s The National Review persistently defended apartheid South Africa on the same basis that it had once defended Jim Crow.
A legacy of Buckley’s development on race is today’s conservative opposition to programs like affirmative action. Nobody today bases that opposition on a duty to preserve white privilege and prevent anarchy; opponents jump through hoops to show dedication to equality and democracy. Yet criticism of affirmative action, however altered its tone, is a direct inheritor of the ideological contributions Buckley made to conservatism in the 1950s. Today’s position represents a fallback, not a break, from Buckley’s early ideas, which were never renounced, only defeated. The important issue is not the possible persistence of racist ideas in Buckley’s own thinking, but modern conservatives’ huge—and hugely convenient—erasure, when it comes to race, of the intellectual origins of modern conservatism.
• • •
Seeger and Buckley were romantics. When they were young, and without regard for consequence, they brought charisma, energy, and creativity to dreaming up worlds they wanted—possibly needed—to live in. Because they made those worlds seem so real and beautiful that other people wanted to live in them too, they became larger-than-life characters, instantly recognizable a long way off, not quite real close up, and never quite grown up even when old. Hence their decisive influence. Seeger gave American folk music a purism in no way essential to it, a function of New England abstemiousness in Seeger’s own makeup, which also connected him to Soviet communism. The Soviet Union is gone, but our music will never shake the purism. Seeger once said, with wit and accuracy, “I’m more conservative than Goldwater. He just wanted to turn the clock back to when there was no income tax. I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.” Those yearnings began in his father’s dreams for the future, but it was a dream about the past that made him Pete Seeger. In Buckley’s dream, somebody is going to live in the castle above the village—better for everybody that it be he. That each in his own way dreamed southward, with fateful results, made them romantics in a special American tradition.
An important difference between Seeger and Buckley is that Seeger suffered for his beliefs. The film’s innocence about his Stalinist provocations aside, he bravely risked jail by refusing to answer some of HUAC’s questions; he was blacklisted, his career ruined for a long time. The film shows his concerts being angrily picketed by Young Americans for Freedom—Buckley’s organization. Yet even in Seeger’s persecution lies a telling reminder of what the two men shared: a sense that there are certain rights of which only the questing individual himself can be arbiter. When refusing to give names to HUAC, Seeger chose not to rely on his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, claiming instead a transcendent liberty, that of association, which he could not prove but believed was natural, pre-existing any claims made by a committee of federal government.
Liberals may concur in calling Seeger’s Stalinism romantic, if unfortunate (although “American Masters” viewers are not supposed to; the Stalinism is not supposed to exist). But liberals may also feel that “romantic” softens the virulence of Buckley’s race ideas, letting him off too easily. Buckleyites, for their part, cannot call segregationism romantic, since they have left its central importance out of their story—and they are likely to feel that the adjective understates the evil done by Seeger’s Soviet loyalties. Each side in this story has become adept not only at falsifying its own narrative but also at picking apart the other’s fallacies to expose venal motives. It is unfortunate that each side, in accusing the other of bad faith, so often seems to be right.
Buckley’s and Seeger’s shared attraction to extremes did have the effect of condoning awful crimes: lynching of blacks and murder of civil-rights workers on the one hand, Stalin’s mass murder on the other. Sorting out kinds and degrees of awfulness is as problematic as determining whether condoning those crimes also contributed to them. (The men themselves remained professionally innocent.) More important is that the two were far from alone. For if their dreams were not our dreams too, we would never have heard the names Pete Seeger and William F. Buckley, Jr.
While we have you...
...we need your help. You might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. Now we are going one step further to become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we count on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, help us keep it free for everyone by making a donation. No amount is too small. You will be helping us cultivate a public sphere that honors pluralism of thought for a diverse and discerning public.
May 01, 2008
31 Min read time