William F. Buckley died this week, at the age of 82. Which makes it as good a time as any to recall just what the "father of modern conservatism" stood for--which is pretty simple, really: making the Middle Ages acceptable to modern minds. Or, in the alternative, turning modern minds into Medieval ones.
Case in point: racism. In 1957, Buckley's National Review came out squarely on the side of the "civilized" white minority in whatever portions of the South where whites were outnumbered by blacks. It's a remarkable piece of writing that starts off rather slowly, but gathers steam as it rolls along, full of the characteristic tangle of asides, lies and appeals to higher virtue. (Aristotle aveered that masters knew their slaves' desires better than the slaves themselves--such knowledge was a part of their superior virtue.)
Thus, the clarion call, where the editorial really hits its stride:
National Review believes that the South's premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority.
The editorial was unsigned, but it's widely assumed that Buckley wrote it--it certainly sounds like him--and if not, he most certainly approved it.
So, without further ado--drawing on the version that Brad DeLong published on his blog in recognition of the National Review's 50th Anniversary in 2005--the editorial in its entirety begins on the flip, followed by a brief commentary.
National Review editorial, 8/24/1957, 4:7, pp. 148-9: The most important event of the past three weeks was the remarkable and unexpected vote by the Senate to guarantee to defendants in a criminal contempt action the privilege of a jury trial. That vote does not necessarily affirm a citizen's intrinsic rights: trial by jury in contempt actions, civil or criminal, is not an American birthright, and it cannot, therefore, be maintained that the Senate's vote upheld, pure and simple, the Common Law.
What the Senate did was to leave undisturbed the mechanism that spans the abstractions by which a society is guided and the actual, sublunary requirements of the individual community. In that sense, the vote was a conservative victory. For the effect of it is--and let us speak about it bluntly--to permit a jury to modify or waive the law in such circumstances as, in the judgment of the jury, require so grave an interposition between the law and its violator.
What kind of circumstances do we speak about? Again, let us speak frankly. The South does not want to deprive the Negro of a vote for the sake of depriving him of the vote. Political scientists assert that minorities do not vote as a unit. Women do not vote as a bloc, they contend; nor do Jews, or Catholics, or laborers, or nudists--nor do Negroes; nor will the enfranchised Negroes of the South.
If that is true, the South will not hinder the Negro from voting--why should it, if the Negro vote, like the women's, merely swells the volume, but does not affect the ratio, of the vote? In some parts of the South, the White community merely intends to prevail on any issue on which there is corporate disagreement between Negro and White. The White community will take whatever measures are necessary to make certain that it has its way.
What are the issues? Is school integration one? 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 catalog 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 ace. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the median cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists. The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage. The British believe they do, and acted accordingly, in Kenya, where the choice was dramatically one between civilization and barbarism, and elsewhere; the South, where the conflict is by no means dramatic, as in Kenya, nevertheless perceives important qualitative differences between its culture and the Negroes', and intends to assert its own.
National Review believes that the South's premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority. Sometimes it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way, and the society will regress; 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.
The axiom on which many of the arguments supporting the original version of the Civil Rights bill were based was Universal Suffrage. Everyone in America is entitled to the vote, period. No right is prior to that, no obligation subordinate to it; from this premise all else proceeds.
That, of course, is demagogy. Twenty-year-olds do not generally have the vote, and it is not seriously argued that the difference between 20 and 21-year-olds is the difference between slavery and freedom. The residents of the District of Columbia do not vote: and the population of D.C. increases by geometric proportion. Millions who have the vote do not care to exercise it; millions who have it do not know how to exercise it and do not care to learn. The great majority of the Negroes of the South who do not vote do not care to vote, and would not know for what to vote if they could. Overwhelming numbers of White people in the South do not vote. Universal suffrage is not the beginning of wisdom or the beginning of freedom. Reasonable limitations upon the vote are not exclusively the recommendations of tyrants or oligarchists (was Jefferson either?). The problem in the South is not how to get the vote for the Negro, but how to equip the Negro--and a great many Whites--to cast an enlightened and responsible vote.
The South confronts one grave moral challenge. It 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.
In the part of that diary referring specifically to this editorial, I wrote:
Here, the position is quite clear in one respect--it clearly opposes majority rule, in the name of cultural superiority and "civilization," and in opposition to the threat of power in the hands of a "lesser" group. If anything can claim to represent core conservative principles, it is surely this position. Supporting arguments can be found as far back as Aristotle. Yet, this is not what most folks have in mind when they talk about "conservative principles" being "abandoned"--although some hardcore white supremacists are the exception that proves the rule.
The passage also ignores--indeed by invoking the aura of "civilized standards" it explicitly hides--the profoundly violent and barbaric foundations of Southern segregation, and raises the specter of the suppressed majority resorting to violence. This sort of bizarre inversion of reality in maintaining a false identity is also quite typical of conservative identity politics, as we will see more clearly in a future post.
Some may focus their attention on the last paragraph, where it appears to foresee a future of "genuine cultural equality between the races," however, this is precisely the sort of rationalization that has always served as one face of racism in the modern world--a world in which the ideology of equality has always played some role, and posed some threat to those who reject it too categorically. Indeed, slavery itself was defended by some via the rationale of uplifting the black race. They also sometimes condemned excessive brutality--or at least expressed regret over it, much as the National Review warned that the South "must not exploit the fact of Negro backwardness to preserve the Negro as a servile class," but opposed the lifting of a single finger to prevent such exploitation.
Such is the nature of the rhetoric of apologetics. Modern conservativism has always existed in an environment hostile to it--beset by continual social change that requires innovations it opposes, because they undermine its authority and the continuity of blind obedience--and confronted with an ideology, liberalism, that does a far better job of responding to the challenges of that environment. Because of these two facts, modern conservatism has always felt some need, whether great or small, to adopt some aspects of liberalism, at least in rhetoric, and sometimes in substance. This is what we see reflected above.
Conservatives invariably howl when they are accused of being racists. Indeed, for several decades now, they howl pre-emptively just to make sure that no one has a chance to call them racists. But, as civilized white southerners themselves have long observed, "a stuck pig squeals."