Friday, February 29, 2008

Buckley and Fraser, R.I.P.

Sorry for yet another protracted absence from the humble blog ... I looked at the calendar today and thought that perhaps I should have at least one February post, if for no other reason than to make sure there are no gaps in the monthly archive to the right.

Today I pay tribute to two writers, the first who died just recently and the other whose eulogy I've been meaning to write since the beginning of January.

Those of you familiar with my politics might be a bit surprised that I find myself compelled to say a few words about William F. Buckley Jr., who died yesterday at the age of 82. Indeed, I am a little surprised myself -- as the writer, thinker and pundit largely credited with being "the ground zero of the conservative" movement in the second half of the twentieth century, and who can be partially credited with (among other things) the cultural groundswell that paved the way for Reagan's presidency and, ultimately, George W. Bush's, it perhaps goes without saying that I vehemently disagree with pretty much anything he ever said or wrote. Besides being one of the most inveterate opponents of New Deal politics ever fielded by the right wing, he had a tendency at times toward rather breathtaking equanimity in the face of violence and tyranny -- such as in his unequivocal celebration of Spain's dictator Franco or Chile's Pinochet, as well as his enthusiasm for Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s (something he never relinquished over the course of his life). Or take, for example, this 1957 editorial in which he asserts the necessity of white minorities in the South to assert their dominance, violently if necessary:

The central question that emerges ... 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 …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.*

Given these positions held by Buckley during his life, why do I feel compelled to pay tribute to him? Because however infuriated I might be made by his politics, I have to give credit to a thinker and writer who, for the most part, was unfailingly eloquent, intelligent and forceful in his rhetoric (the above egregious example notwithstanding). To be fair, I doubt I would be so inclined to speak of him in this way were there more figures of his ilk still around today; but when the likes of William Kristol is held up (by the New York Times, no less) as a bastion of intellectual, scholarly conservatism, and pundits like Anne Coulter, Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh hold the public discourse hostage to deliberate misdirection, buffoonery and one-note screeds, I find myself becoming nostalgic for the Buckleys and Wills and Safires of bygone days. I have known a significant number of highly intelligent and thoughtful conservatives in my life, and I know that my own liberalism has only benefited from discussions and arguments with them ... far more than agreement-fests with like-minded leftists. To paraphrase The Simpsons, in those cases my neck gets sore from nodding so much.

The only person on the public stage who comes close these days is Christopher Hitchens, but even he has been in a long slow slide into, well, insanity with his continued bloody-minded defense of the Iraq debacle. However, at least his writing (a) is extremely polished and readable, and (b) articulates a clear argument that (usually) gets the facts right ... even if it interprets them in what I see as a totally baffling manner. Conversely, when reading Kristol's columns in the NY Times, I grow weary both of his inane prose and his consistent wrongness. Here is someone who has been the premier cheerleader for the neoconservative movement and has been wrong on pretty much ever single prediction or assessment, be it on Iraq, Afghanistan, U.S. politics, or for that matter the historical record (for a good run-down of Kristol's gaffes, go here). And this is what qualifies as the "intellectual" wing of conservatism? Please.

R.I.P., William F. Buckley. I disagree with everything you ever said or wrote, but at least you said and wrote it well, and on accasion it gave me food for thought. Also, you once threatened to punch Noam Chomsky in the face -- a sentiment that, however much I admire the Chomster, I have occasionally felt myself.

Also mourned in today's post is the amazing George McDonald Fraser, the brilliant mind behind the character of Harry Flashman -- cad, bounder, coward, womanizer, and historical protagonist extraordinaire (Flashman, that is, not Fraser). Between 1969 with the publication of Flashman and his death on January 2 of this year, Fraser wrote twelve novels following the scandalous career of his eponymous hero (about whom I have blogged previously here), as well as numerous other books, both fiction and non-. The Flashman novels are historical fiction as practised by a master: interpolating a brilliantly conceived fictional observer into scrupulously and vividly recreated historical contexts -- fiction that teaches you about history even as you can't put it down. Fraser genuinely realized Horace's definition of literature as that which "delights and instructs." And I'm not certain whether it is disrespectful or a hearfelt testament to say that I a most devastated here at the realization that I will never now be able to read those adventures of Flashman hinted at in the extant but now lost forever ... and that when I reach Flashman on the March, the most recent of the narratives, there will be no more forthcoming.

Flashy, we'll miss ye. George McDonald Fraser, R.I.P.


*Quoted by Paul Krugman in The Conscience of a Liberal.