Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Goodbye to all that Nil Nisi Bonum

So William F. Buckley is dead? From LGM to Firedoglake to Rick Perlstein's obit the praise is raining down for a guy who was a sharp dresser, sharp talker, sharp thinker and, ultimately not so personally awful as his awful politics would imply. There's a long tradition of forgiving people their sins after they are dead, and an even longer one of looking and old farts as though they were kinda cute long after they've lost their bark or their mission has been converted from scary reality to old timey nostalgia. Hell, even Nixon looks good to me these days, thinking about what has come after. I'm not in a position to say whether Mr. Buckley was a really nice old gent or not, Nil Nisi Bonum and all that, but really, can anyone figure out what on earth Perlstein means by this silly paragraph?

First came a very nice column. He called me "an ardent enthusiast for the America Left." Damn straight. Then he sought out my friendship. "I reproach myself"—I'll never forget that impeccable Buckleyite locution—for not reading the book earlier, he wrote in a personal letter. What a deeply sensitive, humane thing to say to a 31-year-old first-time author: an apology for not affording him his immediate attention. Then came a very nice column. The passage from my book he reproduced quoted a "liberal" reporter on Goldwater: "What could such a nice guy think that way?"

Why did I love WFB? Because he never would have asked such a silly question. The game of politics is to win over American institutions to our way of seeing things using whatever coalition, necessarily temporary, that we can muster to win our majority, however contingent—and if we lose, and we are again in the minority, live to fight another day, even ruthlessly, while respecting our adversaries' legitimacy to govern in the meantime, while never pulling back in offering our strong opinions about their failures, in the meantime. This was Buckleyism—even more so than any particular doctrines about "conservatism."

The intensity of the right's fight for its own priviliges over and above that of ethnic minorities, religious minorities, atheists, queers, women, etc...etc...etc... isn't, to me, rendered acceptable because Buckley was personally nice to Perlstein or in private and public communications, in some sense "respected [his] adversaries' legitimacy to govern in the meantime." I'm not sure what that means, actually--when did Buckley renounce the mourning for segregation and white rule that, ultimately, never recognizes its "adversaries'...legitimacy?"