JAMES BALDWIN, WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY JR., AND THE AMERICAN DREAM: A SYMPOSIUM William F. Buckley Jr. and America’s “Engines of Concern” WILL BARNDT BUCKLEY LOST It is difﬁcult to watch Bill Buckley debate James Baldwin at Cambridge Union in 1965 without becoming engrossed by his performance. Buckley the famed debater lost badly to Baldwin that day. His arguments were scattered in a way that makes them hard to imagine as collectively compelling, even to a crowd that appreciated a provocative case. While generally advancing a “meliorist” account of American race relations, Buckley jumped disjointedly about from point to point and from example to example. Indeed, any careful viewing of the debate suggests that Buckley had lost his bearings. He appeared “in great transition” (Allitt 2015), “at a crux” (Hogeland 2015), and “anxiously dislocated” (McWilliams 2015). All three accurately describe Buckley during the debate. Yet something else underlay Buckley’s condition. At that particular moment in 1965, Buckley looked lost. He seemed to be searching for any port in a storm as he careened through his attempt to persuade the Cambridge Union to reject the powerful indictment Baldwin had delivered minutes earlier. And the fact is that Buckley was lost in 1965: intellectually, professionally, and personally lost. He had been unable to work through some fundamental contradictions in his political thought—and had abandoned a book project on the topic. He was distanced from the day-to-day work of National Review. He had been in public spats with the Vatican over Pope John’s approach to Catholic doctrine—which must have been difﬁcult for him, given his personal devotion. And he had weathered a contentious relationship with the Goldwater campaign, during which he had been heartbroken by the death of his sister Maureen (Judis 2001). Will Barndt is associate professor of political studies, Pitzer College ([email protected]). American Political Thought: A Journal of Ideas, Institutions, and Culture, vol. 6 (Fall 2017). 2161-1580/2017/0604-0009$10.00. © 2017 by The Jack Miller Center. All rights reserved. This content downloaded from 22.214.171.124 on October 25, 2017 03:44:45 AM All use subject to University of Chicago Press Terms and Conditions (http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/t-and-c). Buckley and America’s “Engines of Concern” • 649 Having been tossed around by recent life, Buckley seemed adrift in the debate, albeit adrift in his own peculiarly frenetic way. This is, I believe, how Buckley’s erratic performance ought to be understood: it was the performance of a man so buffeted by life that it was hard for him to know exactly where he was. It was the performance of a lost man. E N G I N E S OF C O N C E R N Yet Buckley did say something revealing that day, something that can provide insight into his own thought—and into the place of that thought in genealogies of American politics. Partway through his remarks, Buckley claimed, “The engines of concern in the United States are working” (BBC 1965). It is a curious phrase, “the engines of concern.” What did Buckley mean? Context within the debate is important. Buckley dropped the phrase about halfway through his talk, immediately after arguing that what Americans must ﬁrst do in addressing Baldwin’s concerns is to “care about them.” In this call to care, Buckley suggested that racism in the United States could be ameliorated through increased concern for the sorrows and inequities that plague black Americans. Had Buckley continued this line of thought, his response to Baldwin might well have become grounded in his own Catholicism, in a Christian understanding of the centrality of love and fellowship to amelioration (Buckley 1997). But Buckley chose not to pursue this thread. Instead, right after claiming that “the engines of concern in the United States” were working, Buckley turned sarcastic: he dryly suggested to his British audience that perhaps they, unlike Americans, had recently become so “morally enlightened” that they would care more if they were “governing the United States” (BBC 1965). He then moved to a typical broadside on universities (see, e.g., Buckley 1951), declaring, “You cannot go to a university in the United States in which practically all other problems of public policy are [not] preempted by the primary policy of concern for the Negro” (BBC 1965; emphasis mine). And he “challenged” his audience to name another time and place where the status of a minority group was “as much a subject of dramatic concern as it is in the United States” (BBC 1965; emphasis mine). He lamented, in other words, that American “engines of concern” “for the Negro” were running full steam—blinding Americans to other pressing problems. It is an odd moment in the debate. Buckley quickly pivoted from a seemingly heartfelt call for Americans to care more to chiding Americans for caring too dramatically. It is as if at this point in the debate he could not decide whether American “care for the Negro” represented a viable part of the solution for which he was calling or those “engines of concern” had made pernicious the care he thought could be important. This content downloaded from 126.96.36.199 on October 25, 2017 03:44:45 AM All use subject to University of Chicago Press Terms and Conditions (http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/t-and-c). 650 • American Political Thought • Fall 2017 BUCKLEY AND ENGINES Lost though Buckley was, his exasperation with America’s “engines of concern” gives us a clear heading. It points us toward what he tried to say, and toward how we ought to interpret his performance in 1965. As it turns out, this reference to engines was more than some offhand remark. Buckley wrote—and thought—about engines all the time. Here are some typical usages from the Buckley corpus: • “Harvard, like so many other great universities, has become an engine for the imposition of secular and collectivist values” (Buckley 2001, 106). • “John Maynard Keynes was the enthusiastic ideological engine of the New Economics” (Buckley 1994, 66). • “The Soviet Union is, really, the principal engine of international terrorism” (Buckley 1993, 158). • “It was conﬁdently predicted a century ago that the engines of scientiﬁc achievement were closing the gates on the Christian faith” (Buckley 2001, 113). • “Johnson . . . would assert a federal right to seek out discrimination in every quarter of Southern life and to harness the dormant engines of the federal government to ﬁght such discrimination” (Buckley 2008a, 135). Harvard, Keynes, the Soviet Union, secularism, Lyndon Johnson, and the federal government—these were, of course, forces Buckley committed himself to thwart. I do not think it is coincidental that all were, for Buckley, understandable in their own way as engines. Buckley’s use of engines as a metaphor extends still further than this. Consider two more claims: • “The regular, reliable engines of competition” failed to contain stagﬂa- tion under Carter (Buckley 2008b, 147–48). • They “thought they were struggling all those months in the Sierra Ma- dre for freedom only to ﬁnd that . . . arrangements were being made to use their hunger for freedom and reform as the engine to create a slave state” (Buckley 2001, 53). Competition, freedom ﬁghters—these were what Buckley believed in, forces to which he devoted his life. Yet even they sometimes went awry, and when they did, Buckley described them, too, as engines. This content downloaded from 188.8.131.52 on October 25, 2017 03:44:45 AM All use subject to University of Chicago Press Terms and Conditions (http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/t-and-c). Buckley and America’s “Engines of Concern” • 651 It is perhaps unsurprising that as proliﬁc a writer as Buckley should have regularly used the metaphor of engines in his work. More surprising is that he so often used the metaphor pejoratively.1 Buckley usually understood “engines” as driving precisely the kinds of political outcomes he opposed. When he said in 1965 that “the engines of concern were working” in America, he was not paying a compliment to his countrymen. The origins of engines as a political metaphor for Buckley are not immediately clear. At ﬁrst glance, a plausible source is Buckley’s friend Whitaker Chambers. Judis (2001, 171) suggests that the Quaker ex-Communist Chambers used the metaphor of the machine to explain how capitalism shaped “the masses.” Imitating but misapprehending Chambers, Buckley might have adopted technological language to describe how history was charting a baleful course. Technology was, after all, an understandable bugbear for many twentieth-century conservatives (e.g., Berry 1977). Buckley’s rhetorical distaste for engines might thus run through Chambers—so much else in midcentury American conservative thought did. Yet Buckley was not a technophobe. To the contrary, he reveled in new technologies (despite his well-known call for conservatives to “stand athwart history yelling stop”; Buckley 1955). As a writer, Buckley extolled personal computers, electronic dictionaries, Dictaphones, and word processors (see, e.g., Buckley 1983). So Buckley did not mistrust engines simply because he opposed industrial or postindustrial technologies. His was not the claim of a nostalgic pastoral conservatism. We must search elsewhere for the roots of his disdain. BUCKLEY THE SAILOR In fact, Buckley’s complicated relationship with engines arose from a quite different source: his love of sailing. He was a competitive sailor from practically the time he could walk, he wrote four books on sailing, a large part of his “literary autobiography” is about sailing, and sailing metaphors permeate his writing and speaking (see, e.g., Buckley 1992, 144). In composing a memoir of his parents, Christopher Buckley (2009) devoted a full chapter to “his old man and the sea,” in which he described in detail the exuberance with which his father approached sailing. In short, Bill Buckley sailed all the time. We often forget this when writing about the political Buckley, and we nearly always ignore its importance to his self-understanding. 1. To date I have found one instance of Buckley clearly using the metaphor of engines to describe a political process he supported. In a 1978 debate about the Panama Canal, he said that “the United States was, and should continue to be, the principal engine by which to oppose world history” (Buckley 1994, 365). That said, as discussed at length below, Buckley was not implacably opposed to engines. This content downloaded from 184.108.40.206 on October 25, 2017 03:44:45 AM All use subject to University of Chicago Press Terms and Conditions (http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/t-and-c). 652 • American Political Thought • Fall 2017 If one listens closely, one can hear the language of sailing peppered throughout Buckley’s presentation in 1965. Here are some examples (emphases mine): • his call to change the “warp and woof of moral thought in society”; • his discussion of the “course of their ordeal”; • his concern that Baldwin and his supporters will “jettison” civilization; • and, of course, those “engines of concern” (BBC 1965). Yet this is not just about a handful of words. Buckley, intentionally or not, wove the language of sailing into the debate in other ways as well. At one point, for instance, he lamented “the white person who acts . . . to protect their own vested interest . . . which tends always to convert every contingency in such a way as to maximize their own power” (BBC 1965; emphasis mine). This is, if one is looking for it, a sailing metaphor: a description of minimizing drag and converting wind into speed. At other points, Buckley seems to be talking about black and white Americans as if they were in some sort of regatta. He speaks, to give just one example, of the “slipping behind” of the “Negro race” (BBC 1965). Behind the confused debater of 1965, one glimpses the mind of a once-conﬁdent sailor. Most importantly for our purposes, Buckley the sailor had a complicated relationship with engines. Consider the following two excerpts from his corpus on sailing: 1. “The rules [for racing a boat] are explicit: Under no circumstances do you turn on your engine, except to save a drowning man” (Buckley 1994, 135).2 Here Buckley asserts that when propelling oneself, when trying to make oneself move, engines should be a last resort. This is, he suggests, especially true in competitive contexts, where what matters most is the ability to demonstrate your own capacities. 2. “What celestial navigation does is reafﬁrm in another medium what sailing is all about, namely, the unaggressive exploitation of nature. No sensible cruising sailboat disdains an engine, but no sailor would want to go to sea if, were his engine to fail, he’d thereupon be powerless” (Buckley 1994, 171). Sailing, for Buckley, is about knowing that one is capable of moving on one’s own. It is about the capacities that come along with understanding how to move unaided by engines, “manipulating craftily the carefree endowments of nature” (238). 2. The quote concludes with “preferably a member of the Race Committee.” This content downloaded from 220.127.116.11 on October 25, 2017 03:44:45 AM All use subject to University of Chicago Press Terms and Conditions (http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/t-and-c). Buckley and America’s “Engines of Concern” • 653 Indeed, Buckley prided himself on navigating by the stars: combining his own knowledge, the technologies of sailing, and nature to move himself and his crews across oceans (Buckley 1982, 102; Buckley 1992, 69). And he passed this expertise on to future generations, despite his conviction that it was becoming an “antiquarian exercise” (Buckley 1992, 285). As his son, Christopher, describes, “He taught me on that [transatlantic sailing] trip how to navigate by the sun and stars with a sextant. It’s a skill that today, in the age of satellite navigation, fewer fathers impart to their sons. As I look back, it seems to me one of the most fundamental skills a father can teach a son: ﬁnding out where you are, using the tools of our ancestors” (Buckley 2009, 127). This is a “faith in (and of) our fathers,” indeed (McWilliams 2015). Yet Buckley the sailor—like Buckley the writer—was in no way a technophobe. He recognized the ways in which engines could be valuable, and he often used them to overcome doldrums when sailing. In his sailing books (Buckley 1976, 1982, 1987, 1992) he time and time again recounted when and why he chose to turn on his ships’ engines. Buckley’s claim is not that engines are inherently pernicious, but rather that they can be used wisely only by the man who knows how to function in their absence. In truth, he wrote, only when engines were turned off did he feel that his transatlantic voyages really began (Buckley 1992, 139). Buckley thus saw himself as a sailor who could be trusted with engines, but he was often frustrated with his compatriots’ indiscriminate use of engine power. Describing his experiences on others’ boats, he complained bitterly about the noise associated with the constant running of engines and lamented the proﬂigacy of a captain who used thousands of gallons of fuel to run engines that added only minimal gains in distance traveled (Buckley 1982). Engines can be useful to the sailor, Buckley agreed, yet they are only useful to the sailor who knows when to turn them off.3 As we should know how to move without engines in sailing, Buckley believed, so should we know how to move without engines in politics. This claim was on full display in the 1965 debate, veiled though it was by his erratic delivery. As Balfour (2015) and Lowndes (2015) note, a typical claim of both Buckley and the post-Buckley Right was that black Americans needed to embrace so-called personal responsibility and self-help. Note how neatly this claim ﬂows out of Buckley’s understanding of how engines ought (not) to be used in sailing. When Buckley in the debate pleads with “American negroes” to “ani3. Buckley sometimes described his life in terms of engines, if ambivalently. For example, his Overdrive (1983) chronicled a week in his schedule. The epigraph in that book deﬁned the word “overdrive”: “an automotive transition gear which transmits to the propeller shaft a speed greater than engine speed.” Buckley could shift himself into overdrive, he believed, because he knew he could function even if his engine quit. This content downloaded from 18.104.22.168 on October 25, 2017 03:44:45 AM All use subject to University of Chicago Press Terms and Conditions (http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/t-and-c). 654 • American Political Thought • Fall 2017 mate” and “exert” themselves (BBC 1965), he is suggesting that they have not learned to sail, that they are too dependent on engine power, and that America’s engines of concern will be insufﬁcient to take them to port. Buckley’s frustration, both in and beyond 1965, was that so few others understood the pernicious ends to which engines could—and would—be put by the indiscriminate. To Buckley, “concern for the Negro” in American universities exempliﬁed this lack of discernment. In his meliorist vision, black Americans were not drowning. It was impolitic to shift the country’s engines of concern into overdrive. SAILING, BUC KLEY, A ND BALDWIN Buckley believed he had special personal knowledge of the intersection of sailing and politics. This is nowhere clearer than in his descriptions of transoceanic voyaging: “It is an experience, above all else, of living, at such very close quarters, with the same people for a whole month. You test the bonds of companionship, stretch them sometimes until tight, but they don’t snap, and it reassures to know how wonderfully strong fraternity can be. Always you are aware that it doesn’t necessarily work. There can be tragedy, for which nature or dereliction can be responsible. And there can be what amounts to tragedy, for which human nature is responsible” (Buckley 1994, 239). Given this knowledge, Buckley took quite seriously the task of ﬁnding his crew, of enlisting fellow Americans in celestial navigation. And for good reason: to set sail across the ocean with one’s crew is to constitute political society in order to engage in frightening mobility. This seems a particularly salient point given that Buckley, at the end of the debate, just before he threatens a race war, recommends “mobility” to Baldwin (BBC 1965; see also McWilliams 2015). He says, “The best chances for the Negro people are in a mobile society, and the most mobile society in the world today, my friends, is the United States of America, and it is precisely that mobility which will give opportunities to the Negros, which they must be encouraged to take” (BBC 1965). Drawing on his lifetime of experience on the water, Buckley recommended that black Americans set sail together on a collective political journey he believed would be liberating. Yet this recommendation conﬁrms Balfour’s (2015) insight that Buckley simply did not hear Baldwin.4 Baldwin insisted that American generational ex4. Buckley did seem to have prepared some of his comments in advance—which may, as the editor of this journal has rightly pointed out, have given Baldwin an advantage in the debate. Because he spoke ﬁrst, Baldwin is not held responsible for “hearing” Buckley. That said, the fact that Buckley, a skilled debater, could not respond clearly to Baldwin’s central claims demands explanation. This content downloaded from 22.214.171.124 on October 25, 2017 03:44:45 AM All use subject to University of Chicago Press Terms and Conditions (http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/t-and-c). Buckley and America’s “Engines of Concern” • 655 perience must be understood as contemporaneous and collapsed (McWilliams 2015). In this spirit, Baldwin declared that he himself “built” America’s “railroads,” as well as its “harbors” and “ports.”5 If this is the case, then Buckley’s claim to an exclusive knowledge of political sailing, of course, cannot be true.6 Had Buckley listened, he would have heard Baldwin say that they both set sail across the Atlantic, long before either was born. Buckley’s greatgrandparents came to the Americas from Cork in the 1840s. Baldwin’s ancestors also crossed the sea, some under rather different conditions than the Buckleys. Yet this was not some racial regatta. Baldwin reminds us that both he and Buckley, and all of us, sailed on both ships.7 But Buckley did not hear him. Perhaps, in the end, this is why Buckley was so lost. REFERENCES Allitt, Patrick. 2015. “William Buckley and the Decline of American Conservative Racism: 1955–95.” Lecture delivered at Symposium on James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the American Dream, Linﬁeld College, May 2015. Frederick Douglass Forum Lecture Series. Video File. http://digitalcommons.linﬁeld.edu/douglass/10. Balfour, Lawrie. 2015. “‘Hideously Loaded’: James Baldwin’s History of the American Dream.” Lecture delivered at Symposium on James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the American Dream, Linﬁeld College, May 2015. Frederick Douglass Forum Lecture Series. Video File. http://digitalcommons.linﬁeld.edu/douglass/11. BBC. 1965. James Baldwin debates William F. Buckley on the question: “Is the American Dream at the Expense of the American Negro?” Cambridge Union, Cambridge, UK. YouTube video from a 1965 BBC recording, posted on Riverbends Channel, October 27, 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?vpoFeoS41xe7w. Berry, Wendell. 1977. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club. Buckley, Christopher. 2009. Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir. New York: Twelve Hatchett. Buckley, William F., Jr. 1951. God and Man at Yale. Chicago: Regnery. ———. 1955. “Our Mission Statement.” National Review. ———. 1976. Airborne: A Sentimental Journey. New York: Scribner’s. ———. 1982. Atlantic High: A Celebration. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. ———. 1983. Overdrive: A Personal Documentary. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. ———. 1987. Racing through Paradise: A Paciﬁc Passage. New York: Random House. ———. 1992. Windfall: The End of the Affair. New York: Random House. ———. 1993. Happy Days Were Here Again: Reﬂections of a Libertarian Journalist. New York: Random House. 5. For a contrary, literal reading, see Allitt (2015). 6. Sailing metaphors have, of course, long permeated American political thought (Thompson 2001; Calvert 2012). 7. Zaborowska (2009) is excellent on this point. This content downloaded from 126.96.36.199 on October 25, 2017 03:44:45 AM All use subject to University of Chicago Press Terms and Conditions (http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/t-and-c). 656 • American Political Thought • Fall 2017 ———. 1994. Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography. Washington, DC: Regnery. ———. 1997. Nearer My God: An Autobiography of Faith. New York: Doubleday. ———. 2001. Let Us Talk of Many Things: The Collected Speeches. New York: Crown. ———. 2008a. Flying High: Remembering Barry Goldwater. New York: Basic. ———. 2008b. The Reagan I Knew. New York: Basic. Calvert, Jane. 2012. Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought of John Dickinson. New York: Cambridge University Press. Hogeland, William. 2015. “On the Beaches, in the Hills, in the Mountains: William Buckley’s Legacy in the Politics of Denial.” Lecture delivered at Symposium on James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the American Dream, Linﬁeld College, May 2015. Frederick Douglass Forum Lecture Series. Video File. http://digitalcommons .linﬁeld.edu/douglass/10. Judis, John B. 2001. William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives. New York: Simon & Schuster. Lowndes, Joseph. 2015. “Buckley’s Political Romance with Racism.” Lecture delivered at Symposium on James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the American Dream, Linﬁeld College, May 2015. Frederick Douglass Forum Lecture Series. Video File. http://digitalcommons.linﬁeld.edu/douglass/12. McWilliams, Susan. 2015. “On the Faiths of (and in) Our Fathers.” Lecture delivered at Symposium on James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the American Dream, Linﬁeld College, May 2015. Frederick Douglass Forum Lecture Series. Video File. http://digitalcommons.linﬁeld.edu/douglass/11. Thompson, Norman. 2001. Ship of State: Statecraft and Politics from Ancient Greece to Democratic America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Zaborowska, Magdalena J. 2009. “In the Same Boat: James Baldwin and the Other Atlantic.” In Historical Guide to James Baldwin, ed. Douglas F. Field, 177–211. Oxford: Oxford University Press. This content downloaded from 188.8.131.52 on October 25, 2017 03:44:45 AM All use subject to University of Chicago Press Terms and Conditions (http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/t-and-c).