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God and Man at Yale at 70: A New Introduction
The following is the new introduction to the 70th anniversary edition of God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom” from Regnery Publishing, on sale today.
William F. Buckley Jr., like his friend Ronald Reagan, has suffered much for being made into an “ism.” Today “Buckleyism,” like “Reaganism,” conjures images of a halcyon era during the second half of the twentieth century when conservatives were urbane, witty, and above all anodyne. Liberals admit a “strange new respect” for the founder of the postwar conservative movement. They compare him favorably with the “authoritarian,” “fascist,” “Nazi” conservatives we see today. Docile centrists who style themselves right-wing join the Left in this critique of modern conservatism, which they insist has betrayed in character and conviction the movement founded by Bill Buckley.
Many people invoke William F. Buckley Jr. Fewer seem to remember what he wrote and said. Fewer still recall the reaction he elicited from prominent liberals, who responded to God and Man at Yale by calling him an authoritarian, a fascist, and a Nazi. Such facts remind us that nostalgia is “history after a few drinks.” Today’s sentimentalists note well Buckley’s wit and urbanity, which no public figure to follow him has managed to surpass. But they downplay his gumption and presumption. The effete liberals of the Left and Right who wax poetic about William F. Buckley Jr. today would clutch their pearls in the presence of the man in his prime.
In 1968, Buckley famously called the leftist intellectual Gore Vidal a “queer” on national television and threatened to punch him in the face. The threat came after Vidal for the umpteenth time had called Bill, an Army veteran of World War II, a Nazi. Buckley instantly regretted the emotional outburst and apologized to Vidal for the public display of anger. But he doubled down on the substance of his attack, which he expounded in the pages of Esquire magazine the following summer.
Fourteen years earlier, riding high off the success of God and Man at Yale, Buckley had chosen for his next subject a defense of Senator Joe McCarthy. “McCarthyism,” wrote Bill in McCarthy and His Enemies, “is a movement around which men of good will and stern morality can close ranks.” The more faint-hearted among Buckley’s present-day admirers might blanch at such a statement, but Bill did not misspeak. Although Buckley came to temper his support for the anti-communist crusader in later years, he continued to defend McCarthy and McCarthyism for decades after the senator’s death. He devoted an entire episode of his public affairs program, Firing Line, to that defense as late as 1966.
Buckley titled the episode “McCarthyism: Past, Present, Future,” scandalizing viewers who hoped McCarthy’s crusade had no future. Buckley’s guest, Leo Cherne, homed in on one argument in particular that he believed Bill would not dare refute: McCarthy had opposed the “open society,” a liberal concept that Cherne considered sacred to all decent folk on the left and right alike. Buckley would have to disavow the dead senator.
“The open society,” Cherne reminded his host, “is an urgently necessary aspect of all that we both value.”
“I don’t agree,” replied Buckley as his guest gawked incredulously.
“I don’t want the society to be open to certain ideas. I am an epistemological optimist. That is the unfortunate word they use to describe people who believe that by reason you can make certain exclusions, and those exclusions don’t have to be reconsidered,” he explained. “I don’t feel any obligation to protect the liberties of a Nazi or of a communist.” Few people have ever valued the exchange of ideas as much as Bill Buckley, whose Firing Line remains the longest-running public affairs program with a single host in television history. But unlike so many self-styled Buckleyists today who make idols out of “free speech absolutism” and the “marketplace of ideas,” William F. Buckley Jr. understood that marketplaces must have rules and “skepticism has utility only when it leads to conviction.”
Buckley made that point verbatim in God and Man at Yale, the book that launched both his career and the postwar conservative movement. But we do this extraordinary book a disservice when we refer only to its title without also mentioning its subtitle: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom.” Most broadly, God and Man at Yale describes “the duel between Christianity and atheism,” which William F. Buckley Jr. deemed “the most important in the world,” as well as “the struggle between individualism and collectivism,” which he considered “the same struggle reproduced on another level.”
But God and Man at Yale is about more than God and man. It also concerns Yale, where a young Bill Buckley believed political radicals were subverting American society by indoctrinating the nation’s future leaders with atheism and collectivism. The radicals got away with this subversion under the auspices of “academic freedom,” a concept many putative Buckleyists now embrace but which Bill himself dismissed as a “hoax.”
A commitment to “academic freedom” would never induce Yale’s department of sociology to hire an open racist “who lectured about the anthropological superiority of the Aryan,” Buckley reminds us, nor should it. Yale may have lost its sense of mission, but it can never avoid promoting certain values to the exclusion and contradiction of others, because education entails judgment. Since Yale must stand for something, Buckley proposed the encouragement of Christianity and political freedom—and the consequent suppression of atheism and collectivism—in the classroom.
Like so many conservatives, I have long drawn inspiration from William F. Buckley Jr., with whom I share a political persuasion, a profession, a religion, and even a priest. I never had the privilege of meeting the man—he died six months before I matriculated at his alma mater—but the prodigious body of work he left behind offers anyone with an interest the opportunity to pick the brain of this singular character. It all began with God and Man at Yale, which I first read during my freshman year. By that time the educational ideology of “openness” that Buckley mocked and deplored had wreaked havoc in New Haven for more than half a century, all too often leaving students’ minds so open that their brains fell out.
Superstition, subversion, and hoaxes continue to abound on that campus and around the country. Today those three devils disturb even the legacy of William F. Buckley Jr., for which reason there has never been a better time to reacquaint ourselves with the man in his own words.
Michael Knowles is a graduate of Yale University, where he was named an inaugural student fellow of the William F. Buckley Jr. Program. He is the author of two books and host of several popular podcasts.
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