Athwart history, yelling 'Stop!'

November 28, 1995|By James P. Pinkerton

NEW YORK -- Think back to 1955. On the eve of Elvis, Bill Haley's ''Rock Around the Clock'' was already transforming popular music. James Dean's star turn in ''Rebel Without a Cause'' fluttered teen-age hearts and stirred grown-ups to worry about ''juvenile delinquency.'' A rebellion launched that year XTC continues to reverberate four decades later: November 19, 1955, was the date of the first issue of William F. Buckley's National Review.

Mr. Buckley, then all of 30 years old, was a rebel with a cause. His magazine, he declared in that premiere edition, ''stands athwart history, yelling Stop.''

Those were the days when the Left thought it was riding an unstoppable locomotive that would carry humankind toward secularism and socialism. Many on the Right agreed: Whittaker Chambers wrote in ''Witness,'' his 1952 memoir, that as he made the switch from communist to anti-communist, he felt he was ''leaving the winning world for the losing world.'' He should have had more faith in humankind's desire to be free. But today, that same freedom is eroding the conservative moral structures that the young Buckley set out to defend.

Ever since the revolutionary French guillotined their king, conservatives had brooded about what the masses -- released from religious tradition and filled with humanist values -- would do with their newfound autonomy. Most conservatives seemed resigned to their status as ''the remnant,'' dreading the day when New Dealers and/or New Soviet Men would sack the surviving citadels of Western civilization.

Mr. Buckley was a fighter, not a fatalist. To him, the Left was the Establishment, to be thrown up against the wall. His ''God and Man at Yale'' (1951) is as slashing an attack on academic orthodoxy as anything the Students for a Democratic Society would publish two decades later.

As John Judis observes in his 1988 biography, ''During the '50s and '60s, Bill Buckley was American conservatism. In his writings, in National Review, and in his television and campus appearances, he created the style and the politics that have come to be identified as conservatism.''

And so Mr. Buckley the conservative begat the conservative movement. Peggy Noonan recalls the impact of ''NR'' to a whole generation of up-and-coming right-wingers: ''It assuaged a kind of loneliness. . . . Half the people in the Reagan administration had as their first conservative friend that little magazine.''

'Third world war'

Mr. Buckley's prime directive was victory in the Cold War, which NR referred to as the ''third world war'' -- a struggle that the magazine thought the West was losing. While Buckley & Co. were overly friendly to Sen. Joe McCarthy, they were still more astute than their opposite ideologists who imagined that the Cold War would be resolved by some sort of Sweden-like convergence between East and West.

If Mr. Buckley helped engineer the train wreck of the Red Express, he has had less to say about what should replace the twisted wreckage of bureaucratic government. Today he spends much of his time writing novels and takes little interest in his magazine, the influence of which has faded.

Yet many of his concerns then are still concerns now. In that same first issue, he asserted that ''the profound crisis of our era is, in essence, the conflict between the Social Engineers, who seek to adjust mankind to conform with scientific utopias, and the disciples of Truth, who defend the organic moral order.''

Whatever one thinks of Mr. Buckley's discipleship, it is apparent that the ''profound crisis'' of modern times transcends the fall of The Wall. Today's most powerful social engineers no longer operate from the Kremlin or the Warren Court, but rather from Hollywood and Redmond, Washington, where Microsoft's Bill Gates plots his peaceful and profitable takeover of the world. Can the ''organic moral order'' survive Oprah on-line? How 'bout Montel Williams on the Web?

Liberalism may have been stopped dead in its tracks, but it remains to be seen what conservatives can boot up in its place.

James P. Pinkerton is a columnist for Newsday.

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