William F. Buckley, “God and Man at Yale” (1951) – One conservative archetype we don’t pay enough attention to is that of the tattle-tale. Especially given the way that a lot of American conservatives like to pose as tough guys and the way a lot of liberals also delight in tattling (though usually to a Great Schoolmarm in the Sky, who like most gods is curiously indifferent to their petitioners), this gets lost in the shuffle. But Bill Bennett made his bones in the conservative movement for ratting out a college roommate for smoking weed (only to wind up a degenerate gambler himself). William F. Buckley, for his part, got famous by writing this book snitching on his alma mater, Yale, for not teaching traditional virtues.
Gotta say I have more sympathy for Bennett’s pothead roommate than whoever was running Yale in 1951, but tattling on behalf of “virtue” as understood by a rich twenty-something… that’s not easy to stomach for two hundred pages. And Buckley is very explicit that snitching is what he’s doing. The book is addressed to the alumni and, especially, the trustees of Yale. If they only knew how little Yale was upholding it’s supposed values of Christianity and individualism, they’d come around and crack the whip, get all the commies and atheists out or anyway, provide “balance.”
It’s weird for a few reasons. First, Buckley leads with religion, and how Yale’s religion classes don’t teach religious faith but rather criticize religions as bodies of doctrine and social practice, a lot of the teachers are atheists, etc etc. Reading it seventy years later, it’s hard to get into the headspace, harder than most conservative writing. Religious faith on the part of the WASP-y elite Yale still very much catered to at the time had been waning for a long time by the time Buckley was writing, and didn’t get any healthier after. This decline hasn’t seemed to have hurt conservative politics, or American fortunes in the Cold War, as much as Buckley hinted it might. It’s even weirder when you consider Buckley was a Catholic. Yale was never supposed to teach his kind of religion. But I guess he thought it was the kind of material that would get the old stuffed shirts who act as trustees in the Ivy League fired up.
Then there’s the stuff on economics and social science. The thing is, it’s Yale in 1951. There aren’t any communists. It’s just liberals. They’re broadly skeptical about a lot of things (could probably have used more of that, honestly), including the free market. They had just witnessed the Great Depression and the ways in which government spending got the country back on its feet. No one is calling for workers to seize the means of production. But Buckley is wounded on behalf of the besmirched honor of the markers and the wealthy anyway, for every snide remark Samuelson or whoever (no one’s idea of a screaming lib) put in a textbook. It’s just such picayune stuff.
To the extent this book really has importance beyond launching Buckley’s career, it’s as a chapter in redefining the liberal enemy for the American right. That higher education would go on to become a perpetual target for the right when it looked to drum up cheap heat doesn’t need to be belabored. It’s also part of the game of ambiguity Buckley seems to have played his whole career in terms of negotiating with the far right and it’s concepts. In this book, liberals are the target because they sap America’s moral fiber, leaving it weak in the face of communism. If Yale men don’t say their prayers and learn free enterprise, how could they possibly compete with the Russkies (Yale was and is a prime recruiting ground for the CIA, as Buckley well knew… but maybe early CIA agents weren’t the best example of how to successfully stand up to the Soviets)? Buckley never says why his professors at Yale would do such a thing. He doesn’t come out and call them communists. He leaves it ambiguous. People can fill in what they like.
Seventy years of this bullshit, and the idea that liberalism is all a “cultural Marxist” (read “sneaky Jewish”) plot is now basically accepted by many “mainstream” conservatives. I remember when Buckley’s reputation was as the man who routed the Birchers and the Klansmen from the postwar conservative movement, making it “respectable” (never mind his remarks about the civil rights movement or gay people). He was what online reactionaries today would call an “optics cuck.” Except, he won, and helped define what conservatism would look like for the next fifty years, so I guess he was more of an “optics chad.” And he left the door wide open for the ideological descendants of the Birchers to come back. The ideas didn’t change- just the packaging.
As far as the experience of reading this book goes, Buckley was supposed to be a hot shit prose writer, very “witty.” Well, I’ve read less witty books, to be sure, and this one zipped by reasonably quickly, but I still wasn’t especially impressed. In many ways, he’s not out to impress people like me. He was out to lay the groundwork for a movement. I’m not sure what lessons are really applicable- “snitch to some rich people about meaningless culture war horseshit” isn’t really applicable to my side, alas. **