Father Figures

Scott Lahti brings to my attention this John Judis article on the (attenuated?) influence of William F. Buckley Sr. and Albert Jay Nock on WFB Jr.:

Always elegantly attired and squinting through pince-nez, Will Buckley was a reserved parent who was feared as well as loved by his ten children. He was often away on business–he would eventually strike oil again in Venezuela–but, when he was at home, he took a special interest in their education. The Buckley children were home-schooled when they were young and taught by governesses to speak Spanish and French fluently. Will Buckley would recommend books to them in notes he sent home, and he would convey his political views via dinnertime inquisitions.

Will Buckley’s experience in Mexico had indelibly shaped his worldview. He saw the Mexican revolutionaries as part of worldwide Bolshevism, and he equated that Bolshevism with anti-Catholicism and opposition to Christianity more broadly. In other words, he saw himself as an opponent of a worldwide movement against capitalism and Christianity.

Outside the United States and Great Britain, he generally preferred the stability of authoritarian rule to democracy, and he thought Wilson’s crusade to make the world safe for democracy was deluded. During the Spanish Civil War, he enthusiastically backed authoritarian Catholic Francisco Franco. In the late ’30s, he was a fervent isolationist and supporter of America First. Buckley not only opposed entangling America in another European war, but he also wanted the United States to stand aside and allow Hitler to defeat the Soviet Union, which, according to a visitor to the Buckley home, he saw as “an infinitely greater threat than Nazi Germany.”

Will Buckley’s views resembled those of European or Latin American Catholic conservatives. But he was also a Texan and a successful buccaneer capitalist who disdained government regulation and celebrated individualism. A favorite American writer was Albert Jay Nock, the author of Our Enemy the State and Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, whom he periodically invited to his Sharon estate. Although Nock was a libertine and a foe of organized religion, Buckley treasured him for his views of government and the individual. The highbrow Nock saw the state as a creature of the “mass-man” and himself and people like Will Buckley as members of a small and select “remnant” (a term from the Book of Isaiah) who possessed “the force of intellect to apprehend the principles issuing in what we know as the human life.” Nock affirmed, and vindicated, Buckley’s sense of himself as an outsider–a Texas Catholic in Yankee Protestant Sharon, a proponent of free markets during the New Deal ’30s–and a rebel. When the Buckley children grew up, they retained their father’s view of a global contest between Christian individualism and atheistic communism and of themselves as members of a Nockian counter-revolutionary remnant. That would be particularly true of Bill.

Judis also discusses Whittaker Chambers’s influence on Buckley. I disagree with Judis’s conclusions about how Nockian WFB remained — Nock’s libertarianism certainly wasn’t in evidence in Buckley, despite the latter’s calls for marijuana legalization — and James Burnham shouldn’t be omitted from any list of Buckley father figures. (After Will Buckley died, WFB wrote to Burnham and said the he was now the closest thing to a father to him. The letter is quoted in Daniel Kelly’s excellent James Burnham and the Struggle for the World.) Still, Judis’s piece is well worth reading, and I also recommend his William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives, which is still the definitive Buckley biography, at least until Sam Tanenhaus completes his forthcoming opus.


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