When James Baldwin Squared Off Against William F. Buckley Jr.Historians in the News
tags: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley, intellectual history, Racial History
Nicholas Buccola is the author of "The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass: In Pursuit of American Liberty" (2012) and "The Fire Is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate Over Race in America" (2019). He is a professor of American political thought and constitutional theory at Linfield College in Oregon
Buccola, a professor of political science at Linfield College, deftly guides the reader through the rhetorical and philosophical moves of Baldwin’s speech. Baldwin adopted the tone of a preacher — “a kind of Jeremiah,” as he put it — who wants to readjust his audience’s “system of reality.” He tries to get them to imagine the black American experience from the inside. “It comes as a great shock to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians — when you were rooting for Gary Cooper — that the Indians were you.” Did the American dream come at the expense of the American Negro? For Baldwin, the obtuseness of the question demanded a pronoun switch: “I am stating this very seriously, and this is not an overstatement, I picked the cotton, and I carried it to market, and I built the railroads, under someone else’s whip, for nothing. For nothing.”
“The Fire Is Upon Us” becomes revelatory in its interpretation of Buckley’s performance. We learn, for instance, that the Cambridge students had first tried to get Strom Thurmond or Barry Goldwater to debate Baldwin, only later settling on Buckley, who seems to have been eager for the publicity. We also learn that Buckley’s speech that evening was based on an article he had commissioned for National Review by Garry Wills. Wills, a young Catholic ultra, who would later break with Buckley over racial questions and become an indispensable interpreter of the American scene, drafted a fierce response to Baldwin’s famous New Yorker essay, “Letter From a Region in My Mind.” Part of the trouble with Baldwin for Wills was that he was treated as a savior by his white liberal readership and not afforded the dignity of scrutiny that he would have received if he were white. Wills believed that Baldwin went too far in his condemnation of the West. “When a Dachau happens,” Wills wrote, “are we — as Baldwin suggests — to tear up all the Bibles, disband the police forces, take crowbars to the court buildings and the libraries?” This was a selective reading of Baldwin, who, as his Cambridge speech makes clear, was if anything more committed to upholding the legacy of the Enlightenment than National Review’s editorial board was. But what would come to gall Wills even more than Baldwin was that his boss Buckley not only lifted from his piece (before it was published) for one of his own columns but also distorted Wills’s honest reckoning with Baldwin in the interest of his own, more facile and racialist prong of attack.
Buccola shows how Buckley in his Cambridge speech was developing a new kind of conservative maneuver. In his war on the New Left, Buckley’s method — both on his television show “Firing Line” and in other public appearances — was less to engage than to expose. (The method backfired on occasion, as when Huey Newton, a founder of the Black Panther Party, began a segment of “Firing Line” by out-Buckley-ing Buckley with a loyalty oath question: “During the Revolution of 1776 … which side would you have been on?”) Charm, wit, eye-twinkling and rapid deployment of stray factoids were among Buckley’s chief rhetorical assets. His main form of reasoning consisted of forced analogies. The Freedom Riders were compared to National Socialists in the pages of National Review.
In the Cambridge speech, Buckley dialed the comparison down, comparing the Irish in England to American blacks. Had the Irish gotten the vote because of, or in spite of, English civilization? Buckley asked. “The engines of concern are working in the United States,” he assured his audience. “The presence of Mr. Baldwin here tonight is in part a reflection of that concern.” The full force of Buckley’s argument was that blacks should aspire to the condition of whiteness, however unattainable that might turn out to be. The suffering and humiliations of blacks were real, he conceded, but this was more a testament to the fallen state of man than something that could be corrected swiftly. “I am asking you not to make politics as the crow flies,” Buckley told his audience, quoting the philosopher Michael Oakeshott. Buckley’s stress on the gradualness of any accommodation told Baldwin all he needed to know: Why, after 400 years of being in America, did blacks not have access to the same bounty as their fellow Americans, including those who, like the Kennedys, “only got here yesterday?”