March 1, 2008

Remembering Buckley Accurately

by PG

1. Writing in the New York Times (not National Review, so never mind those who claim to have read it in their subscription) in 1986, he composed a kind of dialogue between School A, the protectors of civil liberties and privacy, and School B, the protectors of public health (he being in the latter category):

But if the time has not come, and may never come, for public identification, what then of private identification?
Everyone detected with AIDS should be tatooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals.
You have got to be kidding! That's exactly what we suspected all along! You are calling for the return of the Scarlet Letter, but only for homosexuals!
Answer: The Scarlet Letter was designed to stimulate public obloquy. The AIDS tattoo is designed for private protection. And the whole point of this is that we are not talking about a kidding matter. Our society is generally threatened, and in order to fight AIDS, we need the civil equivalent of universal military training.
What is good about this column is that the conservative Catholic Buckley acknowledged that "School B does in fact tend to disapprove forcefully of homosexuality." As a public health proposal, it's not worth so much.

The CDC currently estimates that a little over 1 million of the 300 million population of the U.S. has HIV/AIDS, but that a quarter of those do not know they carry it. Buckley still thought his proposal a good idea to put into practice in 2005, when we were quite clear on how HIV is transmitted. Oddly enough, it is an idea that has a better chance of working practically today than it did at the time of Buckley's first suggestion, when HIV was simply a death sentence. in March 1986, GlaxoSmithKline's AZT cocktail would not be submitted for FDA approval for another 8 months -- why would anyone submit to HIV testing that would mark him and provide no benefit?

In his 2005 column, Buckley smugly noted that gay men themselves were calling for more intervention to prevent transmission, yet neglected to mention that the very article he was citing said that this new willingness was born of gay men's trust in the law, which instead of putting them in camps has protected them from discrimination. 1986 Gay Man had Bowers and Buckley's tattoos; 2005 Gay Man had Lawrence and AIDS listed in the ADA. One also might think from Buckley's writings that few measures were taken to stem transmission, yet in 1985, NYC and other cities were closing down establishments identified as permitting sodomy on the premises.

2. One might think, on hearing that the National Review in the 1950s defended Southern states' rights, that this was a high-minded Constitutional position: Buckley simply did not agree with Brown v. Board's claim that the 14th Amendment forbade segregation. Alas, it does not appear to have been that kind of intellectually respectable federalism, but something that reminds one more of the WWII Japanese attitude toward other Asian races -- here are some inferior beings that ought not be in charge of anything until we have raised them to a level more approximating our own.

The central question that emerges--and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalog of the rights of American citizens, born Equal--is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes--the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the median cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists. The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage. The British believe they do, and acted accordingly, in Kenya, where the choice was dramatically one between civilization and barbarism, and elsewhere; the South, where the conflict is by no means dramatic, as in Kenya, nevertheless perceives important qualitative differences between its culture and the Negroes', and intends to assert its own.

National Review believes that the South's premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority. Sometimes it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way, and the society will regress; sometimes the numerical minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.

The reference to British imperialism reinforces my impression, one shared by David Brooks, that Buckley's soul was Tory.

March 1, 2008 2:20 AM | TrackBack

The fact that Buckley published an idea in the Times by no means precludes it from publication in NR. See the April 25, 1986 edition, which addresses much the same topic as the NYT piece.

Posted by: Anon at March 2, 2008 6:18 PM

The NR article was Buckley's response to the criticism he had received for the NYT op-ed, and focused solely on gays with no mention of IV drug users. If one read only the NR column, one wouldn't know he had suggested the upper-arm tat for the latter group.

Posted by: PG at March 3, 2008 1:06 PM
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