Nicholas Buccola’s The Fire is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate About Race in America

9780691181547When I saw The Fire is Upon Us recommended on Twitter, I purchased it immediately. I’ve long had a fascination with William F. Buckley Jr.. The Buckley’s had/have a home in Camden, SC, about thirty miles from my hometown of Sumter and considerably less miles from Dalzell, SC, where I went to school at Thomas Sumter Academy. When I was a student there I knew Reid Buckley who is either WFB’s nephew or grand-nephew. I certainly do not want to overplay this: Reid and I knew each other the way you know everybody in a small private school. I claim no other connection to the Buckley family and I do not claim that that particular connection was close. Anyway, I was aware of and impressed by his being in the family of the great WFB! As an aside, my mother dropped almost casually over Thanksgiving last year that somebody (Reid, perhaps?) had given her name to WFB and he had written her some questions concerning Latin (she was the Latin teacher at Thomas Sumter, again, maybe twenty miles from the Buckley home in Camden). She went on to say that she answered the questions and provided the information he was looking for and that he wrote back thanking her and saying that he would acknowledge her in print. I was, to put it mildly, amazed that I had never heard this before. I have no idea if my mother was ever acknowledged in any of Buckley’s books.

As for my interest in Buckley, I suppose it was a result of the type of Republican I grew up being. I grew up a conservative but a conservative who has always had a weary eye of the lunatic fringe of our own side (I would characterize myself as this kind of conservative to this day, by the way). I suppose I grew up less charitable of the left, considering most all of them as lunatics! Nowadays I’m all out of charity and consider pretty much everybody on all sides to be lunatics, but that’s another story. Buckley represented thoughtful conservatism to me growing up, conservatism in a suit with a strange hybrid accent, conservatism that engaged the best thinkers on the left through the Firing Line TV show. Furthermore, Buckley was a Christian. Lastly, he was a free thinker in many ways. I remember as a young man feeling the thrill of some of Buckley’s libertarian positions that were, to my more provincial mindset, dangerous. So, yes, I grew up a Buckley fan.

As for James Baldwin, I knew next to nothing about him as I approached this book other than his name and that he spoke prominently to civil rights issues. That’s it, and I was a little fuzzy even on those two points.

Enter The Fire is Upon Us, Nicholas Buccola’s absolutely fascinating and riveting account of the 1965 debate between Buckley and Baldwin at Cambridge on the proposition, “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?” Baldwin argued for an affirmative answer to the question and Buckley for the negative.

Now, as a frequent viewer of old Firing Line clips and episodes on YouTube, I had come across and watched most of this debate before, but this book really brought it to life for me. Buccola does a great job of unpacking the events that led up to this clash in Cambridge, but the book truly is about much bigger issues than simply this exchange. In truth, the book, it seems to me, is about two movements in America, two ways of seeing reality as Buccola defines them.

At this point it should be noted that Buccola shows his cards explicitly near the end of the book. He writes:

My study of history and political science led me to grow up from conservatism, but when Buckley reentered my life through the study of Baldwin, I became mildly obsessed about the possibilities of thinking about the two of them together. (p.369)

Well, let me say that even a person like myself who appreciated this book by and large, who agrees that Buckley’s views on civil rights and racial questions were tragic and certainly inconsistent with the teachings of the Jesus Buckley professed to follow, who winces at reading some of Buckley’s positions on these matters, and who would say that he has cooled in many ways on Buckley can also say that the idea that studying history will lead one to “grow up from conservatism” is one of the most flabbergasting statements I have ever heard. I am no shill for the conservative establishment, but history cuts both ways, does it not? There are numerous people (like, say, the late theologian Tom Oden) who grew up, thankfully, out of liberalism and realized the dead end that it is. So, sorry, I do not think that Buccola’s work, as damning as it in many ways is, confirms the veracity of his personal experience that the study of history will cause one to “grow up from conservatism.” Really, now.

Anyway, what the book does establish is that Buckley had some ugly and tragic views on civil rights and stubbornly held to them until he offered something of an apology and showed signs of growth in his views later in life (as this defense of Buckley from National Review argues). Here is an example of Buckley’s unfortunate views:

In private correspondence after Up from Liberalism was published, Buckley told a friend, “I pray every Negro will not be given the vote in South Carolina tomorrow” because such a development would cause him to “lose that repose through which, slowly but one hopes surely, some of the decent instincts of the white man to go to work, fuse with his own myths and habits of mind, and hence a man more likely to know God” (pp. 115-116).

Perhaps less philosophically, here is another look at Buckley’s mindset at the time:

As the summer wore on, Buckley and Baldwin had the civil rights bill and upcoming march on their minds. In an August 3 column on the bill, Buckley conceded that many of the “[Negro] protests” that had taken place throughout the summer were “warranted,” but he continued to express skepticism about the aims being sought by the protesters. The issue “goes to the heart of political philosophy: should a Constitution be an instrument for impressing on the community at large the people’s general, and even specific ideas of morality?” Against the idea that the Constitution should be used to “bring Paradise” to the people, Buckley argued in favor of the relativist notion that “each community [has] the right to govern its own affairs, according to its own individual lights.” South Carolinians and New Yorkers tend to have different moral views, and ought to be free to decide for themselves how they will live together. “The states’ rights argument,” Buckley concluded, “is deemed by a lot of impatient and right-minded idealists to be a plea for continued racism. It is not. It is a plea for the survival of the federal system, which was once considered, by idealists, to be a glory in itself.”78 In an August 17 piece called “Count Me Out,” Buckley offered direct criticisms of the March on Washington, which he suggested would be an “unruly” and “mobocratic” affair that could do great damage to “inter-racial progress” as well as “our free institutions” (p. 203).

This particular selection is helpful because it shows the fairly consistent line that Buckley tried to walk: yes, blatant racism is unfortunate and not desirable but this does not warrant naked federal aggression against the way states choose to approach these issues. What is more, Buckley seemed to think, equality, while slow going, will eventually come about. The upshot of this approach was that Buckley did not support federal civil rights actions.

Baldwin, on the other hand, had a sharp mind and fire in his belly and was keenly aware of racial injustice in America. One could not imagine somebody more different from Buckley. Black, liberal, and one who had rejected the Christianity of his youth, Baldwin would emerge as a passionate and creative voice for racial equality in America.

As a Christian I am particularly interested in Baldwin’s rejection of Christianity. There were a lot of factors involved with this. The first factor was Baldwin’s perception of the type of Christianity his stepfather embraced and what this faith did to him.

One of the ways David [Baldwin’s father] dealt with his status at the margins of society was to shield himself with a rigid armor of religiosity. In an open letter to his nephew that was published in 1962, Baldwin explained the connection between his father’s marginalization and his faith when he wrote that his father “had a terrible life; he was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him. This is one of the reasons he became so holy.”36 The church, he explained to an interviewer, was the “only means” his parents had to express “their pain and their despair.” David was convinced that it was only holiness that could protect him and his family from the cruel world that surrounded them. This led him to express his love in an “outrageously demanding and protective way,” and to be extraordinarily “bitter” in his outlook and “indescribably cruel” in his personal relationships. David’s bitterness was rooted in the “humiliation” he felt in his everyday life, and it led him to view those he thought the authors of that humiliation—all white people—with suspicion. It also extended to his fellow blacks, though, most of whom he viewed as insufficiently holy. At home, David attempted to rule the family in an authoritarian fashion that left James and his siblings in a constant state of fear. “I do not remember, in all those years,” he wrote in 1955, “that one of his children was ever glad to see him come home” (pp. 17-18).

And again:

Baldwin’s stepfather, David, is the centerpiece of “Notes of a Native Son.” Baldwin said that David, like the character Gabriel in Mountain, “could be chilling in the pulpit and indescribably cruel in his personal life and he was certainly the most bitter man I have ever met”; he treated other blacks in the neighborhood “with the most uncharitable asperity” and distrusted all white people (p. 65).

But there were other factors that compelled Baldwin to leave the church.

Baldwin’s exit from the church will be discussed in great detail later in this book, but for now suffice it to say that the seeds of doubt were planted by a broadening of his intellectual horizons and the hypocritical deeds of the “true believers” he saw around him. Though not as sudden as the conversion experience that drew him into the church, Baldwin’s conversion experience out of the church was just as profound. The “fortress” of his faith, he wrote later, had been “pulverized” (p. 19).

The intellectual components of Baldwin’s rejection of the faith is later spelled out in interesting detail:

Baldwin also launched a direct attack on theology generally and NOI [Nation of Islam] doctrine specifically. “To me,” he said, “all theologies are suspect” because they encourage human beings to escape reality and construct false identities. As an alternative to theological thinking, Baldwin proposed the “reckless” idea that we attempt to live our lives without the support of mythology and ideology. “I would like to think of myself as being able to face whatever it is I have to face as me,” he declared, “without having my identity dependent on something that finally has to be believed.” He conceded that reliance on religion, race, and culture as the bases of identity might be useful in some circumstances, but we must never lose sight of the fact that this reliance “has something very dangerous in it.” As long as we rely on such things to make sense of where we fit into the world and how we ought to act in it, “the confusion … and the bloodshed will be great” (p. 140).

This is regrettable. One may understand wanting distance from an overbearing and psychologically and spiritually grasping father’s stunted faith. One may also understand struggling with the Western church’s rank hypocrisy in its failure to apply the teachings of Jesus to social and racial issues. But the idea of “being able to face whatever it is I have face” as some sort of self-in-a-vaccuum without any ideological foundations and without recourse to “something that finally has to be believed” is so meaningless as to warrant the descriptor “absurd.” This is because, of course, Baldwin was as committed to certain things that “had to be believed” as we all are. Life simply cannot be lived without belief. The views expressed in the selection above strike me as a kind of village empiricism that is beneath the obvious keenness of a mind like Baldwin’s.

Regardless, the hypocrisy of the church proved to be ruinous to Baldwin’s faith.

Speaking of the West generally, Baldwin argued that time had demonstrated the “Christian world” to be “morally bankrupt and politically unstable.” For Baldwin, this indictment had little to do with the moral, religious, and political doctrines that had been rhetorically dominant in the West, but rather with the behavior of Western countries. For the second time in the essay, he referred to the obscene spectacle “when priests of that church which stands in Rome gave God’s blessing to Italian boys being sent out to ravage” Ethiopia. And of course, Baldwin found it difficult to accept the idea that Christianity was synonymous with civilization “when a Christian nation surrenders to a foul and violent orgy, as Germany did during the Third Reich.” For Baldwin, the fact that the Nazi movement could rise and thrive in Christian Germany was revealing and damning indeed. “In the heart of Europe,” millions of people “were sent to a death so calculated, so hideous, and so prolonged that no age before this enlightened one had been able to imagine it, much less achieve and record it.” “The fact of the Third Reich alone,” Baldwin observed, “makes obsolete forever any question of Christian superiority, except in technological terms.” If this was the record of the “White God,” it is not surprising that those seduced by the NOI [Nation of Islam] were ready to give the “Black God” a chance (pp. 158-159).

Here, then, were the two men who met in Cambridge in 1965. That amazing debate is worth watching. Baldwin is largely considered to have won the debate (those in the room voted 544 to 164 to that effect). I would agree. Still, take the time to watch and listen. The selections from the book mentioned above will help give some context. But if you really want to get the most out of it and if you really want to understand all of the currents and crosscurrents, both personal and social, that were at play in that debating hall, you can do much worse than read Buccola’s book.

So who’s side am I on? Simply put, I stand with Baldwin in his plea for racial justice and I stand with Buckley on the truthfulness of Christianity. Buckley’s lamentable inconsistencies in practicing his faith are just that: lamentable inconsistencies, hypocrisies. Should they be condemned? Indeed. I hereby condemn them! But does that mean that Buckley has nothing to offer in other areas? No. Of course not. It does not mean that and many of his works may still be read with profit.

I believe that Baldwin is not beyond critique either. Some of his philosophical assertions strike me as vacuous and naive as do some of his theological musings. But those do not negate his call for equality, for justice. Baldwin too can be read with profit, but must also be read with care.

This is a very interesting and thought-provoking book about two complex men addressing issues that remain critically important to our own day. Well worth reading!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *