A Grateful Parting from National Review

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I first subscribed to National Review when I was still in high school. This was probably around 1969, which means that I have been a dutiful subscriber for around 53 years now. I bring this up because I am about to let my subscription lapse, a reality which should come to pass any day now. That’s over half a century, which is a pretty good run.

But I also think it is a long enough run to require some sort of explanation from me, a statement in which I also want to express my profound gratitude—but where I also state my reason for being done.

The Basic Reason

And so as not to keep you in suspense, let me get straight to it. National Review isn’t that much fun anymore. I realize that this requires an explanation, and hence this blog post.

With the political balkanization that has gripped pretty much everyone and everything, it would be easy for somebody to assume that I was walking away from what I considered to be political “heresy,” or that I was mad about some position or other that they took editorially, or that I was a grumpy Trumpy, or that I was about to shake the dust off my sandals because they were no longer “true conservatives.”

No, nothing at all like that. The American conservative movement has always been an amalgam of strange bedfellows—hawks and classical liberals and libertarians and anti-communists and pro-lifers. Depending on the circumstances, I am all of those actually. There have always been tensions within the movement, and for somebody to suddenly state that the tensions were “just too much” after fifty years of putting up with them would be to strain credulity.

And on top of that, I am sure that there are numerous men on the masthead of today’s NR who are better conservatives than I will ever be, and who are better read, and who are the kind of urbane sophisticates who would know what fork to use when dining with the queen. I confess myself fully contented with my position as a public intellectual among the rubes and cornpones, holding forth in my corner booth at Cracker Barrel. So this has nothing to do with me excommunicating anybody. NR’s recent issue calling for the repeal of Roe places them among the good guys in my book. Unfortunately, being among the good guys is not the same thing as being among the influential guys.

My reason for leaving is that the natural and artesian ebullience of William F. Buckley has worn off, almost completely. That irreplacable Buckleyesque full-of-bean-ness is now a twisted Russian tank on the road to Kiev, blackened, still smoking and pointed in the wrong direction. So to speak. But I don’t want to overstate things. I am sure that there are folks at NR who have all the natural ebullience you could ever want over lunch at some upscale Manhattan eatery, and who can outdo me as raconteurs and scapegraces any day of the week. They have a much more exuberant time at their fern bistro than I have at Cracker Barrel. It just doesn’t show up in print anymore.

Buckley died in 2008, and whether or not the magazine has stayed true to all of its founding principles is a debate for another day. What I think is undeniable is that the joie de vivre is on life support. For example, I honestly have no idea whether Buckley would have supported or opposed Trump. What I do know is that he would have had a marvelous time doing whichever one it was. Now NR just hummpphs along like an irritated library lady with swollen feet—and especially when it comes to anything to do with Trump. And so that former effervescence is le one gone cat, as the French say.

Another good example of Buckley’s attitude would be found in one Buckley book I particularly enjoyed, one which was a compendium of his responses to various correspondents, a book entitled Cancel Your Own G****m Subscription. That about sums it up.

The thing that made Buckley what he was, and what made NR what it was, was his cheek. He made his first big splash with God and Man at Yale, when he had just graduated from the aforesaid Yale, which made him something of a nothing. So why listen to him? And yet the way that he established himself in the world was by means of his brass. He was a callow David who showed up in the Israelite camp, and who then started to ask awkward questions like, “what could be so hard about hitting a giant that size?”

The same cheeky approach characterized the first edition of NR, which essayed to “stand athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!'” Now I believe the current NR editorial writers do still want a bunch of things to stop, down in their hearts they want it, but the tone is all different. Now they stand on the shoulder of the road of history, yelling, “Carry on, albeit a bit more responsibly!”

In short, the thing that created NR’s influence in the first place was a contra mundum attitude, and the only thing that could possibly sustain it would have been that same attitude. This is especially true given the times of chaos and disarray that have fallen upon us these last few years. The last few years have made this more needful, not less. Way more needful. It is the screaming and on-fire need of the hour.

The Gratitude

A good way of expressing all of this is by saying that my gratitude is simply the flip side of my reason for letting my subscription lapse.

When I was in high school, one day I wandered into a huge bookstore in downtown Ann Arbor. Browsing through the books there I came across Buckley’s book Up From Liberalism. I took it home, and so it was that Buckley made an immediate conquest of me.

I had grown up in a devout evangelical home, and so I was doggedly loyal to what Russell Kirk called the permanent things. But every expression of loyalty to these permanent things, in our circles, at least in published form, was—to borrow and reapply Twain’s jab at the Book of Mormon—chloroform in print. Everything was proper. Everything was judicious. Everything was balanced. Everything was written by a committee of extraordinarily pious church ladies trying to produce the churchy prose equivalent of Wonder Bread.

Buckley was my introduction to the merry warrior. He was absolutely dedicated to what he understood to be objective truth, and the fact that he was enlisted in such a cause did not diminish in the slightest his love for the language that was given to us by God to convey the nature of that objective truth. Why would it? And we evangelicals loved the Word, and so why couldn’t we love words that same way? So my first encounter with a man who loved truth, and who loved reason, and who loved the words that could bring truth and reason to us, was an encounter that just bowled me over.

Another book where his natural ability with high jinks was on high display was in his The Unmaking of a Mayor, a chronicle of his unsuccessful campaign to become the mayor of New York City. Having no chance whatever of winning, and with a sure knowledge that he had no chance whatever of winning, there was nothing left for him to do but have a good time. And so he did.

Since that time, since those early days, I naturally encountered other models. I sought out other models. I have wanted to write like Mencken would have, if Mencken had only loved Christ. I have wanted to write like Chesterton would have if only he hadn’t left so much room for his jimjams about Calvinism. And probably spiders also, but I am not sure about that. I have wanted to write with the lucidity of Lewis if only I could write with the lucidity of Lewis. All that. But it was Buckley who first introduced me to the compelling combination of the fencer’s flair and the deadly focused earnestness of a dogged warrior in the shield wall.

Conclusion of the Matter

This is no little thing. It is essential. We are in desperate need of it. It is not a question of mere decoration. It is not some isolated arpeggio flourish in an otherwise sturdy piece of music. The fact that this spirit is now largely gone from NR is why and how I believe they have sidelined themselves. They are good guys, on the right side, and God bless them, but that is not where Pickett’s charge is going to happen.

But there are problems with a number of the critics most likely to applaud my removal from the NR mailing list.

The besetting sin of conservatives is that of shrillness. They love the permanent things, like the worship of the true God. They love the homely things, like a house with a lawn to mow. They love the good and the mundane things, like the hot dogs at a Fourth of July picnic. And so, when confronted with the wanton destructiveness of the Left, they get angry. They lose their cool. They write spittle-flecked letters to the editor with a fisted crayon, and in this they are defaulting to a conservative’s sinful factory settings. They do this because the things that are threatened are “so precious.” And so they are, but more about that in a minute.

NR hasn’t ever been shrill in this way, but they have become dull and frumpy and respectable. This has consequently been a provocation to others, others who are susceptible to the lure of those old factory settings. So by way of contrast, the people on the hard right, the alt-right, the reactionary right, the people who now upbraid NR for “selling out,” have become the shrill ones. But that won’t do either. They have hard partisan takes that involve wealthy advisers of global corporations, or envy of Jews, or hostility to any kind of aristocracy.

And I do not say this because I am challenging whatever conspiracy theory they might be advancing—because these days the difference between a conspiracy theory and the revealed and documented truth appears to be about three months. So I am not talking about the objective reality of our enemies’ activities. I am talking about the rancid demeanor of many of our supposed friends.

It will not do. We are in the thick of a desperate fight, but we need to fight like cavaliers, and not like thugs. Never like thugs. We need to be light horse cavalry, not an armored tank division.

People justify fighting in thuggish ways because they say that “the situation is dire.” They say that we cannot afford the niceties. And so it is dire, and the niceties can seem absurd. But we need to understand that in situations like ours, the cavaliers are far more deadly than the thugs.

The question naturally arises: “But how can you bandy witticisms when the smoke of battle is blackening the sky?”

But this question makes no sense to me. It makes no sense to me because of the wonderful example set by National Review for much of its history. It strikes me as though people are saying that the stakes are so high, and the issues so momentous, and the times so perilous, that we must make sure to fight for what we value in the most ineffective way possible. What kind of sense does that make?

Why on earth would we fight against the barbarians and for the civilized West through becoming barbarians?

The only way this can be done is through faith in a transcendent God, a God who sent His Son to redeem us from our ethical and metaphysical absurdities. That Son lived a perfect sinless life in a maelstrom of absurdities, and from that place He taught us that the only appropriate response to slanders, lies, and dead cats was to laugh in the presence of God. He told us to rejoice and to be exceedingly glad when we are abused, and we live in a time when opportunities for that kind of joy surround us on every hand. His Word tells us to not only fight for our joy, but to make a point of fighting with it.

I really want to fight that way, and I never want to forget where I first learned it.