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Buckley and Mailer

Kevin M Schultz has a new book out titled Buckley and Mailer: the Difficult Friendship that shaped the Sixties.

Schultz has a PhD in history from UC Berkeley. He tells us about the opposing intellects of these two men – William F Buckley, the conservative founder of National Review, and Norman Mailer, an anti-liberal and anti-establishment essayist, novelist and journalist. Here were two celebrities not quite the "shapers" of the Sixties as described by Schultz.

Schultz extends his exaggeration to his description of the Sixties as the "America that Eisenhower created." It was the shape of US society that Buckley and Mailer debated, on the evening of 22 September 1962 to a filled auditorium (with no radio or television). Buckley was thirty-six, Mailer was thirty-nine. It was moderated by a columnist, Irv Kucinet. The subject of the debate was advertised as "What is the Real Nature of the Right Wing in America."

In the debate, Buckley described concerns common among conservatives. He defended traditional Christian biblical morality. He said he didn't think he could maintain Mailer's interest in the right wing because he wasn't sure "we have enough sexual neuroses for him." The audience laughed. Schultz writes,

Mailer, as everybody knew, was a staunch advocate of obliterating sexual boundaries in American life, and he had famously already gone through two wives and moved on to his third.

Buckley complained that the 'liberal establishment' had "no ground wire' and that 'without grounding , the voltage fluctuates wildly, wantonly chasing after the immediate line of least resistance." He complained of liberals having sacrificed Christian morality in the name of bland religious tolerance. Buckley described the nation as having given up free-market capitalism for an increasing socialized and corporatized welfare. He said 'The American Right' is based on the assumption that however many things there are that we don't know, there are things we do know and need to know if we are to have the strength to sound more "intelligible" than the former president, Eisenhower. He described the 'true meaning of the America right wing" as being 'commitment.' He described Mailer's goal, writes Schultz, as "hedonistic bliss without concern for anyone else, an apocalyptic orgasm." Buckley concluded that if Mailer wanted 'to learn something about the true nature of the American right wing, I recommend to him the works of Presidents Matthew, Mark, Luke and John'.

Mailer responded by also attacking liberalism. It was offering no remedies for the mess it had created, it had ushered in a falsely premised Cold War based on a phony commitment to Christianity, and he described the liberal elite's corporate capitalism as not having brought freedom to anyone. Mailer said Buckley's conservatives were hardly better. and that at least half of the so-called conservatives were not conservative at all.

Buckley and Mailer met at elite social gatherings and became friends. Years after the debate, in the late 1960s, both Mailer and Buckley were uncomfortable concerning the future. Mailer was against the war in Vietnam, and Buckley sided with US intervention. Neither wanted to predict what the 1970s would be like. (Although it was certain not going to what was being sought by those described as hippies, or yippies.)

The big word in the United States going into the 1970s was "freedom." Some wanted the freedom to use drugs. Women were taking about liberation. Many young men intelligent enough to be in college were interested in freedom from being drafted into the military. Schultz writes,

Rather than have one concept of "the good" or even "the nation," factions formed to promote progress for their own faction. Throughout the 1970s, there was a white ethnic revival , a movement by people who previously had thought of themselves simply as Americans but were now opting to prioritize their ethnic heritage. Patrick's Day parades expanded, as did these celebrating Columbus Day. The number of people claiming to be Native American rose exponentially.

We were still one nation. Politically and institutionally there was still one Constitution. We were obliged to follow the same laws. But Schultz describes a nation that had become more divided by mistrust. The irony, writes Schultz, was that "most everything" was done in the name of freedom. Mailer,according to Schultz, mostly liked the rejection of rules "and the turn against the rational." And Buckley stayed with the idea that the government should begin to lower taxes and reduce regulations on business.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.