By: Bernard Stanford
The following essay was the second-place winner of the Buckley Program’s spring semester essay contest. The topic was “What can we learn from William F. Buckley, Jr. today?”.
Yale today has a delicate relationship with the concept of “namesakes.” On a university filled nearly to bursting with names (such that poor Messrs. Sterling, Sheffield, and Strathcona have all been forced to share), the regular students hardly engage with them at all, and when they do, it’s generally to point out that one or other is racist and offensive and must be blotted out. Not one of the hundred-and-twenty-odd freshman residents of Durfee Hall, for example, likely thinks at all about what he or she can learn from the example of Bradford M.C. Durfee, a man who, upon realizing the fortune he inherited as a young man, set about giving it away to worthy causes as fast as he could. Not once in four years have I ever seen a Yale student draw a positive lesson from a namesake about the university.
But the Buckley Program is different. It was named recently and deliberately; it’s not a relic of a philanthropic allotment a century and a half ago, but a new and vigorous entity still under a decade old. Moreover, the Buckley Program, as a society of individuals, is fundamentally more capable of possessing dynamism and defining character than a building is. In short, it actually has a shot at living up to its name, for its members and for the community.
So how do we? How and what do we learn from the legacy of William F. Buckley, Jr.? Certainly, Yale has changed a great deal since Buckley’s time in it, and indeed the makeup of the Buckley Fellows reflects that fact. When he attended, it was all male and nearly all white; today, the Buckley president is a black woman. Buckley’s conservatism was rooted in anti-communism and his own Catholicism; today most members even of Buckley are not terribly religious, and fear of communism is a blissfully distant historical memory. But through reading Buckley’s writings, watching his talks, and understanding his life and thought, we can still reap a great harvest of lessons and insights. In the interests of time, space, and impact, I will focus on just one.
It is best summed up, as most things are, in Buckley’s own words (here from God and Man at Yale): “Truth can never win unless it is promulgated. Truth does not carry within itself an antitoxin to falsehood. The cause of truth must be championed dynamically.”
Buckley is telling us that we, each and every one, have a responsibility to stand up for truth commensurate with our understanding of it, lest it perish. Truth put forward poorly can be vanquished in the public square by falsehood advocated skillfully. It is not enough to know that we are right in our own circles; truly making an impact means taking risks and venturing beyond them. Commitment to championing truth means sometimes making sacrifices, dedicating time and effort to a cause that will likely bring us no individual material reward.But the strength of Buckley’s example is that he didn’t merely call us to action. It’s that he showed us how to make good on our calling. While at the very same stage of life that the Buckley fellows presently occupy, he relentlessly fought “in the columns of the newspaper, in the Political Union, in debates and seminars” for the truths he knew to be truths. It’s not quite on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the hills, and in the streets, but anyone who’s lived on a modern college campus knows the toll, in both social cost and mental effort, that such a crusade can exact.
While many modern sons of Eli are concerned with the prestige of their postgraduate employment, Buckley took a different tack: having identified a problem with the way Yale’s instruction and social climate were betraying the values of her alumni, he sought to fix it, life plans be damned. He realized that would mean taking time away from future employment or endeavors and playing the laggard around Yale’s campus another year, working at best part time while composing his manuscript. He knew it would mean forsaking all the security and rewards of the well-trodden paths to status and wealth in exchange for an undertaking sure to reward him most prominently with opprobrium from his former classmates and even his own dearly respected professors. It was a path that held all the charm of being publicly excoriated as a fascist.
He did it anyway.
It was not something that came easily. He determined to write God and Man at Yale after becoming fully cognizant of a dynamic that will immediately sound familiar to Yale students today: “the so-called conservative, uncomfortably disdainful of controversy, seldom has the energy to fight his battles, while the radical, so often a member of the minority, exerts disproportionate influence because of his dedication to his cause.”
But it was the following line, with all its emphasis, that moved me most, and that still echoes in my head more than two years after my first reading: “I am dedicated to my cause.” Its power is not just as Buckley’s own proclamation of belief, but in the subtle, implicit question it forces each reader to ask him or herself: “Am I?”
When we can, each of us, answer “Yes, I have thought, studied, argued, prepared, and I am dedicated to my cause and willing to sacrifice for it”; when each of us thinks about how we can make the maximum impact for our beliefs and for truth, that’s when we’ll know we’ve truly earned the right to use Buckley as our namesake.
And that’s when he’ll know, somewhere, that it was all worth it.