On Tuesday, Sep. 29, Linfield University Professor of Political Science Nicholas Buccola gave a public lecture on his 2019 book The Fire is Upon Us over Zoom. The book examines the famous 1965 debate between James Baldwin and William Buckley, and Buccola, who has previously authored a book on the political thought of Fredrick Douglass, illustrates the ways in which the personal backgrounds of both Baldwin and Buckley played a critical role in shaping their worldviews. The talk was sponsored by Reed’s Department of Political Science in collaboration with the American Studies and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies (CRES) programs, and was moderated by Associate Professor of Political Science Tamara Metz.
Although Buccola’s book is ostensibly about the 1965 Cambridge Union Debate, he explained during the lecture that his main goal in the work was to describe the personal backstories of Baldwin and Buckley, setting their lives against the backdrops of the Civil Rights Movement and the modern conservative movement. Buccola spends a majority of The Fire is Upon Us examining the two men’s upbringing, careers, and experiences that preceded their clash in 1965, and this was the primary focus of his talk.
Buccola began by painting a detailed picture of Baldwin’s childhood, describing his experiences growing up in Harlem as the oldest of nine siblings. It was from this young age that Baldwin came face to face with what Buccola called a type of “domination without a human face,” or “the bottomless, cruel structures of power that limited his opportunities for fulfillment.” Buccola detailed the devastating effect that racism, poverty, and inequality played on Baldwin’s father, who Baldwin later characterized as someone who had “sunk to the depths of despair.” Desperate to make sense of his experiences, as well as the injustice and inequality that pervaded every corner of his world, Baldwin turned to language: he devoured every book he could find in the local library and developed an early passion for writing. Buccola argued that, as a result of these experiences, Baldwin was convinced in the power of language to change the world, a belief which stayed with him throughout his entire life. Baldwin also worked as a young minister at a local Church, an experience which Buccola claimed is central in shaping Baldwin’s views toward the power of language and dialogue.
In 1943, Baldwin’s father died in a mental institution, and Baldwin later said that his father was “eaten alive by despair.” He left the U.S. for Europe in 1948, and Buccola described how Baldwin, first in Paris and then in Switzerland, published a series of novels which grappled with the question: “What does it mean to be an honest man and a good writer?” Baldwin turned to writing in an attempt to understand the lives of people such as his father, and in novels such as Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin contends that what ails our souls the most is being in a state of identity crisis. According to Baldwin, most people construct false identities that provide a sense of safety by making them feel superior to others. Ultimately, however, this type of false identity construction only leads to status anxiety and despair.
Over the next several decades, Baldwin travelled back and forth between the U.S. and Europe, working as an author, journalist, and activist. During this time, Baldwin drew upon his own personal experiences, as well as details of the lived experience of Black individuals in the U.S., to continue grappling with questions of identity, morality, and power in his writing. Baldwin also became heavily involved with the Civil Rights Movement, and he published several famous essays and articles in support of the movement in which he detailed the personal experiences of Black individuals struggling against systems of oppression and racism. Leading up to the 1965 debate, Baldwin had established himself as a prolific author and an influential supporter of the Civil Rights Movement.
Like Baldwin, Buckley also grew up in New York City. This was perhaps the only similarity between the two men’s upbringings. Buckley grew up on an expansive, four-acre estate with seemingly limitless space and opportunity, and he was homeschooled by private tutors who provided him with a comprehensive, liberal arts education. Buccola also emphasized the important role that Buckley’s parents played in shaping the worldview of a man who was later to become one of the faces of American conservatism. According to Buccola, this worldview consisted of conservative Catholicism, radical individualism, and a clear conception of racial hierarchy.
Buccola went on to describe Buckley’s time as a student at Yale, where he was an editor of the Yale Daily News and he made it a mission to castigate the liberal views of his peers and professors. Upon graduation, Buckley authored several books, one of which provided a lengthy defense of Joseph McCarthy. But soon upset by the glacial pace of book publishing, Buckley turned to journalism as a means to influence public opinion, and he used an advance on his inheritance from his parents to found the conservative magazine, the National Review.
For Buccola, the founding of the National Review represented a critical turning point in modern American conservative history. Buccola argued that before Buckley founded the magazine, there wasn’t a coherent conservative movement, which at the time was beset by deep ideological divisions. As the sole shareholder of the National Review, however, Buckley worked to pull together the diverse, conservative coalitions by identifying their common enemies: liberalism, socialism, and the Civil Rights Movement.
Buckley was an avid critic of the Civil Rights Movement, and he assembled a team of writers and intellectuals, including “leading salesman of segregation” James Jackson Kilpatrick, who provided theoretical defenses for segregation, racial hierarchy, and white supremacy within the pages of the National Review. Buccola described how Buckley rejected federal intervention to dismantle segregation, criticized student protesters, and opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Claiming that the White South had a duty to “conserve civilization,” Buckley opposed federal intervention to dismantle Jim Crow laws, and he went as far as to question the legitimacy of the 14th and 15th Amendments.
By the time of the famous 1965 debate, Buckley had established himself as one of the leading figures of American conservatism — a conservatism which, due in part to Buckley’s influence, had come to define itself in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement and racial egalitarianism. Baldwin, on the other hand, had not only become one of the world’s most famous authors but was also deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement. Thus the debate between these two larger-than-life figures, each with radically different backgrounds and life experiences, was not only a clash between two individuals, but more importantly, was one between radically different, competing visions for the future of America.
Following this long, historically-oriented narrative, Buccola showed several video clips of the 1965 debate and commented on the ways in which the personal experiences of the two men could help us better understand the nature of the arguments made by both Baldwin and Buckley. And while Baldwin overwhelmingly won the 1965 debate, Buccola suggests that Buckley lost the battle but ultimately won the war, a fact that Baldwin himself recognized later in his life. By founding the National Review and opposing the Civil Rights Movement, Buccola argued that Buckley served an outsize role in establishing a brand of conservatism which, grounded in racist ideas of racial hierarchy and inegalitarianism that continue to reverberate to this day, served as the foundation for the contemporary conservative movement.
The lecture ended with a brief Q&A session. Those interested in knowing more about Buccola or his work can visit his website, https://www.nicholasbuccola.com.