The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America by Nicholas Buccola

OK, full disclosure here I guess — I love James Baldwin and can’t stand William Buckley. I guess I’ve just given away my political leanings, but that’s fine, it’s not really a secret at this point. Anyway, I became interested in this book after watching “I Am Not Your Negro”, which was a pseudo-documentary on Baldwin that was on Netflix, I believe, and also after reading the writings of Professor Eddie Glaude and passages from some of Baldwin’s writings over last year. It turns out that Baldwin and Buckley had a very famous debate in the U.K. in the early 60’s, Baldwin essentially mopped the floor with Buckley, and very few visuals exist from the debate itself. But Buccola does all of us a favor and divides his book into three parts — a breakdown of Baldwin and Buckley’s history, backgrounds, and philosophies; the debate itself; and then the aftermath of the debate for both of them. Buckley is obviously a really smart guy — and one of the most influential conservative Americans of the 20th century — but his writings, speeches, beliefs, and leanings are loaded with contradictions and hypocritical statements, which Buccola has no problem pointing out in painstaking detail. He is critical of Baldwin too, at times, but considering Baldwin’s background from the slums of Harlem vs. Buckley’s elite upbringing with the best schools, teachers, and advantages that the world has to offer, it’s hard to feel anything but compassion for Baldwin and contempt for Buckley. At least, that’s how I feel. I’m sure conservative authors and thinkers would disagree, but that’s what makes for a good debate, yes?

  • Baldwin — the soul of the country was in need of redemption; mythology enabled people to avoid coming to grips with the injustice of the past, needed to take responsibility for it
  • Buckley — american society was basically good, defend it against any threats; viewed baldwin and the movement as subversive to what made america great; security was individually earned, US was an oasis of freedom and prosperity, the american experiment a tremendous success
  • Baldwin was born and raised in Harlem, in poverty; Buckley was elite, grew up on an estate in CT
  • Baldwin’s mom shaped his beliefs — people needed to be loved for faults and virtues, ugliness and beauty; Buckley idolized his father, mother was genteel racist — father believed that individuals could impose their will on the world and achieve great things, devout catholic, hierarchy (racial and otherwise), in the social sphere
  • Baldwin wanted to act as a witness to the world — wanted people to see the world from the eyes of a teenager in Harlem
  • Buckley became well known at Yale, campus politics, college newspaper
  • Rights and responsibilities of the self, self government, self care, individually earned security
  • Use education to enhance devotion to the good in what we have, to reinforce our allegiance to our principles, to convince us that our outlook is positive — retention of the best features of life is the most enlightened and noble of goals — conservative credo at Yale
  • Baldwin — dehumanization of the negro dehumanizes ourselves; loss of our own identity we pay — see themselves in the eyes of the other
  • Buckley — crusaded against indoctrination of the wrong ideas on college campuses — or what he perceived to be the wrong ideas, especially at Yale
  • Who had power was important, not necessarily truth; christianity and freedom are good; known goods vs. unknown betters (conservative vs. liberal)
  • Buckley was never a good defender of his ideas; he assumed the truth of his ideas, focused on the dangers posed by others, other people, philosophies, threats to them
  • What mattered was that those with power believed their ideas to be true
  • Didn’t matter if christianity was true — mattered that it appeared to be true in the eyes of christians
  • Baldwin wanted all of us to resist temptation to allow hatred and bitterness to take over, especially for him
  • Buckley founded National Review — strident anti-communist, libertarian
  • In order to love, Baldwin thought, people must be free enough to act on what they know, and this was hard — human struggle to treat oneself with dignity
  • Northerners emerged from the civil war with a sense of moral superiority — we have done our part; southerners needed to reassert their identity
  • Buckley responded to the civil rights movement with skepticism and hostility — constitutionalist, traditionalist, racial elitist, white supremacy
  • Brown v board was a violation of the vertical division of power in the federal system — overreach
  • Buckley cozied up to the Citizens Council (poor man’s KKK) for their mailing list and to reach more people for his magazine
  • authoritarianism — exercise of authority (in civil rights) for a political goal over claims of individual rights
  • when they felt a threat to their (white) social order, their writing took an authoritarian turn
  • Why the South Must Prevail — Buckley’s Southern Manifesto — whites had the right as well as the duty to subordinate and govern blacks because they were, for the time being, the advanced race; radicalized paternalism
  • blacks were not ready for universal suffrage, not responsible enough — believed white supremacy would one day come to an end as a result of paternalistic measures taken by southern whites
  • civil war amendments were enacted “by force” so they were illegitimate, south should disregard — wanted to maintain white domination of the south, one way or another
  • Both of them had a disdain towards holier than thou white northerners
  • “only difference between segregation in the north and the south was that down there, ‘it’s official’”
  • Buckley claimed to be libertarian — but only some people were advanced enough to be free
  • Baldwin/King — commitments to nonviolence, love, community — bigotry was a disease, the bigot himself was ruled by terror
  • Baldwin saw black liberation in Africa — europe’s dominance was ending
  • Buckley wasn’t enamored with liberal philosophy — overly optimistic, unreasonable faith in progress, equality, white people had the right to prevent black people from voting — advantages of tradition, training, economic status
  • largely talked about race without talking about race, in writings
  • Baldwin dealt with fear, quest for a meaningful identity — ladder of success mattered too much in america, status meant too much because we become too judgmental — freedom from delusion
  • Americans created the “negro” — we must not fall beneath him (white thought)
  • Buckley wanted people to lay off the south — Baldwin wanted people to lay into the north
  • Can white people face up to their crimes? accept the negro is human?
  • did not want blacks to strive for whatever measurement of white success there is
  • Buckley thought that blacks needed to “advance” to achieve equality
  • Baldwin was stridently against the hypocrisy he saw in the Christian Church
  • The fact of the third reich makes obsolete forever any question of christian superiority
  • Baldwin knew that power was central — the powerful will use power unjustly; NOI (Elijah Muhammud) represents a complexity here, harmful power
  • Love requires us to force each other to confront the delusions that we rely on to avoid taking responsibility for our lives
  • Letter From a Region in My Mind made Baldwin an international celebrity — New Yorker essay
  • Fire Next Time came out next — 41 weeks as a best seller
  • After Medgar Evers shot, Baldwin focused on the ideas of identity and mythology — create myths that served to rationalize and obfuscate cries
  • whiteness is a safety net that protects them from falling to the bottom of the ladder — a society where we live by lies
  • during the civil rights movement years, Buckley thought that blacks will get their “place” not by “pushing and shoving” but rather if they are “willingly granted access to whites by whites, for the common pleasure and advantage of all”
  • thought the civil rights bills deprived individuals of protection of property, education, destroyed separation of powers; politics must be subordinate to principle
  • each community has a right to govern it’s own affairs, according to it’s own individual rights
  • people should not be forced to accept one another
  • Baldwin was excluded from speaking at the march on washington — because he was gay?
  • after the church bombing of 4 girls in birmingham, Buckley was emotional, but worried not about the victims but instead that racists might undermine the likelihood that he white south would ultimately prevail
  • Buckley attached to Goldwater — small government, contextual constitution, law and order, states rights
  • Buckley thought that those that died in the civil rights movement died in pursuit of an unworthy and fundamentally unwise cause
  • Wrote about the grievances of the white working class, suburban voters, who were feeling abandoned by the democratic party; refused to go public repudiating the KKK, far right elements — racist right now part of the conservative coalition
  • Buckley published an issue in 1964 with an article that concluded (in the magazine) that social scientists shouldn’t apologize for analyzing the difference between racial groups, groups of humans, report those differences, prescribe appropriate policy changes based on those studies
  • best part of southern life — right to govern themselves
  • debate was Buckley vs. Baldwin in Cambridge (basis of the book)
  • Baldwin — identity and power at the heart of the trouble
  • destruction of a sense of self worth
  • black americans did not have “the american dream” that was afforded to whites — generation to generation
  • past of racial exploitation was alive in the present
  • racial hierarchy is a crucial safety net, psychologically, within the mythology of the american dream
  • dream relies on the power of one’s status relative to others
  • race was the worst thing that could happen, the reliance on the construct of it
  • dehumanize yourself when you dehumanize the other
  • black people are just like everyone else — flawed like everyone else, human too
  • power could be used for good or ill
  • blacks were confronted with the task of attempting to assume power alongside whites, who weren’t going anywhere
  • achieve freedom, maintain dignity
  • centuries of europeanizing and whitening christ to this blond haired blue eyed dude when he was from the middle east — jesus was a rebel at the time
  • white men are the creators of civilization — guardians and defenders
  • critically engaging western tradition, not jettisoning it
  • conservatives were undermining the true teachings of christ — people standing up to jim crow
  • demoralization/hoplessness — work hard and play by the rules and still be stuck
  • Buckley — merit of arguments is all that matterred
  • accused baldwin of wanting to jettison american civilization
  • acknowledged that blacks had been subjected to oppression at the hands of whites, racial subordination
  • fallen nature of humans and resulting unversality of suffering, he believed
  • utopian projects are foolish
  • misrepresented and misunderstood Baldwin’s thesis on Jesus
  • critique of moral hyporcacy (agreed with Baldwin)
  • Baldwin’s books were popular and he was poplar because he was black
  • men have created a civilization worth preserving, civilizations guardians and defenders
  • black need to be civilized, then we can talk
  • thought racial question was insoluble — easy to maintain status quo
  • aberrant behavior of the individual — few bad apples — in order to draw attention away from the historical and structural conditions that empowered these individuals in the first place — no context for the conditions that created the structure (analysis of Buckley)
  • obligation of “us” to make more opportunities available to “them”
  • wanted conservative elites dominating not only south but national politics
  • those that were best suited to preserve civilization were authorized to do what was necessary to achieve this goal
  • Baldwin was all cynicism and despair
  • Buckley was worried about changes that would effect the status quo
  • black peopler were not “of” the south, but a problem that existed in the south
  • Buckley though the cambridge debates reflected “anti americanism” (he lost the student vote at the debate)
  • less democracy, not more, was needed in the race debate
  • praised the “restraint” of officers on Bloody Sunday — Pettus Bridge in Selma
  • violence was understandable on the part of the police (for Buckley)
  • thought the Selma to Montgomery marchers provoked the police
  • black americans should be appreciative that they are better off than black people in africa
  • Baldwin thought that blacks who become christians become them in spite of the example of white christians
  • Buckley “What more do you want?” post voting rights act
  • Buckley knew that the best way to promote conservative movement was to find what was causing people to seethe with frustration and exploit the hell out of it
  • Baldwin wanted white people to confront guilt, ability to listen, they were in a state of denial
  • Buckley — can’t force anyone to integrate, to participate in the movement — government shouldn’t intervene, individuals should choose
  • Baldwin struggled after King’s death, mightily — corruption of the american soul (Buckley thought this was philosophically dangerous)
  • what does it mean to love one’s country? they both disagreed
  • Buckley saw the value that racial resentment could play in the achievement of conservatives — assumption of white supremacy, commitment to elite rule — most enduring legacy
  • to achieve power, conservatives had to rely on the political energy provided by racial resentment and status anxiety
  • Baldwin never thought Buckley was a true conservative — or just conserving the wrong things
  • these things happen because we allow then to happen
  • Baldwin — constant self examination, brutal honesty in our relationships with others, we have the capacity to make life a little more human

I love books, I have a ton of them, and I take notes on all of them. I wanted to share all that I have learned and will continue to learn. I hope you enjoy.