An Interview with Nicholas Buccola
On February 18, 1965, two leading voices in American politics took the stage at Cambridge University to debate the question: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American negro?” On on side of the debate was James Baldwin, the prolific American writer and documenter of the ongoing civil rights movement. On the other side was William F. Buckley, another towering literary figure and a founder of the modern American conservative movement.
Baldwin and Buckley, born a year apart in 1924 and 1925 respectively, were near-exact contemporaries representing divergent world views. Their 1965 debate creates a framework for issues of race, class, and citizenship that came to a head at that time and continue to effect us today. This is where Nicholas Buccola picks up in his new book, “The Fire is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate Over Race in America.”
By looking at the Cambridge debate and lives and work of Baldwin and Buckley leading up to it, Buccola tells a dramatic and relevant intellectual history of the early-to-mid 20th century. Through this approach, he asks important questions about the nature of conservatism, progressivism, and what it really means to be a responsible citizen of the United States. Recently, BackStory had the opportunity to speak with Nicholas Buccola.
BackStory: How did you come across this topic for the book? What came first, the Baldwin-Buckley debate, or the two movements represented in that debate?
Buccola: I was invited to write an essay on Baldwin several years ago for a book called The Political Companion to James Baldwin. And as I started getting to know Baldwin in a serious way, I came across the BBC recording of the debate with Buckley on YouTube. I was fascinated by this moment with these two figures that came from such radically different backgrounds, on this international stage at the high tide of the civil rights movement. The drama of the moment really pulled me in.
As I reconstructed that story, I realized pretty quickly that there’s a much larger story to tell. The debate was a climactic chapter, but the story that I really wanted to tell was of Baldwin and Buckley, born a year apart, coming of age intellectually at almost the exact same moment in the late ’40s, early ’50s, and chronicling and shaping the history of these two movements, respectively.
BackStory: You describe how Baldwin provides a template for how to think about the world or how to be in the world, rather than representing any particular ideology.
Buccola: That’s right. Buckley clearly had these aspirations to be a founding father of a movement. He was very strategic in a lot of the choices he made, and I go into a lot of depth about them in the book, in terms of questions of race and civil rights.
Baldwin’s conception of himself is always primarily as an artist. He would use this term “witness” – he was there to write it all down. He had this different role to play in the struggle, compared to Malcolm or Martin or Medgar Evers. He was in a sense, unconventional, but he was a philosopher. He was a kind of moral psychologist. He really wanted to try to understand what makes human beings tick, and try to understand what prevents us from achieving liberation. That’s one of the reasons Baldwin was so resistant to labels and categorization. He didn’t like to be limited.
BackStory: It’s fascinating how you step back to both of these men’s formative childhood experiences that shaped their world views. It has so much to say about how people come to hold the views that they do, how they might change them, and how they might evolve.
Buccola: I wrote the chapter on their childhoods later in the process of writing the book. The first major substantive chapter I wrote was the chapter on the late ’40s, early ’50s when Baldwin and Buckley are both arriving on the intellectual scene. But although the biography of each man had been studied in a lot of depth, there was something missing in terms of the foundation of the book.
Baldwin uses this phrase “system of reality” a lot, including in the Cambridge debate. We have to understand an individual’s system of reality before we can really have a conversation about morality and politics. I think part of what makes up the foundation of our system of reality is our upbringing and our childhood experiences and what we’re taught by our parents and our teachers and so on.
It’s not that the childhood of William F. Buckley determined the man he would become. I’m not claiming these experiences determined their views, but they certainly shaped them in important ways. We can trace those and find evidence to support the idea that maybe this particular thing that Buckley thought about race, you can see it reflected in his later views in a different form. I tried to have a good dose of humility as I made these sorts of claims, but one of Baldwin’s insights is to take that sort of thing seriously, and I tried to do that in the book.
BackStory: What does this book have to tell us about the purpose of debate in society?
Buccola: There’s this question of how do we engage, how do we have a meaningful exchange of ideas? One of the tragedies of the story that I tell in the book is that Baldwin and Buckley never really had a serious exchange of ideas. I argue various reasons why I think that was the case. Baldwin did want to have serious exchanges of ideas with people who had different views from him. He seemed to really take that seriously. He said at various points in his life that he preferred engaging with people who disagreed with him, as opposed to people who had bland views and couldn’t really say what they thought.
Baldwin really calls for a kind of radical candor in terms of the question of how we debate or how we have meaningful exchanges with one another. He calls for an attentiveness to careful listening and trying to understand how someone that we’re having a conversation with could possibly view the world the way that they do. Baldwin absolutely thinks we have a responsibility to point out ways in which their world views undermine justice or undermine human dignity.
Buckley hosted Firing Line for 33 years, and in many ways, at least in the early years of that show, provided one of the few platforms for radical voices in American and international politics. I talked to a lot of people as I worked on the book who, although they may have loathed Buckley’s politics, appreciated a role that he played in intellectual life in at least having people like Noam Chomsky, Allen Ginsberg and Huey Newton on his program. That was something that was significant in terms of American political culture, and it’s not something we see very much anymore at all.
BackStory: At one point, you distill the fundamental disagreement between Baldwin and Buckley in a way that has a lot to say about ongoing differences between the conservative and progressive movements. You write, “For Buckley, love of country was displayed by one’s gratitude for it, despite its flaws. For Baldwin, one’s love for the country was revealed by one’s willingness to ‘criticize her perpetually.’”
Buccola: Buckley really refused to take Baldwin seriously. He treated him as an adversary who needed to be defeated, not as somebody who might have something to teach him. Buckley calls Baldwin the number one America hater, he refuses to consider the possibility that maybe Baldwin does have a kind of love for the country. Of course, love is a central idea in Baldwin’s philosophy. It would have been really interesting if Buckley had actually taken that idea of love seriously.
Toward the end of his life, Buckley writes a book on gratitude. He’s clearly animated by a gratitude for the affluence that his father and his mother were able to achieve in the country, and feels like one of his roles is to defend the system that made that affluence possible.
So you can understand why William F. Buckley came to view the country and the meaning of patriotism the way he did. But Baldwin is there to point out to Buckley the ways in which his privilege has allowed him to conceive of patriotism in this way. His privilege has allowed him to build this barricade against anybody who could possibly say anything critical of the country.
One of the things that’s really powerful about Baldwin is that he doesn’t let anybody off the hook. He’s not just going after the William F. Buckleys of the world, he’s calling on all of us to realize the ways in which we are complicit in the imperfections of our country and the world.
Nicholas Buccola is the author of The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass and the editor of The Essential Douglass and Abraham Lincoln and Liberal Democracy. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and many other publications. He is the Elizabeth and Morris Glicksman Chair in Political Science at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon, and lives in Portland.