The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Wednesday, May 07, 2003
AN OLD BOOK REVIEW THAT NEVER FOUND A HOME: In June of 1991, I read a syndicated column by William F. Buckley, Jr., titled "Universities Should Protect Free Thought." I assume that this title was provided by the newspaper's editors, not Buckley, for nowhere in his essay did he assert that universities should protect free thought. Nowhere, in fact, did he assert much of anything; instead, he meandered around the issue of political correctness, fondling a few non-sequitous thoughts before concluding that we should "lean in the direction of civility." Or, more specifically: "The challenge becomes to distinguish between language in the thoroughly abusive mode and language that is merely contentious. Why is that too great a challenge for a modern university?"

It apparently is too great a challenge for Buckley, who ended his column there, the required number of words written and the afternoon free for yachting. In 13 paragraphs, Buckley let his readers know his opinion of a particular university administrator and a particular course description in the Brown catalog, plus three fellow-columnists' opinions about P.C.; he also worked in a sentence-long history of censorship in America. He did not tell us where he thinks the line between "contentious" and "abusive" speech is, nor why he feels that line is the proper dividing-point between protected and unprotected expression. Why did he write the column? Beats me.

"Universities Should Protect Free Thought" is not reprinted in
Happy Days Were Here Again: Reflections of a Libertarian Journalist -- or if it was, I slept through it -- but over 400 pages of other columns are. Five or so are complete, intelligent, well-written essays. The others either lead nowhere or suffer from terminal thoughtlessness; virtually all bear the unhappy marks of Mr. Buckley's flabby and pretentious writing style. Worst of all is the author's self-indulgent assumption that the rest of us are innately interested in whatever happens to be passing through his mind when he happens to be typing.

The book's title contains two lies: first, that it is libertarian; second, that it is journalism. Aside from its mild (some would say half-assed) opposition to the war on drugs, the book's libertarianism never extends beyond the most universally held pro-freedom sentiments: that Communism is bad, that government regulation sometimes goes too far, that there are goofy goings-on on college campuses. Meanwhile, Buckley issues paeans to Sidney Hook and Richard Nixon, defenses of military action everywhere from Vietnam to Nicaragua to Iraq, and unqualified praise for Franco and Pinochet.

So what kind of libertarian is Buckley? "I do not understand," he writes, "where Congress got the idea that it has any business telling an adult American what he can and what he cannot purchase from a willing seller, if you're not talking drugs or machine guns." Ah -- a libertarian for drug laws and gun control. Interesting kind.

As for journalism, its primary purpose is to relate facts, and this book offers little more than passing, effervescent opinions. A few of these are odd enough to become news in their own right, in a Ripley's-believe-it-or-not way (e.g., Buckley's bizarre belief that Princess Di is the most attractive woman in the world). More often, we are treated to this sort of drivel:

"Bob Dylan comes on stage, and on either side of him are two famous guitarists from the Rolling Stones. He last shaved, oh, three days before (Why?). He is wearing blue jeans and a scruffy T-shirt arrangement of sorts (Why? Trademark? Change trademarks?). The two guitarists arrive smoking cigarettes, which dangle from their lips for the first minute or two of the first song (Why?). Their arms are entirely bare, and they otherwise wear what looks like a stripped-down dark-colored T-shirt (Why? Heat?)."

...and so on, and on and on, for longer than I care to transcribe. I don't necessarily object to reading a columnist's passing thoughts, if he or she is a columnist who writes particularly well or whose opinions I've come to respect. But I find it hard to respect someone who wastes my time wondering whether blue jeans and a T-shirt are Bob Dylan's "trademark."

William Buckley was once considered a dynamic young turk, long before I was born. By my day, he had already been absorbed by celebrityhood, and National Review had slipped into boredom and predictability. If the Review has been somewhat rejuvenated since then, it is mostly because Buckley no longer has much to do with running it. His last significant contribution to its pages was the double-issue-length essay "In Search of Anti-Semitism," a dull and intellectually dishonest meditation on whether Gore Vidal, Pat Buchanan, Joseph Sobran, and the Dartmouth Review dislike Jews. Mostly, Bill churns out spy novels and books about sailing, which many people purchase and some presumably read.

Buckley had almost as little to do with the production of this book as he does with the production of his magazine: It was edited by his sister, Patricia Bozell, and contains no original Buckley writing beyond its acknowledgements page. It is, in short, a slapdash commercial product, created with little care and blessed with little merit. It raises only one significant question: After two or three decades of going through the motions, can Buckley tell the difference anymore?


posted by Jesse 11:58 AM
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