The National Review & Godwin’s Law

nationalreview1955I’m taking advantage of the rare treat of being left out a family camping trip this weekend to work on my book revisions, but I came across this delicious review of National Review and its 60-year-long tic of calling everyone on the Left a “Nazi” and everything on the Left “fascist.”  Fish, as they say, rot from the head on down:

As John Judis documents in his 1988 biography of [William F.] Buckley, [Jr., founder of National Review] the conservative pundit’s father and namesake, William F. Buckley Sr., was an anti-Semite and fascist sympathizer who tried his best to pass along his ideas to his large brood. In 1937, four of the Buckley kids burned a cross outside a Jewish resort. The eleven-year-old William Buckley Jr. didn’t participate in the cross burning but only because he was deemed too young to participate and by his own account “wept tears of frustration” at being left out of the hate crime. At this point the young Buckley agreed with his father’s worldview, and would argue, in the words of a childhood friend, that “Bolshevik Russia was an infinitely greater threat than Nazi Germany.” The Spanish fascist leader Francisco Franco was a hero in the Buckley household, celebrated as a bulwark against the red menace.

Jeet Heer asks, “so why did William F. Buckley [Jr.] react so badly to [Gore] Vidal’s [1968] jibe about being a crypto-Nazi? Why are National Review writers like Kevin Williamson and Jonah Goldberg so eager to prove that liberals are the real fascists and Nazis?” and concludes, “The most likely answer is that they have a bad conscience. . . and they want to deflect attention from that toxic legacy.”

This article includes a little preview of the movie I’m most excited to see this summer, Best of Enemies, about the Buckley and Gore Vidal smackdown during their political convention coverage in 1968.

Yes, I’m more excited to see this movie than I was Trainwreck, although only a little. I admit this doesn’t speak well for my character, but all I can say in my defense is that I spend all day thinking about the grand and inspiring and also unspeakably cruel and depressing and exhausting early modern period. The last thing I want to do in my free time is read any historical fiction (or non-fiction) set in this period.  I want to escape!

My pleasure reading tends towards modern literary fiction and nonfiction–sometimes history–but it’s always twentieth-century history, with a bent towards pop culture and politics.  Right now, I’m making my way through everything Joan Didion ever wrote.  (What took me so long to pick her up?  She’s awesome!!!)

15 thoughts on “The National Review & Godwin’s Law

  1. Ann, are you like me in getting sick and tired of the right-wing nut jobs always comparing Obama to Neville Chamberlain, appeasement, etc? Every example they think of in foreign policy that doesn’t involve bombing another country automatically becomes Munich 1938. It’s the only historical example they can cite, and as professional historians, this should utterly disgust us. It really cheapens and devalues historical analogies; to make them absolutely absurd like this. They never offer anything serious as an alternative and just call Obama “weak.” I am by no means an Obama cheerleader and from about 2010-2014, I’ve had MANY criticisms of Obama, but the right-wing attack machine is nothing less than ridiculous. They’ve never found a war or an invasion they didn’t like; they always take the wrong lessons from history; and continue to cling to long discredited ideas in the face of overwhelming evidence. Professional historians are not supposed to comment on current events, though I think we’re often in a better position than most to do so. Nonetheless, I’m firmly convinced that when historians, a few decades from now, begin to assess and teach about the era in which we live, they will do a grave disservice to think that both parties have legitimate contributions to a serious and thoughtful political discourse. Enjoy the book revisions!


    • Thanks for your comment–I saw an article last week that was something to the effect of “let’s stop pretending Republicans have a serious critique of the Iran deal,” so yeah: I’m completely on board with you.

      One thing that Jeet Heer failed to point out vis-a-vis right-wing love for calling leftists Nazis and/or Neville Chamberlain: just who was against U.S. intervention again in WWII? Hmmmmm? Wasn’t it right-wing Republican isolationists??? So yeah: there’s an even longer history of this kind of silly name-calling, but I think his conclusion is essentially right: guilty consciences and projection (much?)


  2. Well, Neville Chamberlain comparisons were stale years ago (particularly in Britain), and it suggests a real failure to think in clear, precise terms that anyone would try to revive this cliché in 2015.
    Vidal in his *Esquire* response to Buckley reported that some of the Buckley children had vandalized a Christian church with Anti-Semitic motives, and I can’t remember if at some point in the ensuing lawsuits Vidal agreed to retract the charge. I don’t believe that the Vidal essay was reprinted in later collections of Vidal’s writing, though it did appear in an *Esquire* compendium. Vidal did wish that he had said “fascist-minded” rather than calling Buckley a “pro crypto Nazi. .


    • The reason the WWII comparisons have such currency is that it’s the last war the U.S. was involved in that people still mostly agree was an intervention worth making, indeed the only moral course for the nation. I think WWII, the U.S. Civil War, and the Revolution are the three Unquestionably Good Wars that even historians are reluctant to challenge. There’s really little or no debate on any of these, which are all seen as Noble Causes. (Consequently, it makes them really, really boring wars to teach.)

      So that’s why the right wing is stuck 75 years in the past. The left is happy to talk about Korea-Vietnam-Iraq I-Afghanistan-Iraq II, which seem to suggest a trend to anyone who’s willing to pay attention to the folly of overseas nation-building schemes. The right would prefer to talk about Hitler and Chamberlain (and ignore the NR’s cheerleading for Eichmann during his trial! Because those leftists only want to talk about the BAD things that the Nazis did, and wallow in their victimhood!)


      • Good points, Ann. I agree that the American Revolution, US Civil War, and WWII were causes worth fighting for that ultimately had good outcomes. What I might emphasize is that even in these “good” wars, there were atrocities – abuses of civil liberties in all of them, including suspension of habeas corpus in both the Civil War and Japanese internment, to say nothing of the dropping of nuclear bombs. Perhaps one could make the case that abuse of civil liberties is bound to occur in any war, but 1) a nation should ideally show its greatness by protecting its values when the going gets tough, not when it’s easy; and 2) there can be unfortunate undercurrents even when a war is “good” in the long run. I might be more pacifistic and critical than many other historians, but I definitely regard the Am. Rev., Civil War, and WWII more as aberrations than the norm in the broad expanse of US foreign policy. In addition to all of the post-WWII misdeeds, which are pretty undeniable, we have the Spanish-American War, the Mexican-American War, cruel treatment of Native Americans, and all of the times we installed client states in Latin America that were subservient to the economic and political interests of the United States in the early twentieth century. It is in emphasizing these points, I think, that the left most differs from the right in its assessment of US foreign policy. The right would have us believe we’re the good guys in almost every case and I just don’t think that’s a fair representation of reality.


  3. The provocation for Vidal’s comment was Buckley’s reluctance to recognize the existence of established Constitutional protections for speech.


  4. Someone on Facebook linked to a NR article this week and I was quickly reminded exactly why I avoid reading anything from this publication. Ah, life in the great white North makes it easier to bury my head in the socialist sand.

    My pleasure reading has very little to do with my professional interests. I prefer to read cozy mysteries, romances (particularly Regencies) and a fair bit of twentieth-century history. If I’m going to read pre-1800 stuff, there’s a boatload of books and articles for work that ought to take top priority, or so I always feel. And I have to admit that I get into mental arguments with a lot of historical fiction, even the well-written ones. You would be amused at how I waxed wroth with parts of Wolf Hall!


    • Oh, I loved Wolf Hall & Bring Up the Bodies! Those are two exceptions to my rule, but then, 16th C Britain is pretty far outside my expertise in anything but a dilletantish fashion. They were good companions to watching House of Cards on Netflix this winter–something about the cartoonish nature of both Henry VIII’s and Frank Underwood’s courts struck a chord.

      (I read them early this year, while I was working at the Huntington four doors down from Mary Robertson, the woman to whom those books are dedicated, and who collaborated with Hillary Mantel on them!)


  5. I completely disagree that ‘professional historians’ have no place commenting on contemporary events. I think we’ve as much right as anybody else, and perhaps even a responsibility due to the privileges of our education and social capital. I think feminist historians in particular have been very active in using their histories to contemporary political ends, and I’m noticing a recent trend in history books to give some ‘lessons for the present’ in their conclusions, as we become increasingly frustrated with the ability of readers to make those connections for themselves (something I think the discipline has been wishfully thinking for generations).


    • I agree with you–that’s why I blog! (At least in part.) Although I’ve written some cringeworthy posts in retrospect over the past 8 years. Whatever! As you say, FA: if we’re not out in public trying to help people understand historical allusions or comparisons (or why they’re frequently so bad), then who will do it?

      I didn’t read Steviebill83 as arguing that professional historians shouldn’t comment; rather, he was just commenting on traditional training and the inclinations of many of our colleagues. (I could be wrong–but it sounded like he was frustrated by this, not interested in honoring it.)


      • Indeed, Ann, I would go with the more charitable interpretation of my words 🙂 I definitely agree that historians should be more front and center in the conversation about current events. Although I’m an early-nineteenth century historian, and not a twentieth-century historian, I find myself immensely fascinated and engaged with current events. I also agree that we have the social capital and other skills to make a lot more sense of current events compared to others. Lately I’ve noticed that a frighteningly large segment of the public just doesn’t want to listen to what academic historians have to say, whether it is neglecting the role of slavery in the Civil War or holding on to what I call the Disney, feel-good, or GI Joe version of history where we’re always the good guys. I think the whole “objective,” “both sides,” virtuous middle ground ideal is a nineteenth-century concept that can often distort our search for meaning and clarity.


      • Steviebill83–have you read the History Manifesto yet by Jo Guldi and David Armitage? It’s a stirring call for historians to enter the public/political fray. Their big issues are climate change and wealth inequality, but as American historians in the U.S., we have a valuable perspective on politics and international affairs that should embolden us.

        I also agree with you that the perspective that earlier U.S. and even colonial historians bring is really important. Teevee likes to focus only on the modern cinema reel/televisual era–from Hoover or FDR to the present–but that cuts out a tremendous amount of context and history for understanding U.S. intervention into global wars & politics in the 20th century. As you say, when viewed as part of a longue duree, the “good” wars seem a lot fewer in number than the bad (or disastrous) interventions.


      • Ann, I haven’t read Guldi and Armitage, but what you describe sounds fantastic! I’ve written it down. It sounds like their priorities are right up my ally. The last two lectures of mine in the 2nd half of the US survey course I teach (post-1877) are on the 2008 financial crisis and climate change.


  6. “I think the whole “objective,” “both sides,” virtuous middle ground ideal is a nineteenth-century concept that can often distort our search for meaning and clarity.” THIS! I’ve recently been wondering if we actually encourage that through our rhetorical education, where students should present both sides of the historical debate and present a resolution.

    My apologies for not being charitable!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes–I think Steven Colbert nailed this when he was on the Daily Show more than a decade ago.

      I write this on a morning in which I read in the newspaper that people are now protesting fluoride in the water in Denver, demanding its removal. SERIOUSLY. It’s like we’re stuck in a tape loop dragging us back into Cold War fears and paranoia.

      Life’s too short to live it crouching under your desk & worrying about invisible agents in our drinking water.


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