Last year as the very long Presidential election campaign wound down — a campaign from which it was difficult to hear a noble thought, nobly expressed — two very notable individuals passed from this earth. They were of another time if you measure them against the rhetoric of the campaign, a time when college students in politically correct classrooms started rejecting the canon of our Western culture. Some will contend that the election codified an absence of reason and principled thinking in the electorate. Good people can differ but I think there’s some truth in that contention.
William F. Buckley died in February 2008. He was 82. Like a number of people in this country and abroad, I had met him from afar when he hosted the television show Firing Line . And I got to see him in person during a debate appearance at my California college campus. It was 1965 or maybe 1966 — more than 42 years ago.
Over the years I have read lots of Buckley’s articles in National Review and two of his books about sailing: Airborne and Atlantic High . In one of them he offers some advice from personal experience that is really quite valuable. The lesson derives from a teenage outing on the New York sound and involves his reaction when his sister falls overboard. Buckley takes us through his initial shock, then his maneuvers with the boat to bring it about and head toward the girl floundering in the water. The lesson in the story is that he hadn’t taken into account an ebbing tide and current that was quickly pulling his sister away from him. She didn’t drown but might have.
Buckley’s lesson for us: Throw out the life buoy before you do anything else.
When the news came that he had died I was reminded that I’d never read God and Man at Yale and promptly ordered a copy. It was a "Fiftieth Anniversary Edition" published by Regnery and the fact that more than fifty years had gone by only served to punctuate my shame in not having previously opened the man’s magnum opus. When the book arrived I rushed through WFB’s foreword previously written for a 25th anniversary edition and the original introductions and then read and skimmed several chapters. For me it was a "preaching to the choir" kind of book. He was complaining about and categorizing the growing presence of Leftist thought including atheism and collectivism on one college campus of which he was especially familiar. These days what he described is the fashion of academia. GAMAY , as it is referred to, remains on my night stand.
When Alexander Solzhenitsyn died this past August The Wall Street Journal printed two excerpts from the man’s speeches, one from the 1970 Nobel Prize ceremony wherein Solzhenitsyn recalls some history. The Munich he refers to in the passage below is of a time in 1938 when Britain, France and Italy gave Germany’s elected leader Adolph Hitler what he wanted and called it "peace in our times."
The spirit of Munich has by no means retreated into the past; it was not merely a brief episode. I even venture to say that the spirit of Munich prevails in the 20th century. The timid civilized world has found nothing with which to oppose the onslaught of a sudden revival of barefaced barbarity, other than concessions and smiles. The spirit of Munich is a sickness of the will of successful people, it is the daily condition of those who have given themselves up to the thirst after prosperity at any price, to material well-being as the chief goal of earthly existence. Such people — and there are many in today’s world — elect passivity and retreat, just so as their accustomed life might drag on a bit longer, just so as not to step over the threshold of hardship today — and tomorrow, you’ll see, it will all be all right. (But it will never be all right! The price of cowardice will only be evil; we shall reap courage and victory only when we dare to make sacrifices.)
I was as embarrassed at not having read any of Solzhenitsyn’s books as I was in not having read GAMAY . At the library it was easy to gauge which of the man’s works I was likely to get through the fastest. I used my children’s criteria and pulled out the thinest selection on the shelf, coincidentally the first book published: One Day in the LIfe of Ivan Denisovich . It was Hayward and Hingley’s translation and their Introduction explains in part how their work varies from what was originally allowed out of the Soviet Union in 1962 — over 46 years ago.
It’s interesting that both of these men served in WWII, Buckley in a "brief hitch" at the end and Solzhenitsyn until he was arrested and imprisoned by his own country, lead at the time by Comrade Stalin. Buckley returns home to attend college and ponder what the homeland has become — at least at Yale; while Solzhenitsyn begins collecting the memories which will become his revealing books.
There are no chapters in One Day , only paragraphs, and although it is an account of a dreadful, hateful and evil existence within the confines of a prison camp, at this point in my life "I’ve seen the movie," as I said to my wife. The Great Escape, Stalag 17, The Pianist , and Hanoi Hilton may be stories about Nazi and North Vietnamese camps but evil is an universal sin. One could easily visualize what Solzhenitsyn was describing by applying a little makeup and calling in the costume people.
Buckley was pilloried by Yale alumni for his exposé. Solzhenitsyn got a prize. Truthfully I was not impressed with One Day , perhaps too comfortable in my own "accustomed life" until I imagined more fully the fact that Solzhenitsyn was able to compile and then get this important work out to the rest of world: To shine the light of truth on the fraud that was and remains the Socialist’s lie. Still my wife kept asking as I turned pages, "What’s happening?" And I repeated, "You’ve seen the movie." She was annoyed but I was increasingly enthralled. Where, I asked myself, is this story going?
On a Saturday evening I was at the place in the book where Ivan’s day was now evening, prisoners were being called out into the night for yet another head count. There were eight or maybe ten pages to go. Ivan is an interesting person who exhibits kindness and does favors for fellow prisoners, but is careful to avoid the bullies, both guards and trustees, who are as likely to beat or steal from weaker men and only count those prisoner’s existence when it matters — to report attendance numbers to the higher ups or pilfer their packages. I set the book down and went to sleep.
The following day, Sunday, the Gospel was from St. Luke, Chapter 10, verse 23.
Does your mind wander during church? Do you pray for others or find your own prayers going on and on past the point in the liturgy when we’re supposed to be doing something else, moving on to something else? Do you pray for things, or give thanks for the week with an unconditional promise that you’ll be back? Luke’s gospel story is The Good Samaritan, an expansion of the familiar and compelling commandment to "love thy neighbor as thyself."
There isn’t a lot of loving one’s neighbor as oneself in Ivan Denisovich’s daily surroundings. There is a lot of conniving, deceit, bullying, stealing, false imprisonment, lack of trust, harsh and sometimes fatal punishment. But there are some persons on the pages who exhibit a glimmer of hope in this world of hopelessness. I picked up the book when we returned home and confronted the final pages.
The conclusion of Ivan’s day is restful. He lays in his bunk, careful not to drop cigarette ashes on the bunk below that might "burn the Captain’s stuff." He savors a bite of sausage, a gift from another prisoner for whom he has done a favor. And he tallies the day’s events and concludes that "it had been almost happy."
Early in Solzhenitsyn’s story there’s an exchange between prisoners over what time it is. Someone suggests it’s twelve o’clock already. "It must be," Ivan confirms, "The sun’s right overhead." There’s some argument, then the prisoners are informed that "there’s been a law passed [by the Soviet Government] and now the sun’s highest at one." Ivan wonders, "did the sun come under their laws too?"
Man’s laws are increasingly becoming incompatible with God’s laws in that they conflict with the concept of the free, uniquely individual person that is created in His image. To paraphrase Historian-Philosopher Will Durant’s famous quip: You can’t fool all the people, all the time but you can fool enough of the people enough of the time to either get elected or have your ideas passed into law. Bullies don’t wait for elections. Evil lurks all around us.
In his book, Buckley writes, "The school is conceived as an extension of the arena in which battle is done, whereas, more properly, the teaching part of a college is the practice field on which the gladiators of the future are taught to use their weapons, are briefed in the wiles and stratagems of the enemy, and are inspired with the virtue of their cause in anticipation of the day when they will step forward and join in the struggle against error."
What time is it on your clock? Some would contend that it’s not even your clock, that it belongs to the collective. What do you or what will you do then? Will you kid yourself or try to recapture the haze of 1937? Will you sit and wait or get up and be a part of saving your freedoms before they’re gone and you don’t know where?