Location

Jereld R. Nicholson Library

Subject Area

Political Science

Description

In this essay, we explore James Baldwin’s understanding of freedom through an examination of his famous debate with the conservative polemicist William F. Buckley, Jr. at the Cambridge Union in 1965. During the course of the debate, Buckley attempts to show that Baldwin was a wild-eyed extremist who was bent on overturning “American civilization.” Buckley saw Baldwin as a threat, to borrow the language of the National Review “Mission Statement,” to the “tradition of fixed postulates having to do with the meaning of existence, with the relationship of the state to the individual, of the individual to his neighbor, so clearly enunciated in the enabling documents of our Republic.” In sum, it is fair to say that Buckley thought Baldwin was an “enemy of freedom.” We argue that Buckley was right to perceive Baldwin as a threat to his worldview, but that he fundamentally misunderstood the nature of Baldwin’s critique. In order to make this case, we challenge Buckley’s portrayal of Baldwin as an ideological extremist and we compare what Buckley and Baldwin had in mind when they talked about freedom. Our aim, in other words, is not to offer a comprehensive comparative analysis of Buckley and Baldwin, but rather to use Buckley’s misunderstanding of Baldwin as the basis for an exploration of how Baldwin challenged – and attempted to transform – how we think about freedom.

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May 15th, 9:30 AM May 15th, 10:45 AM

What William F. Buckley, Jr. Did Not Understand about James Baldwin: On Baldwin’s Politics of Freedom

Jereld R. Nicholson Library

In this essay, we explore James Baldwin’s understanding of freedom through an examination of his famous debate with the conservative polemicist William F. Buckley, Jr. at the Cambridge Union in 1965. During the course of the debate, Buckley attempts to show that Baldwin was a wild-eyed extremist who was bent on overturning “American civilization.” Buckley saw Baldwin as a threat, to borrow the language of the National Review “Mission Statement,” to the “tradition of fixed postulates having to do with the meaning of existence, with the relationship of the state to the individual, of the individual to his neighbor, so clearly enunciated in the enabling documents of our Republic.” In sum, it is fair to say that Buckley thought Baldwin was an “enemy of freedom.” We argue that Buckley was right to perceive Baldwin as a threat to his worldview, but that he fundamentally misunderstood the nature of Baldwin’s critique. In order to make this case, we challenge Buckley’s portrayal of Baldwin as an ideological extremist and we compare what Buckley and Baldwin had in mind when they talked about freedom. Our aim, in other words, is not to offer a comprehensive comparative analysis of Buckley and Baldwin, but rather to use Buckley’s misunderstanding of Baldwin as the basis for an exploration of how Baldwin challenged – and attempted to transform – how we think about freedom.

 

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