The Fire Is Upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley and the Debate over Race in America

By Nicholas Buccola

Princeton University Press | 496pgs

Reviewed by Robert Flemin

Nicholas Buccola

Historian Nicholas Buccola, author of The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass, dissects the significance of the televised debate between leading conservative William F. Buckley and civil rights spokesman James Baldwin before a packed audience on February 18, 1965 at the Cambridge Union in Cambridge, England. In his book, The Fire Is Upon Us, he portrays the two prominent figures from different economic and cultural backgrounds speaking for two contrasting political views dividing the country.

Widely publicized, the BBC televised the event. The topic was very timely and provocative: “The American dream is at the expense of the American Negro.” Other key markets in radio and television featured large segments from the program. The stage was set for an unprecedented media occasion that would focus international attention on the major societal dilemmas of race and prejudice.

Buccola, the Elizabeth and Morris Glicksman Chair in Political Science at Linfield College in Oregon, adds sufficient context to define the men and their respective backgrounds. Much was made of Baldwin and Buckley being born 15 months apart in New York City, in situations of want and plenty. Baldwin spent his Harlem childhood, dreaming of better days, while his stepfather toiled as a day laborer and his mother kept house for some white folks. The boy wrapped himself in religion, but quickly fell under the spell of the creative arts.

Whereas Baldwin grappled with poverty, Buckley grew up in wealth at “Great Elm,” a 47-acre estate in Sharon, Connecticut, under the supervision of his father. His father was a self-made wildcat oilman, guaranteeing his brood a life of privilege. Buckley, of Southern roots, was a Catholic, yet he distrusted FDR’s New Deal and protested America joining World War II. Also, he was a pal to segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond. His wife shared his values, believing whites were intellectually superior to blacks. The junior Buckley inherited the racist values of his parents.

Baldwin, however, found emotional and creative support from his teachers at P.S. 26, pushing him to attend DeWitt Clinton, one of the city’s elite schools. He was encouraged by Beauford Delaney, a Black artist living in Greenwich Village and later edited the school’s literary magazine. Through his Village visits, he also met some influential writers and editors of such publications as The New Leader, The Nation, and Commentary, putting his byline in serious markets.

In 1946, Buckley was a student at Yale, becoming an effective debater and writer. He pursued his education as a conservative principle, writing: “…to enhance our devotion to the good in what we have, to reinforce our allegiance to our principles, to convince us that our outlook is positive: that the retention of the best features of this way of life is the most enlightened and noble of goals.”

Democracy summoned Buckley, for he joined the CIA in 1951 and was stationed in Mexico City. When he returned to the U.S., he wrote a book with his Yale buddy, L. Brent Bozell, defending McCarthy. In 1955, he founded National Review, the “journal of fact and opinion,” which opposed the Brown v. Board of Education anti-segregation decision. It also defended Jim Crow policies in the South, while attacking the validity of the civil right bills of 1957, 1960, 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He believed whites must rule since they were the more sophisticated race.

Buckley supported Mississippi Senator James Eastland’s concept of racial equality: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all whites are created equal with certain rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of dead niggers.” He was too civilized to support the dark corpses idea.

By the time of the debate, both Baldwin and Buckley had risen to renown during the bloody days of the civil rights struggle. Buckley saw Baldwin as “an eloquent menace.” In turn, Baldwin viewed Buckley as a “deluded reactionary whose popularity revealed the sickness of the American soul.”

That year, Americans watched the violent resistance of the authorities during the Selma-to-Montgomery marches and the Watts riots, so the stage was set. The Cambridge organizers, wanting to do honor to the prestigious debate hall, wanted to get Strom Thurmond or Barry Goldwater to spar with Baldwin, but eventually settled on Buckley, who loved the media attention.

The architecture of Buccola’s book consists of a fairly detailed summary of both men’s careers, glimpses of the significant historical events, and a blow-by-blow account of the verbal conflict worthy of the late fight commentator Howard Cosell. Both men staggered the other with ideas, images and concepts.

Buccola describes Baldwin’s various body gestures, the many facial expressions, and the eye rolling in disgust for his opponent’s academic rhetoric. When he gets in his first licks, using his preacher’s spiel, he condemns the current form of American democracy that denies any notion of humanity for people of color. The audience of white boys in jackets applaud his resourcefulness, spunk, and candor.

“It is a terrible thing for an entire people to surrender to the notion that one-ninth of its population is beneath them,” Baldwin concluded. “And until that moment, until that moment comes the Americans; we the American people, are able to accept the fact that I have to accept, for example, that my ancestors are both white and black, that on continent we are trying to forge a new identity for which we need each other, and that I am not a ward of America, I am not an object of missionary charity, I am one of the people who built the country. Until this moment there is scarcely any hope for the American dream because the people who are denied their participation in it, by their presence, will wreck it.”

In his conservative rebuttal, Buckley trotted out some of his old Yale debating tricks. He was all charm, verbose, witty to a fault. The Buckley style was to strip away the feeling behind Baldwin’s words while replacing them with a rush of intellectual theories. He believed blacks should aspire to the status of whiteness, no matter what that effort took.

“They (Americans) are not willing to say that as a result of the fact that we have not accelerated faster the progress of the Negroes, we are going to desert the constitutional system, we are going to desert the idea of the rule of law, we are going to desert the idea of the American citizen, that we are going to burn all the Bibles, and turn our backs on Europe, and tell them that we want to reject our entire Judeo-Christian civilization and our entire Hellenic background because of the continuous persistence of the kind of evil that is so carefully and eloquently described by Mr. Baldwin.”

Still, the debate defeat suffered by Buckley unsettled the great orator, for he often referred to it several times during the rest of his life. Even the students sided with Baldwin by a wide margin of 540-160. Buckley protested to reporters that the students gave a standing ovation before he took to the stage.

Excuses aside, Buccola’s book gives us a deep dive into the icons who waged the war of words, complete with a full transcript of the event. So much has changed and so much has stayed the same. That reality check of racial irregularities comes with every current news report and social media accounts during this pandemic.

̶  Robert Fleming is a frequent reviewer for the Neworld Review

Return to home page

divider line


American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise

By Eduardo Porter

Alfred A. Knopf | 2020

Reviewed by Michael Moreau

Eduardo Porter

Economist Traces History of Our Neglected Safety Net

Eduardo Porter’s American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise was published on March 17 of this year, just four days after the Covid-19 virus outbreak was declared a national emergency. He no doubt would have had a lot to say about the government’s monumental mishandling of the crisis.

Consequent to the spread of the virus has been close scrutiny of our healthcare delivery system and our threadbare social safety net. As the virus numbers rise and cities are virtually shut we are reading of comparisons of our healthcare and welfare systems with those of Sweden, Germany, South Korea, and Denmark and we find that we come out lacking—notably in delivery of healthcare.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, of which the U.S. is one of 36 member states, says the U.S. spends under one-fifth of its gross domestic product on social programs like unemployment insurance, pre-school and eldercare, antipoverty programs, and healthcare, placing it in the bottom half of member countries.

In contrast, Germany spends one-quarter of its GDP on such programs and the French one-third. The member countries are democratic, free-market economies. But without exception, save the United States, welfare is treated as a social good and not something to be demonized.  You can name the country—Ireland, France, Finland, Denmark, Germany—and there is a social contract built into the system. The old, the young, the infirm, the indigent, are widely protected.

But in the U.S., most prominently since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the needy, the young, the old, the infirm have been portrayed as free-loaders, moochers, swindlers. Before he was president, in the 1976 presidential campaign, Reagan made much of the “welfare queen,” Linda Taylor, a black woman on the southside of Chicago who was arrested for welfare fraud for receiving benefits under multiple aliases.

She had, incidentally, committed a number of other crimes, apart from bilking the welfare system. She became a symbol not only for underserving use of social spending, but also of freeloading blacks robbing from the pocketbooks of “hardworking” whites. Finding this a useful vote generator, Reagan as president would up the ante with his pronouncement that the “government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.” This became the mantra for generations of Republican leaders, but it was nothing new in our political discourse.

The irony is that, as Porter masterfully documents in his book, whites are “the biggest beneficiaries of public spending on social programs.” But it is the perception of those programs as being handouts to minorities that has stigmatized government programs as a whole, with the paradoxical result that “skimping on a system of social welfare that they [lawmakers] viewed as an illegitimate handout to the black and brown, they were undermining everybody in America.”

But this is not simply a matter of party politics. And it is not entirely explained by the Republican-Democrat divide. In fact, one of the icons of the liberal wing of the Democratic party played a key role in this stigmatism of the black and poor. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an academic turned politician, served as senator from New York for nearly 30 years. It was Moynihan, Porter writes, who as an aide to Lyndon Johnson and later Richard Nixon, before he was a senator, “provided the intellectual foundations for the conservative attack on the welfare state.” In his study that was to become the report The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, Moynihan made the case against the social safety net promoted in LBJ’s War on Poverty and depicted welfare as “the face of a dysfunctional, irresponsible black family.”

Moynihan contended that Aid to Families with Dependent Children, set up under Roosevelt’s Social Security Act of 1935 (and ultimately dismantled by Bill Clinton) set black families up in a cycle of dependency, ultimately hurting them rather than helping them. The main problem with black poverty was irresponsible black men, who routinely abandoned women and the children they left them with. To break the poverty trap, the Moynihan report suggested that “black families simply had to get their act together.”

Incidentally, more whites than blacks were beneficiaries of the program, but this didn’t prevent this philosophy from “cementing welfare in the American consciousness as an effort to reward low-income black families for not adhering to white middle-class work and family values.”  Porter observes. This doctrine, embraced recently by Paul Ryan, former Republican Speaker of the House, is often known as “blaming the victim.” (Moynihan would later claim his findings were misinterpreted.)

From FDR’s time unto the present, powerful congressional committees have been dominated by white Southerners who routinely threatened to withhold votes on safety net legislation and in the case of the Affordable Care Act, Obama Care, succeeded in blocking a single Republican from voting for the bill. And even now, in the midst of the Corona virus, they have introduced into the courts measures to nullify the entire program. Porter quite persuasively contends that racism underlies this and other measures to prevent social welfare plans from ever coming to fruition.

Yet Porter says that “whatever white Americans think, they are as a group the biggest beneficiaries of public spending on social programs.” For example, he writes “Tax credits and government assistance programs benefited 6.2 million whites without a college degree in 2014, compared with 2.8 million black Americans and 2.4 Hispanics of similar educational backgrounds, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Options.”

In a May 19 column in the Los Angeles Times economics writer Michael Hiltzik wrote in a piece titled “Our Lack of Sick Leave Is Harmful” that of the member countries of the United Nations 181 provide uniform paid sick leave in some form and eleven do not. The U.S. is among the eleven., along with Tonga, Nauru and Somalia. The consequences of the lack of uniform sick leave are felt as the virus deaths mount. “Without nationwide paid sick leave, keeping people at home to suppress the coronavirus is much harder,” Hiltzik says. He refers to Jody Heymann of the World Policy Analysis Center of the University of California at Los Angeles who says in a recently published study of worldwide sick leave policies that “we are incredibly isolated.” Heymann says that in a time of crisis, with paid sick leave workers “who have mild symptoms of infectious diseases but could readily spread it to others who might get severely ill, would stay at home

Additional, Heymann says, “Among high-income countries, two-thirds provide sick leave for the self-employed and 42% cover part-timers.”

And contrary to folk wisdom, these countries don’t pay significantly more in taxes to cover such programs. What they do have is graduated tax structures that tax wealth to a higher degree than does the U.S. They also spend less on the military.

In this well-documented book Porter pokes some holes in the record of the icon of mid-20th century liberalism: FDR. Roosevelt, he writes only “achieved the consensus needed to build the first stages of an American welfare state by limiting its benefits to white America.” He built a welfare state “that remains ensnared to this day in the prejudices he failed to stare down.” In one of the most critical programs established by the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act passed three years later, both domestic workers and farm workers were excluded. The NAACP at the time argued that this decision excluded two-thirds of black workers. “Social Security, Charles Houston, a board member of the civil rights organization told the Senate Finance Committee that Social Security looked ‘like a sieve with holes big enough for the majority of the Negroes to fall through.’ ”

In her Pulitzer prize winning book on FDR and his extraordinary first lady Eleanor, No Ordinary Time, Doris Kearns Goodwin writes “Franklin tolerated Eleanor because she represented the more generous, idealistic side of his own nature, the humanitarian values he himself held but felt unable to act upon in the context of the Southern dominated Congress.” In Southern manipulating of the Social Security Act, Porter writes, “Congress stripped the Social Security Board’s supervisory controls. States got to decide which people were ‘suitable’ to get aid. Southern blacks, of course got less.” In effect, “federal programs that were not explicitly racist turned out to be racist in practice because they gave states control over federal money.”

This has trickled down to the present day with states opting out of Medicaid expansion that would be subsidized by the federal government.

Porter’s 30 years of reporting for a number of publications including the Wall Street Journal as well as the Times took him from Tokyo and London, to Mexico City and Brazil, to a stint on the editorial board of Times and for six years as the Economic Scene columnist. He developed a world view in which he saw that “the countries most successful in dealing with globalization are the ones that have the richest, most robust safety nets.” The social safety net, he writes, “including what Americans call welfare, is the tool rich societies use to allow workers to cope with economic risk.”

We don’t know of course the long-term consequences of the Corona virus. Does it present an opportunity to rethink how we look at the safety net? Will it result in an opportunity to reboot a medical delivery system that is far from egalitarian and in which we lack hospital beds, ventilators, masks, swabs? Unfortunately, Porter’s investigation, coming weeks before the virus, doesn’t leave him optimistic. He concludes: “American politicians take pride in offering a cold shoulder to their fellow citizens.”

Return to home page

divider line


Reading Between the Lines:

A Memoir By Janis Paige

Golden Age Press

Reviewed by Salli Stevenson

I discovered Janis Paige in 1960 in Please Don't Eat the Daisies. She played my favorite "other woman" as she brought sly delight to her attempts to break up Doris Day and David Niven. 

As a rule, Paige played energetic upbeat characters, so I expected her memoir to reflect that quality. More than that and in collaboration with writer/editor Ray Richmond, Lines is a uniquely layered look at the "mixed messages" child abuse she suffered and a professional career in which her naivete helped her avoid, for the most part, the "me too" machine of Hollywood in the 1940s. Included are her worldwide travels, the people she met, her tours to Vietnam with Bob Hope and their influence on the way she dealt humorously with the barbs of life. Under the humor are darker levels.

Reading Between the Lines grabs you with its anecdotal wild ride through her showbiz life. Conversationally, she pulls you into the intimacies of her glamorous, turbulent, yet essentially lonely life. Her cerebral disarray was hidden by the "Hollywood" smile, until she discovered therapy late in life and a glowing new feeling of having finally claimed "personal" ownership of the totality of Donna Mae/Janis. 

Born in Tacoma, Washington in 1922, Donna Mae Tjaden was a Depression child. Poverty was her sidekick. Her cold, "me first" mother judged Donna Mae into invisibility. Though encouraged by her grandparents, she could not shake her feeling of being a shadow child ̶ invisible and completely undeserving of recognition.  At the age of five she discovered her lifelong love of singing. That gift she thought was hers was not hers to claim, her mother informed her in an ego kicking proclamation: it was her mother's gift. Donna Mae was just a reflection of her mother's talent.

Oddly, with this self-centered approach, her mother would actually construct the beginning of Donna's professional life, which led her to the USO Hollywood Canteen and onward to a multi-decade career starting with MGM, Warner Brothers and other film studios. On Broadway, she sang and danced lead and secondary roles in plays and musicals, most notably The Pajama Game and Mame. Vaudeville and television sharpened her comedic timing. Paige had her own series, It's Always Jan, for Desilu and later appeared in the soap operas, Capitol, General Hospital and Santa Barbara.

Illustrated by both theatrical and private pictures, Paige's memoirs are a banquet. It's hard to pick the funniest, best and saddest stories, but Marlene Dietrich, in a vulnerable moment with/without Adlai Stevenson, is astounding. Judy Garland, shortly before her death, is given a loving and painful view of some of the hard choices Paige made in her life. Curiously, different dinners shared with Frank Sinatra in a warm family Thanksgivings and her early dates, of a strikingly chaste nature, with Howard Hughes stand out. In her stint at Desilu, when Paige was late one morning (thanks to Vivian Vance) Lucille Ball reminded her that, "Time is money, Janis."

There were several encounters with a fabulously romantic David Niven, but the topper for me was her work with Fred Astaire in Silk Stockings, in their unrehearsed free fall at the end of their big number into an Al Jolson knee slide, which captured moments of the unflappable Astaire's film nerves.

Travels reveal Paige's adventurous side, both professional and fun. Two visits, one to Rome where she fell in love with the city, "I became Italian," while she filmed La Strada Buia, and the other to South Africa, where tribal practices alarmed her and gave her nightmares. Near the Cape she fell in love with Lucy the Ostrich and captured in adorable pictures of her. Christmas tours with Bob Hope to Asia and particularly Vietnam hold both devastating and shocking memories of visits with soldiers and highlights of performances for "our boys."  A later trip to Australia was recalled as magic.

The 97-year-old Paige gives intriguing insights into her private "people pleasing " life ̶ three marriages, miscarriages, the therapies she embraced, the sociopath who almost ruined her life, the loss of her singing voice, and the struggle to get it back towards the end of her career

Stylistically, her stories of people are accompanied by dates of births and deaths, or remembered quotes from the people ̶ unusual, but a tribute to each.  As this is a memoir, Paige freely includes her views of morality, truth and loyalty (both private and political); qualities she feels should be readopted in order to save our country from its current confusion.  For those to the right of the political line it may be a bit off-putting. I found it somewhat strident, but well intentioned.

Overall, Reading Between the Lines exposes a lifetime of some truths boldly excavated while others glossed over.  What happened between a lonely Christmas away from her husband, while performing in dinner theater and six years later when he died is left unsaid. There was a conflict. How was it resolved? No answer is given.

In reading and re-reading Paige's tome, I found clues to the puzzles that her journey hid between the lines on the page. There are tantalizing hints of what might have been that peek from behind a letter here and a phrase there, years overlooked or the elimination of a last name that shared a Manhattan evening during The Pajama Game. It is an engrossing exploration of a working actor that is, for the most part, generously shared and worth the read. 

̶ Salli Stevenson is a new reviewer for the Neworld Review

Return to home page

divider line

;©Copyright - Website Designs by rdobrien.com, 2016.