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Buckley Blather | The Nation

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Buckley Blather

I won't attempt a grand summary of the late William F. Buckley's legacy. The man was undeniably one of the great political forces of the 20th century--so too were Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman. But in seeking to capture the scope of his influence, writers on the left have taken to applauding Buckley's "brilliance."

My colleague John Nichols, for example, recently described Buckley as "intellectually bold and ideologically adventurous," and applauded his "political playfulness." John was writing about Buckley in the '60s, when he campaigned for mayor of New York City. But Buckley's so-called boldness and playfulness had an ideological flip-side: cruelty, pettiness and a tendency to embrace fascistic solutions in the guise of pragmatism.

Case in point, and as pointed out on Digby's blog, during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, Buckley suggested that "Everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals."

Apparently, Buckley renounced this opinion after he discovered that his friend, McCarthy-ite and closeted homosexual Roy Cohn was dying of AIDS. But in 2005, Buckley relapsed. In a transparently homophobic article about a 26-year old, HIV-positive, drug-addicted sex fiend named "Tony Venenum" (I suppose in Bucklian parlance the pseudonym "Venenum" passes for wit), Buckley wrote:

"Someone, 20 years ago, suggested a discreet tattoo the site of which would alert the prospective partner to the danger of proceeding as had been planned. But the author of the idea was treated as though he had been schooled in Buchenwald, and the idea was not widely considered, but maybe it is up now for reconsideration."

Buckley was writing in the wake of sensationalistic articles in the New York Times about a so-called "superbug" version of HIV. The story, as David France documented in New York magazine, proved more fantasy than science. But it sure did inflame the homophobic imagination. But this time around, Buckley had strange bedfellows: the gay historian Charlie Kaiser, whose suggestion that passing HIV to someone was akin to putting "a bullet through another person's head" Buckley quoted approvingly, and Larry Kramer--whose Cassandra-complex reached full flight in his rant The Tragedy of Today's Gays (see my review in Salon).

In the final analysis, Buckley thought that unprotected sex was the same as "committing murder" and that "murderers need to be stopped." Now, someone tell me how such Neanderthal views on public health pass for brilliance or wit? Is anyone laughing? Maybe Norman Mailer said it best when he called Buckley a "second-rate intellect incapable of entertaining two serious thoughts in a row."

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