The leftist establishment, having been to school with John Stuart Mill, has taught that terms like “custom,” “convention,” and “habit” are the outmoded relics of a superstitious and insufficiently rational age. Many contemporary conservatives have lacked the gumption, not to say the intelligence and rhetorical wit, to dispute that claim and show that, on the contrary, such terms name indispensable moral resources. As National Review’s late, great James Burnham observed, most people are not existentially moved by statistics or a number attached to Social Security payments or the national debt. They are moved by a vision of the world. That is what conservatives have to sell, though many, in their eagerness to join the establishment consensus, seem to have forgotten that fact.
Let me conclude by asking, just where are we standing when we stand athwart history? In Bill Buckley’s famous publisher’s statement introducing the inaugural issue of National Review, he noted that the new magazine would be “out of place” “in the sense that the United Nations and the League of Women Voters and the New York Times and Henry Steele Commager are in place.” It is out of place, said Bill, because, in its maturity, “literate America rejected conservatism in favor of radical social experimentation.” The brash new magazine had arrived with its brash young editor to cast a cold and inquisitive light upon that presumption. National Review “stands athwart history,” Bill announced, “yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
Bill wrote that more than fifty years ago. But I suspect that you will find, as I did on re-reading it, that it has preternaturally contemporary relevance. “Radical social experimentation”; “the inroads that relativism has made on the American soul”; “the intransigence of the Liberals, who run this country.” If those yelling Stop! in 1955 were “out of place,” how much more are they out of place now, in 2013, when what Bill called “the relationship of the state to the individual” in America may be undergoing its most thoroughgoing transformation in history?