Super Lawyers
William C. Altreuter

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

In 1966 William F. Buckley sent Norman Mailer an autographed copy of The Unmaking of a Mayor, the memoir of his unsuccessful run for mayor of New York City the previous year.
Mailer turned to the index and looked up his own name. There he found, in Buckley’s handwriting, the words “Hi, Norman.” (Via Futility Closet.) (When asked what he would do if he won, Buckley said, "Demand a recount".)

Buckley is a pretty good example of why conservative humor is not so funny. Here's a quote from Unmaking: “You can’t walk from one end of New York to the other without a good chance of losing your wallet, your maidenhead, or your life; or without being told that white people are bigoted, that Negroes are shiftless, that free enterprise is the enemy of the working class, that Norman Thomas has betrayed socialism, and that the only thing that will save New York is for the whole United States to become like New York.”

Let's parse this statement a bit. Buckley says that if you walk from the Bronx to Sheepshead Bay you are liable to be robbed, raped or killed; that you will encounter racists and socialists, and that New York is a weird outlier when compared to the rest of the United States. He is using several of the tools used to write humor and to craft arguments, chiefly hyperbole and the litany. At first glance it appears as if he is setting himself in opposition to his audience--  people in New York who vote for mayor-- but actually he is not, and we see this in one of his signature moves: the deployment of arcane vocabulary and esoteric cultural references. "Maidenhead", tehehe, is a reference to the hymen of a virgin, so it's a little dirty. Norman Thomas I had to look up: basically he was a socialist who was mostly active in the 20's, 30's and 40's and who seems to have been a right thinking kinda guy. By making these references Buckley is drawing a circle around himself and his audience: we are the people who are mildly amused by referring to virginity and feel good about recognizing a relatively obscure political figure from earlier in the century.Is it funny? Not particularly. Buckley is basically sneering at everyone who isn't William F. Buckley, and this, to me, is more or less the paradigm of right wing humor. It's Us Against Them, and if you don't think it's funny guess which one you are?

Much is made of Buckley's patrician cool, but he wasn't classy enough to be a good loser, which one supposes is the sort of thing expected from Yale men of his generation. Dismayed by the strong support for Lindsay among wealthy Republicans, Buckley mocked their Upper East Side neighborhood as the “densest national concentration of vegetarians, pacifists, hermaphrodites, junkies, Communists, Randites, clam-juice-and-betel-nut eaters.” I'm not sure why supporters of Ayn Rand get enumerated here, among the hermaphrodites and the junkies, but they were never in better company than when they were set against William F. Buckley's vision for New York.

Viewed in this light, Buckley's little jibe at Mailer-- himself a former mayoral candidate-- seems less funny and more bullying, doesn't it? 

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