When William F. Buckley Jr. died in February 2008, one of the first things that sprang to my mind in contemplating his extraordinary career was his statement upon launching the conservative journal National Review:
"It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so."
The image his line conjured always made me smile, but it has also often given me pause.
What did he perceive, or assume, about history's direction? Why was "no one" else -- or so few, anyway -- similarly inclined? Is the same posture still necessary?
A similar reassessment of American politics is going on today, though a new Buckley has yet to emerge.
His old phrase resonated again for me in late 2009, when a woman approached me after I spoke about presidential politics and media bias to a senior citizens' group, having identified myself as a conservative. The pastor under whose leadership she'd grown up was "proud to call himself a liberal," she said, shaking with indignation, and that was good enough for her, too.
Her era was the same as Mr. Buckley's -- they were young adults in the 1950s -- and it was easy to imagine her congregation as a noble bastion for civil rights. Mr. Buckley's pre-eminent battle was against communism and for capitalism and freedom of thought.
He was an early, outspoken opponent of anti-Semitism, but he came late to the civil rights cause -- about when Lyndon Johnson did.
Back then, the elderly lady and Mr. Buckley could have described themselves respectively as "liberal" and "conservative" and could both still have belonged to the same party. They could have stood for many of the same causes but emphasized them differently. Not so today.
The use of political labels, the march of history and the quest for an appropriate posture continue to challenge the individual in this millennium. Sometimes the challenge is very directly put: A reader castigated me recently for using the term "leftist" or "leftie" rather than "liberal" and for what he considers an insatiable opposition to any policy of the Obama administration.
True liberalism protects the sanctity of the individual's conscience, liberty and property against the forces that would impinge upon them -- whether that's a tyrannical church or an overbearing government.
Today's "liberals" are mostly ... not. Having spent the past few years digging deeply into the origins of classical liberalism, I resent applying the term incorrectly to modern partisans whose goals are diametrically opposed to that noble intellectual strain. I have often chosen to use "leftist" when the ideas someone puts forward clearly derive from Marxist thought. "Leftie" is for proponents of "socialism lite": less substance, but the bloat's the same.
Because of my research, I increasingly consider myself a libertarian. But if I thought it was only in my lifetime that, as one side crows and the other complains, "liberal" became a dirty word, re-reading Mr. Buckley's National Review manifesto reminded me otherwise.
In 1955, when the journal was launched, he was already tilting at "the liberal orthodoxy," the astonishing tendency he'd already found in academia to squelch any challenges to the ruling elite's received wisdom.
That was seven years before I was born. In my lifetime -- thanks to the work of the indignant elderly liberal woman, Mr. Buckley and other heroes, sung and unsung -- our society achieved full enfranchisement. The promise of nearly two centuries was finally extended to all.
But even as we secured justice for all, we continued an incremental march away from liberty. We inched toward socialism even as the Soviet bloc was crumbling. What was once an inching is now a flat-out gallop -- even as Western Europe's socialist governments collapse under the weight of their unsustainable delusions.
We are all called to fight the battles of our time. We are also called to fight the battles where we live and work. I ask myself every week, what is mine?
A case in point: This paper's op-ed page just published a column celebrating a new biography of Roger Williams, the Christian minister who invented the "wall of separation," in which the writer claimed that Catholics pushing back against Obamacare's mandate that they buy abortion-inducing drugs for others, in violation of their own consciences, is an unacceptable "faith intrusion into politics"!
Now that is unthinking liberal orthodoxy. Or leftist, if you ask me. It's the battle of my time, where I live.
Taking a longer view than the rose-tinted and self-congratulatory one of America's (and Pittsburgh's) liberal elite, history's default setting is clearly tyranny. Freedom is a human right, yes, but it is also, sadly, a fleeting privilege. We are fools to take it for granted.
Ruth Ann Dailey: email@example.com.