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"I just got out of my theatre class and the teacher (Sara Morsey) went into a half hour lecture on how the Satellite is the best source for finding out about what was going on in town. She read parts of Shamrock McShane's article (The Play About the Baby – see: newmoonrising.com) and went on to say that Mr. McShane is a journalistic hero who makes his readers actually think instead of spoon feeding them their news and reviews. She strongly recommended that all her students pick it up this and every month."

– Denise Hank

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Updated: December 25, 2011

Letter to Timothy McShane by William F. Buckley

Back to the Coliseum

April 2008
Satellite Theater
Shamrock McShane

Not just the theater, but all of civilization suffered a tragic loss when culture passed from the hands of the Greeks to the Romans. What had been the golden age of classical drama, such that Aristotle could hold up Sophocles' Oedipus Rex as "the perfect play," degenerated in Rome to the brutal spectacle of the gladiators in the coliseum.

Whereas the Greeks outlawed the presentation of violence on stage, the Romans wanted nothing but violence.

The Greeks would dramatize the events of the psyche with poetry forged in the smithy of men's souls. The rude Romans didn't even need a script.

Sadly, the same seems true of our modern political theater, which has turned primitive and bestial, as marked by the passing of William F. Buckley, the soul of civilized discourse on the Right.

In 1964, the coolest guy in the world was William F. Buckley. He was the sharpest, fastest, smartest word–slinger there was. Here was a guy who could throw the book at you, and it would be the Oxford English Dictionary.

I liked the way Buckley held his pen, and even better was what his pen could do. His writing was elegant, but also funny and surprising and daring.

It was in Up From Liberalism that I drew my first principles of teaching and criticism and encountered the word hippodrome for the first time.

"Education is largely a matter of indoctrination any way you look at it, and there is no reason to presume unintelligence or shallowness in an indoctrinator. Socrates was neither unintelligent nor shallow. He did not approach the classroom as a vast hippodrome where all ideas start even in the race. The Socratic method lay rather in exposing the latent disabilities of all but the winning contestant."

Note the use of litotes, a rhetorical device, not a double negative, employing two negatives to score a point: Socrates was not unintelligent.

By the time I graduated high school I had become a walking anthology of William F. Buckley.

When Buckley and Norman Mailer both ran for Mayor in 1965, the fantastic notion theoretically floated that New York City might usher in a new age of the philosopher king. But good–looking liberal John Lindsey won.

When the tumultuous year 1968 met the city of Chicago for the Democratic National Convention, in the wake of the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, fire kissed powder.

ABC sensed the pending drama and assigned the two most dynamic cultural critics in the land as commentators. Gore Vidal on the Left and William F. Buckley on the right.

Outside, Chicago was disintegrating. Mayor Daley's cops were storming war protestors. Grant Park was an ant swarm — ants another species who war against one another.

Inside, Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, the two most cultured men in America, were at each other's throats.

Both of them went right for the jugular.

Vidal called Buckley a "crypto-nazi." That's the only part of Vidal's provocative remark to come down to us through the ages, and that only because of Buckley's tragic retort.

"Listen you queer," Buckley hissed. "You call me a nazi again and I'll smack your face so you stay plastered."

I watched, nonplussed. William F. Buckley had blown his cool. Hell had frozen over. It would take four years of college for me till the ice would crack, but that was the first fissure.

Buckley had slung a slur at Vidal, and it boomeranged. Vidal had hit the mark. William F. Buckley was nothing like a nazi, unless you can picture storm troopers passing a joint and listening to Bach while yachting off the Hamptons. But somewhere was a nascent Rush Limbaugh and a Bill O'Reilly lurking in the neo–con heart of darkness,

I took my Conservative Mind with me from Oak Park in the suburbs of Chicago to Northern Illinois University in Dekalb in 1969.

It was at NIU that I encountered Professor Marvin Rosen, Marx, and history, or should I say they encountered me. I remembered Buckley having written that his task as a conservative was "to stand athwart history yelling stop."

It wouldn't.

When four college kids were gunned down by the National Guard during a war protest at Kent State University in Ohio, the students at NIU marched on the city of Dekalb in solidarity.

Marvin Rosen took to the ramparts and galvanized the movement — in me. The crowd turned back and returned to the campus and turned over a few UPD patrol cars and set them on fire, but that was about it. It wouldn't be till 2008 that some real damage was done on the NIU campus, and that by a new–age psycho, not some relatively harmless hippies.

The world was turning upside down, which I have come to understand since is in the nature of things. Things tend to turn into their opposite.

Was extremism in defense of liberty a vice? That was a question perhaps better answered by a libertine than a libertarian.

I was a Conservative, but I metamorphosed into a dialectical materialist, which is to say, a Marxist. Eventually, Mr. Buckley and I would have to part ways.

By 1974, a year out of college and writing on my own, I wanted to make my break with the past a clean one. So I wrote a long letter to William F. Buckley, resigning from the Conservative cause. I included a short story I'd been working on for nearly a year, trying to eliminate every scintilla of self–consciousness, so that the author could disappear, as James Joyce has suggested he should.

Wouldn't you know it, Buckley wrote back.

You can see that William F. Buckley has typed it himself on National Review stationery and signed it in a small hand in red ink and sent it from the offices of National Review on East 35th Street in New York.

I share it with you in part of course because the letter is very edifying to me personally, but in larger part because the letter is ultimately even more edifying to its author. Who, after all, am I? And even more so, then: a twenty–three year old suburban hippie set adrift in Chicago.

June 17, 1974

Dear Mr. McShane:

That's quite a letter. Let me congratulate you on the story, which I think is good. The style is mature, and there is genuine emotion in it, which most stories of that kind tend to miss — in any case that is my impression. You write well and are an engaging man. I am not in the least sorry, in the sense of that word that the context suggests, that I am losing you. On the other hand it is unlikely that you will fall easily for those cliches of progressivism which I do battle against. At least I hope that won't happen. You are genial and kind to let me know of your long thralldom, and I accept your resignation philosophically and with grace. With all best wishes.

Yours cordially,
Wm. F. Buckley Jr.