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William F Buckley on moral leadership at Columbia University, 1968

Buckley, the founder of the National Review, disapprovingly recounts the story of Linda LeClair, a student at Barnard College, who lived with her boyfriend in a private apartment. Not only did Buckley berate LeClair for her decision to live with a man outside of wedlock, but he lambasted Barnard administrators and other liberals for tolerating such behavior. While LeClair probably viewed Playboy’s philosophy as the antithesis of hers, Buckley linked the two together, seeing them as equal parts in the same revolution against time-honored morality. Buckley coupled this editorial with a piece on the student rebellion at Barnard College’s male affiliate, Columbia University. Whereas Buckley censured Barnard administrators for tolerating LeClair’s violation of school rules, he praised Columbia University president Grayson Kirk for cracking down on student rebels who occupied and defiled campus buildings. Indeed, in contrast to many other commentators who demanded Kirk’s resignation for allowing New York City police to brutally evict the student demonstrators, Buckley cast the university president as a champion of virtue.

William F. Buckley Jr., “Linda’s Crusade”, National Review 20, no. 2 ( May 21, 1968)

New York, April 28—It is now a national story that Miss Linda LeClair, twenty, of Barnard College, has been living off campus in New York with Mr. Peter Behr, 22, of Columbia, and that a general story on such practices by the New York Times flushed out the cohabitation and put the authorities of Barnard College on the spot. Complications came swift and fast. Dozens upon dozens of Miss LeClair’s classmates stepped forward to admit that their living arrangements were similarly loose-minded, and that therefore it would be unfair to penalize Miss LeClair simply because she happened to be the one who was caught, a defensive doctrine which is not exactly airtight.

The authorities, visibly disconcerted, demonstrated from the outset a total lack of conviction about the significance of Miss LeClair’s sexual habits, and decided instead to focus on her having lied in the college form she had filled out giving the required details on where she was domiciled. All of a sudden, all of Barnard was rising in indignation over the false entry in the form, which is rather like being indignant at Iago because he was rude to Desdemona. And then, to make opera bouffe of the whole thing, after meeting solemnly to consider the disposition of the LeClair case, the authorities voted to deprive her of access to the school cafeteria, which was joke enough for a public unfamiliar with the school cafeteria, but for those who are forced to patronize it, it was apparently something in the nature of black humor.

Miss LeClair’s parents were finally consulted, and it transpires that they, being of the older generation of course, disapprove their daughter’s habits, and have gone so far as to cease to send her money. Mr. Behr, who is a draft evader, is apparently unable to take up the slack; so that perhaps the indomitable Miss LeClair will list herself as an unemployed concubine and apply for relief from the City, which has never been known to deny relief to anyone who applies for it: and that should settle the economic exigencies of the matter.

As for the future, we learn from Miss LeClair that it is her intention to continue to live with Mr. Behr after he is let out of prison, to which he expects to repair in consequence of his violation of the statute law if not the moral law. And they will then found a colony where couples can live and bear and raise children, without getting married. Miss LeClair, in other words, desires to abrogate the institution of marriage, which is apparently okay by Barnard, now that she has ceased to lie about it.

The commentary on the case in the urban press is of course more interesting than the delinquency of this pathetic little girl, so gluttonous for sex and publicity. My favorite is Mr. Max Lerner’s, ever on his avant garde. Surveying the story, he concludes, “In moral terms, while it says that the sexual code is no longer there, it fails to deal with the question of truthfulness. . .” So much for a code that developed over three thousand years of Judaeo-Christian experience-shot down, in a subordinate phrase, by Mr. Max Lerner.

There isn’t anyone around who seems prepared to say to Miss LeClair: Look, it is wrong to do what you have done. Wrong because sexual promiscuity is an assault on an institution that is central to the survival of the hardiest Western ideal: the family. In an age in which the Playboy philosophy is taken seriously, as a windy testimonial to the sovereign right of all human appetites, it isn’t surprising that the LeClairs of this world should multiply like rabbits, whose morals they imitate. But the fact that everybody does it—even Liberace, as Noel Coward assures us—doesn’t make it the right thing to do, and doesn’t authorize the wishful conclusion of Mr. Lerner that, like God, the sexual code is dead.

Perhaps the sexual code is dead. Question: Should we regret it? Or should we take the position that that which is “no longer there” is no longer missed? That should be a very good argument for saying that, in South Africa, one should not bemoan the fact of apartheid, inasmuch as integration is, indisputably, “no longer there.” Many observers are telling us here that our country is so thorough-goingly racist that we have no practicable alternative than to turn to apartheid. Should we, even assuming they were correct, diminish efforts to make things otherwise?

One wonders whether, if Miss LeClair were plopped into the middle of Columbia’s Union Theological Seminary, a single seminarian would trouble to argue with her, as Christ did the woman at Jacob’s well, that her ways are mistaken? 

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 11/25 at 06:21 PM

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