Friday, December 22, 2006

Welcome to Firing Line!

In the spirit of the season, this is my choice for a suitable image: Please visit my group:

In the olden days, before cable television, there were three t.v. networks and a couple of local stations in New York, besides PBS. On Sunday mornings, as I poured cereal into a bowl and got up to change channels (no remote control) -- while mastering the art of getting rabbit ear antenas aligned just right, so that the picture was semi-focused -- I would discover mind-numbingly dull public service broadcasts and ponder my newspaper (the comics), right before going to play basketball with my friends.

One Sunday morning, at 11:00 A.M., I stumbled upon an interview program that seemed very different from all others. Firing Line. Picture a bare stage, two chairs and a speaker's podium in the middle distance. Sometimes there was an audience, usually when the show was taped at an academic institution. The introductory music was, if I remember correctly, from Bach's "Brandenburg Concerti."

The host of this program, William F. Buckley, Jr. spoke a language that vaguely resembled the English I spoke with my friends (Baroque?), but was much more elegant, beautiful, semi-British sounding. Today people would say "he's too fancy or articulate for t.v. People won't understand him or his guests." Maybe they said that then.

Buckley's syntax and vocabulary were rich and very personal -- as with novelist George Meredith or Henry James -- his sentences stayed with you. The Dalai Lama once complained that his English was difficult to understand, but no more than William F. Buckley, Jr.'s words. For some reason, having a kind word for any conservative, even in disagreement, especially for Buckley and other American patricians, is deemed a terrible offense against "political correctness." I have no idea why this is true. However, I am always delighted to think that I have offended the standards of political correctness. Isn't the very idea of "standards" offensive to political correctness? Remember, Gore Vidal is also an American patrician. Vidal's exchange with Buckley is differently understood by people depending on their politics. After reading a description of the incident in a biography of Vidal, I give the edge to Vidal.

I experienced both a feeling of aesthetic bliss in hearing language used with such relish and care, also at the level of conversation possible with the sort of people who were guests on Buckley's program. The discussions were totally different from what was available in celebrity talk shows or sit-coms at that time. There is nothing like it on television now. By today's standards, the stupid stuff available on the networks then sounds like Plato's academy. I discovered Daniel Patrick Moynihan and John Kenneth Galbraith, as intellectuals and jousting partners of Buckley's, long before I knew them as political figures. Moynihan's 1975 speech at the U.N. is more timely and important today than when it was delivered.

Buckley would have debates that were structured and fair to opponents, who were often the most intelligent and articulate spokespersons available for the view that Buckley rejected. One lesson learned from that program is to confront the best spokespeople for the views that you reject, to study and engage with their views, fairly, and then to offer your own reasoning, opinions and conclusions, fearlessly, regardless of the difference in numbers. Buckley never cut off adversaries or cut to a commercial -- there were no commercials. There was an "examiner" to balance Buckley's perspective, in addition to his guest's opinions.

This tolerance of dissent and friendship among debaters was and is a precious and valuable, also ALWAYS IMPERILED, aspect of America's public life. The right to disagree, to be in the minority on any issue is inviolable. You do not prevail in discussions by hiring people to disrupt my blog -- by hiring people to "insert" typos, perhaps -- or to destroy my written work. Such tactics are a confession of intellectual bankruptcy. Right Senator, Bob? Buckley sometimes lost debates -- and included film of such discussions in the highlight program at the end of the season. Debate is a process, not a result. Ideally, debate is both internal and external. The most important debates should be the ones we have with ourselves over a lifetime.

Buckley was and is a political and cultural conservative, whose views I mostly disagree with, though not all. At the time, Buckley's views were "in the minority" on television -- to put it mildly. Yet Buckley was highly adept, well-informed, prepared and articulate in defending conservative views, often winning debates convincingly, despite being outnumbered; always forcing me to rethink my opinions and read more to decide what I really believe. Buckley made it impossible to accept that all conservatives are stupid or greedy and insensitive. I wish I could say the same for New Jersey politicians.

I also read Gore Vidal and agree with Vidal, mostly, on political issues. Yet I learned a lot from Buckley and looked forward to his show, later reading (and admiring) several of his books. I was amused by accounts of the famous "debate" between the two, Vidal and Buckley, which was out of character for both of them. All heat and no light. Neverthless, as I say, Vidal retains the title in a split decision.

There is nothing like Firing Line on t.v. today. This is unfortunate because, even though I am a democratic socialist, many of my views have been influenced by Buckley. More importantly, how I come to have views on controversial subjects has been decisively influenced by Buckley and his guests. It may be true that I agree with Buckley and other conservatives about a few issues only. However, these few issues are very important ones -- like the right to disagree freely, the priceless moral worth of persons, the inviolability of each person's spiritual life, and a few others, especially the essential goodness of the American idea and nation. I make an exception for the putridness of New Jersey's legal system and the vermin that crawl around in that system.

Most of us will not be fortunate enough to attend Andover or Exeter and Yale or Harvard. Many people will not have an opportunity, as I did, to go to a good college or law school, but almost everybody in America has a television. Once upon a time the responsibility to use this most powerful medium, at least sometimes, to expose people to some of the outstanding scholars, scientists and thinkers, artists and political figures in society was recognized. No more. Charlie Rose is a nice guy, I am sure, but he is no William F. Buckley, Jr. -- or Dick Cavett, for that matter, who also featured regular talks with philosophers and university professors as well as movie stars on his program. Charlie Rose is now the best we've got.

Buckley's literary tastes were helpful and instructive. I discovered G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis, and others through his program. I also discovered philosophy on Firing Line, long before I took a college course in the subject. Mortimer Adler, Paul Weiss, Brand Blanshard (I think?) and many other philosophers, both Brits and Americans, appeared on the program. I believe that Angela Davis and Malcolm Muggeridge were also on the program. Political scientists, economists, poets, politicians and activists were guests. Not once do I recall an interview with a stupid person or a celebrity there to sell something and nothing more.

Buckley also took viewers to Oxford Union debates, which were fascinating for the wit and intelligence of participants. These were young people, from all social classes in Britain, being reared for public speaking and future lives in politics. It was clear to me that the level of public discussion was simply higher in Britain than in the U.S., it probably still is higher. Both Carson and Paar said the same, insisting on including British guests on programs. Buckley is the conservative I wanted to debate -- not agree with necessarily -- because the experience would have to be instructive. Instruction or learning (not just persuasion) should be the purpose of debate.

When you make a commitment to rational discussion and debate -- not violence -- to resolve or come to terms with those with whom you disagree, you have already made the most crucial democratic commitment and the essential American political gesture. People in Iraq and other places need to think about this, if they really want democracy. Public, open, discussion and debate about political and legal decisions is the only way to retain personal freedoms. The bases for policy and legal decisions have to be exposed to examination and criticisms. Conservatives should note the tension between "security needs" and America's foundational principle of "free speech." This tension is also an issue to be discussed and debated. It is never a solution to cover-up, conceal, deny, pretend that things have not happened. Much less wise is it to destroy dissenting views or dissenters.

At the conclusion of most programs, Buckley would hold before the camera his guest's book. I found myself rushing to the bookstore after many shows. I read Jean Francois Revel, Cleveland Amory, Mortimer Adler and others immediately after seeing them on Buckley's program. As for Buckley's own writings, his "Blackford Oakes" novels are fun, the new introduction to God and Man at Yale is important, the collection of essays in The Governor Listeth holds up very well, as does his collection of readings on Conservative Thought in America.

Buckley went to school in England. Many people do not know, however, that he also lived in Mexico, as a child, or that Buckley was fluent in Spanish. Buckley is well-informed on subjects of Spanish culture and history, having taught Spanish -- at Yale, I believe. Here are Buckley's words, more timely today, concluding his remarks on the occasion of Dr. King's murder.

... more significant by far than the ghastly executions of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King -- acts committed by isolatable and isolated men -- more significant by far is the spontaneous, universal grief of a community which in fact considers itself aggrieved. That is the salient datum in America, not that we breed the aberrant excutioners of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, but that we generated the most widely shared and the most intensely felt sense of grief over the loss of Mr. Kennedy and Mr. King as is felt over the loss of one's brothers.

That is what I judge to be a newsworthy datum; a point I stress not because I feel the need to flatter the United States of America, but because I feel the need to measure the United States of America, which is the land where I was born and choose to live; which is the land where you were born and choose to live; which land, I feel increasingly, needs us all as her devoted bodyguards, even as Messrs. Kennedy and King needed more bodyguards at the crucial moments in their histories. She needs us, however quarrelsome; however disparate our views; however pronounced our separations. I feel that we should be grateful, whatever our differences, to be facing the sea -- this sea; this enemy -- in this bark. I do believe that the time is overdue to profess our continuing faith in this country and in its institutions -- including its press.

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