Gore Vidal (left) and William F. Buckley Jr. getting prepped for the debates in the documentary, Best of Enemies. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

A half century since the death of discourse

The cliché about the 1960s is all peace and love, but it was actually pretty violent, particularly 1968, with the assassinations and riots, not just in the U.S. but around the world.

Then there was the Democratic convention in Chicago at the end of August 1968, with the riots and subsequent trial that made household names of Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Bobby Seale, among others.

Watching the events unfold in Chicago night after night of the convention were two celebrated intellectuals offering their insight on network TV. Perhaps insight is an overstatement and “intellectual” could be taken with a grain of salt in light of their behaviour. Oh, there’s no doubting Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley were smart, well-read and armed with a well-stocked vocabulary. A document about the televised debates, Best of Enemies, chronicles all the nastiness, and makes clear that while these two were supposed to be providing analysis, they were simply coming up with more creative ways of insulting the other.

The climax came after Vidal refers to Buckley as a “crypto-Nazi.” Buckley’s eyes pop out, calls Vidal a “queer” (yes, openly referring to Vidal’s sexuality – in 1968) and threatens to smash his “G**-damned face.” You can see Buckley’s teeth grinding. He looks ecstatic, even victorious, like he’s just torn off his enemy’s head, but it’s clear Vidal is unmoved. Buckley has thrown what he assumes is a knockout punch but has failed to land the blow.

So who won? I’m not sure, but I think discourse died, at least a little that day. These two were supposed to be intellectuals at a time when being an intellectual in the U.S. wasn’t such a dirty word, though they seemed designed only to bolster their massive egos.

Fifty years later, an intellectual debate on network TV, night after a night for a week, seems like a foreign concept in this age of punditry. However, Vidal and Buckley helped usher in the age. (Once upon a time the term pundit was a Sanskrit word referring to one who is learned or skilled.) Sadly, what’s followed since the two went tongue to tongue seems like an excess of venomous banter. Watch how often pundits and so-called experts on 24-hour news channels limit themselves to loaded, inflammatory language and ad hominem attacks.

wWhy counter someone’s argument when you can attack the person directly? Fox News does this better than anyone. Man, how I’d love to see a judge order them to refrain from calling anyone names for even 24 hours. I think they’d collapse. Yet, Fox does not stand alone here. You can go across the spectrum and find plenty looking only to slander or use “truthiness” to shore up what they already know.

I can’t blame Vidal and Buckley for everything. Attack ads had already come to politics by the 1968 Democratic convention. Heck, they helped Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater four years earlier with the famous “Daisy” commercial that starts with a little girl picking daisy petals and ends in mushroom cloud, implying that a vote for the Republican was a vote for nuclear holocaust. While we haven’t lowered ourselves quite as much in Canada, we’re hardly immune from wedge politics, as a quick look at social media commentary will suggest.

Years ago, The Daily Show had a recurring segment called “Great Moments in Punditry,” in which they got children to recite the ridiculously over-baked rhetoric of cable news foes. Both the concept and the execution was hilarious, and all too much to the point.

I don’t have an issue with righteous anger, but when it’s dehumanized, when people reduce others to subhumans, such anger is no longer righteous. It’s rancid. We should be better than this. Maybe The Daily Show needs to bring back Great Moments in Punditry to remind us of this. Let the children lead the way.

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