I’m sorry to see that William F. Buckley passed away last night. I have no fondness for his political positions, but I always admired the ferocity, intelligence and nuance in which he delivered them. The conservative movement in the USA has no contemporary analog to Buckley; the rabid anti-intellectualism brought on by the Reaganites in the 1980s has brought on a subsequent generation of quasi-messianic dunderheads (William Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, Rush Limbaugh, Jonah Goldberg et al) who completely pale in comparison. Political debate and discourse in the US has effectively flatlined over the past 20 years, and it’s not a coincidence that Buckley’s retreat into a more private life happened over the same period of time.
Take for example Buckley’s brilliant television show Firing Line, which pioneered the now-tired and mostly useless Red v. Blue format we’ve seen replicated on cable since the halcyon days of CNN. Buckley’s guests were a wide range a social and political commentators–not the same five or six party bureaucrats we see floating around on news channels today–and Firing Line’s hour-long, commercial-free format while it aired on public television not only afforded for real discussions, but in a very tangible way demanded them. Where today’s talking point pundits are masters of the 90-second micro stump speech and invective-fueled one-liner, Firing Line’s guests were almost always skilled rhetoricians, capable of building and sustaining effective arguments for a lot more than just a sentence or two.
Check out this 1969 clip of Buckley debating Noam Chomsky on the responsibilities of imperialism and state-sponsored terrorism (hmmm…sound familiar?):
I find it both frustrating and sad that in our current milieu of the 500-channel cable subscription, it is impossible to find a single hour of television programming capable of delivering real conversations about important social and political issues. The longest-running political talk show currently on cable is MSNBC’s Hardball (hosted by former Tip O’Neill staffer Chris Matthews), which is nothing more than a cartoon of a cartoon of a debate show. The fact, then, that the most informed and intelligent discussion of contemporary politics happens on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report–where news and policy can be analyzed through the safety of deadpan comedy schtick–shouldn’t at all surprise us.
All of this, of course, has already been pointed out by The Daily Show’s host Jon Stewart, someone a lot smarter and telegenic than yours truly. In 2004, Stewart went on CNN’s now-defunct political talk show Crossfire under the guise of plugging a book (because when it really comes down to it, these “talk” shows are little more than 20-minute infomercials for the latest dead trees tripe by Michael Moore or Ann Coulter, but I digress…) but ended up challenging Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson to take their charge as political moderators a lot more seriously:
As I’ve written several times here before, Stewart and Colbert are working out of a very long and well-established Western tradition of satire that is probably best exampled by the works of Juvenal and Jonathan Swift; as such, I would never argue that the work they do is comparable to what meatheads like Matthews, Carlson, Bill O’Reilly, et al do. In a very real way, Stewart and Colbert need political discourse in the US to be as atrophied as it currently is, and they are providing that comic catharsis that we desperately need.
I guess what I’m driving at here ultimately is this: Buckley’s death marks the passing of a serious forum for the body politic to hear equally serious commentators have an equally serious conversation about serious, substantive issues that we all (–yep–) need to take seriously. And while I love the cartoony stuff and will be the first to defend its merits, I’m sorry to say that probably all we’re all going to be ultimately left with is the cartoon, and I’m fearful that we won’t be able to distinguish it as such for very much longer.