Albert Camus wrote books-many of which are now deemed classics. He wrote fictional novels as well as non-fictional works alike and he is not the only one. Henry James, Jean Paul Sartre, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Ivan Goncharov, Leo Tolstoy, are just some of the writers who famously wrote in this fashion. William F. Buckley Jr and Gore Vidal are also two others writers who can boast the same, at least they would if they were still living.
Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville co-directed the 2015 documentary, Best of Enemies. The film is about Buckley and Vidal. Buckley presented a debating show called the Firing Line which ran from 1966-1999. It was not a debating show technically. Buckley interviewed his guests and he would debate with them with whatever issues surfaced. It was through this show that he became well known. He also was the editor of the National Review. He was a man who thought debates should be cultural and whatever one thinks of Buckley, few, if any will argue against his phenomenal debating skills but today many of his views have fallen out of favour with even modern day so-called conservatives. There are few people in history whose views and beliefs have stood the test of time so to say, and still appear rational; Buckley is not one of those people. He even refused to debate with a communist on television. What he said about the Vietnam war was shocking, but what is interesting about this Conradian nightmare is elite intellectual opinion and the opinion amongst the general population. 70% of the American population said the war not was only wrong; and neither did they believe it was a mistake, but instead thought is was criminal. People like Buckley, who of course is part of the intelligentsia, would not even call it a mistake, he enthusiastically supported it. He is not alone. Opinion amongst the intelligentsia is quite revealing. The only academics that criticised the war only did on narrow grounds and labelled it a ‘mistake, the one’s that did call it criminal were on Nixon’s famous list.
Gore Vidal on the other end of the political spectrum, opposed it. He, like Buckley, was born in 1925. His sharp wit and exotic exuberance counteracted Buckley’s debating prowess. Vidal is often accused of patent arrogance and there is a more serious charge laid against the writer of Lincoln and Myra Breckinridge. He is, or was, say some, only interested in his own vanity and supercillious character. He lived a large part of his life in Italy and called himself a born-writer. Before and after the now famous Buckley/Vidal debates, Vidal was not short of controversy. Norman Mailer once punched him, when Vidal was on the floor, he said: ‘once again, words fail you’. He hated Truman capote and more particular, his most popular novel, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He also successfully sued him. These were interesting times but it was the debates between WillIam Buckley and Gore Vidal that is most interesting, compelling and inspiring.
In 1968, the Republican party in the United States held their national convention in Miami and the Democratic convention in Chicago. ABC News had the temerity to invite the men men to debate the conventions and they did this. Ten intriguing debates took place. What is interesting about these debates is the universal ideas which were exchanged. Comparisons of one variety or another can be made. Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright and short story writer writes, that is true, or did. The difference is he writes about universal issues about all of us and not merely Russians, the same can be said of Zola, Balzac, Shakespeare, Kafka and so on. These two men then, as Christopher Hitchens commented, ‘despise one another’. Buckley thought Vidal’s ideas where going to take out the nation with them and vice versa.
People will add that why bother to even discuss these two characters. Perhaps they will add it is only about the United States they speak of and the issues they discussed are not only old-fashioned but no longer relevant. Well, that is just not true. It teaches us a lesson, a lesson of history: debates are no longer conducted in this fashion. The two men, in their words and sentiments were not censored, there was no fooling the public mind, no subtle techniques of manipulating information or just leaving inconvenient facts out. In contrast, today’s debates are extremely contrived. The BBC for example, would never employ a Vidal or Buckley or anybody even remotely like them. Instead we have more entertaining forms of debate. Strangely enough, in these modern debates on mainstream television channels, people regurgitate the same views, there are just minor quibbles they disagree with and that is the limitation of debate.
Anybody familiar with news programmes on television channels today will be aware of the lack of debating taking place and even when this does happens it consists of reprobatory characters shouting at each other as if they were in the playground. One of the most important elements of these modern-day debates is precision. This is a very clever stratagem and most employ it. Most people debating just offer base, untruthful platitudes and this is information that reaches mass audiences, so for these malevolent-types, there is little need to elucidate what they are referring to and so forth but for the dissident, i.e the teller of dark, well-hidden lies and it is the truth they are concerned with; we, they face a significant problem. When they discuss these well-hidden falsehoods, people at home evidently ask and rightly say things like ‘you better have evidence for that comment and lots of it’ but under precision in the media you can not give evidence; there is no time and so the media is framed so that the person that fabricates the most nonsense will always win.
As for Buckley and Vidal; well, that is different. What they said, they believed was the case. Most people, once they are vetted through the television system tell lies so naturally, they no longer know they are doing it. It is no longer about the battle of ideologies or even principles, it about something more basic elementary than that. It is the search for the truth, and when people falter at that, and there is no telling if they will, then history will remain to be what Edward Said called ‘a creative life’. Now, what matters with the intelligentsia is not truth, but the perpetuation of power, of the need of the strong to bludgeon the weak, to create an hegemony between plutocratic demagogues. We are no longer encountering debates between two eloquent American intellectuals about the emerging crisis. We are entering an apocalyptic era that may be the very last steps of human existence if the status quo continues in this perverse and abominable fashion.