Let us give Barack Obama his due for the remarkable speech on race in America that he delivered on March 18. However, let us take note of the lowly condition of political discourse in America in which any intelligent oration by a politician is seen as cause for celebration. This is hardly the first time that the subject of race has been tackled in a comprehensive way by a thoughtful person, only the first time that a leading political figure resisted the daily temptation to reduce his thoughts to the length of slogans and offered instead a subtle analysis of a huge and complex problem. The mere fact of the speech underscores how matters of national importance suffer criminal neglect at the hands of America's deeply rooted anti-intellectualism.
With the recent death of William F. Buckley, Jr. came the painful realization of how far political discourse had degenerated during the course of his long career.
All we need do is contrast the elegant dialogues of "Firing Line" with the self-serving rants of the current crop of radio and television hosts, whose names are unworthy of mention in the same paragraph as Buckley's, to know that there is nothing of his conservative movement left on the airwaves. This may come as a shock to those liberals who are under the impression that the nation's airwaves have been taken over entirely by the radical right, but the self-described conservatives who dominate talk radio and TV bear no more resemblance to Buckley than George W. Bush resembles Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president.
We must face the unpleasant fact that Buckley was an anomaly. Americans as a rule have always placed a much higher value on action over contemplation, and are generally suspicious of anyone who makes his living with his brain or, worse, flaunts his superior learning. In what other developed country could a man get elected president by playing the dumb card? Perhaps this phenomenon is a manifestation of our egalitarian creed, in which the notion of every individual's worth and potential is somehow denigrated by the contrary notion that some people are actually smarter and know better. Even as we claim to want our children to do well in school, and even as more students than ever are competing for places in college, we still engage in debasing conversations about which presidential candidate we would prefer to have a beer with. Considering the vanishingly small probability that any of us will ever actually have a beer with anyone who will ever become president, the question is not only idiotic but harmful. We're not voting for a candidate to be our friend, our neighbor or even our boss. We're voting for someone who needs to know a great deal about the nation and world, and who isn't wary of showing how much he knows for fear that people won't vote for a know-it-all.
Bookstore shelves are filled with the works of academics and other thinkers, many of whom also frequent the talk show circuit with impossibly brief and superficial discussions on all manner of important topics. There is no dearth of serious-minded people attempting to tackle to world's most difficult problems, and there are still safe harbors for serious discussion on college campuses and even a few on the air, such as Jim Lehrer's "News Hour". But there isn't a single genuine intellectual, however well-known and respected within a given field, who is also a household name. Even Buckley, at the height of his celebrity, was read and watched by a relative few and could not have been identified by most men in the street.
There are nations in the world (dare I mention France as the prime example) where the public intellectual is elevated to a status reserved in this country for rock musicians and film stars. There are any number of places in which serious writing is actually considered so dangerous to the regime in power that its authors are subject to persecution, arrest and even execution. Tom Stoppard once mused longingly for a country in which poetry mattered so much that poets could be convicted for writing it. He need not have looked far: Salman Rushdie is technically still a wanted man; Vaclav Havel spent years in Communist prisons; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was exiled from his native Russia; Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged by what passes for a government in Nigeria. And these are merely novelists and playwrights who masked their truths behind fiction and only dabbled in politics on the side. The lives of writers who attack issues openly aren't worth the ink in their printers.
In a nation in which free speech is sacrosanct, the failure to recognize and respect the work of serious thinkers is shameful. The only people who command enough of the public's attention in the U.S. to address issues of importance are either politicians, whose views are distorted by self-interest, or celebrities, whose views are distorted by the twin imperatives to entertain and be noticed.
Not too many years ago there were a lot of people in Hollywood urging Warren Beatty to run for higher office. Have you ever heard the man speak? I suppose that to someone who has trouble putting two intelligent words together, a man who can just about put a coherent sentence together may seem like a superior creature altogether. But celebrities are the only people with a large enough following to make people listen to anything. It is rather sad that Bill Maher's "Real Time" is one of the few programs on television that brings liberals and conservatives to the same table and attempts serious political discussion. The show is often entertaining, but though the host is intelligent he is still a comedian, and many of the guests are actors, musicians and other artists whose opinions are not always, shall we say, enlightening. And this is perhaps the most high-minded show that the vast landscape of cable television has to offer.
Obama's speech is a tantalizing reminder of what political discourse could be. It was sheer agony to surf the news channels in the days following the speech and listen to the predictable responses. I can't even imagine what Bill Buckley must have thought of the screeching and braying that has come to constitute political conversation. He himself may have been a proponent of a particular political vision, but his friendship for avowed liberals like John Kenneth Galbraith (pictured above) and Murray Kempton raised him above the partisan fray. Would that all of his disciples had the same abiding reverence for respectful, untainted debate, and used what influence they have in their respective media to steal the limelight back from the barbarians.
March 21, 2008