Mongoose versus cobra

Because I’m not working on my book at the moment large swathes of time have become available to me. That’s one reason why I’m suddenly so much more prolific here than I was before. I have the leisure to put my thoughts down. When I’m not doing that I have to find something else to occupy me. Yesterday and today I’ve sat on the couch and watched a movie.

I’m of a waspish generation that disapproves of watching TV during the daytime (unless it’s sport). It feels inherently lazy and indulgent to do so. I’m quite happy to hold that attitude.

To ameliorate this indulgence I’ve limited myself this weekend to watching documentaries. That’s okay. Instead of cheap entertainment I’m getting a dose of self-improvement. Im watching, but I have to think to, and along the way I’m learning something.

Yesterday I watched Citizenfour, about Ed Snowden and the surveillance information he revealed to the world. Today I watched The Best of Enemies, about the debates in 1968 between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal. This is what I want to talk about today.

As an Australian and of a much later generation to the protagonists, watching film like this has a historical curiosity. I’m familiar with Vidal, his life and works, and I knew of Buckley.

They’re two brilliant men who held diametrically opposed ideas, and with a genuine disdain for the other. That’s what made it such great TV – a couple of clever men renowned for their wit going at each other hammer and tongs.

It’s nearly 50 years on from that, and there’s certainly an anachronistic air to it – when was the last time we had two brilliant men on screen at once (or even one)? It’s not something we’ve done for many years, though this event itself was when it was born. It had a life, a genuine and informed debate between proponents of different views, on prime-time TV. These days it’s all theatre.

While it was anachronistic it also seemed very fresh. While they were ostensibly debating the presidential primaries in 1968, there is a timeless aspect to the discussion – the same issues and arguments apply now, pretty much, as they did then.

It reminded me how simplistic debate has become. Them’s the times we live in, but also the personalities. In terms of conservative thought Buckley is one of the giants. I find little myself to agree with in his views, and some objectionable, but he was a genuine conservative intellect.

Vidal was famous for being an author and personality, but he was no fool. He came from a political family, and was deeply enmeshed within the American Democrats. As much as Buckley was a vaunted conservative Vidal was a vaulting liberal. They had a natural antipathy, mongoose versus cobra.

It’s not just Australia that’s short on such intellectual personalities now. Who are they in the States? Who are they anywhere? There are personalities, figures, spokesmen, but most tend to caricature these days, and their arguments in large part shallow slogans. There are personalities, but little intellect – because theatre trumps intelligence in todays media driven society.

I would love to live in a society where there existed public intellectuals for me to agree or disagree with. I’d get more value out of a Buckley than a Vidal because he’s someone I could battle against – but it would be a battle that would test and challenge because of his wit and intelligence.

I don’t mind being made to think twice, or re-consider. I’ll even change my mind if I’m convinced to. I’m not an ideologue. It’s a great disappointment that the nearest thing to a Buckley in Australia today is Andrew Bolt, conservative (anti)intellectual and mediocre thinker. So derisory are his arguments that I tend to feel my own opposing position strengthened rather ever challenged.

There’s no denying that the 1968 debates were also great theatre. The full debates weren’t shown, so it’s hard to make a definitive judgement, but the antagonists seemed more intent on rebutting and point scoring against their opponent than they were in establishing a position. They were celebrity talking heads making controversy against each other – as so often today – but with expression and wit so rarely on display now.

Both Buckley and Vidal are dead now. The debates are a historical moment fading away but for these few strips of remaining celluloid. In its day it was famous for the clash between them, and a lifelong and hard-bitten enmity ever since. For Buckley at least it was a source of regret and reflection.

Vidal won the debates by virtue of provoking Buckley into an ill-considered response. In some ways it’s not much different now, and probably no different to how it was a couple of thousand years ago in Rome. It’s the appearance of things that carries the day. Buckley had a moment when he lost control and that was the ball game.

Vidal was such a character for whom an enemy such as Buckley was a defining aspect. I’m sure I’d have spent fascinating hours in conversation with him had we ever met, but equally would have found him difficult to stomach at other times. He seems to have taken delight in hating, and being hated by, Buckley.

Watching Donald Trump on TV make his ridiculous and sensational remarks you wonder what Buckley and Vidal might have made of him. They’d have wondered how things could have changed so much, even Buckley – for Trump is far to the right of him.

Would they be pundits? I doubt it. I think they would have been marginalised, and likely ridiculed by Trump anyway should he care enough. In 2015 they would be anachronisms, a couple of urbane and intelligent men of the world far above the chattering classes who now run the show. The world (the times) has become anti-elite, and men like that don’t belong in a world (time) like this.

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