27 February 2008
"Ah, yes. Buckley is a good friend of mine. We often ski together and socialize. I enjoy him. But perhaps the thing I like best about Bill is that, like most people, I'm averse to thinking. I simply have to wait to see what position Bill takes on a topic, and I know that I can safely take the other."
- John Kenneth Galbraith, predicting the future of punditry in an attempt to be absurd.
For a time, William F. Buckley and John Kenneth Galbraith defined the liberal and conservative views. They were articulate, learned, and unafraid to make points that demanded something of the audience. To read either was to learn new words, new ideas, and about old events. They did not design their message to be accessible but, rather, to make the audience stretch. (I remember, as a teenager, reading Buckley and Galbraith with a dictionary beside me.) They seemed less interested in pandering to prejudice than delighting in challenging conventional thought.
Galbraith was liberal, sure, and Buckley conservative, but their positions never seemed mindless or automatic.
Today, Buckley died, two years after his friend Galbraith. But they represented a different era of journalism than what we have today. Their message did not cater to market demand. Rather than dumb down their message, they expected their audience to smarten up. They were unafraid to be elitist, erudite, and even to be seen as arrogant. (I never did understand why Buckley, a man from Texas, sounded so British.)
One got the sense that they saw the world as complex and felt obligated to offer ideas that, if not actually complex were, at least, nuanced sufficiently to do justice to such complexity.
Today’s media, less secure in a shared monopoly, seems more anxious about getting the public’s attention, unable to host the views of people like Buckley or Galbraith, people’s whose elaborations could prompt massive defection from remote-control holding audiences with twitchy fingers.
Historians will likely use the deaths of Buckley and Galbraith to signal the death of a particular kind of punditry. The voice of the right now sounds more like Rush Limbaugh than William F. Buckley; the voice of the left now sounds more like James Carville than John Kenneth Galbraith. This new media seems more designed to appeal to entrenched feelings than to challenge conventional thinking. Such a pity.