27 February 2008

Buckley Dead

"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.


LSD said...

With regard to that accent, Buckley was schooled in France and England, and spent much of his youth in Connecticut. His mother was of Swiss descent, and from the South. He was fluent in Spanish to the extent that he even taught it at Yale. According to Wikipedia, English was not his first language. -His accent was one that might be hard to get.

He was a very interesting person and, as you have noted, he seems to have been endowed with healthy measures of humor, wit and charm.

For me, he was one of the few public figures of our time whose passing brings more than the usual register.

For those who might be interested, 'Miles Gone By' is a collection of biographical essays that I found enjoyable.

slouching mom said...

So sad and so true, Ron.

I agree, with both your characterizations of Buckley/Galbraith and your picks for today's more strident, more predictable, and far less interesting replacements.

One could imagine Galbraith or Buckley conceding a point on the intellectual merits of the oppositions's argument.

Not so for Limbaugh or Carville.

Ron Davison said...

I should have asked you (and sort of did, I guess) about the accent. It was not just the accent - the man was hard to duplicate.

I wonder if we'll ever again have a time when unapologetic intellectuals will again lead the debate? Or maybe we're back to high school: the impassioned debates of reason in the corner of the library while the main student body is cheering loudly in the gym.

Dave said...

I used to love watching Firing Line back before VCR's and DVD's, I had to pay strict attention without the ability to rewind. It was a victory to get through a whole show and know all of the words he used.

Gypsy at Heart said...

I didn't know much about Buckley Ron but I do remember that voice of his. A lot of gravitas and power he projected through it. This was a nice post you wrote. May he rest in peace.

HRH said...

Sometimes change just sucks.