Civil discourse is not outmoded

Turn on your television, listen to your radio or open up a book about current events today, and you will be hard pressed to decipher the valid arguments amid the cacophony of name-calling, partisan rants and distortions. On both the left and right, nuanced and sophisticated commentary is increasingly being crowded out by the loud, the sensational and the just plain dumb.

Take Al Franken. A brilliant comedian, Franken rarely ever rises above the personal slight. His first book, “Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Idiot,” speaks for itself. Franken is currently the star of the new, all-liberal, all-the-time radio network Air America that features more Bush-bashing than any liberal Yalie could ever want. But the worst of the left’s sorry lot is filmmaker Michael Moore. He recently intoned that, “The Iraqis who have risen up against the occupation are not ‘insurgents’ or ‘terrorists’ or ‘The Enemy.’ They are the REVOLUTION, the Minutemen, and their numbers will grow — and they will win.” Moore’s latest “documentary” film, “Bowling for Columbine,” is the highest grossing non-fiction movie of all time and his books “Stupid White Men” and “Dude, Where’s My Country” have both spent weeks upon weeks on national best seller lists. The fact that a man who has expressed sympathy for a gang of Islamist terrorists bent on murdering American soldiers and turning Iraq into a repressive theocracy could elicit such popular support from so many Americans (and Wesley Clark) speaks to the troubling state into which our political dialogue has sunk.

But the right matches the left partisan hack for partisan hack. Who can forget the popular radio host and former MSNBC pundit Michael Savage, who once told a gay caller, “You should only get AIDS and die, you pig?” Ann Coulter pontificates as if her salary were dependent upon the outrageousness of her comments. Of the Muslim world, she wrote on Sept. 13, 2001 that “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” Fox TV host Sean Hannity equates liberals to terrorists and tyrants in his latest book, crudely titled, “Deliver Us From Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism and Liberalism.” Add Bill O’Reilly, Eric Alterman, Rush Limbaugh and Janeane Garofalo to the mix, and you have yourself perhaps the most obnoxious potential mud-wrestling match ever imagined in all of human history.

For a taste of what our nation’s political discourse used to be like, I took a trip last December to the Museum of Television & Radio in New York City. There, I watched a 1967 episode of “Firing Line,” the legendary political debate show hosted by William F. Buckley Jr. ’50. “Firing Line,” which ceased production in 1999 after 33 years, is one of the longest running television programs in history. It is the progenitor of the modern, “talking head” gabfest, and its commentators, with host Buckley and regular sparring partners like Alan Ginsburg, Margaret Thatcher, William Sloane Coffin Jr. ’49 DIV ’56, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, make those appearing on “Crossfire” or “Hannity and Colmes” look like bellowing Neanderthals.

The episode I selected was a conversation between Buckley and Norman Mailer following the iconic novelist’s recent arrest at the Pentagon for civil disobedience. What followed was a riveting discussion about, among other topics, the role of artists in society, the rule of law and American policy towards the Soviet Union. Here were men, farther from each other on the political spectrum than any two people save perhaps Karl Marx and Attila the Hun, engaged in a lively, yet entirely civil, debate about the issues of our day. They smiled, joked and parried each other relentlessly. But not once did either of them raise their voice or make an ad hominem attack. Any viewer would get the impression that Buckley and Mailer were gentlemen of the highest intellectual caliber, and that, most importantly, they held each other in mutual respect.

Granted, this period (and all periods of American history) suffered through its bouts of immature verbal trashing. It was Buckley, after all, who threatened Gore Vidal on the floor of the 1968 Democratic Convention by telling him, on national television, “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your God damn face and you’ll stay plastered!” Mailer, whose public feuding with Vidal was the Franken-O’Reilly row of the post-war generation, once butted the exiled novelist in the head and threw scotch in his face at a Manhattan dinner party. But the reason these events stick so well in our memory is because they were the exception rather than the rule (though Vidal has not aged well when it comes to his politics; last November, in a visit to Yale, he said that President Bush’s actions as president rivaled that of anything Hitler had ever done). If we were to read about Ann Coulter pulling Janeane Garafolo’s hair, would any of us be surprised? Sure, Vidal and Mailer have huge egos, as big or bigger than those of any of today’s television pundits. But at least they have something to be vain about.

As this academic year comes to a close, here’s to a summer of introspection for all of us, and a return to a more civil and thoughtful discourse on the vital issues of our time. With the baby boomers moving into retirement, let’s hope that our generation can produce more Buckleys, Mailers and Vidals, rather than Coulters, Moores and O’Reillys.



James Kirchick is a sophomore in Pierson College. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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