Best of Enemies: Reflections from a Documentary

Browsing Netflix in the waning days of my summer vacation, I came across a fascinating documentary, Best of Enemies, about the rivalry between conservative intellectual William F. Buckley and his liberal nemesis Gore Vidal.

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The film revolves around a series of nightly debates held by ABC, a station seeking a ratings boost, during the presidential nominating conventions in 1968. Instead of closely examining political differences, Best of Enemies focuses the story on a fledgling TV network that capitalized on the cultural clashes of the 60’s by pitting two titans against each other.

In the debates, Buckley and Vidal attacked each other relentlessly, unwilling to grant an ounce of legitimacy in the perspective of the other.  Each saw in the other the epitome of the wreckage of America.

As tensions heightened over the course of the debates, the pot finally boiled over. In the climax of the film, Vidal calls Buckley a “Nazi” and Buckley calls Vidal a “queer.” Their interchange sank to name calling as their emotions rose to the surface.

Watching this live, according to one commentator, ABC executives “nearly shat.” Of course the language wasn’t cool, by ethical standards, but it was a ratings bonanza. In the years following, banter/ partisan bickering became standard fare for televised political news. And the two intellectuals carried their mutual disdain to the grave.

A few reflections from the film:

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Both had brilliant minds, but their worldviews were polar opposites.

So every piece of information, current event, or historical reference automatically filtered through this worldview, creating a sort of machine-like interpretative effect. Input a current event, quickly process from a liberal or conservative view, and output a sharp retort or keen observation.

Shortly before the name calling incident, they argued over Vietnam protests. They were literally arguing about seeing different things. In Chicago the night prior, Buckley had witnessed savage thugs cussing out police, who demonstrated Christ-like restraint. Vidal had witnessed meek folk-singing hippies, whom the police had battered with clubs.

Both made valid points about the efficacy and legality of protests, yet the tangible hatred for the other prevented any concessions.

How did these worldviews develop? You can almost imagine Buckley and Vidal, swapped at birth, vehemently and brilliantly defending opposite sides.  I wonder how much autonomy  or discovery went into developing these personas, and how much was a product of circumstance.

Makes you wonder about your own worldview.

***

The goal, for ABC, was ratings. 

They weren’t trying to find common ground or solution to the country’s problems. They sought to entertain with an epic sparring match.

How has the profit motive shaped public debate since the advent of TV? Now, in the era of glowing screens and instant access, how are the platforms for our conversations affecting the quality and content of those conversations?

We have presidential candidates tweeting insults at each other. The tweets become topics of televised banter. Short clips of this banter are captured and shared online. Counterpoints become memes become… arguments? We tightly filter our worldview generators in one breath, and mourn our polarization in the next. An unhinged reality TV show host with no experience in government is the nominee of a major political party.

Slow paced intellectual discourse used to entertain. For 30 years, Buckley hosted a show called Firing Line, where he invited guests for an hour long conversation. Nuance could be explored and differences of opinion could be hashed out at length.

In the entertainment marketplace today, we do have some options for depth. Podcasts like the Slate Political Gabfest dedicate an hour a week to a thoughtful panel discussion of a few pertinent topics. John Oliver in Last Week Tonight dedicates a half hour to one topic, mixing humor with critical analysis. Individuals like John Stossel publish long Youtube segments articulating their views.

Unfortunately, what wins most in our marketplace is not the Firing Line tradition but the ABC tradition. Rather than nuanced analysis or respectful, serious debate, we are more likely to encounter emotional outbursts, name calling, attacking cartoon versions of the other’s argument, and partisan cheer-leading.

***

One example stands out.

After browsing a few episodes of Firing Line, I stopped to watch Muhammad Ali  debate his objection to the Vietnam War and the racial divide in America. At the time, Ali’s boxing license was revoked and he was expecting jail time. Instead of being reduced to a tweet-sized burst: “The champ says white people are the devil!” the audience listened to Ali defend his objection to the war, his relationship with Islam, and the basis for his black nationalism. You wouldn’t have to agree with him, and Buckley didn’t. But he listened to Ali at length, invited him to extrapolate on his views by challenging the influence of his mentor Elijah Muhammad and his assumptions about white America. You wouldn’t have to agree with Buckley, either, but he forced you through rigorous considerations.

Carmelo Anthony recently posted a picture of Muhammad Ali on his Instagram account, encouraging athletes to use their influence to make a difference. At the opening of the ESPYs, he stood alongside fellow NBA players Chris Paul, Dwayne Wade, and LeBron James to make a plea for change. Ali’s name was invoked repeatedly.

The modern media environment encourages expression. Constructive discourse or effective political action, not so much.

The arguments of Black Lives Matter deserve to be heard, but I fear that the message, which started as a hashtag, remains in the fragmented world of social media.

An important discussion needs to happen. My hope is that the BLM movement can initiate constructive debate and inspire people to heal fractured communities.

***

Human beings will always disagree with each other.

Disagreements happen within groups just as much as between groups. This is natural, this allows social evolution.

There was never a Golden-Age where people didn’t stereotype or insult each other. There never existed a world where everyone sat around reading and debating important matters.

But I think our entertainment age encourages strong opinions, with the emotional charge of Buckley vs. Vidal, without a humble thought or second thought behind them.

What was so powerful about the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King was not merely his eloquence but the depth of his thought. If you read his autobiographical writings you will find decades of searching for Truth. He started his public life with an intellectual conviction that non-violent resistance was the proper means to a reconciled end. He lived with a spiritual conviction that the love ethic would endure.

To love your neighbor, and to love even your enemy, for Dr. King meant Agape love– nothing sentimental, but “understanding good will.”

Agape love is a precondition to any constructive debates we will have about… anything, really.  Mutually seeking to understand each other, with benevolence and good will.

Author: Billy

Teacher and blogger.

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