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Thursday, April 23, 2015

On bewailing the "public intellectual" shortage

Most days it is hard to flip open the laptop, even to merely slap together a tweet.
    Age. Cynicism. The daily drudgery of existence. The futility of launching another fart into the sulfurous hurricane of the internet.
    But fetching the morning papers today, presto!--here we have the National Post with "Culture Wars: Where have all the public intellectuals gone?" p.1 on the mast-bottom. An arrow to my heart!--although not exactly an untackled question. Moreover, don't we already have a few public intellectuals in Canada? Jonathan Kay, Colby Cosh and Dan Gardner spring immediately to mind, and there are others, although you may object that most are too tainted with journalism and reality to qualify as genuine beard-stroking thunkers. Worse, you could argue that despite their mediapodia, they don't have a great deal of of traction in the Canadian mind. And whatever happened to Mark Kingwell? Did our ivory-tower eminence get tired of mud-wrestling in the journals of lower learning? How grubby is this public-intellectual thing anyway? What exactly is involved in the mainstream-media cleanup after our crappy educational system has dumped its load?
    As it turns out the Post article is Yankee-sourced, concerning a new documentary film Best of Enemies, centred on the televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley on ABC during the August 1968 Republican Convention (heavy topic the Vietnam war of course). Total buzz-kill for this blogger, instantly suggesting two hotheads: Vidal calling Buckley a Nazi, Buckley snapping back "you faggot" at Vidal amid otherwise over-familiar and inconclusive platitudes.
    Or is this just a media-distortion now filtered through my lousy memory? (Fact-check: it was actually "crypto-Nazi" and "goddamn queer"--an exchange now captured online like pretty much every other sorry fragment of intellectual history).
    But the National Post story, Calum Marsh's "When the culture wars were worth fighting" mentions this hot exchange not at all, perhaps as being unseemly for Public Intellectuals of the Golden Age--his theme and the film's appearing to be our society's supposed loss of high-level punditry nowadays. He does note that "the network (ABC) didn't anticipate the vigour of their chosen conversationalists," alleging that "millions were held rapt by Vidal and Buckley's nearly half-dozen debates."
    Actually, I suspect that if Nielsen had been monitoring the audience closely, it would have found hundreds of thousands were actually reaching for beer and/or snacks during the more tedious parts, and significant numbers missed the minute-long Nazi/queer exchange during a bathroom break. Certainly it is notable, perhaps astonishing that in an article on Big Thunkers wading through five debates, Mr. Marsh fails to dredge up a single witty quip (or any other kind) by either Vidal or Buckley, nor does he even give much of a summary of the duo's ideas (dully left-right, i.e. painfully ideological, truth be known).
    If you check back to the YouTube clip, you will find, embedded in the name-calling, Vidal positing Europe's sympathy to the legitimate aspirations of the Viet Cong for national unity, and Buckley tut-tutting the temerity of the Cong in daring to shoot at U.S. Marines, but whether these two banalities are better, worse or typical of the general debate is left for us to guess (I'll conjecture no better). Or perhaps Marsh just wants to avoid any spoilers for the HotDoc a-coming.
   In any case, it is hard to muster any enthusiasm for Marsh's and the film's manufactured discrepancy between today's cheap pundits and the "literary pedigree" bred into the "iconic" Buckleyesque-Vidaloid intellectuals of yesteryear. Buckley I managed to plow through in depth eons ago, yielding a deep-seated dislike for the man. Like Vidal he oozes that erudite mid-Atlantic accent, but his ideas are a threadworn patchwork of mean-spirited sophistry. Vidal I know less well, but on the basis of his introduction to The Impossible Mencken I'd venture that while he might be a seven-foot intellectual giant, he falls well short of America's ten-foot colossus. The Sage of Baltimore is a fine measuring-stick for public intellectuals of any era, and both heirs to his artillery would have benefited from reading his essay "On Controversy."
    Finally, keep in mind that the Buckley vs Vidal confrontation was television, mere impromptu cut-and-thrust. I close my eyes and imagine two bespectacled junior-high achievers, suddenly facing off in the schoolyard while surprised students gather round, shouting, "Nerd fight! Nerd fight!"
    Durable works of the intellect are produced by more leisurely contemplation, and committed to the printed page. Buckley and Vidal may seem like ancient history now, but 1968's two perishable eggheads have also been left in the dust-up, quite remote from the Socrates and Aristotle of The School of Athens.
    As the Bible says: "Ask not why it is that former days were better than these--for it is not from wisdom that you ask this."