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Baldwin vs. Buckley: A Debate We Shouldn’t Need, As Important As Ever

baldwin buckley

“It comes as a great shock,” James Baldwin said in his epochal debate against William F. Buckley at Cambridge in 1965, “around the age of five, or six, or seven, to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you.” It was early in the debate. The already-prominent African-American writer was speaking first; his opponent, then the editor of the National Review and soon to become lionized particularly in conservative circles as a father of the American right, stared at Baldwin with the lazy eyes and fingers on chin of a patrician boredom. Baldwin—visibly somewhat awkward at having to defend a proposition he thought obvious, that “the American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro,” which was the debate’s motion—had begun by making a simple, yet necessary point, one that rings as true today, if not truer, than it did in 1965: that the answer to this question ultimately came down to one’s “system of reality.” That a flag may look the same on the surface to you or me, yet where we store it away inside us—what it means to us—differs so drastically as to make two flags out of one. That all flags, in a sense, are perhaps two, or three.

“The other, deeper, element of a certain awkwardness I feel has to do with one’s point of view,” Baldwin said in his opening, after declaring himself yet again “in the position of a kind of Jeremiah.” “I have to put it that way—one’s sense, one’s system of reality. It would seem to me the proposition before the House… is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro… one’s response to that question—one’s reaction to that question—has to depend on effect and, in effect, where you find yourself in the world, what your sense of reality is, what your system of reality is. That is, it depends on assumptions which we hold so deeply so as to be scarcely aware of them.” Although Baldwin’s debate happened over five decades ago, I find myself turning to it time and again in 2017. The fault-lines of this debate lie where contemporary assumptions that America is “post-racial” often do: in questions, both experiential and philosophical, about the makeup of the world. The answers to such questions exist sharply on two sides of a line that divides America today, a line that divided America the day it saw its first smoky automobile, the sublime night meteors fell like star-rain in 1833, a line that divided America even before its official birth as a nation, for it has always divided—and, as a result, defined—America.

I picked the cotton, I carried it to the market, and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip for nothing,” Baldwin declared, voice rising as he braided himself to the “cheap labor” that had built a country. “For nothing.” “The American soil is full of the corpses of my ancestors,” he said later. “Why is my freedom or my citizenship, or my right to live there, how is it conceivably a question now?” Yet Baldwin, his empathy richer than that of certain clamorous voices today, still humanized even the vilest racists of the South, not to exonerate their evils, but to avoid a world in which we do what they have done to us: Othering as subhuman. “[N]o one can be dismissed as a total monster,” he said. This is important, yet utterly difficult, nuance, if we do not wish to become the monsters we believe we fight against.

The debate was polar: on one side, a man who grew up poor in Harlem, the other raised with the privileges of wealth. But the fundamental disconnect went deeper. The disagreement between Baldwin and Buckley about whether or not the American Dream applied equally to all Americans pivoted on one’s assumption about truth, about systems of reality: whether racism really is as bad as we say it is, whether racism really is as common as we allege, whether it isn’t really possible for everyone to succeed equally and strut across the stage of a conservative drama by just pulling up their bootstraps and working harder rather than complaining, critiquing, complaining, full of a pinched sound and fury, signifying nothing. It pivoted, in other words, on empathy, on rational compassion. It is a debate we keep having between an empathetic understanding of the needs of those different from oneself versus a lack of such grounded understanding; it was, is, a debate of a world changing versus a world staying the same.

It was, in an archetypal sense (as opposed to the current political reality in which “liberal” sadly often means “centrist” or even “moderate conservative”) a debate of liberalism versus conservatism, a debate that could as easily apply to how American politicians have recently argued about same-sex marriage, transgender rights to restroom access according to our gender, racialized police brutality. That Baldwin was willing to have the debate at all is admirable to me, even as it is cringe-worthy at best and destructively painful at worst—a pain those lacking empathy simply laugh at and call, a la Tomi Lahren, that increasingly meaningless term, “snowflakeism”—to consider debating the very reality of who or what you are. This is the pain I feel when someone reduces my womanhood, as a trans woman, to “I just want to have a debate.” That person often appears appalled I feel dehumanized to have someone question what I am. A lack, again, of empathy. Yet I then wonder how to convince the person who wanted that debate; I want, after all, a better, more accepting world. I wonder if this is weakness on my part, naïveté. Then I wonder why I wonder.

Sometimes it feels so difficult to consider debating such things that I find my mind drifting to and wishing for a quieter place, the calm of scuba-diving where all you may hear is the drone of your own breath, or the graveyards between the stars that crackle intermittently with an old radio’s silence. The sea, at night, feels so much like outer space. We need that marine, interstellar silence sometimes to keep ourselves going. We need calm, quiet, stability, or we may drift too close to the toxic orbits of the loudest stars, get stuck in their pull, or simply burn up. We need to learn when to confront—and when to fall back, lest we fall ourselves. We need to learn, too, how to learn from our opponents, need to learn whether someone we think an opponent is always, indeed, just that. And we need to learn how to convince others. In the debate, Baldwin tells stories and uses imagery amidst his arguments. This is one way to convince the unconvinced: to use narrative along with argument. An empathy-building story alongside an argument is one of the most powerful rhetorical tools, alongside understanding when to be quiet or when to be loud. Stories can be tools, weapons, the things with which we break or build bridges.

Sometimes, far as our species has come, we need to relearn how to use tools.


“Patriotism, like any fanaticism, can be poison in the well of the self.”


But I worry, too, that some cannot be convinced. That an increasing number of Americans live not merely in bubbles but legitimately in separate, segregated systems of reality, where the source—CNN, Buzzfeed, Breitbart—matters more than whether or not what an individual story actually says, that “fake news” is simply fake if we believe it is, for we live in our own reality. Bubbles can be popped; realities, I do not know. I worry we live on a kind of blue glacier, which has slowly split apart at its edge, a deep, irreparable, dirty-white scar, and that edge, dense with huts and homes and high-topped igloos, has begun to drift away. Soon, it will be too far to come back; even if it does, it can never fit back, not fully, into the world it broke from. The people on that drifting ice want to drift away; they believe they are the true glacier, the true adherents of The Way. Distance creates new dreams, new mythologies, new gods and devils, and that is what they do, creating a new system of reality, resembling the glacier’s they excommunicated themselves from yet utterly distinct, all the same. What new lighthouse, what new stars, direct a drifting glacier rather than a ship? Do we forget what has left, or do we never forget how we have been cut, cleft? What is a country that breaks apart?

What country has never broken apart?

But if the American Dream—which some commentators already argue has moved to Canada—is to be dreamt by all of us, we have to figure out a way to make an America worth dreaming in. To heal a scar, restore, even if imperfectly, a cleft country, a split glacier. Baldwin’s debate with Buckley reminds us that some things, like flags, may always represent different realities to different groups: pride to one, oppression to another. And maybe that’s okay, for that simply is reality, not one system or another. Perhaps we can still live and dream together, somehow, even if our realities differ. Because if we truly cannot, there is no America—and Baldwin, at least, would not have wished to concede such a failure.


“I am not an object of missionary charity,” Baldwin finished. “I am one of the people who built the country—until this moment there is scarcely any hope for the American dream, because the people who are denied participation in it, by their very presence, will wreck it. And if that happens it is a very grave moment for the West.” Uncharacteristically, the audience burst into applause. Baldwin, despite his nerves, had expressed something raw, touching; he had dismantled that stereotypical equalizing image of a country, the American Dream, yet still dreamt of such dreams in the future. His opponent stood. Buckley—who, along with The National Review, some critics have heralded as the true progenitors of modern American conservatism as the dusky reflection of the Civil Rights movement—began, as if simultaneously bored and affronted, to speak.

Buckley called New York home, yet was a figure from another world—literally and otherwise, having grown up on both sides of the Atlantic. Just under four years before the debate, Buckley had come out against desegregation in The Saturday Review. “Will desegregation work?” the issue asked. “NO,” proclaimed the headline of Buckley’s piece. “What… is the conservatives’ solution to the race problem in the South?” his essay began. “I answer: there is no present solution to it.” Why, he asked, invoking typical right-wing imagery of tradition over progress, “do violence to the traditions of our system in order to remove the forms of segregation in the South?” “A conservative is seldom disposed to use the Federal Government as the sword of social justice,” he wrote towards the end of the piece, after arguing that desegregation was a bad idea because its results would be “ambiguous” and that blacks in the North were actually doing worse, in his view, than in the South. He finished by hoping that “when the Negroes have finally realized their long dream of attaining to the status of the white man, the white man will still be free,” rhetoric I still see, albeit more inarticulately, today. The year following his debate with Baldwin, Buckley’s famous television show, Firing Line, began, and would become the longest-running show with a single host on TV. Three years after his debate with Baldwin, Buckley would go on stage on August 28th, 1968 with another silver-tongued provocateur, Gore Vidal, a broadcast in which Buckley would memorably threaten to punch the “queer” Vidal; Vidal called Buckley a “pro- or crypto-Nazi,” and Buckley, his charnel-gray voice undergoing a remarkably minor yet major tonal shift and his face shaking with fury before ABC’s viewers, responds, “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi… or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered.”

Buckley opened his portion not with threats of punches but with an attack nonetheless: a curious ad hominem, averring that Baldwin had affected a “British accent.” This British accent, Buckley charged in a tone at once dry and venomous, was not the one Baldwin used when he excoriated America in the pages of his books. The criticism was at once ironic and revealing. Buckley, like Vidal, had a notable transatlantic accent (though Buckley’s was more literally transatlantic, having grown up in both England and America), a learned accent—highly popular in cinema and public discourse from the early-to-mid 20th century—meant to evoke southern British English, specifically Received Pronunciation, across the Atlantic, but with a vaguely American drawl. When Buckley does it, it is respectable, a marker of class; when a black man like Baldwin does it, it’s an “affectation.” (Baldwin, of course, also spent considerable time in Europe.)

Accents can be political. Baldwin was often described as having a “cosmopolitan” accent, one with echoes of English in multiple centers of the language. Baldwin could code-switch between vernacular and an aristocratic English, but he seemed to favor the latter; because of this, Baldwin was simultaneously praised for sounding “sophisticated” and criticized for coming off “posh.” His accent was not unusual for the time, even as the transatlantic accent had begun to markedly decline in the postwar years, but Baldwin, like the fey Eartha Kitt and the oleaginous Buckley, developed an idiolect: a unique, personal way of speaking.

Buckley’s remark reminded me of my own world-hopping idiolect and the contradictions I had felt myself growing up in a formerly colony of Britain: the way I switched between our vernacular amongst friends and something closer to the “proper” Queen’s English you might hear from certain television anchors echoing BBC Received Pronunciaton; you hate your colonizer for leaving you in a crumbling mausoleum of blood, bone, and chain, yet you speak like them, keep their institutions, even consider living in the Mother Country because, somehow, you understand it better than America. Our accents reflect us, though not always as directly as we might like to think, and perhaps it only makes sense that some of us with a deep footprint in multiple countries will sound neither fully like one or the other, but simply, strangely, sometimes cruelly and sometimes beautifully, like our mixed, multifarious selves.

Buckley seemed arrogant, affected as an operatic vampire. Baldwin had little but “flagellations of our civilization,” and Baldwin should be grateful for the “showers of praise” he apparently received everywhere he went. The Irish had suffered far more “bloodshed,” Buckley argued in a strikingly disingenuous move still used in 2017, in their attempts at emancipation “than has been shed by ten times the number of people who have been lynched as a result of the delirium of race consciousness, race supremacy, in the United States.” He feared “the regression of white people”—endlessly popular right-wing rhetoric today, often masked under the term “white genocide”—and went so far as to argue that those of us who speak in terms of race “suffer from a kind of racial narcissism, which tends always to convert every contingency in such a way as to maximize their own power.” Remove Buckley’s classical metaphors and eloquence, and he is making the same basic arguments one might find in a YouTube comment section today by someone who fears that the advancement of people of color means the end of white people.

Buckley seemed to me peculiarly old-fashioned here, as he represented a fading cultural-political figure: the educated, eloquent conservative who, while his views were usually the opposite of mine, I could at least respect as someone well-spoken and, often, well-read. I would rather debate with a Buckley than, say, a Bachmann or a Bannon. Yet the conservative buffoon, brought to the social fore perhaps most notably by the rise of evangelism on the right in the 1980s, is now the dominant image of this political group. The figure of the public, right-leaning intellectual has largely vanished in American culture, though shadows of it appear in how some conservatives describe figures like Dinesh D’Souza—who seems scarcely able to speak for a minute without intellectual, if not legal, dishonesty—and in certain conservative YouTube personalities. Buckley is no more, yet his poisonous rhetoric here lives on in so many contemporary “patriots.”

Patriotism, like any fanaticism, can be poison in the well of the self. Baldwin’s comment about the American flag reminded me of the recent brouhaha in Australia over Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a black Australian Muslim commentator who, on Anzac Day—a day meant to memorialize Australians and New Zealanders who have served in wars—composed a short post on social media highlighting refugees who were denied entry into Australia. Commentators attacked her. How dare she suggest anything other than pride on a day of supposed national unity? (Such outrage, of course, is a form of “snowflakeism”—but only if the left does it, of course.) Abdel-Magied’s fate—she fled to the UK after being hounded and is now popularly considered the most hated Muslim in Australia—echoes that of sports commentator Scott McIntyre who, two years before, was also critical of ANZAC Day’s unthinking patriotism.

Yet what better use of a national day, be it Anzac or the Fourth of July, is there than to ask what that nation means? What pride, Frederick Douglass famously asked, can the Fourth of July hold for someone oppressed by a nation?

Baldwin won, 544 to 164.

Would a Baldwin win today? He could, I’m sure. But whether he definitely would, I can’t say. After all, some of the voters drift on an iceberg, lost in dreams stronger than opium of another reality.


“In or about December, 1910, human character changed,” Virginia Woolf famously wrote in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” in 1924. She meant this in the lovely tongue-in-cheek-yet-serious way so characteristic of her, and its truth value was much the same: the world, indeed, had in some sense changed a tad bit more than its usual rolling and rollicking and reforming. Yet Woolf’s claim, charming as it was, obviously applied more to one system of reality than another. If you were a black artist in certain parts of America on or around December of 1910, the world, indeed, might seem in a slow transmogrification—the beginnings of the revolutionary Harlem Renaissance, for instance, one of a number of black-led artistic movements that challenged what many white Americans thought about who should and even could create power and profundity in a work. Yet this part of the world had also hardly changed at all. For all its truth, Woolf’s broad statement about “human character” reflected an obvious narrowness of view of the world, a slim system of reality: her world, her reflection of a realm, not the world of someone utterly different who nonetheless lived in the world. Words and worlds connect; words create worlds and worlds create words, but it is easy to forget how small and simple—how false, in the whole—a word like “world” makes a vast globe seem.

Baldwin’s debate with Buckley is still our debate. 2017 is obviously not 1965. Yet, in some ways, it still is, even if we don’t wish to see what has never changed, even if we want to close our eyes and drift off on another glacier.

“When I was growing up, I was taught in American history books, that Africa had no history, and neither did I,” Baldwin said. “That I was a savage about whom the less said, the better, who had been saved by Europe and brought to America. And, of course, I believed it. I didn’t have much choice. Those were the only books there were.” What does it say, of our advanced age, that there are still new books that say the same?

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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