Saturday, March 01, 2008

The death of civil disagreement

I don't have much to say about William F. Buckley, Jr., except that his death happens to come at a moment when I am truly dreading the next few months. The ability of people to disagree in an intelligent and productive manner seems to have disappeared, and I don't think it's entirely because of the empowerment that anonymous true believers with low reasoning powers and high talents for invective find on the Internet.

There has also sprung up a culture of abuse that is in stark contrast to the very civil manner in which Buckley would ponder, examine and occasionally eviscerate his guests. I was in the outer office of an elementary school principal one day and she had three fifth-grade girls in there, door open, resolving some sort of conflict. Their tone of voice, verbal inflection and accompanying hand gestures made it clear that they had learned to express conflict from watching Jerry Springer, and I don't think this is limited to 10-year-olds. We've got plenty of adults now who have learned to argue from the shout-fests in which stunning a person with threats and invective is considered victory.

That development then combines with the aforementioned anonymity to create something really toxic. You have only to check the comments on any on-line story about Clinton and Obama to see exactly what I mean -- it's not obscene, racist or sexist. It's just vulgar and common and degrading and utterly unproductive. Given the tone of the intra-party process, God knows what it will become when the campaign shifts to Republican vs. Democrat.

Anyway, this appreciation of Buckley from the NYTimes is not to be missed. And he already is.

1 comment:

Brian Fies said...

Mike, I admit I'm surprised to read such a warm appreciation of Bill Buckley from you, but you pinpoint the reason he deserves it. My impression of Mr. Buckley is that he delighted in wrestling with ideas more than politics--sometimes taking principled positions you wouldn't expect of a conservative, such as his long-standing support of decriminalizing drugs--and did so with rare style. When history sometimes proved him wrong, as with his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, he admitted it and wrestled with it. Tributes are stressing how gracious Mr. Buckley was to both friends and putative enemies. And watching him on "Firing Line" eviscerate his lessers (as most guests were) taught me a lot about the power of words and rhetoric. I thought he was terrific.