The Truth is Hard, But Kinda Funny

Two views of William F. Buckley from the Op-Ed page of today’s New York Times, visible at exactly the same level on the same page of the print edition:

 But most of the world — including most of the Jewish diaspora — will have a hard time coming up with a decent justification for opposing a Palestinian campaign for equal rights. Israel’s apologists will be left mimicking the argument that William F. Buckley once made about the Jim Crow South. In 1957, he asked rhetorically whether the white South was entitled to prevail “politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically.” The “sobering answer,” he concluded, was yes, given the white community’s superior civilization.

–Michelle Goldberg, “Is Liberal Zionism Dead?”

Same page, five inches away:

There’s a hierarchy of excellence in every sphere. There’s a huge difference between William F. Buckley and Sean Hannity, between the reporters at this newspaper and a rumor-spreader. Part of this struggle is to maintain those distinctions, not to contribute to their evisceration.

–David Brooks, “The Decline of Anti-Trumpism

Might as well quote Nietzsche while I’m at it:

257. EVERY elevation of the type “man,” has hitherto been the work of an aristocratic society and so it will always be–a society believing in a long scale of gradations of rank and differences of worth among human beings, and requiring slavery in some form or other….To be sure, one must not resign oneself to any humanitarian illusions about the history of the origin of an aristocratic society (that is to say, of the preliminary condition for the elevation of the type “man”): the truth is hard.

–Friedrich Nietzsche, “What Is Noble?” in Beyond Good and Evil

Yes, I know that’s not what Brooks means a “hierarchy of excellence.” But it’s still kinda funny.

And yes, I know: we can always save William Buckley’s reputation by way of a developmental thesis about his oeuvre: he changed! To his credit, Buckley eventually figured out that black people have rights worth respecting (as did George Wallace). But history isn’t done yet with Sean Hannity, is it? Like Buckley (and Wallace), Hannity, too, might have his Road-to-Damascus conversion to moral decency. To paraphrase Solon: call no man decent until the end is known.

Moral of the story: The American right has been a rotten borough for a very long time. And promises to remain that way for just as long.

12 thoughts on “The Truth is Hard, But Kinda Funny

  1. I came to consciousness just late enough that Buckley has always been a figure of the past for me; for as long as I can remember listening to anybody talking about conservatism, Buckley has been an example of how conservatives used to be better, or at least less bad. My only real direct exposure to him is through some old episodes of Firing Line on YouTube, and I’m certainly not familiar with his opinions about Jim Crow. That said, I wonder whether the two assessments you cite are even in prima facie tension; given that the comparandum here is Sean Hannity, it seems entirely possible to me to acknowledge that Buckley had backwards views on race and to maintain that Buckley is to Hannity as the New York Times is to a rumor-spreader (and without any insinuations about the deficiencies of the NYT!). My impression, at least, has been that Buckley was an intelligent person worth listening to and disagreeing with. Hannity isn’t any of that; even someone who supported white supremacism in the 1950’s could conceivably manage to sit well above him in the hierarchy of excellence in political journalism.

    You’ll get no dissent from me on the moral of your story, though.


    • I can’t claim to have much more exposure to Buckley than you. Maybe a smidgen more, though: I grew up watching “Firing Line” on TV (indeed, on a TV set) every week throughout the 1980s and 1990s. I don’t think I ever made it all the way through any of his books, but I read his newspaper column every week for as long as he wrote it. I vividly remember watching this debate live, from start to finish. And I attended a luncheon (not a lunch, but a luncheon) in the late 1980s where he gave the keynote address, so I got to sit two yards away from the great man as he showered accolades on this book, which had just come out.

      There’s no question that Buckley was smarter and more educated than Hannity. So if there is a hierarchy of excellence in political journalism, Buckley sits (or slouches) somewhere above Hannity. But how far above him? Not far enough, in my view, to make Brooks’s point.

      For one thing, as I said, Buckley is dead, but Hannity isn’t. We can’t rule out the possibility that Hannity might change radically for the better. After all, Buckley apparently did, and more impressively, George Wallace did. (I gave a paper at a conference on virtue ethics a few years ago at Notre Dame where one of the other presenters gave an interesting paper on character change, using Wallace as a case study. I don’t know if the paper’s been published, and I’m blanking out on the author’s name, but I found the case study striking. This isn’t it, but gets the point across.)

      Second, I think that Buckley’s virtues were more a matter of style than substance. He was bright, he was eloquent, he was witty, and he was a good conversationalist. He invited some interesting guests to his show, but as I remember it, “Firing Line” was interesting less because of anything Buckley said than because of the things his guests said. The ones I remember best: Christopher Hitchens, Mortimer Adler, Jesse Jackson, Bishop John Spong–all liberals or leftists. I remember finding them impressive, not Buckley.

      Buckley himself had a tendency to verbosity, pomposity, and sophistry. And the offensive tendency to civilizational chauvinism was always there. The “Firing Line” debate above, on dealing with the Soviets, was essentially an unapologetic defense of imperialism in the service of anti-communism: the “semi-savage” nations of the planet (Buckley argued) needed imperialism if the Soviets were to be held at bay. (“Semi-savage” was his phrase, verbatim: I remember it thirty years later.) He made excuses for every right-wing dictator you could think of, and apologized for every alliance with them we ever made, up to and including the P.W. Botha’s South Africa. Etc. So while I was always impressed with Buckley’s wit and charm as a debater, I don’t think I ever learned anything of a substantive nature from anything he said or wrote.

      At the end of the day, I’m not sure whether we’re disagreeing on Buckley’s merits, or disagreeing on the nature of a hierarchy of excellence, or both. I guess I’d say this: I think you’re either giving Buckley too much credit, and/or closing the book prematurely on Hannity, and/or have a conception of excellence-hierarchy that’s more formal (or less moralistic) than mine. Giving Buckley too much credit: I don’t think he was as good a journalist as you make him out to be. Closing the book prematurely on Hannity: yes, Hannity sucks, but to make it a fair comparison, we have to wait until he dies. Too formal a conception of hierarchy: there are, as I see it, two dimensions to journalistic excellence. One is being right, the other is putting things well. Neither Buckley nor Hannity score high on the first dimension; I’d grant that Buckley beats Hannity on the second. But if you weight the first more than the second (as I do), Buckley ends up an inch or two ahead of (or above) Hannity, but viewed from a certain angle, that’s less a hierarchy of excellence than a tie in moral mediocrity.

      The bottom line is that they both suck, and so does David Brooks.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m not sure that Hannity’s potential for dramatic intellectual and moral improvement undermines Brooks’ point, or not very much. Sure, Hannity could turn out to be the sort of guy whose show is worth watching. But he isn’t right now, and Brooks’ comparison is between Hannity as we know him and Buckley as we know him. Ultimately, I don’t think there can be any doubt that Brooks just has a much higher estimation of Buckley than either of us do, and if we take that estimation down a few notches, it weakens his point. Still, from my limited evidence, I’d say that there’s a very important difference between Hannity and Buckley, namely that Buckley was at least minimally respectable in the sense that he could be worth watching, listening to, reading, and arguing against; Hannity is none of that, except in the strictly incidental way that a person becomes worth watching, listening to, reading, and arguing against because he has the ear of so many people who would benefit from coming to see how worthless he is. I haven’t seen nearly as much Firing Line, but from what I have seen, I’m with you; it’s interesting for the guests, not for Buckley. Still, would Sean Hannity be able to have comparably non-conservative guests on his show, let them present their ideas at length, and engage them in civil discussion for an hour without mocking them, shouting them down, drowning them out, or having some other right-wing stooge there to take up half of the time? I happily confess that I haven’t watched more than two minutes of Hannity at a time in about ten years, but unless he’s already become dramatically different, the contrast between him and Buckley seems sharp. What little I’ve heard from the guy in the past two years does not suggest that he’s any better than he used to be; if anything, it suggests that he’s worse.

        So maybe that’s overestimating Buckley, and as I say, I’m not in a position to offer any nuanced judgments. But I can watch videos of Buckley’s show without feeling like I’m wasting my time and having my intelligence insulted, and that seems to me to distinguish him from Hannity not merely in degree, but in kind.

        Sure, Hannity could change. I won’t hold my breath, but he could. But that wouldn’t make pre-change Hannity any better, and I can’t regard that guy as within the realm of people worth taking seriously.

        I was going to make a joke about how we have to relativize our judgments to the type conservative journalist, and therefore can’t expect even the best specimens to score very high on the scale we’d use for journalist, but I’ve learned that I am not very funny, so…

        Liked by 1 person

        • To really resolve this “dispute,” I think we’d both have to watch a lot more of Buckley and Hannity than either of us is prepared to do. It’s something of a point in your favor that the prospect of going back to watch old episodes of “Firing Line” appeals a lot more to me than the idea of watching Hannity. But again, that says more about the show than it does about Buckley himself. I ingested large quantities of Buckley growing up, and got little out of it (or him).

          On this question,

          Still, would Sean Hannity be able to have comparably non-conservative guests on his show, let them present their ideas at length, and engage them in civil discussion for an hour without mocking them, shouting them down, drowning them out, or having some other right-wing stooge there to take up half of the time?

          …the answer is no, but there were times when Buckley did that kind of thing. One example is Buckley’s famous run-in with Gore Vidal. Another that I happened to see was Buckley’s conversation with Derek Humphry over euthanasia–not far from the Hannity treatment. Yes, Buckley was more outwardly civilized and genteel than Hannity, but that’s not quite the same thing as genuine civility. One underhanded tactic of Buckley’s was to play good cop/bad cop on the show, by inviting someone he disagreed with, then playing good cop to the person, and inviting someone else (with whom he agreed) to play bad cop. That’s what happened when he invited the liberal Episcopalian minister John Spong to his show: Buckley treated Spong with kid gloves, then invited someone else (I think it was William Oddie, but not sure) to play bad cop.

          I think it’s too easy on Brooks to take Buckley’s career as a whole and compare it to Hannity’s up to the present. For one thing, if Buckley hadn’t reformed from his pro-Jim-Crow days, it’s not clear he’d ever have been worth taking any more seriously than we take Hannity. And I’m not sure what Buckley would have done had he lived to encounter the age of social media. Granted, he had inherited wealth, so the question of financial survival might not have been pressing. But if it were pressing, would Buckley have turned into a Hannity-like figure? I find it plausible to think so.

          The deeper question, I think, is how we judge journalistic excellence. Obviously, an ascription of journalistic excellence to someone is not to say that one agrees with the person. At some level, we can abstract from our agreements or disagreements with a journalist and acknowledge his or her excellence. But the more rebarbative a journalist’s moral perspective, the harder it becomes to abstract from that fact and describe the individual as an “excellent journalist.” There are, after all, reactionary journalists out there who are a lot smarter than Hannity (Joseph Sobran, Patrick Buchanan), but one would be hard-put to say that, over all, they stood much higher in some hierarchy of excellence than Hannity. They may be smarter or cleverer than Hannity, but their very intelligence makes me reluctant to call them “excellent journalists”–unless one thinks of “journalistic excellence” in purely amoral terms. But in that case, you’d have to say that David Irving and Julius Streicher were “excellent journalists.” So is Greg Johnson, the white nationalist who runs Counter-Currents (i.e., this guy, which is to say, this guy). You can learn something from Sobran, Buchanan, and even Streicher, Irving, and Johnson but then, you can learn something from Osama bin Laden, too. I hesitate to say that journalistic excellence is compatible with the promotion of moral evil.

          I wouldn’t go so far as to call Buckley “evil.” But I think my moral verdict on his message influences my verdict on him as a journalist. In that respect, he and Hannity aren’t that far from one another. Given that, the respects in which they differ, and in which Buckley comes out ahead, don’t matter as much, at least to me.


          • Well, if resolving the dispute requires watching Hannity, I’m happy to leave it unresolved.

            I suppose one thing that motivates my response — aside from the fun of joking at Hannity’s expense — is a reluctance to let our assessments of journalistic or, more broadly, intellectual excellence be driven by our agreements or disagreements with the objects of assessment. Much of the time, all people are really doing when they say that so-and-so is a good journalist or writer is saying that they agree, and they’ll call virtually every writer or journalist with whom they disagree bad. I find that sort of attitude obnoxious and dishonest. I don’t mean to accuse you of it, because I don’t think you’re guilty of it here or anywhere else I’m aware of; I just mean that it’s a widespread attitude that I try to avoid, and it would be easy to fall into it in this case. Indeed, I think for most progressives, there would appear to be no significant difference in quality between Hannity and Buckley. But it seems clear to me that there is; even if Buckley sucked, he sucked less than Hannity.

            I might just be expecting too much from journalists, though. I have no trouble whatsoever thinking of philosophers who I think are seriously mistaken but who are eminently respectable and worth reading. I think most philosophers I’ve met feel similarly. But the de facto norms of journalistic discourse are not much like the de facto norms of academic philosophy. Maybe that’s as it should be. But I often wish it were otherwise.


          • I suppose one thing that motivates my response…is a reluctance to let our assessments of journalistic or, more broadly, intellectual excellence be driven by our agreements or disagreements with the objects of assessment.

            I agree with that, but the motivation can only go so far. I’m not disputing the legitimacy of the motivation, just stressing its limits: at a certain point, a journalist’s views cross the threshold of the merely in-error-from-my-perspective to being indecent-as-I-see-it. Yes, one’s judgments of the decency or indecency of others’ views is fallible, but one can’t always invoke that fact to avoid making wholehearted judgments of others’ indecency. I’m magnanimous enough to admit that indecent views can be held culpably or non-culpably, and that the degree of culpability for holding one can vary a lot, but an indecent-view-culpably-held seems a good target for adverse judgment.

            I guess what I’m saying is that when adverse judgment of that kind is justified, the adverse moral judgment trumps (or overrides, or discounts: one of those) the positive judgments we might justifiably make about the person’s purely intellectual or rhetorical skills with respect to our all-in judgment on their merits as a journalist. A journalistic (or “journalistic”) apologist for white nationalism, Islamism, or the Israeli occupation is not in my view a good journalist, no matter how clever he may be at defending those things. And in my experience, apologists for totalitarian causes are extraordinarily good at what they do: practice makes perfect.

            I regularly read Counter-Currents, the white nationalist blog. It’s evil and dishonest, but the writing is often quite good. Michael Young and I both happen to know Greg Johnson, the editor, from way back. Greg is extraordinarily intelligent and well-read, much more so than the average journalist. He’s also a much better writer than the average journalist. I won’t speak for Michael, but I regard Greg’s writing as a paradigm of the culpably indecent category I just mentioned. But for that very reason, I don’t regard it as journalism, and don’t regard Greg’s talents as exemplifying journalistic excellence. What he writes is racist and fascist propaganda. There may be a family resemblance between what Greg does and journalism, but they’re still fundamentally different things.

            I suppose I’m importing a sort of honorific into “journalism,” as one might with “doctor”: just as Josef Mengele was not a real doctor (or not really a doctor), Julius Streicher was not a real journalist (or not really a journalist). The one was a torturer masquerading as a doctor, the other a propagandist masquerading as a journalist.

            Even as I write all that, however, I become conscious of the potential counter-examples. If we think of journalists by analogy with artists, I suppose, things change. Can good art be evil (or evil art be good)? I think so. Can someone be a great artist and a promulgator of evil through her art? Yes. Can you hate a piece of art but recognize its aesthetic excellence? Again, yes. I’m just musing out loud at this point, but if journalism were more like art than it is like medicine (or philosophy), the view I’ve been defending would turn out to be false. And maybe that’s sort of what you’re getting at in your last paragraph: the de facto norms of journalism are murky, because it’s a little murky what the telos of journalism is supposed to be in the first place.

            That said, I guess I have (Buckley aside) a less critical view of journalists than you do. The de facto norms of journalistic discourse are certainly different than those of philosophy, and that is as it should be: they’re different fields, with different aims.

            I don’t so much “wish it were otherwise” as wish that journalists and philosophers interacted more and learned more from one another. Journalists could learn something about logic, objectivity, and conceptual precision, but philosophers could stand to learn something about how difficult it is to “get the facts straight” about an event without resorting to hand-waving devices like thought-experiments, idealization, and dodges like “ex hypothesi,” “presumably,” and “as far as can be ascertained from the armchair.”

            Consider the tendency of, say, moral realists of a certain stripe to pound the table about the “facts that are out there, really out there,” and then punt on getting them right on any given occasion with the excuse that philosophers need not concern themselves with factual details. But from the first-person perspective of the moral agent, details tend to matter. A dose of good, old-fashioned journalism would help there–think William Shirer, Seymour Hirsch, Ahmed Rashid, Steve Coll, the early Christopher Hitchens, parts of Susan Sontag, Paul Starr (as a journalist). The problem with contemporary journalism is its degradation by social media. It sounds nostalgic, but once upon a time, things were different.

            Or maybe I’m just getting old.

            Liked by 1 person

          • I might be guilty of importing a sort of dishonorific into ‘journalist’; it’s not that I think they’re mostly bad so much as that I don’t expect much of them. That makes Hannity’s failures even more egregious; it’s not like I’m judging him by especially exacting standards here.

            But I’ll defer to you, because you plainly read more journalism than I do. Hell, you read white nationalist blogs regularly. I haven’t got the energy for that; I don’t even read respectable journalism — or, if you like, actual journalism — regularly anymore, because I’m too busy and tired and inundated with an overflow of information to convince myself that it’s worth it.

            I will, however, be reading a contemporary newspaper account of the storming of the Bastille with my 10th graders this week. Perhaps we’ll get a chance to consider what the goals of journalism are and whether we think the report achieves them. Unfortunately I don’t know the details of the source (it’s part of an in-house course packet I’ve inherited), but it begins like this:

            On July 14, 1789, Parisian crowds in search of weapons attacked and captured the royal armory known as the Bastille. It had also been a state prison, and its fall marked the triumph of “liberty” over despotism. This intervention of the Parisian populace saved the Third Estate from Louis XVI’s attempted counterrevolution.

            First, the people tried to enter this fortress by the Rue St.-Antoine, this fortress, which no one has ever penetrated against the wishes of this frightful despotism and where the monster still resided. The treacherous governor had put out a flag of peace….

            Fair and balanced, for sure.

            Liked by 1 person

          • The passage comes from The Press in the French Revolution: A Selection of Documents Taken from the Press of the Revolution for the Years 1789-1794, I assume either from Le Journal de Paris or La Gazette de Paris. And it sounds pretty fair and balanced to me–I mean, except for the scare quotes around “liberty.”

            To an earlier generation, this might have served as a useful pedagogical aid. Now it’s just an archaeological relic of interest to a few antiquarians. O tempora! O mores!


          • A bit of digging on the newspaper account: it comes from Révolutions de Paris, a newspaper that began publishing on July 12, 1789. It continued until early 1794, when its publisher, under suspicion of being a moderate and worried that he might lose his head for it, stopped publishing it.

            At least our current leaders’ animosity to the press hasn’t quite reached that level of influence yet.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Hey, it was the revolutionaries who cowed the publisher of Révolutions de Paris into submission. He was less afraid to publish under the ancien regime – albeit one under threat of revolution — than he was under Robespierre’s Terror. Dieu merci, we’re not quite there yet — even Siddiqui was “safe with police.”


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s