Watching Scorsese’s biopic on Fran Lebowitz (“Public Speaking” (here’s a press bit), which I recommend unreservedly), I was intrigued by some vintage footage of a debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr. I went on a hunt and found it: a debate at the Cambridge University Union. The question: “Has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?” It takes place a few weeks after King’s protest in Selma.
Truthfully, neither of the featured debaters stick to the topic very well, although some feeble attempts are made by both. Instead, they speak to the issue of discrimination and racism, and in interesting ways. I recommend you watch the full video, available through a Berkeley link. I’ll post the short excerpt I found at youtube.
In the longer video, a few interesting moments.
1. The student speaking against the motion notes that in real income American “Negros” earn more than the average Briton.
2. Baldwin wraps up his remarks noting Bobby Kennedy’s prediction that “in 40 years, there may be a black president.” He then claims his primary concern is not with the American Negros that will respond to King or his leadership, but those that are so ruined by history that they trust neither whites nor leaders from within their communities.
3. Baldwin’s closing: “I am not a ward of America. […] I am one of those who built the country.”
4. Buckley’s an extraordinary buffoon, looking like he’s tanked up on Gin and Tonics, strutting around like a peacock in a tight suit jacket. His opening parry is simply astounding: that it is necessary to deal with “Mr. Baldwin, as a white man.” The lunacy of this statement–the sheer astounding insanity of it–is visible in the whites of Baldwin’s eyes, which get large at this point, and larger still as Buckley’s argument moves on (there is a wonderfully large and shocking expanse of white revealed when Buckley accuses him of effecting a British accent). Buckley negates the relevance of Baldwin’s blackness, and that he (Baldwin) has positioned himself as the recipient of a legacy of racism and mistreatment is also, to Buckley, irrelevant. This is a clear, but not self-conscious, moment of white privilege: to decide for black speakers how his or her racial experience bears on the issue at hand. What would you possibly know of that experience, Mr. Buckley, and so how can you negate it?
5. Buckley’s central argument concerns his ambiguity over what should be done with “The Negro Problem.” To a gentle refrain of laughter he pronounces, “The engines of concern are working.” In making this argument, Buckley snidely includes a backhanded compliment to Baldwin (on all university campuses he is the “toast of the town”) and a sarcastic notation of the issue’s importance (it overshadows nearly all other matters of public concern). He concludes that there is no immediate “cure for the race problem in America.”
6. Buckley recommends Nathan Glazer’s book at the end: Beyond the Melting Pot–and gets in a dig at him too, calling him “a prominent Jewish intellectual.” Never has such high praise caused so much offense. And what he pulls from Glazer’s book is that the Negro problem is a result of two factors: individual racists, and the black community’s inability to make “certain exertions” to change their place in society. This includes, in Buckley’s rendering, those students who refuse to put their “energy” toward medical school admission, accounting for a slow rate of growth in the number of black doctors. It is not the case, Buckley says, that the schools have racial admissions policies.
7. In his second closing, Buckley remarks that the future of the Civil Rights movement, at least the black-led parts of it, will be not to advance their own kind, but to drag the white man backward. (That’s a paraphrase, obviously not my language.) An interjection from the crowd: “One thing you might do Mr. Buckley is let them vote in Mississippi!” (I agree, I agree, he says.)
8. And, in the oddest turn, he closes with the threat of a race war. One fought “not only for whites” but also for Negros. I have no idea how that makes sense to him, but of course, he drags the Nazi’s into it.
Needless to say, Baldwin wins in a landslide.
I can’t resist a few bon mots from the above.
From Fran Lebowitz:
“Ask your child what he wants for dinner only if he’s buying.”
“When you leave New York, you are astonished at how clean the rest of the world is. Clean is not enough.”
“Having been unpopular in high school is not just cause for book publications.”
“Being offended is the natural consequence of leaving one’s home. I do not like aftershave lotion, adults who roller-skate, children who speak French, or anyone who is unduly tan. I do not, however, go around enacting legislation and putting up signs.”
“I believe in talking behind peoples’ backs. That way, they hear it more than once.”
From James Baldwin:
“Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent.”
“Words like “freedom,” “justice,” “democracy” are not common concepts; on the contrary, they are rare. People are not born knowing what these are. It takes enormous and, above all, individual effort to arrive at the respect for other people that these words imply.”
“Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”
From William F. Buckley Jr.:
“I will not cede more power to the state. I will not willingly cede more power to anyone, not to the state, not to General Motors, not to the CIO. I will hoard my power like a miser, resisting every effort to drain it away from me. I will then use my power, as I see fit. I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth. That is a program of sorts, is it not? It is certainly program enough to keep conservatives busy, and liberals at bay. And the nation free.”
“I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.”
“I am, I fully grant, a phenomenon, but not because of any speed in composition. I asked myself the other day, “Who else, on so many issues, has been so right so much of the time?” I couldn’t think of anyone.”