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What Best of Enemies Reveals About Political Discourse Today

National Review Magazine founder William F. Buckley Jr. is seen in an undated handout photo. Writer and commentator William F. Buckley, a revered figure and intellectual force in the American conservative movement for decades, died on Wednesday at age 82, said the magazine he founded, the National Review.  REUTERS/National Review (UNITED STATES).  NO SALES. NO ARCHIVES. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS..

“You know, it is starting to feel an awful lot like 1968,” I heard my father state recently after reflecting on some of the dominant news stories in 2015.

For most of us, current political and racial tensions may be the norm. Yet when did the discourse become so abusive? Perhaps we may turn to a new documentary film for answers.

Best of Enemies opened to a warm reception at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and is playing at a growing list of select theaters nationwide. With the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the Vietnam War, riots, and the countercultural movement in the background, the film explores the turbulent 60s zeitgeist through the relationship of two then-preeminent intellectuals, the conservative William Buckley Jr. and the liberal Gore Vidal. Both figures stood athwart one another yelling “Stop!” arguing that the other’s values were responsible for enflaming the tensions that surrounded them. This documentary establishes Buckley and Vidal’s testy relations during a series of debates at the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami, and follows the duo as their spirited disagreements devolve into an infamous exchange of personal insults and near blows at that year’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

One gains the impression after watching the film, directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, that the events and resulting media sensation transformed television news from a source for supposedly neutral documentation to something more commonly associated with puerility and punditry. In a film focusing on the role media play in shaping reality, it is fitting that the subjects were given the dignity to speak for themselves. Relying on a number of individuals, including the words of Buckley and Vidal, for commentary a remarkably cohesive vision is produced. However, the inclusion of so many perspectives sometimes results in a few claims and themes being dropped almost as soon as they are introduced.

(For example, it is never specifically stated why Vidal used the term “crypto-Nazi” as a calculated provocation and why it so enraged the typically composed Buckley. An accurate description of the thoughts and feelings of the deceased during a moment in time years ago may be an exercise in futility, but additional analysis would have been enlightening.)

In their discussion-turned-confrontation, it is Buckley who advocates for “ostracizing” those whom he believes are inciting violence, while Vidal argues that the protesters outside the Chicago convention center are exercising their constitutional rights. Though the debate has not changed, those who equate legal protections with an absolute moral right to expression are no longer associated with the left. Instead, modern cultural progressives are obsessed with identifying and controlling expressions of conscious or unconscious privilege claimed to be oppressive.

The 1968 debate can be interpreted as a precursor to this development. Personal power, rather than transcendental truth, has become the defining principle of political discourse. Strategizing to expose what he saw as Buckley’s repressed character, Vidal got the response from his opponent he was looking for. In the film, Vidal is described as viewing all human encounters as expressions of power. Self-actualization divorced from an understanding of the common welfare demands complete submission to individual desires through enforced so-called tolerance.

Living civilly in society entails an awareness that our actions can have significant effects on the lives of others, as both Vidal and Buckley likely discovered. Beyond the subsequent defamation suits that arose from their barbed comments, both men are shown in the film carrying the weight of the legacy of their exchange for the rest of their lives. Buckley appears remorseful. Vidal celebrates an apparent victory, while living in fear of cultural irrelevancy in the wake of the conservative revolution Buckley helped inspire. The film does not judge who ultimately won or lost the decades-long feud, but we have much to gain by examining the roots of the current American disorder through the lives of these two figures.

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