Movies can bring us to some startling realizations. It just so happens that this one has to do with the future of America.
I recently watched the American documentary, The Best of Enemies, about the televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley during the 1968 Presidential Conventions, and I think I figured out why Donald Trump may become the next President of the United States. God help us.
It all started when I met these two characters, William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal, and all at once I was asking myself a question. It was an unconscious reaction. That little voice inside my head said, “Which of these two men would you rather be?”
Essentially, I was wondering who upheld a worthier ideal of masculinity? Was it William F. Buckley with his charismatic conservatism and his collected, confident, ignitable way of speaking? Or was I more drawn to the fluid power and personal persuasiveness of Gore Vidal’s liberalism, a political, social, and cultural temperament to which I am more honestly aligned. I realized right away that I was entering into my own personal debate about an image of the masculine ideal, using these two opposing images as potential answers.
But I couldn’t answer the question. I sat and wondered. In fact, I rather enjoyed the conflict presented in the film between the two protagonists, or antagonists.
And right there I had discovered the problem.
And the problem lingered even after I had finished the film. It seemed to me that these two men had debated less the merits of the Presidential candidates, or the real issues of America, and instead they had argued over the same thing I was—what is the masculine ideal?
William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal maintained two very different answers to that question, and each really seemed to abhor to other for his particular perspective. During the debates, they were arguing more over matters of lifestyle, social associations, customs, and beliefs that best champion the image of American masculinity. The final consequence, and perhaps the inevitable consequence in this type of conflict, was to push the argument to polarized extremes.
The extreme of Buckley, a man of political firmness and force who was ready at any minute to “sock” his opponent in the face, was to be called a Nazi.
The extreme of Vidal, a man of openness, acceptance, perhaps even pacifism, was to be labeled a queer.
It was this concept of ‘polarized extremes’ that lingered in my mind. And it made me think that our modern conversation about masculinity has been largely shaped by polarized extremes, dictating a masculine ideal that is either strong and violent or passive and weak. Essentially, it has highlighted a root issue that in some ways diminishes the ‘great debates’ of Buckley and Vidal to little more than a schoolyard scuffle between a jock and an artsy kid, both bickering over who has the bigger balls.
But of course that’s an understatement. The Buckley and Vidal debates were a national spectacle that changed television and influenced America’s idea of itself as a nation. There was a dynamic tension between these two men that drew not only my interest while watching the film, but the entire country’s in 1968. And it has to do with the concept of ‘opposition.’
The documentary situates these debates as a pivotal event in American history and cultural development, particularly with regard to television, as a moment that changed the collective American imagination. The collective imagination is essentially a shared fictional idea (to use Yuval Harari’s terms, as I did in a previous post about gender fictions that bound Americans together with a shared picture in their heads of ‘what America was’, a picture that allowed them to live together as a single nation and unified people. At least for anyone who believed in that shared picture.
The film also suggests that during the 20th century it was television news that largely determined the collective imagination of America, characterized by the network hosts of CBS and NBC as “white, Anglo-Saxon.” And while this collective image was certainly socially biased and unrepresentative of the reality, it was regarded as a shared, public sphere where viewers all saw the same, singular, and unified image of America. But then came Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley.
According to the documentary, the debate between these two ‘elite intellectuals’ broke down the collective imagination of America from that singular, biased perspective into separate voices, segregated communities and concerns, and differing images of what America is. Essentially, the national viewing public was able to perceive, perhaps for the first time, an image of America as two opposing forces.
Okay. So what does this have to do with Donald Trump?
Well here’s the problem. While Buckley and Vidal’s shouting match over masculinity may have changed the American collective imagination from the singular, biased picture of the 50’s and 60’s, it was by no means an enlightened social progression. Although it fueled the emergence of disparate voices and concerns throughout America, it failed to introduce the necessary notion of acceptance that would make diversity a positive thing. Instead, they created another singular image comprised of two radically opposed parties sitting across from each other.
In other words, let’s say we all live in a house together. For a long time we all believe our house is made of mud and bricks. But then I stand up and say, “No, I think the house is mad of mud, stone, and grass.” And then you stand up and say, “Well, I think the house is made of brick, steel, and glass.” And at that point we find ourselves believing in an image of two differing houses. While in reality, our house is made of grass, mud, stone, brick, steel, glass, and countless other materials. Instead of perceiving the broader wholeness of reality, and accepting that diversity, we maintain a singular imagination of the house as two ideas in opposition.
So the new collective imagination of America that Buckley and Vidal helped established is the one we all recognize as Left versus Right. Democrat versus Republican. Take your pick.
And now for the fun stuff.
Naturally, this idea of extreme opposition brought a certain, rather unpleasant, image into my head—Mr. Donald Trump. And I asked myself, could it be that the current American presidential race is somehow the natural and necessary evolution of a collective imagination of opposition?
In other words, what matters more in today’s political and cultural climate, who you are and what you stand for, or who you stand against? The main focus seems to be much less about the maintenance and prosperity of America and more so the display of opposition, allowing the needed conversation to get lost below a misconstrued and malaise-inducing concern for Trump versus Cruz, Clinton versus Sanders, Sanders versus Trump. What we see in our heads when we think about politics is a single image of two opposing sides, as if we’ve lost the intelligence and the ability to perceive a single country with shared concerns. It’s as if our larger interest in politics is this battleground of opposition, where more and more the seeds of radicalism are being planted in the mud.
A similar thing happened in Canada during the 2015 Federal Election, where record numbers of voters swarmed the polls to “Stop Harper”. A clear and honest agenda of many voters. Whether they sided with Trudeau or Mulcair was almost irrelevant, as long as they opposed Harper. And in the end people seemed to vote Liberal simply because the Liberals held the greatest chance of winning.
Certainly, there are voters who wanted to beat Harper because they disagreed with his government, and the same can be said about American voters in the coming elections. But there is an overwhelming impression today of polarizing efforts within politics and culture, just as there is a polarized image of masculinity and femininity, in which the qualities you stand against come to define you. The collective imagination today paints a picture of established and acceptable opposition upheld with tremendous passion from those individuals—citizens, people, men, women, and even children—who believe in that picture.
We fail to accept the diverse wholeness of reality and we succumb to radicalism, while enjoying the show of opposition. The fight. And while I hope Trump loses (Please!), I am growing ever fearful of the person who will step into his place, following this evolution of radical opposition.
Photo: Getty Images