In 1965, the Cambridge Union hosted two Americans in a debate. The motion before the audience was “whether the American dream is at the expense of the American negro.” In favor of the motion was the Black American James Baldwin — author, activist and essayist. Speaking against was the white American William F. Buckley Jr. — conservative intellectual, editor and author.
The pair of debaters may have been the only men from the United States in a hall so full that hardly a corner, nook or empty space remained unoccupied by a jacketed student. In the course of an hour, the two spoke frankly to the crowd and each other. There was laughter and, when Baldwin spoke, at least a few tears.
As much as their arguments may continue to have relevance for a society rankled by issues of race, the very fact that men such as Baldwin and Buckley could debate is valuable in our own time. Their mutual eloquence, composure and willingness to engage with the other is sorely lacking today — especially given recent violence around speech on college campuses. Our UC Berkeley community should both aspire towards and consider the limits of the debate Baldwin and Buckley had on an issue that would today invite extraordinary hostility.
The motion that the American dream was built on the backs of Black Americans is a rather succinct distillation of the American crisis in the 1960s. In other words, it is hard to imagine debating a more divisive issue then, as perhaps now. At stake is the generations of pride in a country and its leaders. Taken against some of today’s congressional squabbling on healthcare, our problems seem petty. Baldwin vs. Buckley was a rhetorical contest over the soul of our country, argued with admirable eloquence on both sides.
UC Berkeley continues to be a site of political discourse, but I worry that it’s seldom ever a dialogue. Baldwin warned, “Unless we can establish some kind of dialogue between those people [who enjoy the American dream] and those people who have not achieved it, we will be in terrible trouble.” He sounds prescient, given the trouble the campus has in inviting even one side of a debate.
It’s easy to handpick moments from the past and hold them up as an indictment on our present situation. The Buckley and Baldwin debate is interesting in that it seems to be both a mirror and an allegory. Perhaps a debate challenging the essence of the American dream couldn’t happen in the United States, yet it remains an exchange worthy of our aspirations here in UC Berkeley.
It is worth considering at length the fact that this debate was held in the English countryside and not in the United States. The Cambridge Union is housed in a red brick building, walking distance from the River Cam. The audience was overwhelmingly present to hear Baldwin speak on American racism. In that sense, the debate was decided well before it had begun. Buckley’s partner struggled to speak over the crowd’s laughter. Buckley turned the sanctimony of the crowd back on them, asking “What are your instructions that I am to take back to the United States?”
Buckley was most aware of the fact that he was not invited to debate as much as play the villain in a parable for an English audience. He replies, tongue-in-cheek, that perhaps a “sunburst of moral enlightenment has hit this community,” so that “if you were the governors of the United States, the situation would change overnight.”
Both Baldwin and Buckley spoke with a non-American audience in mind. What would this debate have been like at Zellerbach Hall? More personal, I would imagine, and more bitter. Instead, the distance from these shores provided removal and abstraction — Baldwin spoke of “systems of reality” and Buckley of “civilization.” The audience, meanwhile, maintained the etiquette of debate even in objecting. There was no rancor in sight.
In sketching briefly the limits of this debate, that the audience, location and topic reflect certain interests, I hope to dispel a blind aspiration in dialogue. Debates do not occur on neutral grounds where the best idea wins and the audience sways towards the common good. They are messy, open-ended and sometimes irreconcilable. It should not surprise you that both Baldwin and Buckley left that hall with the same beliefs they entered.
Civil dialogue is merely a medium towards the resolution of our social ills. It is but the first step in considering an issue fully. As Baldwin stated frankly on the limits of any debate, “We can walk out of here assuming that the measure of our enlightenment or at least our politeness has some effect on the world. It may not.”
A step towards politeness and enlightenment may have no effect at all. It may be that our differences are hopelessly irreconcilable for now. But at least in setting down our differences in the clearest of terms, we give the next generation a chance to move beyond them.