In the days following on from November 9th 2016, the world has been left asking what it was that led to election of a bigoted, unqualified demagogue as the leader of the free world. The left blame the right for nurturing extremist views for their own gain; the right blame the left for narrowing the scope of political debate and ignoring the voices of the disenfranchised; the middle classes point to their working class counterparts; the young look with disdain to the old; women decry misogynists, regardless of sex; urban elites deride their supposedly racist, bigoted countrymen; racial tensions and hate crimes are at an unbearable high and the media is held in contempt by just about everyone for bias and ineffective coverage. Two once great nations appear to be tearing themselves apart to see who can accelerate their own rate of decline faster; other western democracies seem eager to follow. Fear and hatred have bubbled over and percolated the majority of our society. Both Brexit and Trump have proven the West is hopelessly divided. The polls and pundits were consistently wrong. And, as evidenced by the season finale of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, they are mournfully scrambling for answers.
Perhaps a little light can be shed if we were to look back and consider the topic of Robert Gordon and Morgan Nevilles’ 2015 documentary ‘The Best of Enemies’. In 1968, lacking funds, talent, and ratings, the American television network ABC had one last attempt to save itself during its coverage of the Democratic and Republican conventions. It bucked the trend and set out to create an event which, for the first time in television history, sought to incite controversy in the name of political commentary. ABC found two intellectual opponents, both as intimidatingly well-matched and as extreme as each other.
Nowadays, every other supposed debate or news outlet is but vitriolic theatre, appealing to the audience’s cruder instincts and, cruder still, the network’s ratings. Yet by rejecting the norms of television in ’68, ABC ensured that the hailed American institute of television grew into a wholly different monster.
“There is an implicit conflict of interest between that which is highly view-able and that which is highly illuminating” – William F Buckley Jr
Gore Vidal and William F Buckley Jr were two sides of the same coin. Their backgrounds were conspicuously similar: both had prestigious upbringings; both had courted political careers in vain; both were part of the intellectual elite circle and, unlikely for the time, both despised one another openly enough to spit vitriolic hate at the other on national television. Gore Vidal was the left leaning satirist and author of Myra Breckenbridge, a controversial novel regarding the adventures of the eponymous transsexual. Vidal was hailed for his controversial approaches to feminism, homosexuality, transsexualism and queer culture in the novel. For those same reasons, he was reviled by those conservative critics who viewed the novel as pornographic. Bill Buckley certainly shared these views. He was the darling of American conservatism. He understood that ideological debate was also, crucially, cultural debate. Editor of the National Review (which his friend President Raegan would later say changed his life), when asked if there was anyone he would not debate, Buckley replied after communists, it would have to be Gore Vidal.
Thus the stage was set; two intellectual giants were poised against one another, baited like circus animals for our entertainment, all the while masquerading as something wholly grander. The Best of Enemies thus captures an unique turning point in our history. It simultaneously marks a new era for television whilst harking back to the days when those invited to comment and educate the masses were truly experts of their respective fields. Moreover, unlike the more modern sentiments articulated by Michael Gove, the people had not had enough of experts. Indeed, Buckley and Vidal perhaps represent some of the last true American intellectual elites who could lay claim to being household names. Yet this was not debate, it was a blood sport amongst the greats. As Eric Alterman laments, it was a “harbinger of an unhappy future”.
Audiences were gripped; ABC’s ratings rose from last to first place; journalistic responsibility began to erode into the shell of its former self, which we recognise today. More importantly, and more damagingly, they created supremely fantastic entertainment. Though this victory had seen a small battle won for ABC, the war was truly lost for television and culture. All networks quickly followed ABC’s lead and the quest for primal entertainment quickly defeated any attempt at true discourse.
“These great debates are absolutely nonsense … there is almost no interchange of ideas, very little of personality. The terrible thing … is that hardly anyone listens, they sort of get an impression of somebody and they think they figure out just what he’s like by seeing him on television.” – Gore Vidal
Today, we live in a world where news, punditry and debate has been corrupted to such a great extent in the name of entertainment that it struggles to resemble reality. Journalists and commentators obscure truth in almost any media, be it television or tabloids, to suit one’s audience. In this digital age particularly, news and information is increasingly targeted to fit one’s prejudices and preconceptions. Democrat or Republican, Brexit-er or Remain-er, your social feeds will be entirely different as determined by algorithms, so as to be populated by only those facts you want to believe.
Social media, the supposedly great equaliser, only divides us further by pandering to our own prejudices. Yet, the unreliability of the internet is not particularly newsworthy. What is new and concerning, as John Oliver notes, is that for first time political leaders are giving credence to such lies. Furthermore, any attempts at truth are drowned out by divisive, populist cries. Was anyone truly surprised to learn that Oxford Dictionaries international word of the year in 2016 was “post-truth”?
Of course, it was not solely this historical event in television’s history which led to this decline. Likely numerous factors, which should each be discussed in their own rights, all contributed. The loss of deference was a noticeable phenomenon in the western world, particularly 1960s England. Political sex scandals and a general disdain for the establishment (which is not invalid in and of itself) led to the creation of a new, more biting form of journalism and entertainment. It also made audiences hungrier for scandal: eager to believe anything sordid enough, regardless of the validity of the claims, and eager still to tear down those who supposedly seem above us. Indeed, Oliver owes his own fame to the rise of political satirists.
Perhaps, this decline was ultimately inevitable. Perhaps, a demagogue like Trump was always going to be perfectly placed to succeed. Perhaps our primal natures, which led the Romans to pit gladiators to fight each other to the death, ensured our thirst for entertainment would always win. Or, perhaps, Mark Fisher’s diagnosis of modern society’s growing mental health endemic not just as ‘depression’ but ‘depressive hedonism’ in Capitalist Realism is correct. The bleak picture he paints of a society stuck in a depressive state which only regresses further despite constant stimulation and entertainment, is all too familiar too many of us. And if, as Morgan and Neville conclude, the only thing bringing us together is the constant stream of entertainment, little wonder then at how divided we are when the pictures in our heads are so different, and so dangerous.
-Edited by Tom Bostock.
This article was also published in Anchor Magazine.
Written in response to the prompt: Percolate