GUEST COLUMN: How the rules of healthy debate have changed

Robert Rinearson

What did you expect when the New Yorker magazine invited noted conservative intellectual and former Trump aide Steve Bannon to speak at a festival along with other noted but liberal invitees?

Within moments of the announcement, social media and the New Yorker’s phone lines was set ablaze by the insulted progressive masses who chose to believe without merit that Bannon was a racist Nazi hell-bent on having anyone who was not Anglo-Saxon exterminated. And so the New Yorker’s editor, David Remnick “disinvited” Mr. Bannon.

According to Newsweek, “Other prominent festival attendees–including actor Jim Carrey, comedian John Mulaney and producer Judd Apatow–withdrew from the event after they learnt that the former Breitbart News Chairman would be making an appearance.”

For his part, Bannon called Remnick “gutless” following the disinvite. Which quite frankly, the New Yorkers approach was no different than a mob of Antifa thugs attempting to shut down a Ben Shipiro appearance, only with no public property destroyed.

The format was not Bannon giving a speech, rather he would be questioned and debating Remnick. The opportunity for a balanced educational experience could have been incalculable.

But as is, there will be no experience, and no one benefits other than those who want to shut down Freedom of Speech, fearful of what they might hear.

I come from a generation that was fortunate enough to have enjoyed the privilege of experiencing what free speech and debate meant.

No more so than being able to access William F. Buckley’s Firing Line.

Over the span of 33 years, William F. Buckley would lean back in his studio chair, holding court interviewing and debating politicians, poets, philosophers, professional athletes, scientists and thespians. From Noam Chomsky to Ronald Reagan, from Allen Ginsberg to Margaret Thatcher, from Muhammad Ali to Barry Goldwater, conservatives and liberals alike. Buckley’s guests would be invited to weigh in on any issue to state their beliefs, as long as they were prepared to defend their positions. And Buckley, one of, if not the most important motivating voice of the modern conservative movement, gave back for all he was worth.

Most of the show’s 1,504 episodes, was broadcast on PBS, the media bastion for liberal ideas. Yet topics from ranging racism to the Viet Nam War were discussed offering all sides to the issues without censorship or guests running off the show upset because someone disagreed with their assessment.

Amazing when considering the host in fact could set himself up to have his views desecrated before a national audience. As William Kristol once described, “Buckley really believes that in order to convince, you have to debate and not just preach, which of course means risking the possibility that someone will beat you in debate.”[4]

The ultimate experience and the reward of the show was that the audience got both sides of the issues, thorns and all. If Buckley was seen as occasionally antagonistic with his lofty, Cambridge vocabulary, well that was the essence of William F. Buckley. In all of those 33 years of Firing Line’s duration, there were no mass movements to have the show removed from the airways, no one urged that Buckley or his producers be attacked while they dined at a restaurant, there were no boycotts against PBS.

Of course not everyone change their minds, nor did everyone agreed with the host or the guests. But we listened, and we learned.

How times have changed.

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