Baldwin vs Buckley: the Cambridge debate

I don’t remember where I first heard about this debate between James Baldwin, novelist and civil rights activist and William F. Buckley, founder of the National Review and the man who more than any other has shaped conservative thought in the USA, but I’ve been meaning to watch it for about a month.

The debate took place at Cambridge University, UK in 1965, apparently after the passing of the Civil Rights Act. The motion was “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?

Watching this there are some remarkable observations I made. The foremost is how little the conversation on race has changed in 50 years. This debate would almost fit perfectly in a modern setting if you replace “negro” with “African American”. Baldwin pointed to the building of USA by free black labour and deprivation of civil rights, economic opportunities and decent housing. Buckley played the role of the reasonable conservative – one appalled by the brash racism of some of those who shared his views. He pointed to the success of other minorities and thought black people were given opportunities they were not taking advantage of. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Another interesting observation is the reference by the Cambridge undergraduates (one on each side of the motion) who spoke about the remarkable progress which had  been made in the last 20 years. I was dumdfounded. So the 1960s was progress? It reminded me of the tendency of some anti-progressives to believe what counts as change to them is enough and any further activism is taking it too far.

And when James Baldwin spoke about the post-World War II independence of African nations challenging the belief he had been taught to hold that the African was a savage with no history, I was reminded of the importance of African independence for black people all over the world.

Baldwin was clearly who the students had come to see. He was the star. Buckley even used that as evidence of progress and said there was no university Baldwin would go to in America that he wouldn’t get such a reception.

Both speakers were exceedingly eloquent but as far as the debate itself goes I think Baldwin won. The vote had Baldwin winning 544 to 164. He actually debated the motion. Slavery, marginalization and exclusion were proof that the American dream had been built at the expense of the negro. Buckley admitted the discrimination but didn’t mention slavery. He also felt the success of Jewish Americans meant blacks had themselves to blame for their position in the USA. Without comparing the totality of their experience that was a bad appraisal. But perhaps the implications of Baldwin’s opening statement was what really matters – that the reality of black and white people differs.

Let me know what you think after watching.

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