Television Was Not Always a Vast Wasteland

I just stumbled across this 1990 debate between John O’Sullivan, William F. Buckley, and Christopher Hitchens (so much sharper before his alcoholic decline), and am agog that anything this erudite and civilized every graced American airwaves.

Supererogation? Autarkist? Frowzy? If your SAT Verbal was less than 700 you may need a dictionary, and it wouldn’t hurt to have a good reference book on European political history at hand either. Very much worth the effort, if only for nostalgia.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

6 thoughts on “Television Was Not Always a Vast Wasteland”

  1. Erudite, perhaps. Civilized, definitely not. Buckley had no honesty and really no seriousness, because when he did invite persons of integrity as guests, his purpose was to mock them and, at bottom, he didn't even care whether he succeeded. Firing Line was not debate; it was a wide boy's idea of what debate sounds like. In Buckley's corner of Hell, Bach's avatar is continuously playing trumpet in his ear.

      1. Your comment seems a little mean-spirited. I'm not sure FW's blanket condemnation of Firing Line is justified, but the implication that today's TV, with wall-to-wall inanity, provocation and faux outrage, is his cup of tea does not follow from a general disdain for Buckley's show. If I were to say, for example, that Martin Scorcese is overrated, it would not follow that my idea of a good time is settling down in front of Adam Sandler's latest offering.

        The Wasteland today is indeed vast and deep, but the non-Wasteland, however you define it, is vast and deep too. Also, in the current environment, I find it difficult to judge people for their viewing choices. In particular, I think the Bachelor is execrable, and I used to think that anyone who likes it must be a bad person. But perusing the internet, I find that some critics whose taste I mostly agree with on other things, and whose consumption and appreciation of more "highbrow" culture seems to exceed mine, seem to love it. (Heck, my sister is a good person and she loves Adam Sandler. ) To each his or her own, I guess.

        1. You're right not to judge people for viewing choices. For one thing, we must consider why they watch television, and we should distinguish their critical judgments from their tastes. Some people like to relax with trashy shows, and know that they are trashy; there's nothing wrong with that. I, for one, limit my reading of fiction pretty much to the canon, but, when it comes to movies, nothing for me tops the campfire scene in "Blazing Saddles." Books and movies serve different purposes for me. Wittgenstein loved westerns.

  2. Fascinating interview…you could disagree with much of Buckley like I did, and still enjoy listening to him. With his Mid Atlantic accent and wide range vocabulary I always liked his show. A life long friend with Alistair Horne….And Hitchens is good here too….sad how after 9/11 he really lost his way.

    Hard to imagine anything like this now…even in Britain.

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