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The Famous Baldwin-Buckley Debate Still Matters Today

TheAtlantic 2019-12-02 18:30:00

The famed debate, its riveting lead-up, and its aftermath, are the subject of The Fire Is Upon Us, an exhaustive new study by Nicholas Buccola. In the first book to focus exclusively on this event, Buccola, who teaches political science at Linfield College, traces Baldwin’s and Buckley’s respective upbringings and political awakenings amid an America polarized by the issues of desegregation and racial equality. Understanding how each man came to his own conclusion, the book argues, can offer sharp insights into why Americans remain so at odds on the realities of racism today.


If not for the 1965 debate, Baldwin might never have met Buckley. In fact, Baldwin nearly had another opponent altogether. Before the Cambridge Union invited Buckley, it had reached out to staunchly segregationist politicians, all of whom declined. Buckley seemed an ideal alternative: an articulate, prominent sociopolitical critic who eschewed the racist epithets of conservativism’s more vocal white supremacists but who nonetheless supported segregation. As Buccola writes, Buckley saw the debate as a chance to defeat one of his ideological arch-nemeses on a public stage.


To Buckley’s irritation, though not entirely to his surprise, Baldwin delivered a rousing performance. “It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, or 6, or 7,” Baldwin declared during the debate, “to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you.” He argued that the evils of slavery had hardly been exorcised after abolition, but that, rather, the country was essentially still the same for black Americans as it was under the days of legal slavery. After he spoke, he received a standing ovation.

When it was his turn, Buckley argued that Baldwin was being treated with kid gloves, so to speak, because he claimed to be a victim. “The fact that your skin is black,” he averred, “is utterly irrelevant to the arguments you raise.” Baldwin, he said slowly and full of a quiet anger, was a violent enemy of the Southern way of life who delivered “flagellations of our civilization” and of America as a whole. Forcing the American South to abandon its way of life and accept government-mandated integration, he insisted, would be immoral. Ultimately, the audience disagreed, and Baldwin won the debate, 540 to 160.


It’s difficult to talk about either Baldwin or Buckley without referencing this contest; it has become a touchstone in both men’s lives, memorialized, for instance, in Raoul Peck’s landmark 2016 documentary on Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro. Although the ostensible focus of The Fire Is Upon Us is the Cambridge debate, more than half of it is devoted to explaining how Baldwin and Buckley’s upbringings informed their ideological beliefs and how they became rising stars in their respective worlds. Buccola doesn’t privilege Baldwin or Buckley, and chapters feature alternating sections devoted to each. Although some of the early segments and transitions feel rushed or awkward, the author paints a solid picture of each man once the book hits its stride.