Lamenting the state of American political discourse is a popular refrain at present, and it’s not hard to see why. At a time when offensive statements from the likes of Donald Trump and Ben Carson serve not as campaign-ending gaffes but as anabolic steroids for the presidential horse-race; when blowhard cable news anchors generate much heat but little light on the issues de l’heure; and when social media has opened up a whole new realm for shocking anger and abuse, the desire to tune out of political speech altogether and only pay attention biennially and briefly has never been stronger. MIT Professor Heather Hendershot’s forthcoming book, Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line — which she introduced at an Oct. 22 colloquium — could not be more timely, with its simple central question: how, exactly, did it come to this?
The room is bubbling with conversation and an easygoing vibe as I walk into 56-114, where Comparative Media Studies regularly hosts its Thursday evening Colloquium. Students get shuffled to the front by CMS’s own William Uricchio, who exclaims that “it’s going to be a conversation.” The seats end up filling up to the back anyway, and with some unruly air conditioning, we’re all getting a bit cozy before the conversation starts. Later we’ll find out that “cozy” is often what director Guy Maddin strives for in his film practice, so perhaps it’s just as well.