(Los Alamitos, CA, posted 1/21/2017) Editor’s note: The following originally appeared as a Guest Post in the News Enterprise, and is reposted here with the gracious permission of the author. by John Underwood:
When I was very young and just beginning to form my view of the world one prominent media figure captured my imagination, tempted me to imitation, and struck me as heroic rising above all other intellects in clear thinking and execution of style in conversation.
No it was not JFK. It was notorious conservative and talk show host William F. Buckley Jr. On his 1960s and 70s confrontational television program Firing Line Bill Buckley would fearlessly invite some of the most articulate liberal thinkers and talkers of the time. He would first listen carefully with the discipline of a UN delegate, give them the courtesy of laying out their world view perhaps even agreeing on points of common ground, and then proceed to roll them over like bowling pins with his own eviscerating logic, cutting charm, and command of the English language.
As my own world view expanded with age and experience my empathy for the world took me to places and points of view Mr. Buckley would never have accepted. And this was a real source of inner conflict for me for some time, until I realized another lesson I was learning implicitly from this great debater’s example, that is, reasonable and nimble minds can tolerate, often accept, and sometimes even assimilate the opinions of others without necessarily threatening the foundations of one’s own worldview, if you first listen carefully to what they are actually saying.
This realization, thanks to Bill Buckley, has served me often in my writings and discursive conversation with able debaters ever since. One such person I have liberally applied this lesson to in recent years is my old debating friend and sometimes nemesis JM Ivler, who passed away last week, too young, and too soon for the arguments he had left to present.
Though we often argued ferociously over the broader and finer points of politics and government I always knew there were pearls of wit and sometimes wisdom to be gleaned from his very precise and well thought out arguments. And just as importantly, he would always provide the space in which to consider my points, one by one, graciously, occasionally even conceding a point or two, before raving on with his own passionate points.
I meet lots of people in my line of work who seem to pause thoughtfully between talking points. They pretend to be listening to your response but you can see in their eyes all they are really hearing is their next talking point rolling around in their heads. This was not JM. He understood the discrete principle of actually listening, in deeper terms than just giving the other guy a little space to rant.
Always, between his inevitably fact-checked talking points, he would pause for your response. But implicit in that pause was always, you felt, his anticipation that you might have something to add to the discourse he might not have thought of. Sometimes in our many discussions I delivered. Sometimes he was not impressed. But always was the respect paid to the other, and to the process of discourse, of give and take between opposing views he understood existed along a spectrum of greys, rather than any artificial hard line between black and white. JM understood that civil discourse is the glue that holds together the common wisdom we call democracy? It’s a wisdom sadly in short supply these days.
Those of us who had the fortitude to take on JM Ivler in debate at some point became aware that he was a self-proclaimed atheist. But I find it hard to imagine a voice so formidable, so precise in clarity of thought, could go silent even into the great beyond. I choose to believe JM is in a place where he continues to exchange the great ideas with the great conversationalists, Lincoln, Twain, and I’d like to think, even crossing verbal swords with the likes of Bill Buckley. And then afterward, sharing a cigar. Rave on JM.