James Baldwin debates William F Buckley

59 minutes

Sunken films

11 minutes

The paradox of the ravens

6 minutes

Shelter in place

15 minutes

ORIGINAL

How we build perception from the inside out

10 minutes

The legendary debate that laid down US political lines on race, justice and history

In 1965 at the University of Cambridge, two of the foremost American intellectuals were challenged with the question: ‘Has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?’ From William F Buckley’s highly stylised posturing and pointing, to James Baldwin’s melodious rhetorical flourishes and memorable scowls, what’s become known as the ‘Baldwin-Buckley Debate’ now stands as one of the archetypal articulations of the dividing line between US progressives and conservatives on questions of race, justice and history. Baldwin, the famed African-American writer, whose reputation as a progressive social critic and visionary Civil Rights activist has only risen in the intervening decades, argues that the very foundation of US society is built on the dehumanisation of its African-American population. Meanwhile, Buckley, the leading US conservative intellectual of the period, argues that African Americans would be best served by exploiting their country’s many freedoms and opportunities, rather than pointing a collective finger at discriminatory structures and institutions. In both cases, their positions presage contemporary divisive debates in the US, though one wonders whether such an event could happen in today’s political environment.

While usually reduced to short clips, the full hour-long debate – presented here in its entirety – is a remarkable historical document in its own right. Conducted in front of a large, almost entirely white and predominantly male audience at the Cambridge Union, the encounter offers a sense of campus intellectual life in the mid-1960s through the atmosphere in the room, the things that made people laugh, and the particular references made by the debaters. After the always eloquent Baldwin evokes his personal experience to describe a perpetually disorienting and demeaning existence for African Americans, Buckley responds with facts and figures – as well as an ad hominem shot at Baldwin’s speaking voice – to argue that there’s an American Dream available to all those who would pursue it. In the end, Baldwin prevailed, earning an ardent standing ovation and a landslide victory in the Union’s vote on the motion raised.

Website: The Cambridge Union

Audio restoration: Adam D’Arpino

Trawling for secrets in haunting films recovered from the bottom of the sea

The British ocean liner RMS Lusitania embarked on its infamous final voyage from New York to Liverpool on 1 May 1915. Six days later, torpedoed by German U-boats off the southern coast of Ireland, the ship sank in less than 20 minutes, killing 1,198 passengers and crew, and setting the US on the path to join the fight against Germany in the First World War. One of the most luxurious ocean liners of its time, the Lusitania was equipped with what was then a novelty – an onboard movie theatre.

In Sunken Films, the US artist and filmmaker Bill Morrison uses archival footage to unspool the stories of the sinking of this luxury liner, its incendiary movie reels, as well as other films about or from shipwrecks. One early clip was salvaged from the sunken Lusitania in a 1982 expedition; another mysterious film, featuring the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin in 1919-20 with his cat, was recovered from a fishing net off the Danish coast in 1976. By trawling for memories in deep-sea shipwrecks, Morrison offers haunting glimpses into early-20th century film and world history.

Director: Bill Morrison

Is a red apple proof that all ravens are black? A paradox of scientific logic

Can we learn anything about what makes a raven by looking only at apples? The German-born logician Carl Gustav Hempel (1905-97) thought that, using the inductive logic that scientists rely on to prove or disprove hypotheses, you ought to be able to – but in such a way that clashes mightily with human intuition. This peculiar ripple in reasoning, which became known as ‘the raven paradox’ due to the example Hempel used to elucidate it, goes as follows:

1. All ravens are black
2. If something is not black it is not a raven
3. The fact that my pet raven is black supports the hypothesis that all ravens are black
4. The fact that my apple is red also supports the hypothesis that all ravens are black

The sequence appears to break down somewhere between the third and fourth claims. And yet, upon examination, inductive logic tells us that claim four does indeed follow. In this brief animation, Marc Lange, a professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, dissects why Hempel’s claim seems to hold to reason, even as it cuts against our intuitions in a way that seems unresolvable.

Lockdown is a way of life for the US asylum-seekers living in churches

While much of the world was adjusting to lockdown and socialising via screens, life went on more or less the same for Vicky Chavez and her two young daughters. For more than two years, they have been unable to leave the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City in Utah, their makeshift home. After Chavez was ordered to deport to her native Honduras, which she fled to escape an abusive relationship, the church provided her refuge from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – which doesn’t pursue raids at places of worship – while her case is being fought in court. In her moving short Shelter in Place, the US director Kelsie Moore captures the family’s precarious life in limbo, which includes Chavez’s regular video calls with other asylum-seekers living in churches around the country.

Director: Kelsie Moore

Website: RadioWest

Anil Seth on why our senses are fine-tuned for utility, not for ‘reality’

It’s easy to mistake our conscious experience for an ongoing, accurate account of reality. After all, the information we recover from our senses is, of course, the only window we’ll ever have into the outside world. And for most people most of the time, our perception certainly feels real. But the notion that our senses capture an objective external reality can be dispelled by considering something as fundamental as colour, which can be culturally influenced and, even within a single culture, leave the population split between seeing the same picture of a dress as black-and-blue or white-and-gold.

In this instalment from Aeon’s In Sight series, Anil Seth, professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience at the University of Sussex in the UK, puts our imperfect relationship with reality in perspective. In conversation with Nigel Warburton, consultant senior editor at Aeon+Psyche, Seth argues that it’s not just that our perceptions provide flawed accounts of the outside world, but that our brains aren’t in the business of recovering the outside world to begin with. So it’s more accurate to think of our conscious experience as a series of predictions that we’re incessantly and subconsciously fine-tuning – a world we build from the inside out, rather than the outside in.

For more from Anil Seth, read his Aeon essay on the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness.

Interviewer: Nigel Warburton

Producer: Kellen Quinn

Editor: Adam D’Arpino

Associate Producer: Tamur Qutab

The legendary debate that laid down US political lines on race, justice and history

In 1965 at the University of Cambridge, two of the foremost American intellectuals were challenged with the question: ‘Has the American Dream been achieved at the expense of the American Negro?’ From William F Buckley’s highly stylised posturing and pointing, to James Baldwin’s melodious rhetorical flourishes and memorable scowls, what’s become known as the ‘Baldwin-Buckley Debate’ now stands as one of the archetypal articulations of the dividing line between US progressives and conservatives on questions of race, justice and history. Baldwin, the famed African-American writer, whose reputation as a progressive social critic and visionary Civil Rights activist has only risen in the intervening decades, argues that the very foundation of US society is built on the dehumanisation of its African-American population. Meanwhile, Buckley, the leading US conservative intellectual of the period, argues that African Americans would be best served by exploiting their country’s many freedoms and opportunities, rather than pointing a collective finger at discriminatory structures and institutions. In both cases, their positions presage contemporary divisive debates in the US, though one wonders whether such an event could happen in today’s political environment.

While usually reduced to short clips, the full hour-long debate – presented here in its entirety – is a remarkable historical document in its own right. Conducted in front of a large, almost entirely white and predominantly male audience at the Cambridge Union, the encounter offers a sense of campus intellectual life in the mid-1960s through the atmosphere in the room, the things that made people laugh, and the particular references made by the debaters. After the always eloquent Baldwin evokes his personal experience to describe a perpetually disorienting and demeaning existence for African Americans, Buckley responds with facts and figures – as well as an ad hominem shot at Baldwin’s speaking voice – to argue that there’s an American Dream available to all those who would pursue it. In the end, Baldwin prevailed, earning an ardent standing ovation and a landslide victory in the Union’s vote on the motion raised.

Website: The Cambridge Union

Audio restoration: Adam D’Arpino

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