James Baldwin debates William F Buckley

59 minutes

Susan Greenfield on neuronal assemblies

9 minutes

Plato’s allegory of the cave

9 minutes

Solos

5 minutes

The meaning of a monument

16 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While usually reduced to short clips, the full hour-long debate – presented here in its entirety – is a remarkable historical document in its own right.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

Why don’t we feel pain in dreams? The answer might lie in a new frontier of neuroscience

The UK research scientist Susan Greenfield believes that neuronal assemblies – coalitions of millions of brain cells that activate and disband over a scale of millimetres and milliseconds – could be a Rosetta Stone for explaining shifts and differences in states of consciousness. Although research about these cellular systems is still in its early stages, Greenfield thinks that further study could help neuroscientists bridge the chasm between the local neural networks and large brain regions that currently characterise our framework for perception. And, as she proposes in this interview with Robert Lawrence Kuhn for the PBS series Closer to Truth (2000-), bridging this gap might be key to unlocking some of the foremost puzzles of consciousness – from sleep, dreams and wakefulness to mental illness.

Video by Closer to Truth

Orson Welles’s psychedelic 1973 adaptation of Plato’s timeless ‘allegory of the cave’

Warning: this film features rapidly flashing images that can be distressing to photosensitive viewers.

‘It is the task of the enlightened not only to ascend to learning and to see the good but to be willing to descend again to those prisoners and to share their troubles and their honours, whether they are worth having or not. And this they must do, even with the prospect of death.’ – Plato’s Republic, Book 7

Plato’s ‘allegory of the cave’ thought experiment ponders the experience of prisoners shackled in a cave from birth, only able to see the shadows of objects projected onto a wall. The text then traces the journey of a prisoner who is set free from the cave, given the opportunity to experience reality in the glow of the sun, and, upon returning to the cave, is met with laughter by the other prisoners, who think him a fool for struggling to readjust to his old existence. A simple story yielding complex commentaries on the nature of reality and wisdom, Plato’s timeless allegory is built into the foundations of modern philosophy, and, more than two centuries later, still stirs debate. Carried by a rich narration from Orson Welles, this rarely seen 1973 animated adaptation of Plato’s words populates the tale with haunting human figures, bringing retro-surreal life to the parable.

Via Open Culture

Director: Sam Weiss

Narrator: Orson Welles

Animator: Dick Oden

Sketches from a Barcelona square offer an elegant celebration of people-watching

Barcelona’s squares (plaças in Catalan, plazas in Spanish) are the beating heart of the Catalonian capital – beloved to residents and tourists alike. Breaking the monotony of the city’s gridded streets, these open outdoor areas percolate with the comings and goings of al fresco diners, makeshift football matches and all iterations of art and commerce. Formed from sketches made while the London-based filmmaker Gabriella Marsh was living in Barcelona, the brief animation Solos captures daily life in a small square in the historic Gràcia neighbourhood. Streets are swept, families squabble and friendly greetings are exchanged. And yet these mostly mundane scenes transform into something quite remarkable via Marsh’s stylish hand-drawn images and composer Joe Bush’s gentle piano score. What emerges is an elegant meditation on the intersections of streets, stories and social forces that give shape to a city block.

Director: Gabriella Marsh

Composer: Joe Bush

The American Museum of Natural History grapples with its most controversial piece

The ‘Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt’ was commissioned by the City of New York to stand in front of the American Museum of Natural History in 1925, and was finally unveiled to the public in 1940. A co-founder of the museum and avid outdoorsman, Roosevelt’s commitment to conservation was reflected in many of his policies as president, including the vast expansion of national parks, forests and monuments. But despite his contributions to the field of natural history, the statue – depicting a horseback Roosevelt flanked by a Native American figure and an African figure – has been controversial for decades, with detractors arguing that it’s a monument to white supremacy. Further complicating its symbolism are Roosevelt’s recorded views on race, which were in some ways progressive for a white man of his time, but would today be condemned as unequivocally racist.

Released by the American Museum of Natural History in 2019 – prior to the institution’s decision to remove the statue in the wake of the George Floyd protests in June 2020 – this short film was created to help contextualise the work for museum visitors. Leading scholars in the fields of art, history and African and Native American studies weigh in on the sculpture’s intended and perceived meanings – alongside museum visitors, many of whom are relaying their first impressions of the monument. The resulting short is captivating both as a history and as a reading of the wider cultural moment, in which institutions are being forced to grapple with their legacies, and governments are reassessing who and what should be celebrated in public spaces.

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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Detail from a manuscript painting from a set of annals written in Nahuatl called the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca (1545-1565) from Mexico. Courtesy the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris

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