James Baldwin debates William F Buckley

59 minutes

The psychologist who sparked the gay rights movement

7 minutes

Carl Sagan’s message to aliens

8 minutes

Sandorkraut

12 minutes

Giant Steps

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While usually reduced to short clips, the full hour-long debate – presented here in its entirety – is a remarkable historical document in its own right.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

The pioneering psychologist who proved that being gay isn’t a mental illness

‘What is called this year “evil” and whatever, next year may constitute the blessing of the human race.’

Throughout much of the 20th century in the United States, homosexuality was considered a mental illness by the medical establishment. This view created a cruel set of circumstances for gay people, as a lack of serious research into homosexuality allowed social institutions to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, and medical institutions could subject gay people to psychologically and physically damaging therapies.

This brief video essay explores the legacy of the late US psychologist Evelyn Hooker (1907-96), whose groundbreaking studies of homosexuality would help lay the groundwork for the modern gay rights movement. Inspired by her friendship with a gay student she met while teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles in the 1940s, Hooker began to study mental stability in straight and gay male populations. Ultimately, her work revealed that there was no correlation between homosexuality and psychological maladjustment. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association finally removed homosexuality from their list of mental disorders amid pressure from gay rights activist, who cited Hooker’s pioneering work in their arguments.

Video by University of California

Website: Fig 1

How do you message an alien? Carl Sagan offers some simple suggestions

Is there a foolproof way to announce our existence to other intelligent life-forms? It’s a brainteaser with vast potential consequences, and one that scientists seem to love puzzling over – even if some, such as Stephen Hawking, have questioned the wisdom of alerting advanced beings to our humble corner of the Universe. In this short video excerpt from a 1977 lecture at the Royal Institution in London, Carl Sagan – more optimistic about the prospect of alien benevolence than Hawking – offers one possible method. First, he establishes his belief that a common language among dissimilar beings in a shared universe should, in theory, be possible. He then presents a document coded in ones and zeroes, containing a message that he hopes could be decoded by an intelligent being anywhere in the Universe. Finally, Sagan recounts an experiment in which he presented the document to what he considers a ‘reasonably clever’ life-form – some of his graduate students at Cornell University – to see if they could decipher it.

Making sauerkraut is a spiritual matter for the ‘fermentation fetishist’ Sandor Katz

The US writer and activist Sandor Katz is one of the world’s leading experts on fermentation – a process born of the collaboration between people, time and microbes that makes possible such beloved culinary staples as bread, beer, wine, kimchi and miso. A self-described ‘fermentation fetishist’, Katz views this process as a humbling means of reconnecting with nature and its foodways, and has written several books on the subject and leads fermentation workshops in the US and abroad. In Sandorkraut, the US filmmakers Emily Lobsenz and Ann Husaini explore how an HIV diagnosis in 1991 led Katz on an unexpected path from New York City to a queer community in Tennessee, where he developed a spiritual connection with all things fermented.

Step into synaesthesia’s visual soundscape, built with the music of John Coltrane

The Israeli animator and artist Michal Levy is among the roughly 3 per cent of people who experience synaesthesia – a neurological condition in which people have a recurring sensory overlap, such as ‘tasting’ words or envisioning letters and numbers each with their own inherent colour. Levy possesses one of the most common forms of the condition, chromaesthesia, in which sounds and music provoke visuals. For her short film Giant Steps, Levy set out to convey her audiovisual experience of the John Coltrane composition ‘Giant Steps’ (1959). The resulting short animation is at once an intriguing window into the sensory world of a person with synaesthesia and an audiovisual delight, as Coltrane’s rollicking notes elicit a kinetic, cascading cityscape built from colourful blocks of sound.

To read more about synaesthesia, visit visit Aeon’s sister site, Psyche, a new digital magazine that illuminates the human condition through three prisms: mental health; the perennial question of ‘how to live’; and the artistic and transcendent facets of life.

Director: Michal Levy

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

Aeon is not-for-profit
and free for everyone
Make a donation
Get Aeon straight
to your inbox
Join our newsletter

Self-Portrait in the Camp (1940), by Felix Nussbaum. Nussbaum was a prominent and admired artist prior to the Nazis seizing power in 1933. He subsequently worked in exile and hiding before being murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. Neue Galerie New York/Getty Images

Essay/
Thinkers and theories
Where loneliness can lead

Hannah Arendt enjoyed her solitude, but she believed that loneliness could make people susceptible to totalitarianism

Samantha Rose Hill

A view of the 1964 World’s Fair in New York showing the Golden Rondelle Theater (upper left), Tower of Light (upper centre) and General Electric’s Pavilion featuring Walt Disney’s Progressland (upper right, blue and yellow lit dome). Photo by George Silk/LIFE/Getty

Essay/
History of ideas
The rise and rise of creativity

Once seen as the work of genius, how did creativity become an engine of economic growth and a corporate imperative?

Steven Shapin