The Void

by Jonah Goldberg

Kathryn has a nice interview with Alvin Felzenberg about WFB. It begins:

 KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What is so glaringly missing from a world without William F. Buckley Jr. living in it anymore?

ALVIN FELZENBERG: The greatest void Bill Buckley left behind is the absence of humor in public discourse today. All day long we see pundits making their case from both right and left. They go in with their talking points and go out having reassured their respective “bases.” But how many could be considered true wits? I hope Buckley was not the last of these, even though he was truly one of a kind.

On the one hand, I agree with this entirely. Buckley left a big void and a big part of it is his missing humor and charm (as I suggested in a different context in my contribution to the WFB symposium). 

But in another sense, I think it’s wrong. When you look around, both the right and the left, there’s an awful lot of humor in public discourse today. On the liberal side, the examples are obvious: Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and, well, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (I’m of the school that finds Bill Maher entirely unfunny). On the conservative and center-right side, there are a lot of writers with pretty solid funny bones. Mark Steyn, Greg Gutfeld, James Lileks, James Taranto, John Podhoretz, Matt Labash, Iowahawk, Frank Fleming, Jim Geraghty, Rob Long, Ann Coulter, P. J. O’Rourke, Christopher Buckley, Andrew Ferguson and on occasion David Brooks are considerable wits or joke-tellers when they want to be (my apologies to the deserving I’ve left off that list. To the undeserving, and you know who you are, be funnier). The late Andrew Breitbart used a lot of humor as well. Anyone who thinks Rush Limbaugh doesn’t use humor probably never listened to him. I, too, try to lighten things up when I think it’s appropriate. 

The difference, I think, isn’t that no one on the right uses humor anymore — if anything there’s more of it than there was when Bill was in his prime. No, the difference is that Bill Buckley was such a huge presence, particularly in an age before cable and the Internet (and his humor was so . . . Buckleyesque), that his absence just feels larger because it also conjures nostalgia for a different time. There was a time when Bill defined conservatism. Today, no one person does. I think that’s a sign of progress but like all progress, it comes with a downside as well.

Some of Bill’s humor wouldn’t work very well today not because it wasn’t funny but because the political climate is harsher and less literary and because partisans on both sides are less generous about jokes at their side’s expense. Nostalgia for Buckley’s humor strikes me as part and parcel of nostalgia for a different time. 

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