The Public Debate


When I was in high school I was quite captivated by Ayn Rand and the philosophies she espoused in The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, and The Romantic Manifesto. Miss Rand died in 1982 and I was therefore unable to appreciate her voice and presentation style. I recall my grandmother once told me that she remembered seeing Rand often on television and I was a bit jealous. In those medieval times, the 1980’s, we couldn’t just go and summon video forth on a whim. As such, for me, Miss Rand image et voix, was her books.

Youtube changes this. I watched the following interview of Miss Rand by Phil Donohue in 1979 shortly after the death of her husband, Frank O’Connor.

To be honest, I was absolutely stunned by these 8 minutes. I was surprised not because of the content presented, I’m well familiar with it. Rather I was bowled over by the exceedingly high quality of interview facilitated by Donohue. It felt completely foreign. Her philosophy, Objectivism, is explored by in a Socratic discourse by Donohue and its more contentious points are drawn out and put to the test of several what-if scenarios.

What was particularly notable to me was the quality of questions that Donohue asked, it was clear he was familiar with the work in a substantial way. He was not basing his questions on hearsay of some snippet that had come from some other show or some talking point. It also appears to have been understood, in general, that Rand was a “public intellectual”, someone with something to say and someone to whom people could respond with questions and requests for further clarification. I do recall Donohue on during the daytime in the early 1980’s and didn’t understand why he was regarded as a “big deal.” I get it now.

I look at my own times and see the great paucity of such figures, intellectual and interlocutor alike. Today we are awash in self-righteous intellectual gasconade by the likes of infotaining fauxlebrities ( and neologistic bloggers, ahem ) in awe of their own cult of personality. Those that would call their opponents pinheads and tell them to “shut up” continue to help race the quality of the public debate to its nadir are to be found on every channel, yet those that actually engage in a substantive exchange are few.

Can one imagine Oprah talking to an atheist, Russian, emigree about Aristotle, the principle of non-contradiction, and welfare-state economics? I have a hard time belieiving such, having seen her promulgate the content of “The Secret” and “The Celestine Prophecy.”

To be sure, in the clip Rand certainly shows some of the truculence that marks the loudest of those who ringmaster cargo-cult hours on the “news” channels: in one of the sections she harangues an audience member in a way that felt entirely familiar to those who have seen Bill O’Reilly do his “poor me, it’s a conspiracy” bit when interviewed by another as to how he handles certain interviewees who have caught him with his intellectual pants down.

That there has been a consistent downward slide was confirmed by another interview of Rand, this time performed by a Bryl-cream and bravado Mike Wallace.

Reading up about this show, thanks to The University of Texas’ wonderful HRC, I see that it ran in 1957 and interviewed Dali, Eleanor Roosevelt, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Lili St. Cyr (va-voom!). If I turn on my TV right now, at 10 o’clock, I believe I should find nothing as captivating as any of these episodes. Another 30 minutes of “Ow, my balls ” has little allure for me.

In Holland the evening programming on Nederland 1 was also news-based, direct information targeted at an informed population. In such a tiny country the news that was made that day could be discussed, substantively, with the makers of that news that night in The Hague. Can you imagine evening programming on the IQ level of Charlie Rose; better, a panel of Charlie Roses?