Whatever Happened to the Playful Ad Hominem?


Few things excited or engaged my mind as a child as much as Buckley’s playful ad hominem attacks, launched regularly at his guests on Firing Line.  The debates concerned heavy issues, but somehow the surprise verbal assaults elevated the conversation—gave life, verve, and a different sort of seriousness to the event.  When Buckley was at the top of his form his jibes could simultaneously expose, by subtle and indirect means, a serious critique in the position of his opponent and foster trust and an emotional bond among the participants.  For the audience, it was a competition of ideas and cleverness, and it had the great virtue of helping us think about serious matters in a way that opened up ways of thinking more complex and less literal.

I experienced other forms of playful ad hominem attacks when I was a child, from one uncle saying to another “how is it that you get uglier every time I see you?” to rather subtle statements concerning racial differences at pick-up basketball games in my largely black community.  I cannot imagine witnessing the latter example these days and the former is much more rare in my experience, as though the joking attack is no longer a means of expressing affection.

But it is at the intersection of intellectual and political conversation where I most miss the adroit use of playful ad hominem jibes.  From my narrow experience, the antagonists are more prone to a deadening seriousness and literalness, rendering the conversation lifeless.  It is reasonable to believe that I am seeing a change where this is none or that I’m applying an unusually high standard (found on Firing Line but not found generally at the time) that makes comparisons with contemporary debates inappropriate.  Be that as it may, a little subtle ad hominem attack might make me love political debate again.

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Ted McAllister is a native of Oklahoma, now living in Moorpark, California with his wife, Dena, and his two children, Elisa and Luke. He yearns for his own chunk of land and for those bits of nature that please him, but not for farming or for unnecessary drudgery of the sort that involves physical labor.  He is an aesthetic agrarian, not a practicing one. Educated as an Intellectual and Cultural Historian at Vanderbilt University, he now teaches at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy where he pursues with his students the enduring questions rather than the particular answers.  His book, Revolt Against Modernity:  Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and the Search for a Post-Liberal Order launched him into the study of political philosophy, though his epistemological orientation is much shaped by his training as a historian.  Working presently on Walter Lippmann as well as a US History textbook, he expects soon to write a multi-volume history of the Baby-boomers.


  1. I think a lot of the reason might have to do with the large use of text in conversations and debate these days, thanks in large part to blogs and the internet. It’s harder to read humor into text, particularly when its in the form of an ad hominem, than an actual verbal exchange. You still get a little of it with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, but non-comedy types (even on television) tend to shy away because a sound-bite of a playful ad hominem read via text can be so easily misconstrued.

  2. I think Buckley was a happy person. He fought the good fight but had fun too.

    I read your book on Voegelin and Strauss having somewhat recently discovered Voegelin. I received a stage-3 lymphoma diagnosis last fall and, surprisingly, the first month or so afterwards was a time of spiritual ecstasy. Is that too strong a term? Maybe elevated consciousness is better. In any event, Voegelin’s thinking really came into play and still does. He has much to say about so many things.

    How to popularize him? Voegelin for Dummies? Thanks for that book.

  3. Somewhere along the line, I believe the playful ad hominem was offended by a minor slight, demanded apologies galore, and ran advertisements accusing its offender of employing an attack campaign while assuring everyone who would listen, which was surprisingly many people, that it would never, never engage in such underhandedness as a playful ad hominem.

    [For any commentator who might think I’m referring to any one particular current or recent candidate for public office, rest assured, I’m referring to most of them.]

  4. “to rather subtle statements concerning racial differences at pick-up basketball games in my largely black community. I cannot imagine witnessing the latter example these days”

    You have not spent time in Brooklyn, then.

  5. Over at Sojourners, this from Frank Schaeffer:

    When I learned of Gore Vidal’s passing Wednesday, I recalled Buckley talking to Dad and me about how Vidal and he used to go hammer-and-tongs arguing on TV — mostly on Buckley’s program Firing Line — only to go have a drink together after the show.

    I often recall that conversation in the context of today’s Right/Left cultural-political divide, and I can’t picture any Fox News Channel host having a cocktail with any MSNBC host after they’ve disagreed repeatedly and pointedly in public (on separate shows of course).

    Read all of it here:


  6. The lack of humor in today’s discourse is a direct result of the prevailing dumbing down of a culture that will need to keep digging sub-cellars in search of even greater depths of abject idiocy. Perhaps it will be a full employment program.

  7. Frank Schaefer seems to be misremembering: there’s no record of Gore Vidal ever having appeared on “Firing Line” (you can search the guests here, http://hoohila.stanford.edu/firingline/), and everything I’ve seen suggests that the hostility between Vidal and Buckley was quite unrelenting, though Buckley had the grace to acknowledge Vidal’s talents as a writer. Buckley could be very cordial indeed with ideological sparring partners, but only so long as the sparring stayed ideological. The Vidal blow-up was very personal — recall it involved, in one phase, Vidal putting about a story of an anti-Semitic prank on Buckley’s part, and WFB sued for libel.

    I think it’s true, though, that there were some deep similarities between Vidal and Buckley beneath the animosity. Sam Tanenhaus noted that they both had roots in America First, but they followed divergent branches of that tendency after WWII.

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