I’ve tried to avoid or ignore commentary on the thing that happened on TV last night. I make exception for Ta-Nehisi Coates:
"But as the exchanges intensified, one of the candidates, Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, chastised the moderators of the debate, from NBC and Politico, and said they were trying to stoke divisions among Republicans in a way he said would help Mr. Obama."
Dude, it’s a debate.
Newt Gingrich is such a hack it’s impossible to know if this was clever stupid or regular stupid. Debating is a tool of the liberal media! Is it really a "primary" if the result isn’t final? What is it to be voted for? What are words, really? I am Newt Gingrich and I am freaking your mind. I poop in a shoe.
There is a larger issue here, which I don’t trust Boot Toilet to represent. In my days at Holiday Inn podiums, I ran into kids who didn’t know what debate was. They would express confusion while at the podium, debating. Once or twice they cried.
It went like this:
Debater: There is no better way to protect the Brown Owl, to protect our American natural hertiage, than the Act we consider today. I direct the judge toward the strong evidence and the need for action, and urge you to decide for the Affirmative.
Debater’s Partner: *table thump*
Judge and Bizzo: *polite clap*
Judge: … okay. It was a close round and both teams made strong points. Affirmative, you failed to respond to the cost arguments made by Neg conclusively, and dropped the feasibility point from openers. Neg, you dodged a bullet because "owls are too greasy to eat" and "therefore cannot be loved" was a non-sequitor. But I’m giving you the round. You advance.
Bizzo: Thank you! *goes to shake the hands*
Debater: But! But … no! No, judge, you can’t do that! Think about the damage this will do!
Judge: Affirmative, my decision is final. It was a good debate but …
Bizzo: *stands there, hand awkwardly out*
Debater: But we’re RIGHT. Ohmygod why are you doing this? It’s in National Geographic. They really will die! WHY WOULD YOU LET THEM DIE.
Bizzo: *brain make squeak noise*
Debater: I TOLD you how important this was! We’re going to HAVE NO FORESTS. FORESTS ARE IMPORTANT.
Judge: Debaters, please clear the stage. Neg advances.
Debater: YOU’RE TRYING TO KILL THE OWLS! OH GOD WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO KILL THE OWLS! IT MAKES NO SENSE! YOU’RE TERRIBLE.
Bizzo: I never touched an owl.
And I never have.
At the time this baffled me. What do you say to that. "Sir, when you lose at Monopoly, do you file for unemployment?" "Are you sick?" "Were you kicked by a mule?" "Are you Newt Gingrich?"
Today I know better. What goes on in Newt Gingrich’s head does sound like two rats fucking in a pile of sawdust, but his words appeal to a common misunderstanding.That the point of debate is to win. Or that the point is to be right.
Anyone can be right. It takes someone working within a very complex system to turn their rightness into action without killing or raping everyone who thinks otherwise, then setting their books on fire. Whatever the Democrats or the GOP have latitiude to do today exists within a tiny civilized window, framed on at least one side by boring civil consenseus. On at least one other by the rules of non-rapey persuasion.
The first point of debate is to have one. This souds obvious, but we’ve got honors students crying over dream owls and an ex-congressman saying hey what if we skipped all the stuff before I win. And no one tazered him.
My opinion is when six political leaders show up, say hateful things about each other and each other’s ideas, shake hands, go home alive, and everyone treats this as banal, the big win is behind us. That sort of thing is never normal enough. We should use every opportunity to its fullest. This is why I hate the soundbite format. This is why I think kids should internalize the rituals and rules and tactics of debate. Right after learning to read.
A key part of that lesson should be arguing for things you hate. Do you love the Brown Owl? Argue that we need the timber. Do you hate affirmative action? Argue it’s vital to society. Do you eat three cookies at lunch? Argue to replace them with vegetables. Do it well. You’ll be graded. You’ll develop an ear for reason and persuasion. They’ll come to be normal.
There’s a lot of power in making things normal. If Rick Perry gave a speech pantless or speaking pig latin (or both), no pundit would tease out its impact on South Carolina. Headlines would read "Governor has hairy thighs, forefits race."
I fantasize about an America where that applies to debate. Where arguing well and submitting to rigor is what you need to even show up. Where storyboarding an interview or scripting a press conference or saying candidates shouldn’t argue because they might lose carries the social weight of stapling hot dogs to your chin and yelling "I’M SANTA MEAT."
In a country like that, we’d wind up with fewer Newt Gingriches and fewer Michael Moores. Or at least fewer people who respect them.
Maybe we’d have real debates.