Do public debates on controversial topics do anything other than entertain, stir up the blood, and make people more entrenched in their views?  It there any sense of speaking of a “winner” in a debate in which virtually all listeners already have opinions?  Is there any substantive reason to have these events, other than to provide a bit of public spectacle?

I’m in London for the holidays, spending most of the time visiting family on Sarah’s side.  But we did have a chance to get to a play on the West End, called “The Best of Enemies.”  I hadn’t heard of it before, but it’s made a big splash, probably because of its obvious ongoing political and social relevance, even though it is about a series of events from 55 years ago.

The play is a dramatization of the debates held on ABC between William F. Buckley, famous and outspoken conservative intellectual, and Gore Vidal, famous and outspoken liberal intellectual, during the 1968 Presidential National Conventions.  Some of you will remember these characters well, others of you will never have heard of them.  I’m in between.  I was twelve at the time, and do not remember the debates, and may not have even heard of them at the time (I wasn’t in a massively politically engaged family).  I certainly knew about the Democratic Convention that year — people still talk about it.  Democrats with a split party meeting in heavily democratic Chicago with the iron-fisted highly influential Democratic mayor Richard J. Daley who was trying to deal with massive protests in the street over the war in Vietnam and other causes.

It was a very bad time – just a couple of months after the assassination of the presumed nominee Robert Kennedy (throwing the Democratic party into turmoil), which itself had come just a couple of months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. – a time of riots, demonstrations, and divisions on numerous levels.  Daley cracked down on the demonstrations in the name of “law and order”; it was ugly and bloody.

The play is about passionate political differences expressed by two

fiercely intellectual and unusually articulate spokespersons, representing different perspectives that still resonate with us today, showing the fault-lines between conservative and liberal values, priorities, perspectives, social agenda, and political policies.

I won’t describe the play at any length.   Short story:  ABC news was a pitiful third in the three-way race among television networks (back when there were *three*!  Many of us remember those days well).  They had no competitive edge; they were underfunded; couldn’t get sponsors.  The other two networks, CBS and NBC, were going to do live in-color (!) full coverage of both conventions (the Republican one was in Miami Beach).

In a desperate attempt to win viewers, ABC decided to try something different, an “unconventional convention coverage,”:  a live televised series of six hour-long debates on outstanding and divisive political issues between two prominent and outspoken figures with very different views and the ability to express them forcefully with wit and rigor.  Moreover, these two did not like each other and didn’t mind saying it.  The debates ended up producing fireworks, ad hominem attacks, and finally a major flare-up on screen – all of which made a massive difference in the television ratings, with people throughout the country glued to their TVs to the detriment of the other two channels.

But was anything resolved?  The debate attracted millions of viewers, many of whom were eager to see what would happen next, but most of whom already had their views and were unlikely to be moved by the arguments one way or the other.

So what was the point?

The issue is raised in the play itself – including, notably, by novelist and intellectual James Baldwin, friend of Vidal who, three years earlier, had himself engaged in a more formal debate with Buckley on the issue of social justice for black Americans at Cambridge University.  Baldwin raises the key question: No matter how eloquent you are, no matter how powerful your arguments, no matter if you are judged to do a better job than the opponent in a debate – what does it even *mean* to win a debate like this?    Even if Gore Vidal *does* seem to get the better of William Buckley in the end, what does it matter?  The issue, in this case, was palpable.  Buckley in the end made a major faux pas.  But his Republicans crushed the Democrats in the election of Richard Nixon.

I think about this issue of the significant, value, merit, and very *point* of public debates a lot.  Sticking with the political realm: do they really matter for anything?

When it comes to Presidential debates, of course, sometimes they do make a difference, especially when, as often happens, quite surprisingly, many people who do not keep up closely with the news don’t think there’s really that much difference between the candidates to choose from (remember, before the election itself, Gore and Bush?).   But how often do public debates between two experts about social issues, policy decisions, domestic policies, foreign affairs, actually change anyone’s mind?

Typically the debaters want to look good, not to look like an idiot, be likeable, thought to have done a more rhetorically effective job.  But most people watch especially for the gotcha moments.  And so in the end, what *good* does it do?  What *difference* does it make?  What practical *effect* does it have?  Is it really all just a popularity contest and a form of public entertainment?

The same is true in other realms as well, including debates between religious experts.  People like watching them.  Some people like participating in them.  Others do them because they think it can perform a valuable service, say, to help people “see the truth.”  But in the end, does it do any good?

What do you think?

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2023-01-02T11:49:03-05:00January 14th, 2023|Public Forum|

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