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FUTILITY OF DEBATE June 1, 2007

Posted by wmmbb in Australian Politics.
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It is hardly an earth-shattering observation sometimes debates do not work, and when that happens I find it frustrating. There has just been an instance on Late Night Live tonight. The protagonists were David Marr and Andrew McIntyre. David Marr has written an essay with the same title as this review he wrote for The Sydney Morning Herald and covering, as I guess, many of the same issues. I found this so-called debate a frustrating experience, shedding more heat than light on the issue of contention.


Debate, dialogue, conversation and difference are fundamental to democracy. One of the things that I admired about Rep. Ron Paul was that when he was subject to the Fox framing of issues, he dealt with it very effectively. As in the Republican debate, he stood his ground. Some people, it seems to me become skilled in overriding and blocking out dissenting views, and this process is called debating skills. We heard examples of these tactics in this interview from both protagonists. Such methods are antithetic to democracy at the micro level. Howard has the resources of positional power, which I observed him use very effectively in the Republican Constitutional Conventions, the “let one hundred flowers bloom moment” in Australian political history, combined with the resources of the State, to run the political discussion in Australia. This seems to me to be something like the thesis that Marr is advancing. I am particularly interested because, as you may have noted, I am given to observe here the way in which ABC News Online is following the government’s prescription. We should try to understand these matters. They seem to me to issues of process, on the micro and macro level.

Now I reflect on it, I never participated in a formal debate at school or university, I was a spectator. I sat there in silence, like the majority of my peers, and saw how others, presumably our betters, did it. It was like having only being a spectator at the footie, and never having played. Those experiences did not prepare, equip me, and provide experiential insight into Democratic citizenship.

The ancient Athenians, the citizens it is true as distinct from the slaves, with their schools of rhetoric, would I guess seen debate as a quintessential quality of citizenship. The protestant dissenters, the forebears of both the English and the American revolutions, among other influences, fertilized the ground for enlightenment of reason and conscience as they believed that God talked through any member of the congregation. Mass society and mass democracy, which once divided into the armies of capital and labor has now disaggregated into psychographics, and the techniques of propaganda most suitable for this situation. We might like to describe the development as Rovian Politics, a general description which would have to include the secret hand of the interest groups, with their hands around the throat of democratic politics, here as elsewhere.

On reflection, I am inclined to believe this characterization has some significant explanatory power, for example in relation to the climate debate and the Iraq Imperium – the invasion and the occupation. In the frame of such a thesis, it is important to understand the role of the political operators, the media minders as much as the politicians, and this is to me why David Marr’s essay might be important. The point that David Marr was able to make tonight, which at least is cause to pause, is that these dynamics and methods will not be changed by voting and elections. They have become embedded into the political system.

So on the basis of this prognosis, the underlying value of productive debate and productive thinking may not be insignificant. “Peace”, John F Kennedy said at the graduation ceremony of the American University on the 10 June 1963, “is a process”. We live democracy, or democracy withers. We might see democracy as a farmer sees his wheat paddocks, with more flourishing plants than blighted parts. Debate is as well a process.

The structure and process of debate, as a process of dialogue or dialectic, is well understood and entwined in the wisdom of all peoples who design to discover what can be acted upon to work for the greatest number and in the best interest, or as a means to truth, seen in the Sic et Non of the courts. It is resonant in our democratic institutions, if abused, and our longer history, if forgotten. It requires time and space allocated to each protagonist to develop arguments and evidence with rules of engagement, not unlike sport. Radio and television programs and interviews are forms of debate, and when they are not conducted well they do not facilitate democratic environment in which democratic decisions can be made. Much of the mainstream media, with some greater offenders than others, it seems to me, for varying reasons, including political manipulation, has given away any pretense to playing the role of independent conveners.

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