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Articles published in the Richland County Bar Association's Richbar News

The Way We Debate.

September 28, 2014Richbar News Articles

Q: “What is your position on the role of government in supporting innovation in the field of biotechnology?”

A:  “Recent research has shown the empirical evidence for globalization of corporate innovation is very limited. And as a corollary, the market for technologies is shrinking.  As a world leader, it is important for America to provide systematic research grants for our scientists. I believe there will always be a need for us to have a well-articulated innovation policy with emphasis on human resource development. Thank you.”  

(To audience): “Now THAT’s the way you debate!”

—  Will Farrell, debating James Carville, in Old School.

A quarter century ago I attended Furman University.  Then (as now) a requirement for graduation was mandatory attendance at a set number of “Cultural Life Program” events.  These “CLP’s” as we called them, could be art exhibits, seminars, lectures, or concerts, all meant to engage students in cultural experiences outside their comfort zone.  In this manner I (English major) was exposed to fractal geometry while my Chemistry major buddy was taught to appreciate the ballet.

Great idea, right?  Yes, but the fact that 48 of these were required to graduate, combined with the natural tendency of college students to procrastinate, produced a stark lack of options when trying to cram about 40 events into senior year.  Conversation with my roommate senior year:

Q:  “What CLP are you going to tonight, Rob?”

A:  “I don’t care if it’s two guys urinating in a bucket. I’m there.”

Lawyers who get stuck short of CLE credit in February know this feeling well. But at least workers’ comp lawyers can be exposed to the nuances of equestrian law.

Still, CLP’s were a great idea.  And I saw some remarkable things.  Like the time the famed debating team from Oxford University in England came to Furman take on our school debating team.  It was 1988.  I wish I could say that the Furman team showed up big like Will Farrell against James Carville. But that’s not what happened. The question presented was:

Q:  “Is the American Dream dead?”  [Oxford said  “Yes”]

A:  Furman:  “No, the American Dream is not dead.  We have more VCR’s, TV’s, Wealth, Phones, and Military…. now than ever….. more than any other nation ….. highest GDP……blah blah per capita blah…..”

Rebuttal.  The Oxford team rejoined with a scathing, cruel and hilarious rebuttal, comparing the American response to American Beer (“weak as cat’s urine”) before demolishing their argument entirely.  I can’t remember much about what the English team actually SAID, but I remember how their accents made everything sound erudite and intelligent, especially when combined with their slightly loosened rep ties and 80’s James Spader hair.  I envied them greatly.  But still wanted to punch them in their faces.

Because even then (as a 19 year old who couldn’t probably have made Furman’s debating team) I knew we’d blown it.  Our team had the premise of what the  “American Dream” was all wrong.  It was never about VCR’s or TV’s or money, or even power.  It was always about having a basic set of fundamental rights protected from government interference and intrusion.  This American Dream — freedom of religion, speech and assembly — compelled our founding fathers (who also envied the English) to nevertheless want to punch them in their faces.  If the Furman debating team had reframed the argument in these terms, it could not have lost.   But what if we had that same debate now, 25 years later?

Q: Is there American Dream dead?

A: “No, the American Dream is not dead.   We still have the right to freedom of speech.”  

Rebuttal:  You mean you have the right to freedom of speech in designated “free speech zones” (assuming your application for a protest permit is in order).

A:     “We still have the right to be secure in our homes, papers  and personnel effects.”

Rebuttal: “Sure. As long as you don’t mind not using your cell phone or the internet.”

A:  “Well, we still have the right to assemble and protest.”  

Rebuttal:  “Right. Don’t be put off by the militarized police presence.” (Debater throws up PowerPoint showing officer in Ferguson, Missouri pointing AR-15 at protestors and journalists).

You get the point, right?  In 1988 the question of whether the REAL American Dream was “dead” was such an easy win for the “No” team. Now?  Well, you could argue either side and be credible, couldn’t you?   It shouldn’t be this way. It should still be easy.  If nothing else, what we’ve seen and learned in the last five years has Congress and the people talking. Congress, though, has a long history of only talking about things when the people have the heat turned up (which is exactly why the right to protest is so important).  When it cools, so too does the debate.  And that’s when the American Dream falls from endangered to extinct.

When we let that happen, twenty-five years from now, there will be nothing left to debate.

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