Bill Moyers with Henry Giroux on Zombie Politics (and Debate!)

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Here’s a little something to go with your morning coffee:

Here’s the transcript. This passage — this incredibly radical proposal — caught my eye, because it’s one of the most hopeful signs I’ve seen in years:

I heard you respond to someone who asked you at a public session the other evening–“What would you do about what you’ve just described?” And your first response was start debating societies in high schools all across the country.

That’s right. One of the things that I learned quickly as a result of the internet is I started getting a ton of letters from students who basically were involved in these debate societies. And they’re saying like things, “We use your work. We love this work.”

And I actually got involved with one that was working with– out of Brown University’s working with a high school in the inner cities right, and I got involved with some of the students. But then I began to learn as a result of that involvement that these were the most radical kids in the country.

I mean, these were kids who embodied what a critical public sphere meant. They were going all over the country, different high schools, working class kids no less, debating major issues and getting so excited about in many ways winning these debates but doing it on the side of– something they could believe in.

And I thought to myself, “Wow, here’s a space.” Here’s a space where you’re going to have a whole generation of kids who could be actually engaging in debate and dialogue. Every working class urban school in this country should put its resources as much as possible into a debate team.


This is amazing to me. Yves was a debater; I was a debater in high school and college; that’s where my focus on rhetoric came from.* (Of course, I was a policy debater, back in the day, which is a lot like smash-mouth football, except with words. We were the ones who would lug around legal briefcases full of evidence on index cards — no laptops then! — and blast through arguments at blazing speed. Policy debate was a real sport. Nowadays, the high school forensics associations have changed the rules to make debate more like touch football; debate has devolved. But I have done some judging, and it’s still recognizable as debate.)

Debate taught me:

1) How to win**. (Not just tactically, but the pleasure of winning, of avoiding defeating one’s self, of training hard, and seeking to excel.)

2) How to research. (Debate demands not only that you back up your reasoning with evidence, but that you be able to assess sources critically, and be able to assess whether evidence really supports the claims made for it.***)

3) How to argue. (Not just to reason, but to communicate reasoning; how to make and win a point.)

4) That it was OK to argue. (I’ve noticed, sitting in on some college classes, that there’s a real reluctance to critique; it’s somehow seen as impolite. YMMV — and I’d be really happy to be wrong on this.)

5) How to think on my feet. (Nothing more exciting than having a new proposal thrown at you, for which you have no evidence and of which you have no knowledge, and figuring out how to defeat it. Winning with no resources except reasoning and guile is much more exciting than winning with brute force.)

6) How to speak in public. (Apparently, many people are scared to speak in public. So was I, but debate cured me of it. And the more you win, the larger groups you get to speak in front of, because the initial rounds will be in classrooms, but the finals — in which you will, naturally, participate — will be in auditoriums, sometimes quite large ones.)

7) How to move an audience. (Not the same as overcoming the “fear of public speaking”; rather some mastery of logos and pathos.)

8) How to be part of a team. (Since I’m an INTJ, joining a team is never the first thing on my mind. However, in debate, you not only have a partner that you work and train with, but all the debaters on the team share evidence and practice against each other.)

Debate was one of the best things that has ever happened to me. If you have children or grandchildren, I seriously recommend you consider it; I can’t say enough good things about the experience. Debate has a strong “critical thinking skills” component, to be sure, but it also teaches that the best ideas in the world mean nothing unless you can communicate them to others, and that is a very different, and larger, set of skills.

So, imagine if every working class high school in the country were training young women and men in how to win, how to research, how to argue, that it’s OK to argue, how to think on their feet, how to speak in public, how to move an audience, and how to be part of a team! As Giroux suggests, the discourse would be greatly improved and with that, our ability to form new solutions in political economy (which today’s political class is so clearly unable to do, were they even willing).

And I bet there would be a lot less bullshit!

NOTE * See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

NOTE ** Readers, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this about me, but I still like to win. Over the years, however, especially since I started blogging, I’ve become (incredible though this may seem) much more mellow. In particular, although debate also taught me how to fight dirty, I try not to do that any more. It’s bad for me, and more importantly, bad for the threads.

NOTE *** Much less than it did. Big devolution here.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. bob goodwin

    Glad to know a fellow intj, you make me wish I had done debating too when younger. Sounds like a skill that translated well into life. I must admit that I would never have been able to stay loyal to the argument I was supposed to debate, and would not have cared what the audience thought, which of course was the whole point. Obviously you had the willingness to be non-intj.

    A big part of debate is lowering the credibility of your opponent. How do you think this translates to the internet? I feels to me like it has translated too well, and thus has separated the combatants, rather than allowing them each to sharpen their swords on each other.

    1. bob goodwin

      I am going to pose my question again more deeply to Lambert, and do so first by referencing a comment debate I lost (and lost deservedly) to Lambert. click here , then Search for “smarter trolls”

      Here I was attempting to make an argument that would have lost on a half dozen levels, that essentially was that sufficient audacity is sufficient to topple an ideology. It might be true, but multitudes of historical data points would be riddled with other factors, which were all plausibly larger, and each irrelevant to the case at hand. I was fighting a losing battle.

      But what interests me was the devolution, which is so common in online debate. I was the first to complain of style, and I am not sure it was ad hominum when I said you were blinded by ideology. Your reply, a non sequitor citing punctuation to prove a language convention was followed by “please, smarter trolls.” was ad-hominum and likely name calling.

      So let me state that I was trying to make an honest intellectual point that I believed in, even if it was not my strongest moment. I also believe the same for you, and also acknowledge your role in the debate entitled you to devices intended to keep up the quality of the thread. You won, you were right to win, and I feel your choices were fine, once you accept that rhetoric is an amoral tool of policy, and I do accept that.

      With that background, do you think that the uses of the devices as they have migrated from the powerful in a public square, to blog debates in democracy need different bounds? Should ad-hominum be accepted as evidence of weakness, or my complaint about style? It is awesome that you put me in line for a weak performance, but what obligation do we have to adapt rhetoric for the advancement of understanding, when the internet is so fluid, that harsh rhetoric can move bad opinion to a place where all debate is an echo chamber?

      I naturally prefer rhetoric that is ambitious, over rhetoric that is dominating, because it exposes points of view that often yield insights. I don’t mind losing arguments as much as others do. Opinions that require strong rhetorical constructions are necessary for large scale consensus, but that neither guarantees they are right, nor even useful, and can in fact invite endless additional constructions until the consensus finally becomes provably wrong. Isn’t the value of debate to trim the weak ideas early, and can’t winner take all rhetoric in an echo chamber become unproductive? And lastly, isn’t internet debating tending towards a least common denominator of rhetorical devices, because in a semi-anonymous forum there is less implied ethos?

      I am truly interested in your thoughts on rhetoric, which I have not studied, find fascinating, and see your passion.

  2. JaaaaayCeeeee

    Thank you for the link to the Bill Moyers transcript with Henry Giroux, the potential of debate, and your links to your past analyses of Obama’s speeches. Pretty amazing when capitalism kicks the social contract out of democracy, to the point where disposable generations and planet are conceivable, but FDR’s four freedoms unthinkable.

  3. skippy

    @Lambert per – “In particular, although debate also taught me how to fight dirty, I try not to do that any more. It’s bad for me, and more importantly, bad for the threads.”

    I get what your saying and applaud your philosophical take on the matter, yet, there are individuals and groups which sadly require a bit of slamming. Doctrinaires and fundamentalists who fervently insist on a thing, purely out of belief, no matter what the consequences should be publicly outed stringently.

    skippy… hay its better than pitchforks and lamp posts methinks.

  4. DakotabornKansan

    “The ideology of hardness and cruelty runs through American culture like an electric current…”

    Why aren’t we more outraged? Why aren’t we in the streets?

    Their breath was agitation and whose lovely ambition was that their lips, still touched with celestial fire, should tell…

    Ben Lerner, “High school debate and the demise of public speech,”

    “Although high school debate is often considered the thinking person’s—the nerd’s—alternative to sports… Our tournaments were held in Kansas public high schools that appeared strangely altered on the weekends…The lids come off the tubs, various papers are retrieved from hanging folders, and the round commences.

    “The first few seconds of a speech might sound more or less like oratory, but soon the competitors will be accelerating to nearly unintelligible speeds, pitch and volume rising, spit and sweat flying as they attempt to “spread” their opponents—that is, to make more arguments and marshal more evidence than the other team can respond to within the allotted time, the rule being that a “dropped argument,” no matter its quality, is conceded…enter a zone in which sentences unfolded at a speed I could not consciously control. At that point it didn’t matter what words I was plugging into the machinery of syntax…

    “When I was in my Dillard’s suit spewing arguments in a largely empty school…I was, in all my preposterousness, responding to a very real crisis: the standardization of landscape and culture, a national separation of value and policy, an impoverished political discourse (“There you go again”) that served to naturalize our particular cultural insanity. I was a privileged young subject—white, male, middle class—of an empire in which every available identity was a lie, but when I felt the language breaking down as I spoke it—as it spoke me—I felt, amid a general sense of doom, that other worlds were possible…

    [the principle of hope and the language of hope]

    “It’s in the incredibly slow speech of politicians, of the new right in particular…that I feel the wound, the void: the valorized slowness of fetishized stupidity, politicians flustered in advance by any question that pertains to anything but guns and faith…There’s no need to multiply the examples of gaps and gaffes—which are not aberrations in the speaking style of the far right but rather its basic unit of composition. Their linguistic world is that of the anti-Extemp, where failures in fluency are marks of authenticity, ignorance is often a point of pride, and tautology supplants cogitation.

    [“The Violence of Organized Forgetting.” – Henry Giroux]

    “It is a stubborn slowness that appeals to so many “spread” Americans, particularly white ones, for whom everything seems to be happening too rapidly: suddenly gays are getting married and there’s a black president with his hands on my Medicare and all these people speaking Spanish and a perpetual news-crawler’s worth of other outrages committed against the greatness of God and country… Everything public has long been up for auction, and the politicians across our very narrow spectrum run interference by speaking so slowly we’ll forget they represent a class of auctioneers…

    [Template for the sort of idiocy that increasingly now dominates our culture: when Rick Santorum says, that the last thing we need in the Republican party are intellectuals. – Henry Giroux]

    “But recently I have encountered another kind of slow speech, one that does not attempt to cover for the spreadsheets of Wall Street or tranquilize the public and that incorporates its audience into the speech act itself: the people’s mic…

    “We are turning away from the thoroughly evacuated public discourse that serves primarily to further the interest of its corporate sponsors in order to form a grassroots corporate person. Because the public mic…is saying: This is a corporation of an older and more basic sort, a subject constituted around something other than private gain. No demands are being made…because the demand is for a new language. I’m not claiming that demand can be actualized, I can’t prove solvency, as debaters would say, and of course language can always be perverted or co-opted, but I believe its collective haltingness is an eloquent expression of the necessity of our learning as a people how to speak.”

    [“I think that what is missing from all of this are the basic, are those alternative public spheres, those cultural formations, what I call a formative culture that can bring people together and give those ideas, embody them in both a sense of hope, of vision and the organizations and strategies that would be necessary at the very least to start a third party, at the very least. I mean, to start a party that is not part of this establishment, to reconstruct a sense of where politics can go.” – Henry Giroux]

    1. Banger

      “Why aren’t we more outraged?”

      The answer to that is that we are unable to think morally because we have consciously or (most common) unconsciously accepted that the final moral arbiter is money and status. In some ways moral degeneracy has been a good thing–it has freed us from an outdated and rigid set of standards rooted less in the Gospels and more from Doestoevski’s Grand Inquisitor. If we accept that “greed is good” how can we be outraged at Gordon Gekko and his ilk?

      1. squasha

        “why aren’t we more outraged?”–why aren’t we more concertedly huffing bags of our own ineffectual indignation? Outrage is now our endgame? Then what, we clap each other’s backs all the way back to the locker room, christen each other with cheap champagne and stroke our plastic trophies til our brains and bodies crash? Pathetic.

        1. Banger

          Certainly there is an aspect of outrage that is very negative and I agree with you. It is a bad word to use–let’s say that given a certain standard of morality that we see violated we experience a sense of passionate sadness long with a desire to change the situation.

      2. from Mexico

        Well there’s no doubt that the “greed is good” cult has the rest of us on the run. But that may be slowly changing.

        The free market Gestapo in places outside the US — for instance in the southern cone of Latin America — is already having problems enforcing its mandatory “free” markets. As Girous notes, just look at the region: the US-bakced military dictatorships have disappeared.

        And the same thing will most likely also, given enough time, happen in the US and Europe. As Leonidas K. Cheliotis explains (emphasis mine):

        Whereas an ideological construct [e.g., neoliberalism, neoconservatism, etc.] may be timely in striking sensitized chords in the realm of basic drives, however, timeliness alone cannot account for the construct’s appeal where it lacks grounding in empirical reality. The construct needs somehow to attend to the ‘second-order’ narcissistic need for a lasting sense of self-legitimacy. This is all the more so when ideological constructs imply the need for weighty concessions, such as those accompanying the acceptance of authoritarianism, from bestowing the mandate to rule on powerful authorities to consenting to the violent exclusion of others. The weightier the concessions implied by an ideological construct, the more frequent and attentive its subjection to assessment against prevalent standards of rationality and morality, and the more likely its demystification in turn (Cheliotis, 2011b).

        1. James Levy

          I read Fromm and Marcuse and yet my specialty, World War II, point out the unbelievable resiliency of profoundly debased ideologies in German, the Soviet Union, and Japan (and, depending on how you see it, Britain). I’m not so sure that the irrationality and counter-productive nature of current neoliberal and neoconservative ideologies are easily unmasked or delegitimized. I think they have a profound following among a strong cadre of people, both rich and poor, powerful and powerless, and that these ideologies meet needs that many alternatives do not.

          I was always struck by the scene in the film “Mississippi Burning” wherein Gene Hackman tells the story of how his father killed his black neighbor’s mules because he was a more skilled and successful farmer than him. Somewhat embarrassed, he told his son: “If you aren’t better than a nigger, what are you?”

          What concrete and believable arrangement do we offer people (mostly men) who feel they are losing or have lost their privilege vis-à-vis blacks and women? What do we offer them in compensation for abandoning the Empire and giving up our (perceived) ability to kick the shit out of any military on Earth? What do we offer the well-to-do in compensation for losing the advantages and privileges that money does buy, both for themselves and their children? Just asking them to be fair and play nice and treat everyone as equals isn’t going to cut the psychic and/or material mustard.

          1. Greg Wonders

            Asking “what’s in it for you?” seems like a good place to start if you’re hoping to move someone’s perspective through dialog – at an individual or a group level. Which suggests that it’s also helpful to listen to them to try and understand and value their unique narrative – even if you don’t agree with it.

            Once you establish some common values, it’s more likely that you can productively start tracing some of the cause and effect relationships between policies and personal interest.

            There’s so much disparity between the policies/programs/politicians that many people support, and the actual results of those policies, etc. But just logically pointing it out rarely cuts through an entrenched perspective that resonates so viscerally from their own experience.

            It’s easy to see getting pissed off about some of the more personally invasive regulations like seatbelt laws and such. But how would those rugged individualists feel if they realized they were being manipulated to vote against things that would benefit them – like regulating banks?

            Pissed off people tend to resist letting go of that warm feeling of righteous indignation. But then they can get really stirred up if they find out they’ve been hoodwinked.

          2. Banger

            I really like your comment and agree with you on the resiliant nature of conceptual frameworks even if they are obviously toxic to oneself and others. I really have to scratch my head at how easy it is to misdirect and fool people if you have a good idea of how the psyche works. However, we are in a situation of rapid and profound change where everybody, even the most racist and reactionary among us that know that not just the current arrangements but even the opinions we hold lack permanency.

            This historical moment is unique and unprecedented. People often hold onto ridiculous beliefs even if, in the back of their minds, they the ridiculous nature of the beliefs simply because having no belief and no conceptual framework makes life too hard to bear. In my view, our massive problem with depression, anxiety, chronic physical pain, ADD and other forms of malaise are directly related to the lack of consistent values.

    2. from Mexico

      DakotabornKansan cites:

      …language can always be perverted or co-opted, but I believe its collective haltingness is an eloquent expression of the necessity of our learning as a people how to speak.

      Thomas Jefferson had great faith in the power of speech, and it is this faith which informs our first amendment. Here’s Jefferson:

      …that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion, and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of thier ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his options the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own; that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order; and finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antangonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.

      –THOMAS JEFFERSON, The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

      What could possibly go wrong? We of course now know that a great many things can go wrong with Jefferson’s highly reductionist libertarian philosophy, including:

      1) State propaganda organs
      2) Corporate media monopolies
      3) Unfettered campaign contributions
      4) Choreographed debates that aren’t really debates at all, but staged performances

      For instance, witness the current “debates” between the Republicans and Demcrats. These are like professional wrestling matches: great entertainment, but one should not mistake them for a true contest.

      1. from Mexico

        Jefferson believed that free argument and debate were a truth-finding exercise.

        At the opposite end of the political (and ontological and epistemological) spectrum was Plato. As Hannah Arendt explains:

        The chief difference between Plato and Aristotle in their political philosophies is that Plato, writing consciously in opposition to the political life of the decaying Greek city-state, no longer believed in the validity of the kind of speech that accompanied – in the sense of being the other side of – political action. To him, such speech was mere opinion, and as such opposed to the perception of truth, unfit either to adhere to or express truth. Persuasion, peithein, the form in which the citizens managed their public affairs among themselves, was to Plato an unfortunate subsistute for the kind of unshakable conviction that could spring only from the direct perception of truth, a perception to which the method of dialgein, talking a matter through between “two,” austos auto, “one” talking with one “other,” could lead. The philosophical point is that for Plato the perception of truth was essentially speechless and could only be furthered, not attained, by dialegein. It is essential in our context that Plato, probably from the impression that the fate of Socrates and the limitations of persuasion so glaringly exposed at his trial made on him, was no longer concerned with freedom at all. Persuasion had become to him a form, not of freedom, but of arbitrary compulsion the coercion of words, and in his political philosophy he proposed to substitute for this arbitrary compulsion the coercion of truth. Insofar as this truth was essentially speechless and could be perceived only in the solitude of contemplation. Platonic man was already not a “speaking” but a rational animal, that is, a being whose chief concern and enlightenment lay in himself, in his own reason, and not in the faculty of speech.

        –HANNAH ARENDT, “Karl Marx and the tradition of Western thought”

        The New Left, neoliberals and neoconservatives place a great deal of faith in the power of persuasion. They believe one can “create his own reality” with pure rhetoric. For instance, Richard Bernstein notes that

        the great historic challenges to power and authority have been based on the same mastery of language and rhethoric that, the [New Left] critical theorists hold, perpetuates the power of the dominant culture. One of the reasons for the triumph of Martin Luther King, Jr., is that he was a better rhetorician than his opponents.

        –RICHARD BERNSTEIN, Dictatorship of Virtue

        I actually agree with Bernstein up to a point. In public debate one is dead in the water without a mastery of speech and debate. However, I believe that speech and debate by itself is not sufficient. Man has a litanty of ways of knowing, including:

        1) Free speech and debate (persusasion or dialectic, take your choice)
        2) Reason and rationality
        3) Empiricism
        4) Revelation

        Great political figures like King, I believe, use a combination of all four of these, and are masters of all four.

        But of course it goes without saying that without a mastery of speech and debate, you’ve lost the argument before it even begins.

  5. Anarcissie

    I think debates are of limited utility. A debate is a game, and as such it has to take place on a ‘playing field’ and under rules. Often, the outcome of the debate can be determined by the selection of the field and the rules before the first move is made. If not, getting control of the terms of the debate at the outset (‘framing’) may serve the same purpose. Since the overall framework of the game is to come up with a winner and a loser instead of a synthesis, truth, evidence and reason (except in a limited sense) are quickly tossed aside in the search for power (victory).

    Debates in schools are particularly suspect because they take place under the authoritarian assumptions and practices of an educational system.

    Debates are entertaining as a game, and they may be good exercise, but I think their limitations should be recognized.

    1. Inverness

      Genuine, meaningful debate shouldn’t be about winning, but about authentic discussion. These days, you can dismiss somebody with a meme, or a “that sucks.” Clearly Lambert knows good rhetoric, but too often any kind of emphasis on “winning,” means that meaningful exchange is lost.

      Professor Giroux is tired of a society which privileges slick comebacks and wants young people to dig deeper, to learn how to engage and to listen.

      In my classroom, I try to foster meaningful socratic exchanges where we arrive at higher truths. It’s about so much more than winning, or losing. That’s capitalist jargon, and the sooner we move beyond that the better.

      1. Anarcissie

        Okay, so now we’re redefining ‘debate’. When I went to school, and this seems to be what was being referred to above, it was a contest between two sides which was to be won and lost by means of argument. (The word itself comes from a word being to beat or fight.) Outside of school, the activity is an important component of the larger world, such as legislative and juridical procedures. I am attempting to critique the notion of debate goodness given here by Giroux and others, but I can’t do that if the subject is going to move shapelessly about.

        1. James Levy

          I think “debate” is utterly overrated. The point is never to “win”, because in the end words have very limited coercive power anyway. The point is to exchange ideas in a mutual attempt to find out what is going on and what you would like to do about it. At the very least this process can reveal true motivations–what is it that the Koch brothers are really trying to do. In a dialogue you can elicit such information by asking probing questions.

          What is missing is not debate, it is good will and a desire to articulate what our problems are and how we might solve them in an honest manner. Debate cannot compensate for ill will and mendacity.

  6. Banger

    I am a bit less impressed than you by high school debating with its often stunningly facile arguments making up in shallowness the need for depth on the issues discussed (often very narrow)–Socrates would have called it sophistry; however, on balance I share your view that it would be a good thing by, at least, bringing to the fore the seemingly lost art of rhetoric (which includes most of your points) and motivating students to do research. Personally I don’t think debate ought to be competitive but I do think anything that sharpens the mind by encounters with others on that level is mainly a good thing.

    Having said that I believe that the role of competition is overvalued–we need less not more of it, frankly. True debate is more like music than sports. We try to find agreement along the lines of Socratic dialogue. But this also implies a certain moral education that is missing from our culture. For example, online debates are rarely cooperative and thus very little comes of it other than keeping alive facts, research and so on–but often it all turns into pissing contests–where words are twisted by using a prosecutorial style assuming that my words, say, are based on relative ignorance rather than understanding that we all have very different perspectives and experiences and even if were “wrong” we may have caught aspects of the truth because of our very different POVs.

    1. Inverness

      Yes, the pissing contests are reflections of a cutthroat society that pushes competition. Yet, for all my years in the States, I was often surprised that the quality was frequently lacking. A German academic friend of mine also laments the solitary, hyper-competitive attitude among university physicists that means less collaboration, and more solitary work that suffers for the lack of peer support. Truly fine work is often the result of cooperation between between others, rather than a fight to win.

      1. nobody

        DAVID GRAEBER — One difference between the kind of anarchist groups I like and the classic Marxist group, for instance, is that we don’t start by defining reality – our points of unity are not our analyses of the situation, but rather what we want to do, the action we want to take, and how we go about it. Plus you have to give one another the benefit of the doubt. One of the principles of the consensus process is that you can’t challenge anyone on their motives; you have to assume that everyone is being honest and has good intentions. Not because you necessarily think it’s true, but as an extension of what might be considered the fundamental anarchist insight: if you treat people like children they will tend to act like children. If you treat them like adults, there’s at least some chance they will act responsibly. Ironically, I found this habit of generosity, this giving people the benefit of the doubt, was the exact opposite of the way I was taught to argue as a scholar.

        THE WHITE REVIEW — So what might an anarchist approach to academic discussion look like?

        DAVID GRAEBER — I’ve often though what it would mean to conduct intellectual conversation in that spirit, and I still haven’t fully worked it out. I don’t think there is necessarily one solution. One conclusion I came to was about incommensurability. I think we make a big deal out of incommensurability. As Roy Bhaskar long since noted, positivists and post-structuralists hold identical positions in a way – some say if reality did exist we could describe it perfectly, and therefore it should be possible, and some say therefore it’s impossible or that reality doesn’t exist. But they share the same basic assumption. In a similar way, I would argue there’s an assumption that we should be able to come up with arguments in the same language, in terms by which it is possible to definitively win an argument.

        THE WHITE REVIEW — In the same way one might say that representative democracy obstructs actual democracy, you could say the academy obstructs actual thinking.

        DAVID GRAEBER — In academia there’s an obsession with process, but also an obsession with networks of power and how they are created. Now of course it would be easy enough to take the same approach as activists, and start by grounding it all in some common commitment to action; that would have to be some notion that we’re all pursuing the same thing, call it truth, knowledge, understanding, whatever you want. If so, a certain generosity would be required, similar to that of consensus process: at the very least, if you disagree with someone, you would want to make the most charitable conceivable interpretation of their argument to be able to see what the real point of disagreement is. Of course this is almost never what academics do; instead, most act like politicians, and regularly make the least generous reading of their opponent possible, treat debate like gladiatorial combat where one does whatever it takes to prevail.

        1. Inverness

          Thank you for the Graeber interview — that’s perfect. That’s a much more workable paradigm.

        2. from Mexico

          Well all that lofty rhetoric from Graeber sounds very romantic, but is it realistic?

          The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt would argue that Graeber’s idealism departs too far from the way human beings actually operate:

          If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense. Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.

          –JONATHAN HAIDT, <i<The Righteous Mind

            1. from Mexico

              In this lecture Haidt elaborates in a bit more detail:

              The answer, according to Mercier and Sperber, is that reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments. That’s why they call it The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning. So, as they put it, and it’s here on your handout, “The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things.”

              Now, the authors point out that we can and do re-use our reasoning abilities. We’re sitting here at a conference. We’re reasoning together. We can re-use our argumentative reasoning for other purposes. But even there, it shows the marks of its heritage. Even there, our thought processes tend towards confirmation of our own ideas. Science works very well as a social process, when we can come together and find flaws in each other’s reasoning. We can’t find the problems in our own reasoning very well. But, that’s what other people are for, is to criticize us. And together, we hope the truth comes out.

              But the private reasoning of any one scientist is often deeply flawed, because reasoning can be counted on to seek justification and not truth.


              1. skippy

                Agree that consensus will always be the determinate, although morals etched in stone are not subject to broad consensus by histrionics. I think the basic rules apply to any camp of inquire.

                BTW for profit inquire in not science in by opinion, it’s biased discovery. For myself general systems theory is more inclusive.

                Skippy… looks like we’re due for an upgrade on the enlightment project… both trilling and terrifying at, the same time, with the clock a ticking.

    2. jrs

      Noone is going to say it but it’s also going to attract a lot more males than females. Some females will love debate and well they should. But overall. The preference for harmonious human relationships.

      1. Yves Smith

        Please keep your gender bias to yourself. Women do not prefer “harmonious human relationships”. Women are quite ruthless and competitive, but they simply have to refrain from tactics that would result in physical fights, since in pretty much all cases, they’d get the shit beaten out of them.

        And you are also wrong re debate. When I was in high school, competing in two different states, there were about as many women as men debating. And studies found that man-women teams (teams were always 2 members) did better than single gender teams.

        1. F. Beard

          since in pretty much all cases, they’d get the shit beaten out of them. Yves Smith

          Hmmm. Not as often as women might suspect since quite a few men would never hit a woman even if hit themselves. Nor would many men even admit they were physically hurt but that would be pride, not chilvary.

    3. Crazy Horse

      As in most aspects of culture in America, our “bettors” are able to define the meaning of debate. The prototype are the presidential “debates” which are totally sanitized and stripped of content before either party will even agree to participate. Another form of “debate” is that which takes place in a court of law where two immoral actors engage in a contest to display their knowledge of the technicalities of law and their adeptness in psychologically manipulating juries.

      In this context one cannot expect high school debate classes to be free from the larger role of education which is to manufacture “successful” and conformist consumers. That said, in principle the thought patterns required to become a successful debater are certainly desirable. And I’d certainly rather watch a session of the House of Commons rather than any presidential “debate” ever held!

  7. Ellen Anderson

    Yup – I was president of high school debate team. Most important: you have to listen to what your opponent is saying, understand it, figure out which points are essential and then how to respond to those points. Most people do not listen to what their opponents are saying so most discussions are filled with people who are talking past each other.
    I use this acquired skill all of the time.

  8. Waking Up

    I hope everyone watches this video or the complete show on Bill Moyers. This needs to go viral, especially among the “zero generation”. Better yet…sit down with others without a computer or television and discuss these issues.

    Fight back against cultural demise.

  9. TedWa

    After looking around at what this country has become it’s obvious that capitalism is waging a war against democracy and capitalism is winning, in spades. After hearing this excellent interview I couldn’t help but to remember what Andrew Jackson said in his 1837 farewell address which might explain the current mentality and lack of spirit of American citizens, in part:
    “These ebbs and flows in the currency and these indiscreet extensions of credit naturally engender a spirit of speculation injurious to the habits and character of the people. We have already seen its effects in the wild spirit of speculation in the public lands and various kinds of stock which within the last year or two seized upon such a multitude of our citizens and threatened to pervade all classes of society and to withdraw their attention from the sober pursuits of honest industry. It is not by encouraging this spirit that we shall best preserve public virtue and promote the true interests of our country; but if your currency continues as exclusively paper as it now is, it will foster this eager desire to amass wealth without labor; it will multiply the number of dependents on bank accommodations and bank favors; the temptation to obtain money at any sacrifice will become stronger and stronger, and inevitably lead to corruption, which will find its way into your public councils and destroy at no distant day the purity of your Government. Some of the evils which arise from this system of paper press with peculiar hardship upon the class of society least able to bear it.”

    1. from Mexico

      Andrew Jackson epitomizes the contradicitons that inhere in American populism.

      Unrepentent advocate of slave ownership and Manifest Destiny, completely oblivious to the rights of blacks, indians or Mexicans, he nevertheless was the champion of the lower orders of anglo society.

      As to monetary policy, John Kenneth Galbraith judged his postition as being “confused.”

    1. diptherio

      Reminds me of my favorite Kierkegaard quote: “As regards that which each must do for himself, the best that one man can do for another is to unsettle him.”

      Giroux is unsettling in the best way.

      1. anon y'mouse

        love this! and agree.

        the problem is that so many of us (myself included) have become un-unsettlable.

        or, too easily settle-able and firmly fixed by the wrong details or through technique (style>substance).

        1. Emma

          Being cerebrally unsettled through our lives is definitely good for us all.

          Being physically unsettled is not (ie. 12 moves in last decade alone incl. 6 countries, is not something I personally recommend).

      1. F. Beard

        Scripture speaks about cooperation and the value of taking council too and many other things as well. Just because Scripture says one thing does not mean that that is all it says.

        Sharpness is important but it’s not the only thing. Believers are to be “speaking the truth in love”, for example, Ephesians 4:14-16.

  10. Beppo

    It’s very hard for americans to think through rhetoric, people either accept or reject it. It’s hard for americans to argue without everyone getting hurt feeling and going home. It would be nice to teach these things.

  11. JohnB

    The trouble with debating skills, is that debating over topics that matter these days involves debating with people who have no intention of honest debate, and this creates a Greshams Dynamic (one of the most useful, informative and broadly-applicable terms I know).

    This creates conditions where the dirtier and more subtly deceptive their methods of argument, the more (irrationally) convincing they are to others, and the greater the competitive advantage they have over you (unless you stoop to their level) – debating skills don’t help with this.

    Bad/cunningly-deceptive arguments, drive good/honest arguments out of debate, and out of the realms of credibility.

    I find that for myself, debating is more an avenue of learning, and it’s hard to pay respect to truthful/honest methods of argument, and be convincing at the same time.

    When a debate becomes about reducing the credibility of the person, rather than their argument, I (to be honest) can’t stand that. It’s at that point, that you know the person is not debating with honest intent, and when you are arguing with multiple people, it often turns into a circlejerk.

    1. TedWa

      I know. Well said. It’s kind of amazing to me that so many are concentrating on debating the “debate” portion than whats actually being said ?!

  12. Jeff W

    I understand lambert’s interest in highlighting Henry Giroux’s comments about debate but what really struck me about his interview with Bill Moyers was how Giroux exposes some of the underlying assumptions that pervade our national discourse. His words cut through the typical conservative/liberal, left/right “debates” like a knife:

    HENRY GIROUX: I mean you have a consolidation of power that is so overwhelming, not just in its ability to control resources and drive the economy and redistribute wealth upward, but basically to provide the most fraudulent definition of what a democracy should be.

    I mean, the notion that profit making is the essence of democracy, the notion that economics is divorced from ethics, the notion that the only obligation of citizenship is consumerism, the notion that the welfare state is a pathology, that any form of dependency basically is disreputable and needs to be attacked, I mean, this is a vicious set of assumptions.

    The biggest lie of all is that capitalism is democracy. We have no way of understanding democracy outside of the market, just as we have no understanding of how to understand freedom outside of market values.

    Two things happened [when “Margaret Thatcher ‘married’ Ronald Reagan”]. 1) There was this assumption that the government was evil except when it regulated its power to benefit the rich. So it wasn’t a matter of smashing the government as Reagan seemed to suggest, it was a matter of rearranging it and reconfiguring it so it served the wealthy, the elites and the corporate, of course, you know, those who run mega corporations. But Thatcher said something else that’s particularly interesting in this discussion.

    She said [ 2)?] there’s no such thing as society. There are only individuals and families. And so what we begin to see is the emergence of a kind of ethic, a survival of the fittest ethic that legitimates the most incredible forms of cruelty, that seems to suggest that freedom in this discourse of getting rid of society, getting rid of the social– that discourse is really only about self-interest, that possessive individualism is now the only virtue that matters. So freedom, which is essential to any notion of democracy, now becomes nothing more than a matter of pursuing your own self interests. No society can survive under those conditions.

    A citizen is a political and moral agent who in fact has a shared sense of hope and responsibility to others and not just to him or herself. Under this system, democracy is basically like the lotto. You know, go in, you put a coin in, and if you’re lucky, you win something. If you don’t, then you become something else.

    How could people who allegedly believe in democracy and the American Congress cut $40 billion from a food stamp program, half of which those food stamps go to children? And you ask yourself how could that happen? I mean, how can you say no to a Medicaid program which is far from radical but at the same time offers poor people health benefits that could save their lives?

    How do you shut down public schools and say that charter schools and private schools are better because education is really not a right, it’s an entitlement? How do you get a discourse governing the country that seems to suggest that anything public, public health, public transportation, public values, you know, public engagement is a pathology?

    BILL MOYERS: Let me answer that from the other side. They would say to you that we cut Medicaid or food stamps because they create dependency. We closed public schools because they aren’t working, they aren’t teaching. People are coming out not ready for life.

    HENRY GIROUX: No, no, that’s the answer that they give. I mean, and it’s a mark of their insanity. I mean, that’s precisely an answer that in my mind embodies a kind of psychosis that is so divorced– is in such denial about power and how it works and is in such denial about their attempt at what I call individualize the social, in other words–

    BILL MOYERS: Individualize?

    HENRY GIROUX: Individualize the social, which means that all problems, if they exist, rest on the shoulders of individuals.

    BILL MOYERS: This line [from Giroux’s Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism and also in this piece] struck me, “The ideology of hardness and cruelty runs through American culture like an electric current…”

    HENRY GIROUX: Yeah, it sure does. I mean, to see poor people, their benefits being cut, to see pensions of Americans who have worked like my father, all their lives, and taken away, to see the rich just accumulating more and more wealth.

    I mean, it seems to me that there has to be a point where you have to say, “No, this has to stop.” We can’t allow ourselves to be driven by those lies anymore. We can’t allow those who are rich, who are privileged, who are entitled, who accumulate wealth to simply engage in a flight from social and moral and political responsibility by blaming the people who are victimized by those policies as the source of those problems.

    1. TedWa

      Sorry, my reply to your post ended up under JohnB’s post and makes no sense as a reply to their comment. It was for your good post. Thanks.

  13. Eureka Springs

    Watched the entire show on the tele this morning. Immediately I was bothered by the use of the term “democracy” which pops up 44 times in the transcript.

    The interview began with this:

    “HENRY GIROUX: Well, for me democracy is too important to allow it to be undermined in a way in which every vital institution that matters from the political process to the schools to the inequalities that, to the money being put into politics, I mean, all those things that make a democracy viable are in crisis.”

    Excuse me, but save very few mechanisms which would likely be used in a “democracy” such as a voting both (only with many choices, real options, including perhaps most importantly None of the above!) we the USA have nothing but contempt for democracy. Democracy, like human rights are terms used to deceive by assuming we have them or even a modicum of regard for them.

    From the text of the Constitution on down, democracy does not exist. Why do so many ignore this and perpetuate the lie (or myth) that we need to move back to something we never had?

    And this cringe inducing use of the democracy meme happened 44 times in a few short minutes by two people supposedly interested in substantive debate! And they wonder why the Rick Santorums of the world garner sizable audience when expressing contempt for intellectuals.

    1. anon y'mouse

      so, they didn’t define their terms? or they both assumed that the other person (and the audience) knew what they were talking about? is this like that old comment about pornography, that you ‘know it when you see it’?

      I didn’t here any “return to the Golden Days of Yore” in there, but could be wrong. could it be truthfully said that, whatever Democracy means, to these two or to each of us individually, we are moving farther and farther away from it at every step?

      I agree that we never had it. perhaps that is the problem?

  14. anon y'mouse

    these remarks are off the cuff and from a person totally unskilled in debate, and also probably totally uninformed about the issues that I will bring up, but here goes:

    I find the combat model totally unhelpful. the points made about assessing sources and research, and having sound arguments and things are all really great, should be absolutely taught and are totally necessary to live within our modern world and try to make any kind of reasoned decision about things.

    but I do not think that this kind of reasoned method is compatible with a brief combat model, where the person who can trump the other with enough numbers (which? everyone seems to have their own set), their own facts (again, which? perspective and subjectivity are everywhere here), and the right rhetorical style can “win” and an dispassionate look at all of these things, and an attempt to deal with the epistemological problems in all of them, would be really rather ignored and/or lost.

    what does the person come away with? the understanding that the person who was thinking quickly and had done their homework and was on their toes, plus their image (that we can’t deny plays a role) will win, however important or thoughtful the response or contrasting side, might be?

    we have a lot of that already in this culture. in fact, I’ve recently determined that due to the fact that I have never seen anything on the internet which suggests to me that any of the discussions results in a true depth or alteration of understanding, on either party’s side. mostly what happens is that each side hardens, marshals their facts and so on. granted, this is not the same thing as ‘debate’ as practiced, where you’d better get your opponents side as down pat as your own and where you should be ready at the drop of a hat to assume their position if necessary (suggestive of a dispassionate look at both sides, but really implying to me a -study the enemy to beat ’em- kinda thing). going back to the internet, I see nothing but a dissolution in civility and an inability to really take to heart the other person’s point of view or their criticisms. this kind of faux-debate interaction has sullied the intellectual abilities of ALL of us, I think. and it has made us less civil to each other, and less willing to entertain that the “other side” might have anything useful to say to us. ((again, I know that it isn’t -true- debate. but I think the parallel holds))

    to the point where the recent interactions that I’ve witnessed on this website and others regarding a certain (in)famous journalist, on a few different issues and involving a few other different individuals, was so lacking in civility and involved so much sniping superiority and inability to conscience the other side’s arguments, that it began in these cases to look like the intellectual equivalent of a Jerry Springer show.

    what I think we need to be focusing on ARE the critical-thinking skills pointed out above, and how to teach them in such a way as to involve a dispassionate (if possible–may not be. we are humans and if the problems were that easy to solve, we’d set a computer to do it) search for the truth. a process of discovery. a process that roots out the epistemological problems, examines subjectivity, understands WHY there are even multiple sides to begin with, etc. if data or facts were the determiners of any kind of ‘resolution’, as I say we’d simply have a computer do the right algorithms and be done with it. why and how have human beings solved problems in the past, what tools have they developed, how useful are all of those tools, what does our current mode of ‘scientific’ truth say and how can those things also lead us astray (not science itself, but how we use it. and we are always the weakest link there. otherwise, there would be no debate. so obviously, how we use ‘science’, broadly termed to include the social sciences, must be riven with the human problem of subjectivity, no?).

    I don’t think you can get all of these things by marshaling a better ‘set’ of facts or a better ‘set’ of sources. I don’t think this kind of thing, in itself, fosters thoughtful debate. perhaps a symposium where each side presents, and discussion follows might. perhaps all methods at once. but if we don’t address the root problems of knowledge, I don’t think this is going to get us anywhere except to MORE of what we currently have–which is that image and presentation matter, and may trump ‘the truth’, IF that ‘truth’ is even determinable.

    sorry. I am likely a fool here who doesn’t know what i’m saying.

    1. anon y'mouse

      sorry, got going down the garden path and lost the trail of my own thoughts on this sentence:

      “we have a lot of that already in this culture. in fact, I’ve recently determined that due to the fact that I have never seen anything on the internet which suggests to me that any of the discussions results in a true depth or alteration of understanding, on either party’s side.”

      due to the above, I was going to say that I had determined that I personally would be giving up reading or writing comments on the internet (and yet, here I am AGAIN! argh…) and probably reading most editorial-style articles. it may not be helping me get closer to the truth, and it certainly doesn’t help the other party. both sides just want to win, and they just want to argue. and they’ll generally do whatever it takes to do that, making what they were arguing about rather meaningless in the end.

      1. anon y'mouse

        shorter translation, after working my way back up the thread:

        I agree wholeheartedly with David Graeber.

        1. skippy

          The problem being is the primitive will always exist underneath what ever social indoctrination one is born into, when societal mental anchor points fail… watch out.

  15. debatewithoutclash

    “Policy debate was a real sport. Nowadays, the high school forensics associations have changed the rules to make debate more like touch football; debate has devolved. But I have done some judging, and it’s still recognizable as debate.)”

    I’m late to the discussion but I’d like to point out that the majority of the political discussion that Giroux is referencing in debate is a product of the last twenty or so years. Policy debate is alive and hasn’t “devolved” since the index card days. It certainly is in a stage of crisis currently, but that isn’t due to any rules imposed from above.

    I’m not sure what debates you are judging; it’s certainly possible that local circuits have their own rules, but I’d suggest observing national competition in high school or college.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Well, that’s a relief! State of Maine is my area, but since people going to Nationals with these “Caucus Race”-style events, I assumed policy debate was no more. I am glad to be wrong!!

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