Fueling Debate

On Easter weekend the Big Oil firebrand and Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz released the first TV ad of the US presidential election campaign. The inane homilies of senator Cruz’s televised message set the tone for a publicity barrage that will culminate next year in the empty ritual of the so-called presidential “debate.” As a platform for scripted statements and one-liners, the candidates’ live televised exchange will be, as always, a predictable extension of their TV ad campaigns, a debasement of the art of rhetoric and an affront to the idea of dialogue.

When did articulate civic discourse and reasoned argument fell into decline? Jürgen Habermas and other public sphere theorists have long pointed to the role of mass media in undoing the spatio-temporal ideal of civic communication. Before the advent of radio and TV, they say, public space still provided a shared forum of ideas in the live, face-to-face encounters of rational citizens. But that communicative ideal has been criticized as a nostalgic bourgeois illusion blind to its excluded others: the illegitimate voices of women, the silence of the subaltern, the ‘babble’ of the colonized. Social theory’s most important stakes now lie in the idea of “dissensus” rather than agreement; more specifically, disagreements that can’t be resolved in a contest of ideas, because they point to a situation in which the forum, the grounds of speaking are themselves in question. As Jacques Rancière puts it, “Disagreement occurs wherever contention over what speaking means constitutes the very rationality of the speech situation.”*  Such “contention over what speaking means” comes to a head when excluded parties make their often baffling voices heard, and so put both language and political space into crisis. As Rancière argues, that crisis or “division” in social space is what constitutes politics itself. Politics, Rancière says, “is primarily conflict over the existence of a common stage and over the existence and status of those present on it” (26-7).

This definition may account for the cacophony of much of our political environment. It also seems to capture the meaning of the Tea Party’s latter-day putsch in the fateful year 2009, when pasty-looking insurgents burst onto the American political scene, storming congressional “town hall” meetings in order to throw the staid, civil (Habermasian?) proceedings into disarray. A glaring irony of the Tea Party’s shouting and disruptions, however, is that their raging bluster simply aped the grievances of past social movements without any of their moral motivations. Another is that their undermining of the Rancièrian “speech situation” meshes with the right wing’s discrediting of participatory democracy in favor of an unfettered market. Far from intervening in the “speech situation,” then, the Tea Party’s role in the larger neoliberal juggernaut is to scramble the airwaves, to sow confusion, to undermine speech itself. Their assault on language would be the exact counterpart to Obama’s grandiloquence, if the president’s rhetorical prowess didn’t in fact wind up proving the same thing: that one man’s righteous words, inspired by generations of striving social movements, count for nothing in the larger scheme of American imperial power. Where does debate fit into this context?

The poet Ben Lerner gives a specific date to the demise of debate in the United States: the year 1979, when corporate dollars reshaped the priorities of high school forensics, separating “values” from “policy” in competitive debates. As Lerner tells it, Phillips Petroleum, the main corporate sponsor of the US National Forensics League, was alarmed at how debates on political topics focused on figures and statistics to the detriment of eloquent, straightforward communication. The solution Phillips proposed was to establish a separate form of debate devoted to the vague, blurry realm of so-called “values.” The kind of talk heard in this forum is familiar to anyone who has heard the contentless obfuscation of a presidential hopeful’s TV pitch. Presumably our overlords speak more concretely of policy details in private. And this is Lerner’s point: the two modes of discourse point to a scission in the body politic that divides actual content from the fuzzy eloquence we’re habitually fed through the media. It’s no coincidence, then, that Phillips’ “sundering of values from policy” happens just a year before the notorious Reagan-Carter debate, when image, branding and asinine quips decisively trumped verbal argumentation. As Lerner says, “I can’t believe that the existence of a corporately sponsored separation of value and policy in high school debate can be separated from that separation in the political culture at large.”**

The wedge that petrodollars have driven between “values” and “policy” can be seen everywhere Big Oil’s destructive reach conflicts with decent citizens’ concerns for peace, sustainability, and environmental protection. It can be seen in the predatory scheme called “Fuel Your School,” in which Chevron corporation provides support to public schools by funding classroom projects in the US and abroad. Predictably, the program emphasizes STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). As the company’s website puts it, the program’s aim is “to help prepare students for the growing number of technical jobs in the modern economy, including possible engineering positions at Chevron.” Some school districts, such as Vancouver, BC, have rejected Fuel Your School, and even in surrounding districts where the program has been implemented local teachers have organized to oppose it. The controversy has given rise to what is commonly called “debate.” But in a context where apparently unstoppable neoliberal economic policies undermine public schools’ autonomy and make them increasingly vulnerable to market forces, money can speak very loudly. Moreover, as Fuel Your School won’t fund the humanities, the prospects for language arts, including debate and critical thinking, are likely to dwindle.

Chevron spokesman Adrien Byrne was no doubt banking on this foregone conclusion when he wrote a letter addressing the controversy. The text is a marvel of robotic bureaucratese. “Chevron welcomes robust debate [sic] on education funding in the community, and encourages input from all relevant stakeholders” (24 Hours, 11/26/2014, p.6).


* Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), xi.

** Ben Lerner, “Contest of Words: High School Debate and the Demise of Public Speech” (Harper’s, October 2012).

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Filed under Diction, Politics of Discourse

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