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The New York Sun


Turn Up The Heat

January 24, 2008

By John H. McWhorter

I find myself ever bemused at the idea in our political culture that it is big news when competitors for public office engage in sharply worded exchanges.

This week, Hillary Clinton mentioned Barack Obama's association with a slum lord and he recalled her serving on the board of Wal-Mart. Never mind that both claims were distortions. For many, the very fact that the two of them started mixing it up, so to speak, was improper, "too much," something respectable candidates should not "resort" to.

In fact, our political discourse would be richer if America grew up and acquired more of a stomach for mano-a-mano verbal debate, and not solely when moderated in the style of varsity debate tournaments, but in real time argued by people with stakes in the issues in question.

No American would claim they distrust debate. However, when actually confronted with debate that goes beyond the placid—i.e., a truly interesting and honest debate—too many of us cringe. For many of us, mellow is best.

This distrust of verbal sparring is much less entrenched in Great Britain. Politicians there regularly engage in high-spirited exchanges, in which part of the point is a display of verbal ability. Naturally these exchanges often venture into ad hominem remarks.

Yet there is a tacit understanding that this debate style is not generally meant as sincere personal abuse. No one is worried that anyone is going to take it outside. It is accepted that charisma, in this case of the oratorical nature, is part of selling an idea.

The wit, vocabulary, and quickness on the feet required in this style of discourse is a kind of articulateness, and articulateness is valued in Britain in a way that it is not in our country.

Those treating "sharp exchanges" as a problem are not aware that they are crusading against articulateness. However, given that Senators Clinton and Obama's policy ideas are so close, what kind of debate are people expecting them to conduct?

Apparently many want them to soberly recite their (all but identical) positions facing the camera as they are asked about them. That they consider themselves the better candidate is to be merely implied, or at most, pointed out in strictly empirical fashion. No "heat," please—we're American.

Our preference is juice-and-cookies. We might pretend that an argument sways us about strictly its substance presented in neutral fashion, like the wording of a referendum proposal. However, presentation style is also key, and that includes infusing one's argument with some emotion.

Sure, sometimes the sparring can be over bogus issues. Entropy rules. However, cries of foul rise up throughout the land even when our candidates spar over health care or national security issues. "Rancorous," "partisan," "shrill." But aren't those things part of having a real conversation when issues are thorny and complex?

The idea that argument is unseemly means that Mr. Obama will only be allowed to display emotion in the form of gauzy calls for unity—but not in the sharp-elbowed argumentational style he surely honed as a law school professor. It makes it that much harder for Hillary Clinton, already hindered by lingering feelings that women who speak up are "difficult," to get past her widely observed inability to connect with audiences.

With Mr. Obama in particular, getting acclimated to defending himself from verbal attacks would be especially a propos. His calls to avoid negative campaigning are noble enough, and likely have helped garner support for him.

However, the stakes are too high in this contest, and slime-machine tactics too well entrenched, for there to be any illusions that a national contest for the presidency would for some reason be conducted like a tea party.

Mrs. Clinton already knows the score here. But if nominated, Mr. Obama, too, would have to get ready to be able to throw some punches when necessary. This would include barbed references to his opponent's policies and the occasional potshot along the "You're likeable enough" line from two weeks ago. His opponent and her supporters will certainly lob stuff like this at him. In order to avoid seeming weak he'll have to lob back.

I hardly mean to call for political debates to regularly descend to the level of catfights. However, I suggest that a visceral recoil from "sharp words" of any kind, or even the assumption that when such words occur something slightly sinister has occurred, is a symptom of a certain prissiness in our sense of what constitutes a proper exchange.

"Can't we all get along?" Yes, I know. But sometimes, the answer is no—and there is no reason our sense of verbal etiquette must pretend that is not true.

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