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Debate? What debate?

Updated: November 4, 2012 6:14AM



Why do people insist on calling what is scheduled to transpire Wednesday night between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama a “debate”?

A “debate,” according to my dog-eared New Oxford American, is “a formal discussion on a particular topic in a public meeting or legislative assembling, in which opposing arguments are put forward.” And I suppose, in a rough sense, if you squint, that is indeed what is happening. The Republican and the Democratic candidates for president are, with great formality and sense of purpose, meeting on a stage in Denver to be peppered on live TV by questions on a variety of particular topics by members of the media.

But if you watch — and it seems the big draw, though I imagine the hour of “South Park” on Comedy Central won’t go unviewed — notice how often both candidates completely ignore whatever question they’re being asked, and use it merely as a jumping off point for some canned spiel tangent they’ve been rehearsing for the past week.

Hence, not much of a debate, or a “discussion” (“the action or process of talking about something, typically in order to reach a decision.”) Think of it instead as a “speech interrupted,” or another act in the endless, cynical half Kabuki, half Punch & Judy Show that we seem set on conducting as our once-proud nation slides into decline.

Maybe the candidates are right to do this. To engage an opponent in an actual debate is to suggest that anybody is trying to determine an ideal course of action, and that isn’t happening anymore. This election isn’t about arriving at a solution, it’s about picking which of two vastly different courses to move along for the next four years. Romney vows to reverse much of what Obama has accomplished in his administration — scuttle ObamaCare, scrap environmental controls, unfetter corporations, re-instate Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell (and what happens to those thousands of military personnel who thought it was safe to exit the closet? I guess they get cashiered). The rich receive kid glove treatment under the dubious theory that it eventually helps those below — they call it “trickle down” though I prefer “crumbs.”

Everybody watching already knows this. They certainly aren’t deciding anything anymore — 90 percent, if not more, are calcified into the same camp they dwelt in three months ago. Nothing would move them. If Mitt Romney walked on stage with a puppy in each fist, and squeezed the life out of them on live television, if Obama suddenly blurted out, “Yes Jim, I am a terrorist. That’s why Osama bin Laden had to die; he was about to spill the beans” — both would still receive 45 percent of the vote next ... glory be to God! ... next ... flutter your hands to heaven ... next month when the election finally takes place.

So this is less of a debate and more a gladiatorial contest. We the public luxuriate on our couches, popping grapes, waiting to see who will slip in the mire, whose thrust will find home. My gut tells me that Romney will come armed with a pocketful of well-polished “There you go again” zingers but will deliver them in such a stiff, self-satisfied, look-ma-I-said-it manner they will rebound upon him.

Not to underscore the bloodsport aspect of this, but the Sun-Times is trying something different this year with your favorite columnists — plus, inexplicably, me — who will be using this infernal Internet machine to give the thumbs up and down to the combatants, to pour contempt, praise, observation, snark and commentary upon the proceedings, in real time, as it unfolds. Go to http://blogs.suntimes.com/politics/ and you can share the thoughts of your favorite columnists — and, again, me too — as we watch the debates together (sort of like Mystery Science Theater 3000, if you recall that show, where the otherwise unbearable ponderousness of bad 1950s sci-fi movies was relieved by wisecracking puppets, so the tragic sham of what passes for political discussion in 2012 will be lightened by a Greek chorus of sharp-eyed, razor-tongued, highly-skilled pundits, plus whatever mooing I manage to add, assuming I can figure out how to press the proper keys.

Since it ain’t shame unless it’s public shame

Speaking of public humiliation — or rather, the humiliation of public speaking — Roosevelt University is hosting the first annual Lillian and Larry Goodman Symposium and Awards Ceremony on the theme of the “Stigma in Prevention,” examining the intersection of shame and addiction, and naturally invited me to be the keynote speaker and share my insights into the surprising benefits of having your life crack open in public. The event takes place Oct. 11 from 3 to 5 p.m. at the school’s Murray Green Library, 430 S. Michigan, seems designed for professionals in the field, with an hour of networking to follow. It’s free, and open to the public, but they ask you to register first, at http://goodmansymposium.eventbrite.com/. See you there.



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