Tuesday, September 25, 2018

How College Debate Explains Ted Cruz

Beto saying Cruz was "working for the clampdown" is the kind of pop culture reference I would have made in a 1990s debate round, and so I tip my hat

Ted Cruz does not have the kind of personality that puts people at ease. Successful politicians must first and foremost be likable, not inspire Zodiac killer memes. Nevertheless Cruz stands at the heights of national politics.

What explains this?

The keys to Cruz’s combination of effectiveness and creepiness can be found in his time as a college debater. I have insight into this obscure world, where I competed for four years for a much less vainglorious university than Princeton. When I read an article in the New York Times in 2015 by Jason Horowitz about Cruz’s time on the debate circuit I suddenly realized why I found his uncanny affect and florid rhetorical style so eerily familiar. 

There are many different debate formats, both Cruz and I competed in parliamentary style (at the same tournament once, even). In “parly” teams debate a resolution provided only 15 minutes before the round begins. Debaters thus must be nimble, resourceful, and able to access personal knowledge in the absence of ready evidence. Such skills translate well to the world of politics.

The emphasis on persuasion over evidence can obviously lead to chicanery.  I once witnessed a team win a crucial round by saying that hospice care involves forced lobotomies. If a debater says something exaggerated or untruthful, but keeps hammering at it with absolute conviction, that person will go far. If their opponents spend all of their speaking time disputing the facts, they have de facto put themselves on the defensive, the surest way to lose a debate round. Cruz obviously learned these dark arts well. For example, he has had the audacity to claim he had nothing to do with a government shutdown he clearly instigated back in 2013. Or just look at his recent debate with Beto O'Rourke, where he claimed without a quiver of doubt that Martin Luther King would somehow be opposed to black athletes protesting against police brutality during the national anthem.

Beyond his dissembling, Cruz’s manner of speaking is unsettling because he is still arguing to a debate judge. Debate judges tend to be debate coaches or debaters who must be persuaded according to the game’s unwritten rules. Those judges only consider arguments made in the round, not their own common sense. They write down every argument made, meaning that “dropping” an opponent’s argument can lose a round. This encourages a shotgun approach where debaters blast opponents with too many arguments to answer. One way to deflect this strategy is to keep changing the subject when pressed, a strategy I have witnessed Cruz use more than once. In any case, this is not a way that normal people argue, and debaters who have been trained in the rules of the game like Cruz have a hard time breaking the habit.

Cruz’s oddest rhetorical ticks are also familiar from my college debate days. Debaters commonly pepper their speeches with pop cultural references to add levity and charm judges. Since we were huge nerds judged by huge nerds, the references could be obscure or maladroit. Cruz can’t help himself from making such allusions. Take, for instance, his assertion that the Republicans were like Bart, Homer, Marge, and Maggie Simpson, and the Democrats were like Lisa. I laughed when I heard this because it sounded like something straight out of a 1990s debate round, right down to the fact that The Simpsons is among that decade’s biggest cultural touchstones. (His statement about Beto O’Rourke bringing “tofu, silicone, and dyed hair” to Texas was just plain weird, though.)

Even Cruz’s campaign ad featuring a “humorous” song putting down Beto O’Rourke because of his name makes sense as a college debate strategy. The parliamentary debate format tried to mimic aspects of debate in English Parliament, including witty put-downs of one’s opponent. If the jokes landed, judges would accept mockery of opponents. This is an aspect of college debate that tripped Cruz up, and he still seems to have a hard time sticking the punch line. Just recall his characterization of O’Rourke as a “Triple Meat Whataburger Liberal.”

However, O’Rourke ought to be prepared for someone who can bend the facts with absolute conviction, distract with shotgun blasts of rhetoric, and change the subject whenever caught in a tight spot. Cruz’s time as a college debater may have made it difficult for him to talk like a normal human being, but it also gave him powerful abilities that other politicians crave. Based on the first debate, it seems that Beto figured out how to keep from getting distracted and kept pushing his message forward.

On the debate circuit we used to joke about people we called “lifers.” They loved debate so much, they just couldn’t give it up after graduation, so they became coaches or perennial judges. In the case of one such lifer we used to joke with him by tapping our arms like heroin user preparing a vein for an injection. Their lust for debate was as intense as a drug addict’s need for junk, a compulsion rather than a choice. Sometimes these debaters, like Cruz, would come back and compete at the Worlds tournament while they were in law school. (That was the tournament at Princeton, in 1995, where I also competed.) It is obvious that Cruz is a lifer in his own way, but instead of judging rounds he is continuing to compete by other means in the political realm. The same arcane approach that makes him so off-putting is paradoxically the key to his success, and one key to understanding how to defeat him.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Thoughts On A Gorgeous September Saturday

Today is the genre of days that I treasure the most: a calm, sunny autumn Saturday with a cool breeze. I think this type of day is the most perfect of days. It is a day for apple picking, going to a college football game, or just sitting on the back porch, as I am doing right now. My wife and children are out of the house, and so I have this rare and treasured moment of solitude.

A day like this is so beautiful that it almost makes me cry because I know there aren't more of them in the year. Much more common are the gloomy, overcast winter Sundays where the walk needs to be shoveled, or the rainy Mondays or those dog days of summer where it gets too hot for our air conditioning to handle.

When I was younger I didn't think like this, of course. I would just got out and enjoy the day. I'd play touch football in the park with my friends or walk in the woods or get together with the gang and have some beers and watch the Huskers game. At age 43 I am suddenly much more aware of the passage of time, and that what I have left is limited. Maybe this is being prompted by my daughters entering the first grade and becoming these new beings completely removed from the babies and toddlers that they used to be. Or perhaps it's because after years of wandering from the age of 22 to 35 I've actually been settled down and not desperate for an extended period. Not so long ago I was the new guy at my job, now I am one of the veterans. Financially I spent years just trying to get by, and then trying to afford all the stuff our kids needed and to establish our new house. My newfound security has given me the time to breathe and the time to think, and that's been a blessing.

With all of those years of struggle over, it is suddenly hitting me in the face that my life is likely at least at the halfway point. If I was ever going to be a highly-regarded historian or recognized writer, that would have happened by now. It's finally time to let the last of those kinds of dreams die. My work as a historian and writer is merely a hobby, but at least it's a fulfilling one.

On this beautiful day, I am feeling okay with that. Age can bring bitterness and narrow-mindedness, but it can also bring wisdom if you take the time to discover it. I know now that anything I write won't last that long anyway. What will last is my marriage, my family, and my students. Every single day that I am with my children and every day I enter the classroom I am doing something vastly more meaningful than anything I else I could ever hope to accomplish.

Calm, sunny, September days like this are truly therapeutic. I hope when I go it's on a day like this so that I can leave this broken world behind remembering what a great place it can be sometimes. I don't know if there's a heaven, but a day like this is about as close as it gets.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Locker Room Talk

The discussion of Christine Blasey Ford's accusations against Brett Kavanaugh has brought back some buried memories of my time in high school.

I did not go to any parties in high school where drinking and drugs were present, but they were an omnipresent part of my teenage environment. Everyone knew about the "stoneys" who would get high before school. In my class there was even a group of "popular" guys who drank themselves into a stupor and called themselves the Brew Crew and even had their own t-shirts made (which they wore to football games.) In the rural Nebraska town where I grew up everybody knew teenage drinking and debauchery ran rampant.

My lack of interest in that culture was mostly due to my complete alienation from my high school's surroundings and my desire to get the hell out as soon as possible. (Once I got to college I started drinking and haven't looked back!) That was confirmed by what so many conservatives euphemistically call "locker room talk."

Most of this talk I heard in the literal locker room, after gym class, although I also heard plenty while working in the corn fields during detasseling season. Locker room talk mostly amounts to men discussing their purported sex with women, usually in a degrading and misogynistic way. What amazes me is that this has been used as a defense rather than an accusation. The president's Access Hollywood tape, for example, was written off as "locker room talk." This kind of talk is evidently the birthright of heterosexual men. If you were ever a boy in high school anywhere in America, you probably heard or engaged in your fair share of locker room talk.

It was my window into a different world, where I heard about all of the parties I wasn't attending and all of the sex I wasn't having. One consistent theme was humiliation. Girls who were willing to fuck, especially if they wanted to fuck more than one person or initiated sex, were branded sluts. The boys who fucked them, of course, were able to brag of their conquests. Sometimes this bragging was about how those girls had not only been fucked, but also demeaned in the process.

One boy who was especially awful boasted of how he had taken the panties of one girl and had put them on the antenna of his pickup truck for everyone to see. I remember another story about a boy intentionally getting his sperm in a girl's hair after a tryst a party in order to embarrass her. I heard that another girl in my class was nicknamed "blue lightning" for the veins in the very pale skin of her breasts.

When men defend their shitty behavior as "locker room talk" what they are really telling you is "I reserve the right in the company of men to demean and attack individual women in a sexual way." Anyone who uses this as a defense is telling on themselves.

Even if the allegations against Kavanaugh (which I believe) are not true, I still recognize his type from my high school days. The thought of one of those people being on the highest court in the land makes me sick with anger. The fact that one of them is in the White House is almost unbearable. 

Monday, September 17, 2018

Old Dad's Records Celebrates Zepptember

I recorded a new podcast this weekend celebrating the blessed month of Zepptember. I even dared to discuss that most overplayed of songs, "Stairway to Heaven." In addition to that I dig into disc 2 of Physical Graffiti, a fascinating grab bag of Zepp styles. I end with a rave for the newest Lana Del Rey song.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Nostalgia For Other People's Nostalgia

My generation is a sucker for melted cheese-face British rock stars in dad jeans

I've got a new piece up at Tropics of Meta called "Nostalgia For Other People's Nostalgia: A Gen X Disease." I consider why it is that Gen Xers like myself are so connected to the music made before our time. I see it as a larger symptom of our lack of cultural power. I am pretty proud of it, please lemme know whatcha think.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Ben Sasse's Passive-Aggressive Conservatism

My home state, which produces corn and passive-aggressive Republican Senators

As loyal readers know, I hail from the prairies of Nebraska. While I left it 20 years ago it is still a place close to my heart, even if it becomes more foreign to me with each passing year. As a born and bred Nebraskan, I have been especially interested in the political career of Ben Sasse, the first Nebraska politician with a national profile since Bob Kerrey.

He sort of came out of nowhere on a cloud of conservative establishment and media hype, an Ivy League technocrat made Senator. The high fathers of the conservative movement positioned Sasse from the get-go as their scion. Unfortunately for him, he achieved this position right before Donald Trump captured the party's base with white nationalism. This has meant the twilight of the faux policy wonkery of "very serious people" conservatism embodied by the likes of Paul Ryan and yes, Ben Sasse. Sasse occasionally expresses alarm about this state of affairs. This week he claimed to think every day about leaving the Republican Party.

Of course, he hasn't.

Sasse wants to rip apart the social safety net, eliminate reproductive rights, and give even more power to the plutocratic overlords. That's basically the core mission of the Republican Party. He may criticize Trump every now and then, but he votes with him. Instead of using his power as a Senator to investigate the president, he attacks the protestors who dare to raise their voices against Trump's nominee to the Supreme Court. Sasse has always been much harsher in criticizing the people fighting Trump than Trump himself.

Take a look at Sasse's voting record and you'll get the real score. He has voted with Trump 86.7% of the time. Where has he deviated? Well, he voted against a relief package for Puerto Rico. He voted against a continuing resolution to fund the government. He also voted for sanctions against Russia. Sasse obviously does not favor the Trump administration's relations with Russia, but he actually wants it to be stingier with helping people in need, too. I get the feeling that this guy who wrote a book about kids these days needing to work to get character looks at old Lewis Hine pictures of barefoot children in textile mills and longs for the "good old days."

I see a lot of this in Sasse's background. Nebraska is a place where personal interactions thrive on passive-aggression. It is impolite to directly confront people or to "toot your own horn." Insults must be veiled in politeness and moralism. I told a much more blunt friend here in the NYC area that if she wanted to send a message to her departing boss that she was not sad to see him go that there was a Nebraska way to do it. Instead of ignoring him or not getting him a gift, she should get him a lame gift and give to him politely, but with little enthusiasm. That way she would maintain the moral high ground, but also make him know that she was not unhappy about his leaving. My people can be quietly cruel, and I include myself in that assessment.

Someone like Sasse dislikes Trump less for his policies than for his vulgarity. He wants Trump to beat down on immigrants (he voted against a bill that to favor immigrants also opposed by Trump) and immiserate the poor, but to do it with his hand over heart and language about "values" and "tough decisions we have to make." He wants him to Tweet Bible verses, not bravado. He wants a president who will decry abortion without assuming he paid for one.

There are plenty of conservatives out there who share Sasse's concern over Trump's ways of speaking who nonetheless endorse 90% of what he does. The one domestic policy they really and truly oppose is Trump's trade protectionism. That also happens to be a priority for the Koch brothers and other plutocrats who fund conservative politics. My bet is that Sasse is trying to get their attention, maybe for a primary campaign against Trump in 2020. I do no think he will run for re-election in Nebraska, because even his tepid criticism of Trump is going to get him getting primaried. If Trump isn't able to serve out this term, he is also putting himself in a prime position to move up in the future. Of course, he won't come out and say that himself. After all, that would be tooting his own horn.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Roxy Music, "More Than This"

The temperature dropped today in that very September way that signals the turn from summer into autumn. Autumn has always been my favorite season, and while every seasonal change dredges up memories both personal and musical, the one in September is by far the most evocative to me.

Perhaps it's because I was born in September, and my body is also aware that it has just completed another trip around the sun. It also doesn't hurt that as a teacher I am back in the classroom with a new cast of fresh faces.

Usually this time of year I bust out music that has long served as the soundtrack to this journey, like REM's Automatic for the People album. However, this year I rediscovered a song that is number one on my Top 40 autumn songs with a bullet: "More Than This" by Roxy Music.

I'd been diving back into Roxy after listening to a really good podcast episode about the making of their first record. I am a sucker for 1970s art rock and Brian Eno, so I love those first two albums before Eno split. I never really spent much time with what came after, partially because I just didn't "get" Brian Ferry's schtick. The tuxedoed crooner thing never seemed to work with the context of the music, which I felt was ill-served by the singer's approach.

I decided today to listen to the band's swan song, Avalon, an album an old girlfriend had loved but I could never give myself over to. For some reason "More Than This" really sank its teeth into me this time. It could have been the early 80s synthesizer production done right, the catchiness, or the lyrical theme of resignation, but I think it was the fall weather. It seemed to be the exact right song at the right time, a rumination on the unchanging nature of a world without redemption. As the song goes, "There's nothing more than this."

Seasonal changes are a reminder that nature and world will keep going with or without us. That can be a scary thought, but I find it comforting, even sublime. It was especially sublime to get that message from a song that truly revealed itself to me years after I first heard it. Big things rarely change, but small things can in the best ways. Here's to the small but profound changes.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Old Dad's Records (The 1975 Episode)

The newest episode of my podcast Old Dad's Records is up this week. Since yesterday was my birthday, I talk about the year I was born: 1975. I start with the Isley Brothers' "Fight The Power," which I consider to be one of the last gasps of the long 1960s. After that I dig into the Bee Gees' Main Course album, which was on the charts the month I was born. That record was a transitional one, just the like the era that produced it. I finish by lauding the most recent Guided By Voices record, proof positive that aging doesn't have to suck.