My name is Hugh and I did not watch the presidential debates on TV. I must be honest: I did not plan to watch them because I did not expect to learn anything important from them. They are not designed to inform; they are entertainment staged for a TV audience. And I don’t find them terribly entertaining.
In such a TV event speeches are timed and each player is allowed a few minutes to speak and a few more to “rebut” the other — with an emcee carefully watching to make certain that neither goes over his allotted time. There will be no time for real rebuttal — an examination of assumptions, development of arguments with premises made explicit, counter-arguments (as opposed to charges and counter-charges, of which there usually are plenty). In a word, there is no intellectual discussion of the most important issues confronting American voters. Instead, there is a televised event in which two performers parade their stuff before the viewing audience which is known to have short attention spans with the goal of making the strongest impression. The “winner” is declared not on the grounds of which speaker made the most sense, but which “came off” the best, which one mentioned the most things that resonated loudest with the larger group of people. It’s all about impressions in the Age of Entertainment. Like school and church these days, politics is show biz!
I am generalizing on the basis of past experience, but I am also developing a theme that Neil Postman argued in his provocative book Amusing Ourselves to Death in which he makes the case that TV marked the end of the Age of Exposition — which started to die with the invention of the telegraph in the mid-nineteenth century — and the full flowering of the Age of Entertainment. With the death of exposition we saw the gradual disappearance of the “sophisticated ability to think conceptually, deductively, and sequentially; a high valuation of reason and order; an abhorrence of contradiction; a large capacity for detachment and objectivity; and a tolerance for delayed response.” Postman makes a strong case. Can you imagine one of today’s TV debaters pausing to think?
He asks us to consider the Lincoln-Douglass debates in 1858 in which men and women stood for seven hours in the hot Illinois sun and listened carefully to two men debate the serious topics of the day, incorporating into their speeches such devices as story, sarcasm, irony, paradox, elaborated metaphors, fine distinctions, and the exposure of contradictions. The audience listened carefully and picked up on the subtle nuances they were hearing. In a word, there was a true debate involving the meeting of two minds on complex topics of the day in which the audience was asked (and able) to follow closely and critically for what seems today an impossible length of time.
Consider Douglas’s opening comments in one of the debates: “Ladies and Gentlemen: I appear before you today for the purpose of discussing the leading political topics which now agitate the public mind. By an arrangement between Mr. Lincoln and myself we are present here today for the purpose of having a joint discussion, as the representatives of the two great political parties of the State and Union, upon the principles at issue between those parties, and this vast concourse of people shows the deep feeling which pervades the public mind in regard to the questions dividing us.” How many modern listeners would (or could) follow this comment to the end — much less listen closely for seven hours?
Bear in mind that neither Lincoln nor Douglas was running for president at that time. They were two men debating public the issues of the day. Today’s TV presidential debates offer a sharp contrast not only in style but in substance. Instead of ideas painstakingly developed we have thought-bytes, slogans and clichés (Yahoo News wondered in print how many “zingers” Romney would get off). As Ortega y Gasset noted when the Age of Entertainment was aborning, we have ideas but we have lost the power of “ideation,” the ability to develop an idea to its full expression. In staged TV debates we are not asked to engage our minds, we are asked how we feel. And the person who makes us feel good will “win” the debate — not the one who speaks the truth (whatever that might be) or explains fully and carefully what he or she plans to do in leading this nation for the next four years. Because this is 2012, the Age of Entertainment, and the one who makes most of us feel good will eventually be elected President of this country.
I will of course vote. There are important issues at stake, including at least one possible appointment to the Supreme Court and the matter of taking steps to save of our planet. But my vote will be cast on the basis of what the candidate has done in the past and what I have reason to believe he will do in the future — as best I can tell. I have learned that what politicians say on TV is nothing more than a political commercial: it’s designed to sell the product.