Americans of a certain age will remember the three-minute mini-debates at the end of CBS's 60 Minutes when two venerable journalists, the liberal Shana Alexander and the conservative James J. Kilpatrick, politely duked it out over divisive issues. Saturday Night Live famously spoofed their argy-bargy with Dan Aykroyd's "Jane, you ignorant slut" smackdown of Jane Curtin, a line that lives on to this day.
Sadly, what was once strictly satire is now the state of civil discourse. A predominant feature of today's political disagreements are Aykroyd-like ad hominem attacks substituting for substantive argument. If you have the stomach for it, read the anonymous online comments attached to many newspaper opinion pieces. Many posters seethe with vituperative anger, obscuring any legitimate point.
But don't despair. There is a place where the fine art of civilized debate is making a comeback. Intelligence Squared U.S., an Oxford-style debate format show distributed by National Public Radio and available online and through free podcasts, is that wonderful combination of education, exposition and entertainment.
IQ2US, it's shorthand name, is not new. The show has been produced in the United States since 2006 as an initiative of the Rosenkranz Foundation to promote healthy civic dialogue. The original British version is still going strong after more than a decade (and can be viewed online, too, something I highly recommend). But lately the U.S. enterprise has created a buzz. Or maybe it is just that I've newly discovered this gem and have been sifting through its meaty archive.
The premise is pretty straightforward. In each debate, four of the nation's foremost experts square off as intellectual gladiators, two against two, arguing their side of a provocative motion. Recent motions have included: "The Rich are Taxed Enough," "Legalize Drugs," "Science Refutes God" and "Israel Can Live with a Nuclear Iran." John Donvan, a former White House correspondent for ABC News, is the lively moderator who presses debaters for direct answers and rejects audience questions that are redundant or off-subject. Refreshingly, Donvan demands rigor from the audience as well as the debaters.
Victory is a simple matter of persuasion. The audience votes at the beginning the debate, choosing to be for the motion, against it, or undecided, and then votes again at the end. The winning team is the one that sways the most people, not the one with the most votes. That is only fair since the live New York audience at the Kaufman Cultural Center where many of the debates take place trends liberal.
Each debater brings impressive credentials from the worlds of academia, politics, think tanks or journalism. In the debate on whether the rich are taxed enough, a high-profile panel included Arthur Laffer, known as the father of supply-side economics, speaking for the motion and Robert Reich, former secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton, arguing against it. The motion failed.
Next up, this juicy proposition, "The GOP Must Seize the Center or Die," is scheduled for April 17. Two of the four debaters are New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks, for the motion, and the former head of the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed, against.
While the question of the Republican Party's shrinking base has been explored by pundits ad nauseam, IQ2US is uniquely a sound-bite-free zone. During the 90-minute or so debate (edited down to an hourlong version heard on radio and in podcasts) there is time to build a case, flesh out an argument and filet an opponent's claims. Responsive reasoning wins out over canned responses. And the audience is decorous, there to listen and not to jeer or cheer.
In a past column I recommended the BBC Radio 4 podcast In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg, a show that explores the history of ideas with remarkable erudition. Intelligence Squared is its public policy counterpart — an oasis of thoughtful and thought-provoking talk in a media environment overrun by the slick, loud and vacuous.