Article — From the October 2012 issue

Contest of Words

High school debate and the demise of public speech

( 5 of 5 )

And then I was in another dorm room watching the helicopter footage of Columbine as the extent of the massacres became clear and the passionless nihilism of midwestern white boys achieved its apotheosis in a high school library I couldn’t stop imagining as an Extemp prep room. And then George Bush won the millennial election he actually lost, in part because his halting, ungrammatical speech allowed him to present himself as a NASCAR everyman. And then I watched the towers fall and our military “strategery” unfolded in Afghanistan and Iraq and white boys could once again define themselves in opposition to racialized others and the Foxnewsification of the language outpaced parody and a Bush or Rumsfeld press conference dispensed with logic and linearity more thoroughly than did experimental poetry. Then he won again, war crimes in plain sight. Then Obama briefly energized the nation by addressing the public like adults and race hatred flared and white people reverse-engineered themselves as a threatened ethnicity as Hussein Obama who wasn’t even born in this country advanced his Islamofascist socialist agenda and was elected as the bubble burst despite the warnings of the hockey mom and avid hunter who spoke in slow non sequitur. When she was unable to name a newspaper she read or a Supreme Court case with which she disagreed, she blamed it on “gotcha journalism.” The Tea Party, with its assault weapons and slurs and tragicomic signs, with its justified if misguided outrage at the so-called elites, managed to shift the Republican base further toward violent unreason while our supposedly communist president oversaw the greatest consolidation of capitalist class power in the country’s history, increased drone strikes, and so on. It all seemed to happen so fast.

I know the imperial crack-up is older than all this, at least as old as the ’70s, when the country’s industrial strength began to wane, when its military was defeated in Vietnam, when oil became a perpetual crisis, when derivatives markets were developed; at least as far back as 1979, the year of my birth, when Phillips separated value and policy in debate, the year before Ronald Reagan was elected and did the same to our politics. As Earl Shorris wrote in this magazine last year:

[Reagan] removed ethics from politics. Everything followed on his elegant excision, an operation performed so deftly on the body politic that it did not feel the wound.

It’s in the incredibly slow speech of politicians, of the new right in particular, of the Bushes and Palins and Bachmanns and others, that I feel the wound, the void: the valorized slowness of fetishized stupidity, politicians flustered in advance by any question that pertains to anything but guns and faith. When a reporter asked Bush to name his biggest mistake since 9/11, he replied:

I wish you’d have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it. . . . I’m sure something will pop into my head here . . . you just put me under the spot . . . and maybe I’m not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one . . .

There’s no need to multiply the examples of gaps and gaffes—which are not aberrations in the speaking style of the far right but rather its basic unit of composition. Their linguistic world is that of the anti-Extemp, where failures in fluency are marks of authenticity, ignorance is often a point of pride, and tautology supplants cogitation. Romney, earlier this year: “I’m not familiar precisely with exactly what I said, but I stand by what I said, whatever it was.”

It is a stubborn slowness that appeals to so many “spread” Americans, particularly white ones, for whom everything seems to be happening too rapidly: suddenly gays are getting married and there’s a black president with his hands on my Medicare and all these people speaking Spanish and a perpetual news-crawler’s worth of other outrages committed against the greatness of God and country. More generally, the rhetorical and intellectual poverty of the presidential debates, of the national discourse, of both parties, compensates for the disastrous effects of our policies: the lightning-fast trades of bundled debt, the remotely controlled drone strikes, the oil flowing into the Gulf. Everything public has long been up for auction, and the politicians across our very narrow spectrum run interference by speaking so slowly we’ll forget they represent a class of auctioneers. Obama himself is such a measured if eloquent public speaker that some on the far right have asserted that his “unnaturally slow” pace is designed to induce mass hypnosis.

But recently I have encountered another kind of slow speech, one that does not attempt to cover for the spreadsheets of Wall Street or tranquilize the public and that incorporates its audience into the speech act itself: the people’s mic. The human microphone, wherein people gathered around a speaker repeat back what the speaker says in order to amplify a voice without permit-requiring equipment, is by necessity deliberate, requires breaking a speech into easily repeatable fragments. I admit I always find joining in a little embarrassing, as I have always found chanting and choral speech of whatever form embarrassing: I am embarrassed to yell around others, fear that my voice will be conspicuous somehow or fail to blend in, am embarrassed to yell before I know what the statement we’re building toward is.

Nevertheless I do participate and as I participate I feel, despite all my awkwardness and occasional frustration, that this is poiesis, “making,” an attempt at rebuilding our language in the wake of the various spreads, an attempt distinct from the regressions of our national politics. We are turning away from the thoroughly evacuated public discourse that serves primarily to further the interest of its corporate sponsors in order to form a grassroots corporate person. Because the public mic, no matter what it’s being used to say, is saying: This is a corporation of an older and more basic sort, a subject constituted around something other than private gain. No demands are being made within the dominant language of the day, because the demand is for a new language. I’m not claiming that demand can be actualized, I can’t prove solvency, as debaters would say, and of course language can always be perverted or co-opted, but I believe its collective haltingness is an eloquent expression of the necessity of our learning as a people how to speak.

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5 of 5
is the author of three books of poetry and, most recently, of the novel Leaving the Atocha Station.

More from Ben Lerner:

Forum From the August 2015 issue

How to Be a Parent

Readings From the September 2014 issue

The Weight

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  • DangerousDude


  • mcgin029

    The most hilarious part about this article is that you seem to be under the impression that policy debaters in Kansas in the late 1990s went fast.

    As an English teacher I can tell you that if your construction involves using a more obscure word in italics followed by what you mean in plain language, then you are writing to impress rather than inform. Cut it out.

    The piece reveals more about you as a person than it does about debate or discourse. You should have done fewer drugs and you should long since have gotten over yourself.

    • Ben

      What a weird reply.

      • Piper Webb

        Creepy weird response….I enjoyed the article. It brought back long-lost memories of extemporaneously debating the merits of Reagan’s Star Wars initiative with a powerful hangover. Thank you!

  • Maria

    I LOVE this piece. Such mastery of writing, I felt like I was in a Kansas high school classroom alongside you (and so relieved to realize I wasn’t).

  • shadeseeker

    The term “white boy” is abusive and should be changed in this piece–and while we’re at it, have African Americans stop using the term habitually.
    I taught debate for 23 years in undergraduate school. This article manages to avoid all the relevant issues of competitive debate. Nice try, Ben.

  • shadeseeker

    Try seeing yourself as a man or person rather than as a “white boy.” That would help your self-image, which seems mired in sophistic inanities.

  • wondering

    This was delightful until it was cliched. A carefully orchestrated performance. When you’re at parties, do you spend the entire time wondering what the people there are thinking about you?


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