Thursday, October 16, 2008

Reading Debate #3 As A Text

TO BE SURE, DEBATES are constructed texts.

They have authors and audiences, plots and themes, rising and falling actions, both composition and juxtaposition. In general, debates in the contemporary era (over any office of any real authority) are pretty dull. Rarely are they, in fact, debates but rather as many, many have noted, little more than staged responses to anticipated questions. This fact makes them even more of an intentional text than extemporaneous back-and-forthing might be.

In the text that was last night's presidential debate, a protagonist and an antagonist emerged. Barack Obama seemed to fully embody his persona as favorite, front-runner, and cypher for the hopes and dreams of the majority of the American electorate, while his nemesis, the cranky, jowly, stiff, and persnickety John McCain relished his role as the adversary. How happy and comfortable he appeared as the thunder at Obama's picnic, the tank full of water in Obama's Porsche, the jackhammer during Obama's nap.

Characters become what we want them to be. No one knows more than actors in a play that they are actors in a play. The debate is no different. Sure, it's a sleepy play, but the price is right, and, even better, the audience is big. McCain knew people were going to expect him to play the role of the aggressive underdog, and he wore the collar with pride. Similarly, Obama took direction to play the role of the contender with poise and confidence. The word "presidential" may have even been invoked once or twice during rehearsals.

If texts are about tension and counterpoise, the debate stuck to its guns: young vs. old; black vs. white; smooth vs. crotchety; jowels vs. ears; hope vs. experience. Thematically, this meant few surprises, just the regular resolution such plot points dissolve into.

So, then, if there is little to learn, what can we learn?

Well, we learned that we don't really want surprise or excitement in our politicians--especially in a time of economic and military crisis--we want predictability. We don't want a lyric poem or a literary novel; we want a light hour-long TV drama, like Monk or Grey's Anatomy. We want reassurance, and we don't want to be challenged. We want hope, sure, and perhaps even change--just not from us.

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