Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Political debates: the importance of connoisseurship

On the sidelines of history, Toronto cosmopolitans feel especially free to judge political performances in neighboring jurisdictions. Andrew Coyne of the National Post finds fault not only in the content, format, and casting of this week’ leaders' debates in Quebec. He doesn’t think journalists and people generally know how to watch them.

Politics, according to Coyne, is theatre and always has been.

He likes Shakespeare’s plays and regrets that modern elections are more akin to film and video games. He notes the rising importance of debates but judges them as not much better than Hollywood blockbusters. We get little out of them.

‘The point of these (debates) is not to find out who 'won,' any more than it is when we go to see a play. The media’s bizarre fixation with this, as often expressed in those sorrowful morning-after reports of 'no knockout blows' as by actual declarations of victory, says a good deal more about the media than anything else: the preference for binary (up-down, in-out) results over qualitative judgments, the retreat from the real (who would govern best) into the meta (who’s winning the campaign), the imposition of narrative (turning points, deciding moments) onto the ordinary chaos of events.

“We don’t go to Macbeth to find out if he defeats Macduff. We are there to watch a tragic hero’s inevitable fall, to reflect on how human virtues are subverted by human frailties, and so on.”

A 400-year-old play, of course, doesn’t survive as a murder mystery. You can concentrate on the minutia of Shakespeare’s genius and not worry about who’s winning or losing, who will live or die. A debate in an election, however, isn’t theatre—it’s a real-time confrontation, a piece of reality that will shape a larger reality.

Better political reporting of a highly theatrical political event shouldn’t start on the assumption that it’s merely two-bit theatre. A literate critic and a literate audience can’t skip lightly over why the debate is taking place—and why the debaters act the way they do.

Elections do provide yet another opportunity to watch extroverts express themselves. Debates do offer further material to enrich our hunches about their minds and inner souls. So, more debates, as Coyne suggests, could help us know—or at least better talk about the candidates.


But, first, let’s bear down on the real drama. They’re only together in that television studio because each wants to win the power to run Quebec. Is she winning? Is he catching up? Listen to what he has to say to stay competitive. Listen to what none will say for fear of losing. Listen to what they all seem to think we think, and need to hear to give them our votes.

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