the degeneration of the life raft debate at university of montevallo, metaphor for US politics

Posted on Saturday, March 26th, 2011

Beginning with my usual disclaimer: I can't pretend that I know all that much about US politics nor am I an avid follower of this Life Raft Debate that is held yearly at the University of Montevallo in Alabama. I just heard about it on This American Life, and it was so interesting to me. The premise of the debate supposes that there has been a nuclear disaster, and the voting audience has the responsibility of rebuilding society. There is only one spot on the "raft" which will transport the new world's population, and a group of liberal arts professors must debate and make their case as to which one of them deserve to have that spot. The rest will be left behind, discarded as not important enough to bring along. Each year there is also a "Devil's Advocate," who tries to persuade the crowd not to vote for anyone, and that we don't need liberal arts to survive in a new society. It's a philosophical argument about which liberal arts discipline is most valuable to society, and it is a tradition that began in 1998. I've embedded the This American Life episode at the end of this post. It's the final segment of the show, so you can try and fast forward to it if you like. It's been widely blogged about too, so I'm really just adding it to my own blogroll because I too found it fascinating. The interesting thing about this year's debate is that while each professor made a dog and pony show of their discipline, one donning superhero costumes and another driving in Harley Davidsons getting cheap cheers, Jon Smith, the "Devil's Advocate," was watching the debate and tearing up his own notes. He was appalled at the display, and decided to ad lib his argument. Apparently, the Devil's Advocate never wins the debate. This year, without props and without visuals, Jon's speech contrasted starkly with the other performances which made his arguments much more powerful. He did draw a few laughs from the crowd, but as he pointed out, laughter was not his aim. He talked about the degeneration of the debate, and how it has become a bunch of professors, who are otherwise smart people, getting up on stage with no other purpose than to pander to the crowd. The intellectual challenge of the exercise has been lost to a game of entertainment and silliness, and a vote for "no one" this year would not be a vote against the value of a liberal arts education; it would be a vote to discontinue the circus that this debate has become, and to restore its substance. For the first time in the history of the debate, the Devil's Advocate won. This American Life made a connection between what had befallen this debate to the current state of US politics, and since I don't know any better, I will agree. It made me think back to my college years, and what it was that made me so completely apathetic to politics during all those four years, and even a couple years following graduation. Not until a few years ago did I even direct half an ear to the issues and debates going on and the activities not just in our nation but around the world. Even now I feel so behind because every day there's something new, and every day there's a reference to a time in the past where I draw a complete blank, because I was not listening to what was going on back then. I wonder how different my outlook on the world would be if I had always been interested and aware of things going on around me. I wonder how many others are like me, who only catch bits and pieces of our collective history and extrapolate from those bits and pieces to form a view of the world, and how all these incomplete perceptions collectively combine to form the path of a future that doesn't necessarily learn from the past, and is therefore doomed to repeat it? I'm sure that because of my lack of a complete understanding of everything going on around me all the time (who has such a complete understanding of this anyway?), the loudest and/or most outrageous news and speeches resonate with me the most. And because politicians are trying to plow their way through the cluttered consciousnesses of the general public, most of whom are probably even less aware than even me, they have to resort to entertainment value, sensationalism, extreme stances, to get on that headline. If only history and current politics and world affairs were a mandatory priority, and everyone were aware, educated, and dispassionate. Then we'd all be tuned into C-Span, Fox News would be out of business, and NPR wouldn't need to campaign for money anymore because everyone would appreciate its value and donate. (Like me, one day...) Debates would be so interesting, like the Intelligence Squared debates, and there would be less condescension among politicians and more mutual respect. No one would be called "crazy," or "radical," just different. And while we might still disagree, at least everyone made their case well. Anyway, I'm rambling now. Here's the clip. Enjoy.