Arrogance in picking a preacher

Queers answer President-elect Barack Obama’s inclusion of Saddleback pastor Rick Warren to offer an inaugural benediction by saying it leaves them out. And they’re right. Joan Walsh blasts Warren as “a poster boy for kinder, gentler 21st century bigotry.” And she’s right.

But this arrogance runs even deeper. Warren may not reflect Obama’s views on queers, but this choice suggests something far more troubling about Obama himself.

The academic discipline of speech communication includes a subfield called “forensics,” better known as debate. Participation in this form of debate entails arguing, with a partner, against a pair of opponents, for an arbitrarily chosen side of an arbitrarily chosen issue filling precise time slots. It is not required that you be accurate, though errors of fact are fair game for rebuttal.

There are several problems with this style of debate. It is a rules-based contest conducted under strict time limits, with no particular value for truth, but in quest of “points” and “wins.” It thus trivializes often-serious issues in a game-style format. The requirement that you be prepared to argue either side of an issue, for points and for wins, either inherently presumes equal merit to “both” sides of an issue or weighs the contest in favor of the more easily arguable position. The time limits presume that each side can be argued fully and fairly within those limits.

In short, forensics privileges argument over ideas and victory over merit.

I should disclose that as a communication scholar, I have participated in forensics only to the level of an introductory junior-level class in argumentation and debate. The class exposed me to the rules and the format of debates; and I took part in two debates within that class. For the reasons I have stated here, I was not impressed and have been critical of forensics ever since.

Reading several articles about Obama’s law classes, I have the impression he believes strongly in debate. It is not a bad skill for a lawyer. No matter what an offense, justice demands that every side, popular or not, should have an advocate.

The most stigmatized group in the United States is not blacks or poor people. It is certainly not evangelists, who have dominated policymaking since the presidency of Jimmy Carter. Rather, it is the group included by the initials GLBT–gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender.

But it is the evangelists whom Obama invites to the debate rather than the queers. He takes queers for granted just as he does progressives; after all, queers and progressives have no other (major) candidate to vote for. He selects as regressive a team of advisors and cabinet members as we might expect from a Blue Dog Democrat and claims that he’s the one who is responsible for coming up with ideas.

Obama is supposed to be about change we can believe in. He surrounds himself with a widely-touted team of rivals. And drawing all this together, progressives are to envision Obama at the center, hearing all these arguments for the status quo, in some grand debate, perhaps a little less rules-oriented, but with Obama in his vast wisdom meticulously picking apart the arguments, leading everyone to a conclusion that each of these situations demands a new approach.

“Understand where the vision for change comes from, first and foremost,” [Obama] said. “It comes from me. That’s my job, to provide a vision in terms of where we are going and to make sure then that my team is implementing [that vision].”

But lest we think Obama takes upon himself the role of a singular fountainhead of ideas, we have, in which the people will supply what will surely prove to be an unmanageable glut of ideas, while Obama informs us that “promoting science . . . [is] about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology [and] listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient.”

Do you get the feeling it’s all a bit much? I sure do. One impediment to communication is–and by now you’re probably way ahead of me on this–information overload. Obama’s crackberry isn’t going to help him on this. What’s far more likely is that he will simply shine on all these ideas; as with forensics, superficiality displaces depth, just like at his inauguration, where “inclusiveness” excludes queers.

And it takes a real arrogance for Obama to think it can be otherwise and a real arrogance for him to seek to lead us to think it is otherwise.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.