In response to someone’s query, here are some thoughts about last night’s spectacle:
I don’t generally care about, or watch, debates—in part because although experts seem to think that there is something substantial to be gained from watching two figures joust on stage, and to prize the quicker riposte, the better jab, the more aggressive stance—nothing gets learned on the floor. I watched this year because it was finally possible to watch with a group of astute critics who share some of my worldviews, albeit electronically on Twitter.
But there is little truth that gets gleaned from the debates, in part because to the extent that one is listening for facts and figures, the numbers are thrown around and contorted recklessly, which requires being a numbers keener or researching them while speakers are jockeying for airtime and attention in the span of four-minute answer sessions.
So, it’s about the spectacle. And in terms of spectacle, the rhetorical discourse matters, of course. These are veep candidates cheering on their respective Presidential candidates. I was highly uncomfortable with the aggressive in-your-faceness of Senator Joe Biden, who claimed intimacy with “Bibi,” and wanted us all to know about his exploits with Israel leaders, as if he were Uncle Joe at Thanksgiving dinner telling us about his wild times in Vietnam. Similarly, the contempt and aggression with which he labeled the arena of the “Ayatollah’s” knowledge, and again, later, the sneer with which he chastised Paul Ryan about sending “Afghans, Paul, Afghans. Afghans” into Command East—a dangerous and militarized part of Afghanistan, because it was highly dangerous–was chilling.
The unspoken context made it clear that the lives of Afghan troops were less valuable than American troops, and therefore it was better to send them in to deal the extreme dangers there. There were a number of moments where Biden and Ryan echoed the justifications for imperialism given by Theodore Roosevelt and other defenders of empire 100 years ago– about “helping” Afghans save themselves. That was one of the most uncomfortable moments for me—when Biden, knowing that he was in front of millions of viewers, could take refuge in the aggression of openly defending the value that the lives of Brown troops are more expendable than the lives of US troops. Unwinnable even when he insisted that “Afghan troops step up. Step up.” Step up? To what? To clean up the decimation of their country? He felt comfortable sharing and reveling in white patriarchal condescension. He echoed it again in the chest-beatings about having “eliminated Osama Bin Ladin”—without due process, of course. This is the man who I’m supposed to vote for to represent me.
I expect nothing from Ryan or the Republicans ever, and so I was not disappointed—and perhaps even pleased to see how he managed to hold his own and to respond without losing his pace or thoughts. Imperialism is certainly a position that he and his party endorse, so there is no big surprise there. He was deft and smooth around defending his folks against the charges of cutting Social Security and Medicare, even as we understood that his words were a deft rhetorical spin around any verifiable fact.
There was something troubling about Biden’s charge that “Ryan voted to put two wars on a credit card.” My discomfort came from three sources. 1) Biden voted for them as well. 2) Biden’s lack of understanding of how wars are paid for in his own society: the money comes from, as the Kansas City economists point out—the Federal Reserve. It is not based on debt (“credit card”). 3) the memory of his role in pushing through the “Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005,” bubbled up. This bill, which was devastating to working families, reminded me of the absence of evidence that the Dems care about working families. See here for Arianna Huffington’s and Jackson Williams’ astute critiques.
The reproductive rights discussion was disingenuous on both of their parts. Ryan is a chameleon on abortion issues, although he’s towing a new Romney line about outlawing abortion. Biden engaged in some consistent fear-baiting with the specter of two open Supreme Court seats. But it’s hardly clear to me how the last two Supreme Court appointees are representative of the politics of liberals on most issues. Whether they will vote to protect reproductive choices for women remains to be seen. And obviously, we’ve been lied to consistently by the Dems—so hanging on to their words for hope is a little like escaping from a burning house by climbing down a piece of thin twine. It may or may not work.