Tuesday, April 28, 2009

You Have to Keep the Fights Clean and the Sex Dirty

-- Kevin Bacon’s advice on how to have a long and successful marriage.

I admit it. I like a good argument.

For as long as I can remember, people have told me not to argue. When I was a little kid, I was sitting on a sidewalk, yelling at the top of my lungs that Mantle was better than Mays and my friend, Billy was yelling at the top of his lungs that I was wrong. He then fell over onto his back and started laughing. It wasn’t fun-laughing; it was put down laughing -- the kind that said that I had no idea what I was talking about. That made me mad and I called him a jerk. He called me a stupid jerk. An adult walked up to us and told us we could have a nice discussion, without having to argue. So we stopped, which worked out for me because, at that time, I could not have come up with anything harsher than stupid jerk without sounding silly.

Had I been older than my years, I would have explained to Mrs. Busybody that Billy and I were learning the fine art of argumentation and were having a hell of a good time in the process. I remember a lot of childhood playground arguing, where a good time was not had by all. Feelings often got hurt. That’s how you get the thick skin needed to survive. And, when facing possible ridicule, arguments got better. The next time the Mantle vs. Mays discussion came up, I was armed with statistics. Once I had compiled and memorized enough statistics, I definitely moved up a weight class.

It was a sweltering Saturday afternoon. There were eight or nine of us, sitting around the baseball diamond after a little league game. We got into Mantle vs. Mays vs. Aaron vs. Williams vs. Ruth, etc., etc., etc. For me, it was an eye opener. Statistics got trumped by other statistics (some of which seemed made up). Shouting, snickering, and exaggerated, falling-on-your-back laughter won some kids over and silenced others. Two of my friends got up and stomped off. It was a verbal brawl.

I remember walking home, trying to sort out what had happened.

Some really good arguments took place in my college dorm room in 1967 and 1968. They were unplanned and they usually happened late at night. They would suddenly erupt, with five, six or seven of us, rotating in and out, some carrying the book they were trying to cram into their brain for tomorrow’s exam, with topics shifting and energy fluctuating. It was always about politics and life: Vietnam, unfair teachers, frustrating girlfriends, the meaning of life, parents who were stuck in their ruts and just didn’t get it, Mantle vs. Mays, how we would change society. There was often music playing in the background. Jefferson Airplane was one of the steady choices. Don’t you want somebody to love…Don’t you need somebody to love…until the energy ran out, at maybe 2 or 3 in the morning.

I confess. I miss those dorm room-late night-late 60’s freewheeling bull sessions.

Arguing makes us sharper. We get to actually hear our ideas once they leave our mouth, and we get to see how others react to them. We know when we hit a bull’s-eye and when we missed the target completely. If the argument is important to us, we take it and hone it. Maybe we search for statistical back up or expert testimony. Argument, (unlike its benign cousin, discussion), is a contact sport. It establishes our intellectual and verbal superiority (temporary though it may be) over others or shows us where we need improve in order to hold our own. It burns brain fat and replaces it with muscle.

Shannon O’Brien ran for governor of Massachusetts. There were several debates where she faced her Republican rival, Mitt Romney. I knew right away that I would never vote for her, because I didn’t like the way she argued. She was extremely condescending toward Mitt. I couldn’t get passed that. I wasn’t crazy about Mitt, but he argued in an intelligent, respectful manner. He went on to become a disappointing Governor, who used the office as a stepping-stone to run for president, which occasionally made me wonder about the wisdom of my vote, but thinking back to her irritating, cheap trick, winking at the audience, I knew I was incapable of voting the other way.

I grew up with the television show, Firing Line, where William F. Buckley Jr. took on all comers. I never saw anyone lay a glove on him. I often hear people being called eloquent, when they are really just articulate. Buckley was eloquent.

In my last year of college, I sat in a packed auditorium listening to him speak. He spoke at length and then took questions. One after another, students and faculty rose, went to an aisle microphone and asked their questions. I don’t think most of them were really interested in Buckley's answer. Lots of the questions were not really questions, but thinly disguised arguments. Each questioner wanted to go one round with the champ. Each wanted to show he belonged in the ring with him. It was very hot in the room that night. The champ took off his jacket, loosened his tie, unbuttoned the top button of his white shirt and continued doing his thing. When the time was up, he invited those who did not get their turn at the mic, and those spectators who hadn't gotten their fill, to join him in a smaller room for more verbal jousting. I couldn’t go, so I don’t know when it ended. My guess: 2 or 3 in the morning.

My favorite television arguers, whether on the left or the right, are highly intelligent, considerate types who don’t interrupt even the rudest diatribes. In my book, Pat Buchanan, George Will, David Brooks, Peggy Noonan, E.J. Dionne, Arianna Huffington, and Frank Rich are among the best of the best. I especially enjoy watching George Will as the blood vessels in his forehead seem about to explode while waiting politely for Katrina vanden Heuvel to complete her argument.

But as enjoyable as it is to be a spectator to world class arguing, it doesn’t provide the joy and exhilaration of being a participant. I wish my 60’s dorm room was a movable feast. Maybe it is. Maybe I just haven’t figured out how to move it.

I think if more of us argued openly, often, and well, we’d have fewer problems. When you think about it, the anti-war movement in the 60’s conducted one big boiling argument, taking place around family dinner tables, in the streets, around the world, and showing up on the 6 o'clock news. And, in the end, it was that argument that ended the war. Too simplistic? Not to me.

And by the way, Mantle was better – arguably.

P.S. Sorry if you were mislead by the title. This was all about clean fighting and had nothing to do with dirty sex. Maybe later.

1 comment:

  1. I'll never forget the time I watched Buckley debate a blind man who had sailed and written a book on it. The subject of debate was: 'can you truly enjoy the experience of sailing if you are blind?' Unbelievable. The audacity!

    Buckley won the debate easily.

    I agree with this post strongly, but people must be civil and keep a firm grip on their egos.


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