Americanizing The Oxford Debate

Jan 23 2013 @ 2:28pm

Clare Malone reports on the popularity of the Intelligence Squared podcast, which was inspired by England’s Oxford debates:

The Brits like their debates cutting (conservative London Mayor and Oxford Union alumnus Boris Johnson once said of the rival Lib Dems that they’re “not just empty. They are a void within a vacuum surrounded by a vast inanition”), and so Britannia’s version of Intelligence Squared is, like a country garden or Rebekah Brooks’s hair, a bit untamed. British hosts announce each speaker politely, then let the snark and the savaging go on unchecked.

Intelligence Squared U.S. takes its civic duty with more gravitas. The idea is that American attitudes have grown more entrenched and insular thanks to the Internet and to TVs with more than three channels. “We want to help people understand the facts behind the emotion,” [Robert] Rosenkranz [who brought the debate series tothe US] explained to an interviewer when the show launched. “Force people to have a greater respect for civil discourse, not trying to be bland, but appreciating how complicated the issues are.” The result lacks some of the gladiatorial fun of its British cousin.

Well, without the gladiatorial fun, I might as well watch “Killer Karaoke”. But on a more serious note, go watch Killer Karaoke. You should fast-forward through the filler dialogue the way you would America’s Funniest Home Videos’. The rest is belly-achingly funny. On a “gravitas” note, my own time debating at Oxford was full of jokes and brutal humor and attack (with Boris among others). But we all drank until we were shitfaced afterwards. Maybe Americans cannot quite master that trick, because it took centuries of alcoholic arguments to develop. But Intelligence Squared is as good a substitute as any.

(Video: Stephen Fry slaps around the Catholic Church over its history with slavery during a “Fry/Hitchens/Widdecomb/Onaiyekan debate at Intelligence Squared, on the motion, ‘The Catholic church is a force for good in the world'”)