Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bar Debates: Death of an American Genre

I thought the All-Star Game "This Time It Counts," brought to you by a one minutes Taco Bell commercial, "they're all about the Roosevelts," would be an appropriate moment to throw out a word or two on the death of argumentation in the US, the highest form of which was once the drunken bar debate. Seriously. Only a scant few years ago, if you wanted to say that Hank Aaron was the greatest player ever, you had better back that up with facts, man.

Now, however, the line of argument runs something like this:
1) Hank Aaron is the greatest baseball player ever.
2) People who do not agree with #1 are filthy ignoramuses.
3) The author of CCC is a filthy ignoramus.

I know, that's ridiculous, but that basic formulation seems to be the bedrock of most political discourse in the country and it has infected everything from Congressional hearings to ESPN. Opinions are passed off as facts and ideological labels are used to bludgeon dialogue into neat little boxes from which no real thought can escape.

People talk past each other and no one listens. There is no argument because no one is trying to prove anything. Debatable issues are presented as non-negotiable facts, adjectives standing in for entire arguments. The attitude is that if you are on the opposite side of the aisle from me you have nothing to contribute to the conversation because my logic, as outlined above, is fairly airtight. Instead of teasing out different issues and trying to get to the bottom of things, answering questions like "By what standard is Aaron best player ever?," anyone who questions #1 is automatically thrust into the category of undesirables.

I think the reason a lot of sportswriters feel threatened by the blogosphere is that they have been blogging, in print, for quite some time, just spouting half-baked opinions without backing them up. Their only claim to authority is that they are in print and blogs aren't. Note that you don't hear people who cover politics carping in a similar fashion. They all just started blogging. The comments sections on those things are full of idiots spewing venom at each other that they'd never have the cajones to say around their mother, much less to the faces of the people they are throwing it at.

Which brings me back to bar arguments. When I was younger I used to genuinely like throwing back a few beers and hammering at different political issues with folks I knew. These days that's all preempted by the tripartite argument above. No one argues openly and honestly with anyone else because anyone who disagrees with them is the ignorant spawn of Satan.

And means we'll never hammer out who's the best baseball player ever, much less the more important issues of the day.


  1. I agree with you when you say that people are more entrenched in their viewpoints than ever before. I see that in my job whenever someone calls to air a grievance about something that was written. Very rarely do they pause and say, "well, I see your point" or something similar. All they want to do is vent. They don't want to be persuaded, or (*gasp*) proven wrong.

    And also I see that more present regarding whatever political topic you want to address. We have gridlock in our state government in New York because the Republicans and Democrats are petty babies who don't remember or don't care who voted for them.

    On another point, I'm a sportswriter, and I don't feel threatened by bloggers. We have at least three card bloggers who write for newspapers, and two who are in the sportswriting business. I wouldn't be doing this if I felt threatened by it (I know you said "a lot of sportswriters" not all).

    From a traditional sportswriter standpoint, I think the difference between a sportswriter doing a column and a blogger (who is unconnected to traditional media) writing an opinion is a sportswriter often is a beat writer, there at every game, talking to players and coaches, seeing the fans, talking to management. They have insight.

    Now, there are some sportswriters who are allowed to spout off about whatever sports topic they want even if they don't cover the topic they are addressing. As an editor, I won't allow that in my department. If you're going to write an opinion about something in the newspaper, you better damn well cover the team so you can back up your yapping.

    As for Aaron being the best ballplayer. I don't know. I don't think anyone has ever known who the best is.

    Sorry for the long response.

  2. Night owl,

    Thanks for the thoughtful response! It's reassuring to know there are editors out there holding people's feet to the fire. I'd forgotten you were in the paper business. Also good to know there are other folks in papers who out there blogging. I was thinking of some of the national writers who have absolutely lost their minds about the blogosphere when you'd think it'd be no threat at all.

    You're right. I imagine that beat writers are almost a different species than the columnists, and one of the things I've dug since I was a kid are the bullet-point vignettes in the paper that come from someone standing in a locker room asking questions. Another story, I went out with a friend to watch the Rays in the first game of the Series last year and the beat reporter showed up to get some quotes from fans and Durham Bulls players at the bar we were at. Wish I had a better quote (d'oh) but he did an amazing job.

    I compare that to, say, some of the syndicated people who seem to have forgotten what they learned in Freshman Composition, must less their j-school courses. It's even worse when they go on TV and start screaming at each other. We need less of them and more people doing ole fashion reporting and analysis!

    Anyway, thank again for the response, and I hope things in NY turn around soon!

  3. Tris Speaker is the greatest player ever. Case closed and argument over. Ha... great column, very well written. we need to find a find a bar halfway between here and there and pound a few beers some day!