Does Ted Cruz Represent American Debate?

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...
speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on February 10, 2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It is no surprise that the media have dug deep into Ted Cruz's life and discovered he was a college debater. Many articles, such as this one and also this are out there. There's no shortage. Most of them mention that Cruz was a debater and speech champion, and that he was noticeably very smart, if a bit weird.

Reaction to this within the American debate community is also weird, and not noticeably smart. Most of the reactions are predictable. Over at the Facebook forum for American policy debate, they highlight that he participated in parliamentary debate, in order to protect themselves from whatever horror this information brings up.

From APDA, the organization that Cruz competed in, no comment. It might not be planned to be so quiet. APDA is a very insular and inward looking organization. They focus on the here and now, and that's tournament planning and competition.

Both reactions are sad. Both reactions miss a great opportunity to communicate to the general public the nature of competitive debate at the university level, and its importance in the world.

You could say that this makes about as much sense as little league of america having a press conference to defend youth participation in baseball every time a player is arrested or accused of using illegal drugs. But baseball (and other sports) are well insulated from bad news. Most people understand the connection between the act of playing baseball and what benefits it brings, and the acts of professional players and how they have little do to with the art, or activity, of baseball altogether.

This is not the case with debate, which is not understood by the general public to be like baseball or even remotely like an art. Most people who have not participated in debating in any formal sense might see it as a showcase for those who are gifted in misrepresentation, lying, and manipulation. They probably think that debate is for those who like playing with meaning in order to obscure solutions and truth. In short, they probably see it as the opposite of the baseball situation - they see someone like Cruz as the obvious member and/or product of collegiate debating.

But does he represent collegiate American debate? Unfortunately, it appears as if he does. If no organization steps forward to speak to what debate is like at the college level, Cruz will be the face of debating for quite some time. The silence and the silly distancing based on something as flimsy as format won't help debate take advantage of the moments when it appears in the media. Debaters and debate organizations need to learn how to be saavy with intervention when these moments arise. Debate in America is losing huge opportunities to tell their own story, get people interested in what they do, build audiences for tournaments, and most importantly, take a place among the most important and vibrant activities available in American universities today. Here are some suggestions of how to enter the media conversation about Cruz's debating:

Why not compare Cruz's participation in debating - which he was obviously good at and admired for - with Oppenheimer's book about APDA debating? Here we would have a response which shows a range of outcomes for those who participate in debating.

Why doesn't CEDA/NDT use this as an opportunity to highlight what it is they do and contribute through their very different method of competitive debating?

Why doesn't APDA's leadership come forward and discuss the long history of notable people who participated in APDA championships, beyond the TOTY competition (a strange one to highlight to be sure)?

Whether we like Cruz's politics or not, one thing that the media has connected in their stories is his intelligence with his debating. Those in any debate community should be pouncing on this.

Instead, the most formally organized and professionally driven debate format in the US - CEDA/NDT - chooses to distance themselves from Cruz by saying "he didn't do what we do." Not good enough. Defensive positions do not help you gain anything from moments of possible intervention.

A rising tide lifts all boats. This cliche should be the guiding principle when debate enters the news cycle. Instead, we have woefully ignorant comments such as "he did parli and that's just competitive toastmasters." Besides the obvious ignorance displayed here (toastmasters is already, and has always been, competitive) about other American avenues for rhetorical education, why not talk about how Cruz is not representative of the American debating community? This is a chance to highlight diversity, not to highlight how cloistered and stratified we choose to be at moments of controversy. Cruz is a great media moment to take stock of the debate community's true values. Will they stay silent while the world takes on the view that this is representative of what college debaters are like?

The last time something like this happened was the publication of Karl Rove's autobiography, in which he discussed participating in NDT/CEDA style debating and how it made him into the political mind he became later in life. This set off a panicked discussion on the national list about how to distance or detract from Rove's claims. Of course, nothing came of it, and the story faded from the national mind. Or did it? Here we are again with Ted Cruz, about to again reinforce, through willful silence, the idea that debate is just for those who love to manipulate and obscure things. We have many counter examples. But even more important than that - we have another chance to talk about competitive debating with the public that we are letting slip away.
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