The Value of Debate
Christopher Hitchens died yesterday. I'm not going to attempt to memorialize the man or his work because others far better than me have already done it. Instead, I’m just going to say that a major reason why Hitchens was so great was that he was honest and he was himself. He couldn’t be contained or categorized. Too often, we try to affix a label to every single person so that we can judge them based on a sentence or less.
Hitchens was too smart for that.
Like the vast majority of us, he was a little bit of everything. Liberal? Well, he was a well-known atheist, so maybe. However, he was also in favor of the invasion of Iraq, which most people would say is conservative. Like every human on the planet, he had many opinions, some of which were inconsistent and, unlike far too many famous people, he was honest about it.
I’m what many people would call a liberal – I believe in evolution, global warming, gender- and race-equality and don’t wear cowboy boots. However, I work in finance and am much, much more fiscally conservative than many other self-proclaimed liberals that I’ve encountered. As such, when the #Occupy movement was born, I was conflicted.
On one hand, I agree with certain tenants – there is too much wealth concentrated amongst the richest people in America; those responsible for the housing and banking collapse should be tried in a court of law; and something needs to be done to make things, just, easier for the majority of us. However, I disagreed strongly with the movement too – no one forced people to buy homes they couldn’t afford and if you don’t realize that your salary at Cosi won’t cover the cost of a 12-bedroom home, you don’t deserve to own a home. Also, when I saw the protesters claiming that their student loans should be forgiven, I was livid. I’m currently under a mountain of student loan debt that I have been chipping away at (when not adding to it) for nearly a decade. Why should their loans be forgiven? Will I be reimbursed for everything that I paid (including interest)? I’m not a Marxist, but if they get that break, I should get it too.
It’s no secret that the generation behind me was coddled. The offspring of the later babyboomers (who were far more interested in being liked than being actual parents), these are the kids that were never told no, didn’t have scoreboards at their sporting events, always received a trophy, and were told that each and every one of them were our most precious resource and were as special and unique as a snowflake.
I disagree. As Bill Maher once said, “I promise you, our most precious resource is petroleum.”
I’m painting with a broad brush and if Christopher Hitchens taught us anything, it’s that doing so is dangerous. I know there were smart, independent, hard-working people that occupied cities across the world. Not all were the lazy hipsters they were portrayed to be. Just like any race, gender or ethnicity they had a little bit of everything, from smart and capable individuals to douchebags and assholes.
Besides, the result is not important.
The best thing about the movement was that it forced people to face the issue, whether they agreed or disagreed. I enjoyed sitting at lunch with my co-workers, many of whom came from much wealthier families and more distinguished schools than I, debating the merits of the protests and what, if anything, would come of it. More often than not, I was a vocal minority, arguing both legal and moral points with these guys, including my boss and the VP of finance. Afterwards, we went back to work. Nothing changed and nothing had to change but the conversation was more than the usual banter about sports or what happened over the weekend.
The debate, not the result, is where the importance lies.
Anyone that reads my stuff knows that I adore The West Wing, probably because it is an idealized version of how our government should work. One of the running themes of the series is the president’s desire to have a debate on the issues and, if argued convincingly enough, have his mind changed. Quotes like, “When I sleep, I dream about a great discussion with experts and ideas and diction and energy and honesty. And when I wake up, I think, ‘I can sell that,’” and “The President likes smart people who disagree with him,” make me want to open two beers, hand one to my father, and debate key issues with him for hours.
The result won’t matter. At the end, we’ll still be father and son but, if presented correctly, one of us may have our minds changed. Regardless of whether that happens or not, just the fact of the debate itself is the important piece.
Last week, a friend and I drove two hours in the pouring rain from Philly to Manhattan on a Wednesday night to see an author speak. I didn’t do this for Drew Magary or Jay-Z or Howard Stern or John Grisham. So, what author could inspire this kind of dedication?
Never heard of him, right? Well, he’s made and lost millions, has appeared on television and is the author of a smart and soul-bearing blog. Most of all, he raises the level of debate. He says that having a newborn is, “the worst thing possible,” he advocates that you quit your job and we should abolish the presidency, and perhaps most shockingly, he thinks college is bullshit.
I don’t agree with some (perhaps many) of the things that he writes, but it’s clear that he is an extremely intelligent person that has lived a full and eventful life, has knowledge and advice to share and, most importantly, is totally honest. His writing raises the level of debate more than virtually every other person writing on the internet today. His posts and stance on issues create a firestorm of comments and, occasionally, even lead to death threats. That’s when you know you’ve touched a nerve and people are talking.
My list of to-read books and articles grows at an astronomical rate but this weekend I’m going to take the time to read as much Hitchens as possible and watch some of his debates on YouTube. I’ve read and seen a great deal of his stuff but, in truth, it’s not enough. Now that he’s gone, I feel it’s a proper tribute. After that, I may go to Altucher or somewhere else to get my brain flowing with ideas and concepts. Then, I’m going to try to debate people.
Hand me a beer.
Pierzy writes a weekly NBA column during the season, as well as columns revolving around other sports, hip-hop, movies, TV shows, food, beer, marriage, and so many other topics. You can follow him on Twitter here.