Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Legend of the Knockout Blow in Debates

I just watched the 2011 English Leaders debates on CBC, streaming live on the internet with viewer commentary. When the debates finished, I was excited. For the first time in a long while, I saw the people on stage talking instead of shouting at each other. It was civil and thoughtful.

More than this, as an avowed enemy of Stephen Harper, I was excited. I had the powerful impression that he had lost the debate. Online polls suggested that people were impressed and surprised by the performances of Jack Layton and Michael Ignatieff. By contrast, Harper spoke plainly, rarely to his opponents and habitually into the camera, never allowing himself to become excited, but making himself a total bore in the process.

Then, a few hours later, I started clicking news stories about the debate. As the spin wheeled forth, I began to seriously question my sanity. The debate these political pundits described bore no relation to the one I had seen. They described a debate in which an unflustered Stephen Harper, for six minutes, sparred with his opponent, Michael Ignatieff, and won the debate because he didn't allow himself to lose his cool. And Jack Layton made some off-colour remarks. The end.

I began to pack my bag for a lengthy stay at one of Saskatchewan's fine mental institutions. Clearly, my perception of events was deeply flawed and it was only a matter of time before little glowing gnomes appeared in my peripheral vision and started telling me to stalk Miley Cirus. But then I remembered, and with a huge sigh of relief I exclaimed, "Oh yeah! The media have their heads up their collective asses!"

The source of the madness claiming that Stephen Harper won the debate is the Legend of the Knockout Blow. You see, a long time ago, there was a magic man with a big chin. Giant-chin-man once had a debate with a man who patted women's bums and all the mooses and beavers came to see them talk. (A godless commie was also in the debate, but nobody remembers him). Until the debate, the Bum-patter was very popular. Then, Giant-chin-man said, "You had an option, sir!" and Bum-patter sputtered and gibbered and all the forest creatures cheered, "Hurray!" and made the magic man their Viceroy of Evil.

Since that day in 1984, the media have been hungering for another Knockout Blow. Every election, political commentators judge the performance of our politicians by saying, "So-and-so failed to deliver a Knockout Blow, so therefore the other guy won!"

It's been 30 years since Mulroney's Knockout Blow on John Turner. None other has occurred. It is time to stop expecting our politicians to deliver them, because they don't happen. It is nice to hope for them, but madness to expect them.

Every year except this one, the media consortium that governs the leaders' debates has tried to encourage Knockout Blows by presenting debate formats that glorify sound-bite politics, giving each person very little time to present their case. It's always devolved into candidates shouting over each other, trying to deliver the Knockout Blow. Finally we have a format that is inspiring thoughtful debate with minimal interruptions. Please, let's stick to it and junk this childish yearning for something that happens less often than a blue moon.

So, now that we've gotten that out of the way, allow me to indoctrinate you with the correct version of events, free from the intellectual shackles of Knockout-blowism. Ignatieff was sensible but stiff. Layton was lively and funny, which is surprising because he's sucked so hard in debates-past. Duceppe was likeable but irrelevant.

And Harper was a huge snore with his beady eyes searing into the camera and droning away on his dull talking-points. He started off the debate boring, then was a little more boring midway-through, then varied his act by being insensere. Then he bored us during the healthcare debate and finished with words of inspiration in his closing remarks: inspirational only because they inspired me to check my watch and restlessly tap my foot. In conclusion, if I hadn't known that Stephen Harper was onstage I would have sworn that a giant, boring black hole had opened above the soundstage and was sucking anything interesting or exciting into a vast parallel universe of tedium and deflected questions.

But whatever, this is Canada and we like our politicians boring, so maybe he did better than I thought. There's no accounting for some tastes, eh hosers?

Oh yeah, and while I am truly anti-Harper and cringe at the idea of the Green Party splitting the vote further, Elizabeth May should have been there. And I'm also sick of the media casting every election as a simplistic black/white two-way battle when there are in fact five major parties competing for our vote. But those issues are for another rant.

Remember: Anybody but Harper. For the love of God and your democracy, anybody but Harper.