In the American political experience, debates often bring out the laughable, the tragic and — more commonly — the ridiculous. Whether it was Bush’s blank and horrifyingly protracted stares into the camera or Dan Quayle’s disastrous effort to embody the spirit of Jack Kennedy, our would-be leaders have always managed to help us appreciate the sillier aspects of public performance.
But if there’s anything that conjures up nostalgia for the past, it’s the sensation that it’s being repeated by even less palatable people. Which is why it was so frustrating to watch the junior party boys on the NatUP campaign, who debated the merits of a Natatorium renovation this past Thursday against a collection of opposed students who call themselves No New Seg Fees.
Convinced of its cause, NatUP and its membership of messianic protomales have taken it upon themselves to lead the crusade for a new facility whose final cost will entail a rise in segregated fees of $54.19 per semester. For 30 years. And while the group measured up well against the hastily mounted response of No New Seg Fees, they still managed to manifest all the verbal grease and dubious integrity of used-car salesmen.
At the debate, NatUP was so eager to give an impression of support that it packed the debate room with around 20 supporters, all wearing the same red NatUp shirts. But intimidation-by-apparel or not, somebody’s been digging into the Natty a little early, because the arguments put forth by the group’s master debaters were wobbly at best.
First, the NatUP folks made the outlandish claim that the greatest recession in our lifetimes is an ideal moment to finance the construction, because recessions lower costs. One member even seemed to revel in the group’s peculiar lexicon of sleaze, claiming repeatedly that, given the recession, the “time for great value is now.” There’s a reason costs decline in recessions, however. It’s because no one spends money in them — and they don’t spend money because they don’t have it.
To argue that dumb behavior somehow magically exempts oneself from every law of economic reality is not only arrogant, it’s the founding premise of reality TV. Students are already struggling to pay for college as it is, and one would be hard-pressed to tell them that professors’ salaries — or their groceries — are less valid concerns than personal fitness training studios.
Additionally, the opposing side was not hesitant to point out that NatUP has made an abysmally limited effort to solicit contributions from donors. The response was characteristically silly — no one wanted to contribute. But no one from the campaign ever specified how hard they looked, and it didn’t seem as though NatUP was that bothered by the burden that would be assumed by students in the complete absence of private aid. Then again, it is much easier to tell oneself consequences don’t exist when someone else winds up on the wrong side of the median.
One of the NatUP representatives also made the grievously dumb statement that concerns about rising tuition were better acted on by voting in the race for governor, because he appoints the Regents who set tuition. Segregated fees, the aspiring politica continued, are not tuition. But sometimes all rectangles really are squares, and gloss is just plain bullshit. Every student pays segregated fees, and those fees have doubled in five years. It is a straightforward lie to parry serious concerns by differentiating between two sums of money, both of which you pay to attend college.
And in that vein, it was really NatUP’s style that left a bad taste. Some arguments were bad, but almost all were obfuscations of the truth. This propensity to distort culminated in the statement that their campaign material weren’t actually telling you how to vote — they were just “giving you the facts.” That’s not debating. That’s assuming every member of your audience ate paint chips as children.
So how did NatUP measure up against the people they intend to rob?
Their preparation was impressive. They spent years gathering information. Their statistics, while not persuasive, were the results of years of research and tens of thousands spent. Even when they misinformed, they did so like the pros. NatUP had even calculated the exact percentage of tuition that their fee increase would represent. And yet for some odd reason, they still needed to pack a room with a gang of pectorially enhanced bros in order to score the point.
Sam Clegg ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in economics.