Jailhouse If you were wondering what people did for entertainment before the internet was invented, pick up a history book, preferably one written by Dr Martin Jehne of the University of Dresden. According to him, political debates in ancient Rome were conducted with a harshness that would make most modern trolls sound wussy. The difference, however, was that even the most savage rottweilers in ancient times had to play by the rules, unlike modern netizens.
“Politicians ruthlessly insulted each other. At the same time, in the popular assembly, they had to let the commoners insult them without being allowed to return the abuse – an outlet that, in a profound division of rich and poor, limited the omnipotent fantasies of the elite," says Jehne.
The best part was that both the politicians and the public had a sense of proportion and the former were sensible enough not to take the abuse at face value. I think any comparison with social media is misleading because the Romans used hard data, common sense and cold facts to counter a baying mob.
Here what can you say when someone screams MC while you are quoting BC?
According to Prof Jehne's research, withstanding and overcoming insults can ultimately have a politically stabilising effect. For instance, Cicero (106-43 BC) accused Clodius of incest, a practice which carried the death penalty. Clodius, in turn, accused Cicero of acting like a king when holding the position of consul. The noble art of debate soared to great heights in imperial Rome, but is sadly absent in the one area in which it could do the most good: Parliament.
How often have our elected representatives sparkled in debating the key issues of our times? Occasionally, an Arun Shourie will come up with a fizzy "Congress + Cow" zinger but for the most part, cold facts and solid arguments in the Lok Sabha are as rare as central heating in the North Pole.
Think of Mamta with her clunky, "I will make rosogolla with bricks." Eeeuww, get a life, gal. Some years ago I nervously ventured to try out for the Loyola Debating Society and was accosted by a beetle-browed bouncer at the entrance. "WTF do you think you're going?" demanded the hairy one, whereupon I meekly responded with, "The debating trials, Sir." "We set very high standards, I'm the President," he added, quite unnecessarily in my opinion. "Well in that case, the standards can't be all that high," I replied whereupon he offered to re-shape my features. I didn't advance my case when I wondered aloud whether I had come to the boxing club trials by mistake but Bhutto (!), the hairy one and I have been firm friends ever since.
Which brings me to my final point: last month, a debate team of three inmates with violent criminal records destroyed Harvard. If that sounds like a fantasy ripped from an unwritten Zoya Akhtar screenplay, banish the thought and stop assuming. First off, we presume criminals are dumb, incapable of research, lacking in the forensic skills to articulate a nuanced viewpoint and just generally, not in the same league as Ivy, if you will forgive a dreadful pun. Not true, dude. The guys who broke out of the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora earlier this year proved that jailbirds are not just smart, but a hell of a lot more capable than those on the outside.
The debate was held at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison near Bard College. When the judges announced the verdict, the losers posted on Facebook, "There are few teams we are prouder of having lost to, than the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team we faced this weekend and we are incredibly thankful to Bard for the work they do in organizing this event."
Personally the prison team's real achievement is that they did it the old-fashioned way with no internet access. That, plus the added restriction that any research material had to be approved by the authorities, a process that could take as long as filing a GST return. Chew on that, especially if the topic is, "This house believes that all states have a right to nuclear weapons." One takeaway: lack of resources is the mother of all invention and helps frame a superior argument. Incidentally the inmates debated the West Point Military team back in 2014 and kicked their ass. The Harvard team was caught off guard and blown away by the totally radical approach adopted by their opponents.
The prison team is enrolled at Bard College which started this initiative in 1999 to counter the 1994 law passed by Bill Clinton that banned federal Pell Grant funding for prison education. This guy is something: he gives Monica a book of Walt Whitman's poems for her birthday and shuts down the only program that gives jailbirds a chance.and folks wonder why Trump got elected....