September 30, 2004

Who won?

When I was nine years old, I watched Nixon and Kennedy debate. I barely had any understanding of what anything was at that time in my life. I remember reading newspaper headlines and puzzling over who this Krushchev was. Somehow I thought Tchaikovsky was the same person. Basically, nothing political made any sense to me. But I got the feeling that the debate was important. My parents--who almost never watched television--watched it intently. So I watched too. Somehow I thought I understood it enough to see that it was a competition, and when it was over, I asked my parents, "Who won?" With their usual amusement at the inadequate comprehension of children, they informed me--making me embarrassed for thinking in such childish terms--that it wasn't the sort of thing that anyone actually won. I hated feeling embarrassed and resolved to try to figure out what the hell the world was all about. Politics was something these adults had a handle on, and I had better get up to speed if I wanted to avoid the dreaded, humiliating condition of embarrassment. Forty-four years later, I hear other people going on and on about who won the presidential debate, and I wish I could send a message back to my nine-year-old self, that lots of people, plenty of whom are adults, think it is a game to be won or lost. I can't do that, but I can turn off the horrible spinning that follows the debate, the embarrassing assertions of partisans hoping to to affect the minds of those who might somehow find themselves in the condition that I found myself in when I was nine years old and looked to the nearest authority figures to tell me who won.

UPDATE; Rereading this post Friday morning miraculously revived an old memory. "Somehow I thought I understood it enough to see that it was a competition," I wrote. But now I remember why I thought that. It wasn't that I was able to perceive that the two men were in a winnable competition, it was that I had heard the commentators speaking over and over about who would win, just as commentators spoke about last night's debate. I aspired to grown-up understanding when I was nine, and I especially wanted my parents to give me credit for it. So I thought I was pretty precocious when I said "Who won?" I was saying what the people on TV were saying, feeling certain that I was speaking like an adult. My parents' instant rejection of my attempt at adulthood was crushing, and I realized that this adulthood business was going to be hard: there was some discrepancy between what the people on TV were saying and what the adults I depended on understood to be true. Embarrassed and bewildered as I was at the time, I can see now that they were teaching a lesson about consuming media that remains useful to this day.

1 comment:

Marcel said...

just reading this today (sept. 20, 2009), and was struck by how sagacious your parents were ... and struck by how sad it is that the reporters got it wrong then and persist to today in getting it wrong. the fact that we cast presidential debates as winnable, rather than as educational, underscores why we have the sorry governance that we do (at state and local as well as federal).