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Guest Post: Fighting the Real Enemy—Apathy

My dad—Warren Budd—has never been shy.

Loud and boisterous, when you meet him he’s happy to share his stories and opinions with you, and he wants to hear yours. One of his stories—from his college debate team sixty years ago—may add something to our current national conversation.

Can we allow each other, especially our young people, to think for ourselves and argue in good faith?

The subject comes up in an online space I frequent, where trained volunteers address our national crisis of polarization.

There, conservatives and liberals alike were troubled by a recent story, featured mostly in conservative media (and indeed within the discussion group, more reds than blues weighed in). Apparently, if you want your teenager to hone her debating skills through critical thinking and argument, the last place you should send her is the National Speech & Debate Association (NSDA)—“the national authority on public speaking and debate,” according to their website.

In a strange twist that seems contrary to the core principals of debate, high school debaters face penalties for defending positions opposed by the debate judges.

Am I a fuddy duddy, or does that sort of defeat the purpose?

One of several judges mentioned in the story is 2019 NSDA champion Lila Lavender. Right before a contest, debaters can check out her “paradigm”—essentially her judging criteria—on the NSDA database Tabroom:

“Before anything else, including being a debate judge, I am a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist… I will no longer evaluate and thus never vote for rightest capitalist-imperialist positions/arguments… Examples: fascism good, capitalism good, imperialist war good, neoliberalism good, defenses of US or otherwise bourgeois nationalism, Zionism or normalizing Israel, colonialism good, US white fascist policing good, etc.”

News of Lavender’s and other judges’ unabashed bias in judging seems to have elicited yawns in most of the media. I’ve only seen a handful of writers cover it. Jonah Goldberg addressed it with his characteristic wit:

“…calling yourself a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist may not be as disqualifying as calling yourself German National Socialist, but it’s close enough. By body count alone, the ideologies are at best a wash, with the Marxist-Leninist-Maoists ahead on points. …But when it comes to the spirit of liberalism in general and free speech in particular, declaring yourself a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist is substantively no different than declaring yourself a Nazi. It’s certainly an open declaration against liberalism properly understood. And illiberal debate societies aren’t really a thing.”

For unique insight on the debate about debates, I gave my dad a call.

A proud lifelong conservative from Georgia, Warren Budd served four years as chairman of the Coweta County Republicans and was appointed by Governor Sonny Perdue to serve on the Board of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR). He became DNR vice-chairman and was expected to become chairman before the next governor, Nathan Deal, had him booted off the agency for opposing bad environmental policies.

It was not the first time his strong stances had cost him.

In the 1970s, Budd and fellow outdoorsman Taylor Glover met Atlanta media mogul Ted Turner in a duck blind. While hunting with Turner, Budd generously shared his opinions. Glover, meanwhile, focused on the ducks.

Glover ended up becoming Turner’s stockbroker and now enjoys a net worth of around $100 million, while Budd never made it into Turner’s Rolodex.

Freedom to express views has always been non-negotiable for Warren Budd—not just his own, but his opponent’s. It was the latter priority that nearly cost him his graduation from college in 1965.

During his junior year at the University of Georgia, Budd served as chief justice of a prestigious debate club—the Phi Kappa Literary Society. His friend James Baine was the club’s president.

“In those days, UGA was not the academic institution it is now,” according to Budd. “If you could fog a mirror you could graduate. We liked to have cutting-edge guests to awaken a sleeping campus.”

“What we were fighting was not liberalism but apathy.”

Guests like Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr., future Governor Lester Maddox, and Gen. Edwin A. Walker. Phi Kappa’s student leaders were committed to challenging the most controversial ideas—in person, face to face, with a live audience and the freedom to ask questions.

The Phi Kappa Society invited Gus Hall, general secretary of the Communist Party-USA, to debate one of their economics professors. In 1960s Georgia, segregationists were an easier sell than communists. Governor Herman Talmadge had described Hall as “a Russian-trained revolutionary who has openly boasted that he would take up arms to overthrow the United States government.” UGA President O.C. Aderhold denied Phi Kappa permission to host the debate.

Phi Kappa stirred up a protest and were rebuked by Aderhold for attempting to create a “sideshow” and “riot.” After Budd’s letter to the editor was published in the Atlanta Journal, he and Baine were interviewed on Atlanta television station WSB. The story made the national wires. Yale University had just hosted a debate with Hall. Baine went to President Aderhold and boldly told him that UGA was looking like an embarrassment to the nation. Aderhold eventually granted permission to hold a non-debate event with a less prominent communist.

Students packed the debate hall to hear a speech from the Third Secretary of the Soviet Union’s embassy in New York.

According to Budd, “The event was very orderly. A heated debate but not disrespectful. People in the audience asked questions. They got to express their views, and to hear another point of view. There was none of this, ‘We’re cancelled,’ or ‘We’re going to have a fainting spell because we heard another point of view.’ A big part of education is hearing different perspectives.”

When I asked about support from the campus newspaper, Mr. Budd recalled, “The Red and Black did not like us because we invited these way-out people. We felt they should have a free exchange of ideas and were going to go to the mat with them over it.”

The paper’s editorial page, following news of the cancellation, is case in point:

The letter from Arnold Johnson, U.S. Communist Party information chief, giving official acceptance of Phi Kappas’ debate invitation, was a shifty move on the part of the Reds, who in the midst of all the hullabaloo about denial of academic freedom, etc., have been elbowed out of the limelight by university administrators and faculty committees and letters-to-the-editor writers.

It had started looking like the commies were the “good guys” and O.C. Aderhold and Daniel Sorrells the “bad guys.”

The letter of acceptance, addressed to the Phi Kappa president, looks innocent enough on the surface. But it is dated Oct. 9, precisely two days after the quelching (sic.) of plans for the debate had spread around the nation via the AP and UPI wire services.

It is hard to believe that the communists were so far out of touch with the turmoil their tentative appearance was causing on campus that they did not get the word they had been blackballed two days earlier.

Certainly it was a mistake to reject the Reds so unequivocally, but the zealous champions of academic freedom on campus would do well to remember that some of their more irrational statements are hot copy for Communist propagandists.

Let’s don’t forget who the real “bad guys” are.

But the paper also mentions letters “too numerous to print,” such as the following:

The youth of America are constantly being urged to take a stand against Communism. How can we take such a stand unless we know what we are fighting? Most of us know Communism only through newspapers, books, and other second-hand and sometimes misinformed media.

What we need is to see a communist in action. Contrary to the published belief, it could prove to be an awakening and a stimulus toward greater pride in our hard-won democratic principles.

—Lucibeth Harrison, June Edgens

Warren Budd is about as far from a communist as anyone I’ve ever known. Still, I asked if anyone could have accused him of giving communists a platform?

“I don’t think these ideas have merit, but a huge segment of the population buys into it," he told me. “You can’t stamp out an idea with suppression. The only way to deal with it is to bring it to light and to point out its deficiencies. History is replete with movements that governments have tried to stamp out.”

I inquired as to what questions curious students, like Harrison and Edgens, brought to the Communist secretary.

“They asked him about liberty, restrictions of basic rights in the Soviet Union, etc. He came back with how we treated Blacks and Indians. He was pretty sharp. I remember that. It was lively. They were polite, but it was a lively discussion, I can tell you that,” he answered.

Did the secretary’s words influence him at all?

“No. He valued economic security over everything and I value liberty over everything. I’m with Patrick Henry—give me liberty or give me death.”

With respect to the current high school debate judges, he expressed surprise that there isn’t “more pushback.”

I reassured him that there was pushback. But writing this article made me aware of a remarkable dearth, especially from the left, and those who identify as “liberal.” It’s struck me as odd because I don’t see suppression of ideas as liberal, but illiberal.

Illiberalism, shutting down honest debate instead of fairly examining ideas, can backfire. Positions considered acceptable and even laudable one season may be intolerable the next, and vice-versa. In such an atmosphere, how do we know when people adopt positions out of their true convictions and not because they are submitting to pressure? And if the latter, where does that lead when ideological winds shift, as they inevitably do? Warren Budd points out that the struggle at UGA was not between liberals and conservatives.

“What we were fighting was not liberalism but apathy.”

I would expect debaters to prefer facing uncomfortable ideas as the Phi Kappa students did—with curiosity and reason.

Gandy Glover, Jimmy Carter and Warren Budd, around 2015, at the 10th Anniversary of Flint Riverkeeper

In the early ‘70s, Budd worked with his good friend Gandy Glover on saving the Flint River, and became acquainted with then-Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter.

They disagreed on politics but bonded over love for the environment.

I’d like to see more of this.

One of many things I appreciate about my dad is that he has always held his own passionate views while teaching us—I’m the oldest of five—to think for ourselves. Our family is politically varied, but we do our best to help each other see issues from varying perspectives.

Last month a large crowd of us convened in Wilmore, KY, to see him graduate from Asbury Theological Seminary at age 81. Among those of us who made the trip to support him was his sister Lillian and her husband George “Buddy” Darden. Lillian and Buddy met as students at UGA, just a few years behind my dad, at a debate event. Buddy was debating as a member of Phi Kappa’s rival club—the Demosthenian Literary Society. He would go on to become a U.S. congressman in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Buddy is a Democrat, so you can imagine the spirited discussions that would take place around the Thanksgiving table. At some point my grandfather had to limit political conversation at family gatherings to keep the peace.

It’s unlikely they would have solved any of our problems in that context anyway. But note the fact that they continued to eat together and to support each other—the Republican family attended the Democratic congressman’s victory party—and the Democrat drove miles with his family to celebrate the Republican’s graduation milestone.

It is sad that we don’t see more of this.

But there are still people making these choices, to value relationships across the divide. Such relationships hold our country together. There are still people choosing to see the best in each other, to put in the work toward greater understanding and mutual respect.

I have long felt that, for most of us, our political formation is far more informed by our families than we allow ourselves to believe. We either strive to reinforce our sense of belonging within our own tribe, or we rebel. Or a mix of the two. But the influence is inescapable.

My own journey—condensed—took me from conservative evangelical Georgia to liberal bubbles in New York, the performing arts (opera), and Vassar College, where I teach voice. These are very different worlds in many ways, but I love people in both of them—fiercely. And I love the very things that make them different.

I only hope we don’t lose sight of those things we have in common.

I will go out on a limb to state my suspicion that today’s high school debate judges really do care about free speech, but there is something else at work. Might it be possible that today’s debate judges can learn from the Phi Kappas? And that some of us can take a closer look beneath the assumptions we make about those judges? Maybe in their own way they share the belief that their real fight is against apathy.

Let’s not lose our tradition of doing our utmost to understand the arguments of our opponents. Let’s start by listening to each other’s stories.

Daddy, I’m proud of you.

For an update to the original story on high school debates, check out the sequel article, published today, June 26th.


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