The newberrys are in season for one weekend only. Yes, this weekend saw the 26th annual Newberry Library book fair, home of the famous Bughouse Square debates. Back before we were all afraid of crazy people ranting in a public park, Washington Square was home to soapbox debaters of every stripe. The red scare killed the tradition off until the library reinstated the atmosphere in 1986 with an annual event continuing to this day.
This year, the mainstage event was a back-and-forth over the recently repealed ban on owning handguns in the city of Chicago. Unfortunately, the main debate wasn’t much of one. It seems both the NRA and the gun control crowd chose emotional figureheads to represent themselves, instead of skilled advocates.
Otis McDonald, the man who brought the case that ended the Chicago Handgun Ban, basically admitted to those gathered that he allowed himself to be a tool for the pro-gun crowd in his defense of the Second Amendment. Describing the genesis of the case, which was recently decided in his favor by the Supreme Court, McDonald said he teamed up with them merely to have the ability to protect his own home, in a neighborhood he described as being run by gang members.
On the gun control side was Garrett Evans, a victim of the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. Don’t get me wrong, having what we in J school called “real people” give a personal spin to the dry matters of policy are essential to telling the story. But the two “debaters” had not one compelling stat or argument between them. Seemingly in order to foster the debate that was so clearly lacking onstage, the moderators allowed the group to chime in early, during Evans’ rebuttal and well before the designated Q&A time.
It appeared to me that there were several groups only here for this very moment. I imagined them, embittered by Chicago’s angry reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision, rolling in from the suburbs to defend their NRA membership. Angry men bellowed at the former Tech student, with one self-proclaimed police officer making a cyclical argument about how he won’t be able to protect people if gang members shoot him down first. A pre-teen girl went up to the front and screamed something about having the right to protect herself from the “gang bangers” at school, as her parents exchanged a prideful look. One man cryptically asked if we’d like to see a return to slavery. It was getting ugly, and still no one had made a valid point in the whole “discussion.”
The emcee eventually declared that this debate could go on until the end of time, so the audience was unleashed upon the crazy loons on their soapboxes. Three were placed in different spots in Washington Square and each ranter was given 15 minutes to try to convince a boisterous crowd that their opinion was the right one.
The most entertaining was local activist Rachel Goodstein, who had as her catch phrase, “You know, and I know: Mayor Daley has got to go!” People were chanting along with her by the end. A gifted union organizer whom I’ve interviewed on a couple of strike/protest occasions, Leah Fried, was both very convincing and very pregnant, speaking on the topic of what labor unions do right and what they don’t. Rob Sherman ended his railing against taxpayers subsidizing religious projects by encouraging his audience to black out the deity on the “In God We Trust” motto on our currency.
On the conservative side, both the evangelist and the tea partier were disappointingly boring. I only really participated at the debate about whether or not conservatives (specifically Sarah Palin) could be feminists. Nona Willis Aronowitz argued that women who personally believe abortion and gay marriage should be illegal can be feminists but politicians who work toward that end cannot. “What about voting?” I asked. “For example: Isn’t a person voting on Prop 8 working toward a restriction of gay rights?” She wavered and didn’t answer the question, so as she was winding down, I asked her again and then she agreed with me. Repetition, folks.
Did I mention that this is also a book fair? I bought a (possibly signed) copy of Don’t Make No Waves, Don’t Back No Losers by Milton Rakove for $4, Backlash by Susan Faludi for $3 and Catherine Drinker Bowen’s biography of Supreme Court Justice Wendell Holmes for a buck. I went minimal with fiction, purchasing short story collections of Herman Melville and Thomas Mann for $1 and 50 cents, respectively. A pretty good haul, all told.