Thursday, May 26, 2005

In The Game

Hello faithful readers. I'd like to take a moment to explain why I blog and what the ultimate point of all this is.

For over a decade I've been off the political grid. Part of this was due to the time I took to write two books (the first of which, "Mr. Mike," required a grueling emotional three years), but mostly I was burned out and dejected. Life on the active left is not for the weak. You run into all manner of madness, and this can push certain people into strange political cul de sacs of their own (when they're not merely out for money or cheap notoriety, like David Horowitz). I needed to clear my head and reexamine my passions, both political and personal. Plus, I had started a family and needed to focus on them. So, after years of articles, debates, talks, speeches, radio, TV and rallies, I walked away and thought that was it.

But the bug stayed with me. Every now and then I'd pop off on someone's comments thread, usually anonymously, and feel as though I got it out of my system -- which of course I hadn't. I constantly read books, mags, papers and ranted around the house. The wife repeatedly suggested that I get back in The Game. It was clear to her that I needed it, and that I was good at it. Which, all modesty aside, I was.

When I performed stand-up comedy I was always nervous. Just me, a mike, my material and a roomful of drunks. This is why I ended up writing for other comics. I couldn't take the pressure onstage. But years later, when I began giving political talks, I felt pretty much at ease. The same was true when I started debating. Whatever anxiety I felt before an event quickly ebbed once I took the podium. I had no formal training, but this didn't matter. And the audiences were, for the most part, informed and attentive, and this fed my desire to share my thoughts and feelings about whatever topic was on the table.

Two people helped me to polish my natural delivery. The first was Jeff Cohen, who at that time was the Executive Director for FAIR. Jeff could be curt, but he was almost always right, and he continually gave me tips on how to make a certain point, how to engage an audience and get them to think differently about an issue. Jeff was/is an excellent speaker and debater. One of the best I've ever seen. He's been thrown into so many hostile environments that you'd think the guy would eventually crack, but he never does. And he has shut down many Beltway bigwigs on their home turf. Once on "Crossfire," Jeff endured a barrage from Pat Buchanan about how the Repubs alone represented American mainstream values. Jeff smiled, looked Buchanan directly in the eye and responded, "Defending [apartheid-era] South Africa and Nazi war criminals is not a mainstream value!" Buchanan stumbled over his tongue. Say what you want about Buchanan, but he's rarely flustered. Yet Jeff tripped him up with little effort.

The other person was of course Christopher Hitchens. Our relationship was much more convoluted, but I got so much out of it. Like Jeff, Christopher was a dynamite speaker, but his real talent emerged in debate. Oxford-trained, he knew so many tricks and had encountered every attack in the book. It was one thing to see him dispose of opponents on TV, but you had to see him live to fully appreciate his mastery.

I don't know how many of his debates I watched. But each time I sank into his performance, analyzing the smallest gestures. The bonus for me was that I got to experience Christopher one-on-one. Many times I riffed politically in his kitchen, and he'd watch and either say, "Go Dennis, keep going," or he'd stop me and suggest I look at this or that topic another way. And he was not a first thought/best thought kind of guy. He instructed me to reject the first thing that came to mind. "Flotsam," he'd say. "Go deeper."

Some think that Christopher and I parted over Iraq, which is partly true. But the real rupture came with this. Even though I told him about the piece as I was writing it, and sent him the draft before it was published, Christopher was thrown, and according to people I know, deeply hurt. That wasn't my intention. I wanted to explore and explain the conflicting feelings I had about his support for Bush and the war, and why he became so virulent with those who disagreed. I thought that if anybody could take what I had to say, it was Christopher. He always told me to not shy away from the truth of an issue, no matter what. This I thought I did. To him, however, it was a knife in the back.

I'm saying all this for two reasons. One, I know that nearly two years after my piece appeared, Christopher is still furious with me. He bad mouths me, gets angry when my name is mentioned, and apparently has trashed me on Australian radio. And while he'll sometimes affect a dismissive air when it comes to me, his anger points to something deeper. He really feels betrayed, and one rarely experiences betrayal from a casual acquaintance.

The second reason is that after hemming and hawing for a few weeks, Christopher has declined to publicly debate me. This is somewhat unusual for him. Christopher's long prided himself as someone who doesn't duck a challenge. So long as his fee is met, he'll engage pretty much anyone, including, if I recall correctly, a Holocaust denier.

But not me.

Friends tell me that Christopher has nothing to gain and everything to lose in a debate with me. I suppose that's true. As I've said, I've been out of The Game for a long time while Christopher's profile has risen to statist heights. But with the advent of this blog, which I didn't think would last this long, I'm getting back into fighting shape. I'm also receiving invitations again to speak at universities. I'm lining up a variety of projects, and all lead me back to The Game.

I do this because it's what I do best. Also, I have kids who are growing quickly into a world of mayhem, deceit, mass murder and torture, in a country under reactionary assault, and I simply cannot and will not sit back and wish them the best of luck. If I can help the fight, I will. And from the emails I get, it appears that many of you feel this is what I'm doing and should be doing. I thank you for your encouragement and support.

I'm still open to debating Christopher. Hell, I'll do it for free. I think it would be cathartic for both of us. It would be electric. Everything he says about me in private he can say to my face in public. I can take it. But that's his choice.

Me, I'll keep this little engine humming. And if a warblogger or lib hawk wants to go podium-to-podium, let me know. I'm Game.