Ernest van den Haag: Smashing Liberal Icons: A Collection of Debates; The Heritage Foundation; Washington, DC.

When the adversaries are aggressive and the topics provocative, debates are stimulating entertainment. And, too, many vigorous minds have shared Samuel Johnson’s relish for “talking for victory.” But for participant and auditor alike,  the excitement is in being there—in the tones and rhythms of voice, in the facial expressions, in the audience response, and in the rhetorical fire works. Naturally, a debate is not usually the time for original thought but an occasion for forceful—perhaps witty— rehearsals of other men’s mental efforts.

By all accounts, Ernest van den Haag is a very capable debater (he reportedly reduced Betty Friedan to tears in a debate at Dartmouth about feminism). There is ample evidence of his skill in these collected debates—on capitalism, on human rights, on labor unions, on pornography, and on South Africa. But as sensible as most of his points are, they are still tactical abbreviations of more complete arguments found else where. And reading a debate in bare transcript is like studying a box score— it’s more fun to be on the field or in the stands. cc