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Reflections From Mid-Court: Our First Debate in San Francisco

John Donvan
Wednesday, June 7, 2017

From Left: Stewart Baker, John Yoo, John Donvan, Michael Chertoff, Catherine Crump

Wow!  What a reception Intelligence Squared U.S. received from the Bay Area last night, the first time we’ve staged a debate in San Francisco. Not only did our fans pack out the beautifully appointed SFJazz Center (the cleanest jazz club in the world, quipped one of our debaters), but they were such a damn interesting mix: law students (heavy presence for UC Berkeley), tech world denizens, lawyers and a former chief justice of California’s Supreme Court. Great to see old Intelligence Squared friends like Ben Nelson (famously founder of the Minerva Project) and Jeffrey Rosen (CEO of the National Constitution Center, which co-sponsored with us).

I suppose the crowd's complection makes a certain sense, given that the debate focused on the push and pull between law enforcement (FBI especially) and some of the biggest tech names (especially Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft) on how far companies need to go in letting the cops get their hands on customer data to help solve crimes and avert terrorist attacks. Nice line by Stewart Baker, former high up in the Dept of Homeland Security, who was arguing for more government access: there’s “no Silicon Valley exception” to every citizen’s obligation to help the police. Well, THAT was exactly what we considered debatable. There were great questions from the audience, though a few who stood and asked risked violating Donvan’s Rule of Asking Questions at a Debate: Ask a Question, Don’t Debate the Debaters. I had to chide gently.

I was amazed at how people rushed the stage afterward, to meet the debaters and me as well. It felt a little, um, rock concert, can I say? Who says debate is for nerds ?? (Never I!). This was a cool crowd, where I met a woman from China who said she started downloading our podcasts while she was still studying in Shanghai; another who flew in from Michigan (Michigan!) both to see her boyfriend and to catch this debate. Actually, it’s remarkable how often we hear from folks that our debates make for a pretty hot debate night. Rhetorical foreplay, or something else?

Nice chat at the reception afterward with a woman, supremely smart and well educated, who told me that not only had she changed her mind in the course of the evening, but that she was delighted to have had the actual experience of being ABLE to change her mind, in the face of well constructed argument. She said it was a good feeling, in itself. Hoorah! For that’s what we’re all about.

Debater John Yoo, his third time out with us, really really wanted to win for once (he came in 0 for 2) but pretended he didn’t REALLY care all that much (watch the debate here; he cracked about it a bunch of times). So it was a bit of a heart break to see him, at the end, come within one percentage point of finally pulling out a win, and briefly thinking he’d done it! A superb sport, he was glorious in defeat. Besides, as we tend always to say at Intelligence Squared U.S., everybody wins, when civil discourse wins.

To all those many folks who asked me, right after the debate, will be we coming back to SF, my answer is: I sure do hope so. Thanks, folks, for a great night.


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