Since 2006, the most objective presentations of conservative views to be heard in Manhattan have probably been those offered at a program sponsored by the financier Robert Rosenkranz (pictured at left). Of course, the most objective presentations of liberal views to be heard in Manhattan have probably been those offered at the same program. But then that was Rosenkranz’s intention.

As a trustee of the Manhattan Institute since 1998, Rosenkranz came to fear that it and other center-right organizations he supported—such as the American Enterprise Institute—were merely preaching to the choir. Why not enter into discussion with people from the Left, he asked. The answer that came back was: Why give them a forum? Rosenkranz felt differently. So, when he found a successful British program of Oxford-style debates being held in London, he arranged to bring a version of it to America. The result is Intelligence Squared U.S. (generally called IQ2US): a program of ten debates per year that features America’s top intellectuals and plays to sellout crowds.

A Bright Idea

When Christopher Hitchens was asked to interpret Robert Rosenkranz’s venture into the field of public discourse, he opined: “I think there’s a big incentive among people in finance to prove to themselves that they aren’t just bean counters.” As often with Hitchens, it was a truth reflected in the fun-house mirror. To put the matter more simply: People who are responsible for billions of dollars (bean counters, if you will) must strive mightily each day to weigh the data of the world objectively. Not unnaturally, then, they often believe that their methods and values might improve the partisan ranting that passes for political discussion. At any rate, Robert Rosenkranz believed that. “I think people are tired of the crudeness that passes for debate,” he told a reporter in 2007.

"In a sense, we are re-creating in our debates some of the seriousness, and also the drama, of a legal case where the audience judges the conflicting claims."

-Robert Rosenkranz

In the early years of the twenty-first century, Rosenkranz was thus of two minds. On the one hand, he was urging center-right think tanks to consider staging debates. On the other hand, such debates as existed seemed worse than useless, intellectually speaking. So, it was that in 2005 Rosenkranz received a unique birthday gift from his new wife, Alexandra Munroe, now senior curator of Asian art for the Guggenheim Museum. According to The New York Times, she “hired a consultant to put together a detailed report on debate programs in the United States and in Europe and recommend a course of action.” This led to several trips to London, in order to sit in on a popular series of monthly public debates called Intelligence Squared (IQ2), which was being held at the Royal Geographic Society.

IQ2 had been begun in the fall of 2002 by two media men: Jeremy O’Grady and John Gordon. O’Grady had been co-founder (with Jolyon Connell) of the news digest magazine The Week back in 1995 and he is now its editor-in-chief. Gordon is CEO of Xtreme Information, which monitors the world’s press and keeps organizations alert to news about themselves and their competitors. Their mission statement for IQpromised to “meet the pent-up demand for participating in the intellectual struggles of the day.” They also promised that their debates would offer “intellectual heavyweights,” as well as audience participation. The result was sell-out crowds.

Rosenkranz was impressed and received permission from the British group to launch an American version—Intelligence Squared U.S. He secured the theater of the Asia Society as a site for the program. And he persuaded NPR to record and edit the debates. The involvement of NPR leveraged the impact of IQ2US, resulting in more than 150 member stations airing the debates. Now the programs reach 25 of the top 50 markets in the US and even reporters have been turned away from the live debates due to lack of space. In addition to being broadcast by NPR’s stations, podcasts and unedited audio downloads are available from NPR’s Web site. And currently 65,000 people do download a debate each month. DVD versions are also available for $20 from IQ2US, and printed transcripts can be downloaded for free.

On September 27, 2006, the first debate of IQ2US was held, with the proposition being one reflecting Rosenkranz’s concerns about terrorism: “We must tolerate a nuclear Iran.” The debate was moderated by Robert Siegel, senior host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and (as is typical of the program) each side had three panelists. Among the participants were such informed scholars as George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (supporting the resolution) and Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (opposing it). A pre-debate tally showed just under 50 percent of the audience opposed, with approximately a quarter in favor and a quarter undecided. After the debate, those opposed edged up to just more than half, while the tolerationists jumped to three-eighths.

Through 2008, 23 debates had been held, on topics ranging from “A democratically elected Hamas is still a terrorist organization” to “America is too damn religious” to “Global warming is not a crisis.” Participants have included Christopher Hitchens, Roger Kimball, Paul Krugman, and Bob Barr. Tickets for the 2009 series are priced at $40 per debate, but a season ticket to ten debates can be purchased for $350. Special memberships—at the Bright ($1,500), Brilliant ($5,000), and Genius ($10,000) levels—give one preferential seating and, at the upper two levels, invitations to the post-debate suppers.

Restoring civility and reason to debate

The response to IQ2US debates has been overwhelming. But clearly it is not just the topics and participants that have attracted crowds. The same subjects, after all, are debated on television and often by the same advocates. IQ2US was begun because Rosenkranz was repelled by the vulgar style of that debate, and much of what draws audiences is that IQ2US debates reflect the intellectual seriousness of their principal sponsor. As Rosenkranz told TNI, "Reading well-written briefs at Harvard Law School showed me how two conflicting viewpoints can be argued persuasively, and how a well-written judicial opinion can weigh the arguments and reach a conclusion. In a sense, we are re-creating in our debates some of the seriousness, and also the drama, of a legal case where the audience judges the conflicting claims."

The seriousness is maintained, in part, by the very procedure of the debates. They are directed by a moderator with the meticulousness of a well-run board meeting, beginning at 6:45 and ending “promptly” at 8:30 p.m. The subject for the evening is stated as a straightforward proposition, which one side must affirm and the other contest. Rosenkranz, who participates in formulating the proposition, opens the evening with a very brief discussion of it. Then, with the sides proceeding alternately, each panelist is allowed eight minutes for his presentation. After the panelists’ statements, the audience is called on for questions. Business-like, too, is the matter of measuring the debate’s effect. Each seat in the theatre comes equipped with a wireless device, which audience members use to vote on the motion before and after the debates. One of the more remarkable audience votes was taken on the proposition: Global warming is not a crisis. The vote before the debate found 30 percent agreeing and 57 percent disagreeing, with 13 percent undecided. After the debate, the undecideds had dropped to 12 percent, but those agreeing shot up to 46 percent and those disagreeing dropped to 42. Last October, Sherrie Gossett, editor of The New Individualist, was invited by IQ2US to attend a debate on “Russia is becoming our enemy again.” The debaters included Claudia Rossett, for the motion, and Nina Khrushcheva, great-granddaughter of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, against the motion. Audience voting on the motion, revealed another dramatic change of mind. By the end of the debate, audience members against the motion had increased by 18 percent, those for, by 6 percent. The final tally was 47 percent for the motion, and 41 percent against.

But if the debates reflect Rosenkranz’s serious side, they also reflect his aesthetic side. That he has a taste for the civilized life is reflected not only in his passion for Asian art but in his home at River House, arguably the city’s finest apartment building, and in his beach-front home in East Hampton. The debates are equally civilized, beginning with a complimentary pre-debate aperitif for the guests and continuing with a dinner at which the debaters can prolong their discussion, while mingling with several dozen “movers and shakers” from various walks of life.

And what of the future? Already, the sell-out crowds of the first few seasons have forced a move to a bigger venue: the Caspary Auditorium at Rockefeller University. The old site held 300 people; the new site 400. An Australian group is duplicating Rosenkranz’s success in Sydney with Intelligence Squared Australia (IQ2Oz). But best of all, the Rosenkranz Foundation is reportedly seeking funding partners to expand the program to other cities.

On the web:   www.intelligencesquaredus.org .

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