The fine art of the filibuster

What happens when a humor columnist attempts to filibuster his own column on the practice of filibustering? Check out this week’s Oliver’s World and find out.|

With the recent passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg I decided to review the process of what happens next. I remember many of the procedures, mainly the president nominating and the senate voting.

But I have been trying to understand every part of it.

So I’ve done some research. There are all of these terms – majority, super majority, nuclear options.

They do not mean “nuclear option” literally, of course.

At least I don't think so. I didn't click down that path and probably should have.

Anyway, I got to reading about the filibuster. It’s a tactic in which they talk about an issue so much they delay its official decision as long as possible. It's meant as a power play, in which time, the clock, and speaking-about-anything is weaponized. Historically, they've filled some filibuster attempts with such things as reading from phone books.

You'd think at some point someone would disallow that.

The reading of a phone book into the official record.

On occasion, the ones hoping to vote on something have successfully stopped a filibuster, but it took so long, it's almost as if the endless filibuster was preferred to the staggering effort of bringing one to an end.

What a strange concept.

Surely we have to allow some form of debate, not just move on and vote. Then again, I've spoken to many people on the subject of voting and most don't seem to put thought into it at all. I get that, in explaining a subject, some people aren't very good at staying on topic, or they are indeed going somewhere with their line of thinking but it takes a while. The argument becomes abstract.

I myself find I can do that. I get metaphorical and seems as if I’ve gone off subject.

That said, there could be some kind of interpretation needed. This is a metaphor, that was literal, this is still on topic, that actually wasn’t, but yes, in case you didn’t know, this is a filibuster.

Like the difference between art and pornography, you know it when you see it, don’t you? When you get to the point of reading a phone book, isn't it obvious? That's blatant stalling. But how do you actually identify a filibuster versus some who has a lot to say and cannot say it in a concise way? It took J.R.R. Tolkein three books to tell his “Lord of the Rings” story. He did indeed have a lot to say.

Most of that book, of course, is people going on a long journey.

They do at one point stop and debate what to do with the ring, but that doesn't take up all three books, it's just a small portion. While J.R.R. Tolkein had a lot to say, he didn't always have his characters act the same way. Some, in communicating, are brief and to the point. I think most people agree he was a great writer. Even still, I don't think he'd work in the current world, what with twitter and a limit of 140 characters.

That would not have been his medium.

I get it.

Not every can get right to their point and stay on topic. We know that merely listing a lot of information is not part of a real debate. No one digests information that way. It's the worst way to retain something in your memory, just listening to a list.

List. Listening.

I wonder if those words are somehow connected, etymology.

Anyway, what's in that gray area between concise argument and filibustering? We need to have room and acceptance for people that have a longer way of speaking. Still, is there no room for art in these debates? Andy Kaufman would get on stage and read from “The Great Gatsby.” It was meant to be humorous in a “meta” way.

Is that something that we should give an ear to during these debates?

Should we look for the appearance of art? Or humor?

Strom Thurmond once spoke for 24 hours during a filibuster. It was 1957, and he was attempting to delay the passage of the Civil Rights Act. He spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes, the longest filibuster ever recorded by one single politician.

That's certainly notable. But is it admirable?

I don't think there is any level of bravery involved in pulling such a thing off. The human body is very capable of going and going like a bunny with a battery in its back if you push yourself. It certainly does show commitment. I'm sure some people would disagree, but when you're faced with something you believe in, you don’t easily give up.

So Strom Thurmond didn’t give up. That's how racist he was.

Sometimes I try to wrap my head around the ways we take in information now. There are all kinds of ways to educate ourselves. People do indeed listen to speeches, but those speeches tend to hover around a certain length. People also read tweets. There are documentaries that are multi-parts and are hours long and then there are headlines. What's really the best way for someone to get a point across? I guess it would depend on the point in question.

What if the point was … the sky? I would hope there's not too much to say about the sky being blue, but at the same time, if you were to thoroughly explain all the science about it, that would definitely take longer than just, you know, reciting a poem.

It reminds me of “The Fantastic Four.”

In the comics, the character of Reed Richards, who was an expert in nearly every science ever, was also very long winded. He'd over-explain things. Then you had The Thing, who just wanted to know if was suppose to smash something or throw it in the water or what. He didn't need the long explanation. I guess that different people not only take in information in different ways, they also provide information in different ways.

It's a lot like gift giving.

People often give the gift they would prefer to receive. People who want something practical, like a tool, give other people such a thing. If you have a sweet tooth, you tend to give people candy.

At the core, there is definitely some merit to really stretching out and explaining things to people in a longer format. After all, our movies, when we used to go to movies, didn't cap out at 90 minutes. We had some three hour ones. Children's movies tend to be under two hours, of course. Kids prefer short movies. There’s another point there, of course. If you aren't able to sit and watch something for three hours, it may be a sign of immaturity.

That’s worth thinking about.

Anyway, we're in a very split-day world for some mediums. Memes are very simple, obviously. A meme is an image you're familiar with, and a small amount of text. It's very easy to consume and cycle through them. Then you have streaming services that give people the ability to marathon their way through a series that's eight-hours long. People do indeed do that. They start a season of a show and go all the way to the end in one sitting, more or less.

It’s possible they stand or lie down at some point.

If you've ever done that, by the way, if you’ve binged an entire series, you certainly can't come out against filibustering. If the content was something you enjoyed, or wanted to see the end of, you stuck with it.

Sticking with it. That’s the thing.

But then we have the live-streaming people. They'll go online and play video games, or talk about their day, for hours on end. Again, more content that people like to pop into and consume. I think there's something to be said about content that is alive. Someone is actively talking, and in the process of creating, and then you can chat with them and participate. I guess that might be interesting, if another filibuster happens in congress, to make them put it on YouTube with a full chatroom.

What would a filibuster be like on Instagram?

And can the Instagram audience even watch a four-hour debate on climate change? Wouldn’t they just end up swiping through stories for something more interesting or eye catching to look at? Of course, if someone on the Senate floor is just reading a phone book, then they’re not actually getting to new content. I guess for some people, though, if the phone book thing rally happened, it might be interesting to get your own phone book and read along.

Or sit on the edge-of-your chair hoping your own name is read out loud.

“Hey! Some old angry person just read my name!”

But realistically, we need to push all of that aside. We're not having these debates for vanity. A debate of this kind should be done to help illustrate and carry across a point.

That's partly my point.

My other point is that a filibuster is a very absurd thing.

To me, it starts to fall into “Guinness Book of World Records” type antics, where someone will sit on as many cheeseburgers as they can just for the attention. Tell me, when in normal life has anyone ever needed to overcome such a challenge as sitting on 200 cheeseburgers?

It will be that specific too.

Cheeseburgers. Not just, you know … food.

Nowadays it'd probably be sponsored by a fast food chain.

Makes you think, is it even about the challenge or is it actually about the corporate cross-promotional advertising? Really, that's not a skill people really try for, cheeseburger sitting. It's probably a very small competitive field.

Now, a person running? That's different.

Lots of people run and almost anyone can do it. We are, at our core, built to walk or to run. Running has high accessibility and anyone who is good at it is indeed noteworthy. Is it attention grabbing though?

Not running.

I’m back to talking about filibustering now, speaking on and on just for the sake of speaking on and on so you can keep on speaking on and on until everyone goes home and you’ve won.

That's kind of embarrassing to me. Speaking on and on, not letting anyone else get a word in edgewise? It’s rude, or so I’ve been told. The fact we allow this and at times even encourage it, it can successfully blockade a worthy issue from seeing actual progress.

I'm sure these politicians feel as if they're really accomplishing something though. As if they're laying down in front of a tank. As if this endurance-level of protest is something to be proud of. Maybe sometimes it is, to a degree. It may indeed be the hardest thing they've ever done. Talking and talking without a bathroom break.

I actually don't know how bathroom breaks work at the filibuster level.

But what if you can’t take a break. That sounds unhealthy. The Herculean health risks involved in this alone, I guess, do deserve at least some applause.

I'm just too much of a performer and would rather no one gets hurt.

I subscribe to Penn and Teller’s way of thinking that the illusion is better than the actual danger. Anyone can damage their body. Anyone can get on stage and shed blood. We all have blood, we all are capable of being injured. It's not a feat that really is worth watching. It’s not an actual talent or even very noteworthy.

Somebody got hurt and they bled a lot. Real blood. For real.

Big deal.

A trick is fun, though. If it appears as if someone is risking their body but isn't actually risking their body -- that has value. They can perform it over and over and never actually be hurt.

I might watch that.

But we’re speaking about performers now, people who are supposed to make you wonder what is real and what isn't. These politicians, though, while at times acting in ways that are incredibly performative, are not supposed to be entertaining or life-threatening. They are supposed to be serving the public. Their risks on the debate floor are not supposed to be fun to watch.

OR particularly physically dangerous.

It’s supposed to be work.

Just do the job.

The job never asked you to risk kidney damage to speak continuously about nothing.

Here’s another point.

I've seen many movies and TV shows that mock politics. The “Pirates of Caribbean” movies did a fine job of it, as these pirate lords, gathering from all over, debate back-and-forth about whether they should go to war. I believe at some point someone gets killed over it.

Which, I have to say, if that happened in D.C, especially if swords were involved, would result in some very large ratings and an impressive view count. But that might stop the filibuster. I think it would be really chilling for all the elected and appointed officials to just carry on talking as if murder by sword on the Senate floor was normal.

Then again, ask some people and the politicians are already doing that – you know, killing people – when it comes to certain subjects. In the movie, the pirates all start arguing and Jack Sparrow shrugs, dryly remarking that this is all politics. They eventually appoint a pirate king and they elect to go war. Which means the director needed to include establishing shots and a triumphant ending, revealing that most of them never had to participate in the fight at all. They merely floated just out of reach, waving their swords now and then, watching other pirates kill each other.

That, indeed, is politics.

They argue over things, but it's always someone else that has to bear the burden of whatever they decide on, it’s always other people who have to face the fight, and to take the loss.

And shed the actual blood.

The term “Filibuster,” by the way, actually came from piracy. It was a dervation of the word “Freebooter,” originally a small boat used by pirates, then eventually used to apply to the pirates themselves. Evidently, the first time a filibuster was attempted in American politics, it was likened to pirates stealing a ship on the high seas, declared a “Filibuster,” and the name stuck.


I don't like to think all politicians are bad, of course. It really is part of the fight. The good ones are slowed down by the bad ones. You have to play the game. You fight fire with fire.

At times the politicians seem like bad politicians.

Which brings us back to long speeches.

I still don't think any wondrously amazing speeches or events ever came about from a filibuster. Did anyone do anything overly creative during one? In a quantity-over-quality arena, I highly doubt it.

It’s just for stalling.

Not that there’s anything wrong with stalling.

I've been on stage doing comedy and needed to stall, and honestly, ended up saying some pretty funny stuff in those moments. Not that you have to take my word for it.

Though you should.

Because I am pretty funny.

And maybe there has been some good comedy, a few really excellent jokes, invented on the spot during one filibuster or another. I don’t know, and I'm not about sit back and review all the filibuster footage that is available. Maybe someday someone will write a thesis on such a subject, and will torture themselves by watching every recorded minute of filibustering on the planet.

The endurance of one person speaking for so long is dwarfed by that of any person who dares to listen to it for even longer.

There's a theorem that with infinite monkeys, a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely eventually type any given text, including the complete works of William Shakespeare.

Or at least just “Hamlet.”

That could happen randomly, because there are only so many different combinations of characters to be spewed out. Most of what would be typed out is nonsense. Just gibberish. At least we have the benefit, in all these filibusters, that the person talking is still attempting to be somewhat cohesive. They might go off on a tangent and start reading the telephone book but they almost always come back to the point.

That’s probably useful, for the filibusterer, to hold onto that thought.

Yes, I am stalling.

But there’s a real point here somewhere.

Let's be honest, a human brain delivering such continuous streams of consciousness needs something real to grasp on to. I rather enjoy the idea of people throwing paint at a wall and hoping to make a masterpiece. I guess though, the reality is, I don't think the people throwing the paint have any sense of what they're doing, that ultimately they are wasting time to just waste more time.

And more paint.

Eventually, we all run out of paint.

Sometimes, we run out of words.

We are human, so there are limitations.

What if we were robots and not confined by such things as time? Would artificial life forms debate a point forever on end till finally they succumbed to the heat death of the universe? Would their programming insist that they stall for eternity?

That’s sticking to the plan.

Stalling really can be a very important strategy though. In the “Dr. Strange” movie, with Benedict Cumberbatch, the concept of time is introduced to the enemy dimension and the Doctor uses it to stall the evil entity. Through editing we're not sure how long he was there, but it could have been days, months, even centuries. Dr. Strange does not age through this, of course. He is still in his personal moment in time.

And it eventually results in a bargain.

So his stalling, his super-powered filibuster, actually worked in saving the world.

Yes, I really just connected those two things.

It must be hard to find that right medium, though. We don't want such cold votes to simply be yes or no, without thought, compassion or nuance, but we also don't want overly long and padded debates.

So, back to an original thought, what value is there in someone running on and on? Is it just the sick fascination that maybe they'll stumble into some kind of hidden gem, or joke, or quotable turn-of-phrase?

We could probably debate endlessly about what the appropriate amount of endless debate actually is.

Is there a right size or length for a filibuster?

Like, what’s the right size for an omelet? Two eggs? Four eggs?

Most people like three.

That's an easy solution to find. Our stomachs tend to all be around the same size. I guess some of us have smaller ones and some larger. Is that true for our brains as well? Well, yes, but that doesn't really apply to someone's ability to digest information.

Speaking of eggs though, some people are bad at digesting those.

Maybe later I’ll come up with a better example.

I know I do a lot of referencing in my writing. I reference movies a lot. That's part of the art of debate. To get off subject and tell a little anecdote about another story, but then you have to decide how much background to fill in. Are people familiar with “The Lord of the Rings” or “The Pirates of the Caribbean?”

You never know.

How “off subject” is someone allowed to get? I may have to summarize a fair portion of these cinematic backstories before really getting to the point. Though if everyone consumed all the same media as I did, this would be less of an issue.

Anyway, my point is, in filibustering, as in life, we must be able to draw a line and recognize a distinction between someone who is going somewhere and has something important to say – even if it takes them a long time to get to it – and someone who is just rambling on and on.

I have a lot more to say on this subject, but for now, I think I'll end here and keep it brief.

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