Mar 26, 2014

joy in doubt: the State Public Forum Championship

Until a few days ago, it had been an up-and-down year for my Public Forum squad. Back in 2013, we had not one, but two teams preparing for Nationals, the first time we had ever closed out PuFo in the Western Washington District. However, in the 2013-14 season, not only did we fail to qualify a single team for Nationals, we had just one team make State. Our previous best finish was second place at the Puget Sound Invitational. I wasn't going to complain if that was the end of our season, but, to be honest, I would've been disappointed.

But we still had a shot at State. So, on March 21st, Max and Tate headed back to the University of Puget Sound, researched and ready to debate the merits of single-gender classrooms in American public schools.

After the first day of competition, Capital's duo were 6-0, earning the top seed in the elimination rounds. That gave us a first round bye on Saturday morning. I figured we had better run a full practice round to warm up, so we trudged over to Howarth Hall, found an empty room, and debated, Max and Tate running their Pro case against me--and their own Con.

If there had been a judge in the room, I'm guessing he would've voted for Max and Tate. They held their own against my improvised rebuttals, and got me thinking that a state title was well within reach. I didn't want to say anything, though, and went back to the judging pool, trusting that they'd be fine.

After the eighth round, Tate's brother Ben, who had been judging for CHS late in the season, decided to quit watching Capital's round--they were getting too nerve-wracking. I enlisted him to help set up the room for the final round, and we dragged tables and chairs around, chatting to stave off our nervous anticipation, and then greeting the community members who had volunteered to judge the final round.

Then the text came: Max and Tate had won their eighth and semifinal round, and, for the final, were about to face a fantastic Mount Si team--the team that had defeated them to win the Puget Sound tournament in January. The prospect of redemption was just too perfect.

Even better: once everyone had arrived and the coin toss started the round, we won the toss. "We'll take--" and I already mentally finished the sentence. Max and Tate always chose Con. They were undefeated in seven rounds running the Con. I liked their Con case better. I thought the Con arguments were stronger. Of course they would take...

"--second speaker."

And then Mount Si took the Con.
It took me a moment to register what had happened. I turned to Tate's older brother, Ben, who had been judging for us late in the season. "They picked 2nd speaker. Why? Why in the world wouldn't they pick the Con?"

"They felt pretty confident after running it against you," he said.


Thirty-five minutes later, I wasn't feeling too great about our chances. I thought the Con had established a lot of doubt about our Pro's statistics, and that we were relying too heavily on the choice argument--"let every kid, every parent have the choice that otherwise is only for the rich." The opposition was also a little bit smoother in delivery. As the round wrapped up and the judges began their internal deliberations, scribbling endlessly on their ballots as the room waited in silence, I whispered to Ben: "I think we lost."

Ten interminable minutes passed. Ben quietly noted that the longer it took, the better he liked our chances. That seemed right.

Five agonizing minutes later, at long last, the ombudsman gathered up the ballots and announced, "By a 2-1 decision, your state champions: Capital High School!" I leaped out of my seat, just about hitting the ceiling. I had known it was possible, but I couldn't believe it. As the judges began their post-round critiques, the two voting for CHS talked about the strength of the choice argument in pushing their vote for the Pro.

The dissenting judge, though, said almost word-for-word everything I had been thinking throughout the round.

Good thing there weren't more of me in the room.

The upshot: your 2014 Washington State Champions in Public Forum are two of Capital's finest, a class act who never doubted themselves, who worked harder than anyone to reach the summit, who ended up going undefeated in the most intense and thrilling fashion.

Am I sorry for doubting my own team? No, not really. Debate is as subjective as it gets. But on the right side of the ballot, the doubt created by that subjectivity can lead to the greatest joy. As the coach of this year's champions, I couldn't be happier.

Mar 17, 2014

a story template for literary naturalists

I've loved teaching American Literature this year. It's the first time I've had the class since I was a student teacher, so the material feels completely fresh to me. (It's also dredged up memories of my own high school experience, and the inimitable Dr. Dunn, who ultimately inspired me to take up a career in English teaching.)

My favorite facet of the course is its link to various philosophies. As we march through the history of American letters, we encounter the surge and retreat of various perspectives on life, love, nature, God, and the Universe. It's a long way from the Pequots or the Puritans to the Postmoderns, but, in the grand scheme, it's not so far a journey after all.

If I had to pick a favorite among favorites, I'd go with the Naturalists, with their scientific pessimism and earthy realism. As a junior, I was struck by Stephen Crane's cynicism, and wrote a (terrible) short story in the style of "The Open Boat." The experience changed me. (Probably for the worse.)

And so, as an English teacher, of course I've foisted that activity on my students. To help them--and you--to write a story in the Naturalist style, I have invented a template. Feel free to copy with attribution, and if you make any money on your masterpiece, I get 25%.

The Naturalist Story Template

an [average / poor / desperate / stupid / ugly / cruel ] person

struggles against [disease / poverty / racism / nature / temptation]

in [a desert / a jungle / the Arctic / a forest / the streets / factory / prison]

ultimately [losing / failing / dying / going mad / wasting away]

at the hands of [human cruelty / human indifference / an indifferent universe / inability to understand herself / bad luck]

That's it. Fill in the template, write away, and publish a bestseller.

Oh, and whatever you do, give it a third-person narrator, an ironically tragic (or tragically ironic) ending, and some faintly purple prose. You can't go wrong with purple prose.

Mar 5, 2014

political realism in LD

A Twitter follower has asked me to elaborate on one of the V/C pairs I listed for the humanitarian aid resolution. Over at that post, I wrote:
V: Prudence (defined as carefully weighing political options; see Morgenthau)
C: Political realism
The idea here is that nations act in their best interests, independent of overarching moral considerations, charting a careful course in a chaotic, Hobbesian world. Justice isn't a proper description of international relations, so the resolution is a category error, analogous to claiming that numbers are too heavy, or colors are too fearful. (Be aware that some judges hate political realism. I mean really, really hate it.) Realism can also be turned, potentially, in the way the Social Contract argument can be turned, if realism is discussed in terms of its consequentialist impacts, rather than in its inherent approach.
I'll start by explaining what realism isn't, and what it is, and then how to use it in an LD round, not just for this particular topic.

Political Moralism
If you believe that states are inherently moral agents--or that the people who make decisions for states are moral agents, regardless of whether states themselves are moral--you are not a realist. Instead, you're a political moralist. There are several ways states might have moral obligations: there might be some objective moral law that all states ought to follow, or there might be contractual obligations (treaties, alliances, international law, etc.) that have actual normative force.

Regardless of the efficacy or enforceability of these norms, a political moralist believes they are real, and ought to guide and constrain state actions.

Whether these obligations are positive (i.e., states should act in certain ways to achieve specific ends), or negative (i.e., states should refrain from acting in certain ways), is another question.

Political Realism
In contrast, if you believe that states are not inherently moral agents--and that the people who make decisions for states do not need to concern themselves with traditional morality when making political decisions--you are a political realist. States are only interested in preserving their own power in an anarchic system, and must often make difficult decisions that would not survive scrutiny in a traditional system of ethics. As Hans Morgenthau writes,
Realism maintains that universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states in their abstract universal formulation, but that they must be filtered through the concrete circumstances of time and place. The individual may say for himself: "Fiat justitia, pereat mundus (Let justice be done, even if the world perish)," but the state has no right to say so in the name of those who are in its care. Both individual and state must judge political action by universal moral principles, such as that of liberty. Yet while the individual has a moral right to sacrifice himself in defense of such a moral principle, the state has no right to let its moral disapprobation of the infringement of liberty get in the way of successful political action, itself inspired by the moral principle of national survival. There can be no political morality without prudence; that is, without consideration of the political consequences of seemingly moral action. Realism, then, considers prudence--the weighing of the consequences of alternative political actions--to be the supreme virtue in politics. Ethics in the abstract judges action by its conformity with the moral law; political ethics judges action by its political consequences.
Note that Morgenthau doesn't deny the existence of morality overall; rather, he claims that the good--defined as rational aims successfully carried out--is the aim of statecraft, not the right. Prudence, not justice, is the goal; success, not virtue, is the measure of action.

This view traces back to Thucydides, who Morgenthau name drops; Machiavelli, who applied it in his classic text The Prince; and Thomas Hobbes, who developed the idea of a "warre of all against all" in the state of nature. Contrasted with these three, Morgenthau is actually the least controversial and least cynical in its view of human nature.

As I described above, judging state actions in moral terms, in the realist view, is a "category error." Morgenthau again:
This realist defense of the autonomy of the political sphere against its subversion by other modes of thought does not imply disregard for the existence and importance of these other modes of thought. It rather implies that each should be assigned its proper sphere and function. Political realism is based upon a pluralistic conception of human nature. Real man is a composite of "economic man," "political man," "moral man," "religious man," etc... Recognizing that these different facets of human nature exist, political realism also recognizes that in order to understand one of them one has to deal with it on its own terms.
In other words, our decisions in different contexts are made with different considerations--and, in Morgenthau's (controversial) rendition, no single role trumps all others. The political is the political, and nothing more.

Using Political Realism in a Debate Round
As Morgenthau argues, the supreme virtue of political realism is prudence: treading cautiously in a dangerous world. You may set that up as your value, and political realism as your criterion, if you're using this line of argument. However, you might also value truth or reality, and have a criterion of "properly assigning responsibility," if you view the resolution through a truth-testing lens.

For the humanitarian aid resolution, either will work; the point is that states are held to a different standard than individuals.

Even if they aren't, state actions are contextual and situated, which means that realism is a perfect counter to Kantian (or any other) absolutism.

Defeating Political Realism
Realism doesn't necessarily have a good answer for the inherent worth of actions bad states might take. If states should act pragmatically in their own interests, what if such actions are, from a moral standpoint, evil? This question may have a good answer within the realist framework, but it's difficult, and the strong biases of some judges against realism may make it a losing issue. One of my debaters had a judge who described his sentiments thusly: "I'll go barf in a bucket, then vote Neg."

Realism might also be wrong, for several reasons. First, if Morgenthau is wrong about human nature, then the whole philosophy collapses. In other words, it might be that "political man" is no different from "economic man" and "moral man." There's only humanity, which can't be contextualized or situated away.

Second, if the global political system truly isn't anarchic--witness the rise of international law and human rights norms--then there is a global contract that supersedes (or at least equates with) individual contracts between states and their citizens. In Morgenthau's time, such norms and contracts may have seemed as thin as tissue, but in the 21st century, they seem to have strengthened. (If Russia ends up successfully occupying Crimea and destabilizing Ukraine, I take it all back.)

For Further Reading
"Political Realism in International Relations"
"The New New World Order"