Friday, June 29, 2007

How the LD resolutions work

I sent out my posting of yesterday to the Legion, to see if I could scare up some discussion from other coaches. As I said, I like the list overall, with a few exceptions that I feel are too vague. It will be interesting to see if my request generates any response.

Thanks to WTF, I discovered this morning that the NFL had posted its ballot to vote for the rezzes, so I was more on the money with yesterday’s posting than I had thought. The way the ballot works is you pick three different topics, in order of preference, for a given period, and you must fill in all three for each period, and use a minimum of five topics overall. You can repeat from period to period. This immediately becomes a matrix for imagining who will vote for what when, and how one works through/around it. The way I see it, the Sept/Oct rez is important insofar as its for newbies, and a good basic topic is what’s needed to ease people into the activity. Jan/Feb gets argued a lot, to put it mildly, so that should be very strong; I also feel it’s a good one for a lot of research, given its position in the year at large, and because it will be at TOC. Mar/Apr and the NatNats topics are, to me, less important, because fewer people debate them. Still, I think that in the new system there’s no point in picking the pure stinkers and putting them there in the hope of making them go away. Nov/Dec has importance as follow-up for newbies, but less personal importance for our varsity as Sailors don’t do much in that period because of Bump. It will be interesting to see how this all sorts out. For one thing, I can’t imagine that the best topic will automatically be the NatNat topic, as it used to be (or at least, the way the voting worked, that was previously simply the biggest vote-getter). I like the intent of this new approach, although I have no idea if it will work. Time will tell. The ballot is due 9/15, which is way earlier than usual, but that’s no doubt because of the fact that it is picking this year’s Nov/Dec.

So I have filled out my ballot, and it’s sitting on my desk. I’ll study it over the next few days until it looks right, and then I’ll send it in. Thus begins the next season.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The next batch of LD resolutions

I looked briefly at the new LD resolutions when they were published, and my initial reaction was not quite the usual dismay this list annually encourages. I’ve been a little under the weather lately, but I’m starting to bounce back, and so this might be a good time to look at next season in a little depth.

1. Resolved: It is just for the United States to use military force to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons by nations that pose a military threat.

I look at topics a couple of ways. First, I look at them as conversation starters. That is, I look at them as areas of discussion for a number of serious hours as the team looks at the subject area of the resolution in general. Secondly, I try to imagine how they’ll work out as resolutions in the rounds. A topic can work well for one and not the other; given my druthers, I would prefer that it work well in the former, the preparation, because that’s where we all get to educate ourselves. Rounds brevis, prep longa, or something along those lines.

Anyhow, what gives the US this right? Does any other country have this right? Does military force (unspecified as it is) contradictorily include nuclear options? How do we determine that a nation is a military threat? To whom? For that matter, how do we know someone is acquiring nuclear weapons versus simply nuclear technology for power generation? These are the questions that immediately occur to me, all of which more than satisfy the prep requirement of a topic. I will love discussing this with the Sailors. In a round, on the other hand, it might not be so much fun because there are so many aspects to it. There’s no underlying philosophy to apply; what you need are political analyses. In other words, it’s more policy than LD, if that’s your understanding of LD. It could work out though. I will offer this piece of advice: flip neg. (VBD has chosen this as, I guess, their secondary topic for extra research. That’ll keep the little suckers busy!)

2. Resolved: Governments ought to make economic reparations for their country’s historical injustices.

Too unspecific. It would be interesting enough to talk about US examples (obviously slavery, not so obvious how economic reps would work: would that include Affirmative Action?), but historical injustices couldn’t be vaguer in the real world or in the philosophical world. Pomo alert: Yesterday’s justice is today’s injustice; it depends on who’s in power. Historically, I could argue, pretty much every group that can be defined socially has been treated unjustly. In prep, this would be okay, although setting the price tag would be interesting; in rounds, probably a disaster. The temptation to come up with some cockamamie examples in rounds only because the debaters believe their opponents won’t know those examples will be succumbed to again and again. I like this subject, but the wording is going to work against it. A specific Aff Act rez would cover the same grounds philosophically and politically, with none of the slippery possibilities (or at least a lot fewer slippery possibilities, and in fact, a CRT approach would be reasonable and therefore worth discussing in prep). I can’t see voting for this one.

3. Resolved: Limiting economic inequality ought to be a more important social goal than maximizing economic freedom.

I would imagine that this one will be a big vote getter. You could phrase it a variety of ways, but it boils down to the same thing: what the hell is government all about? Purists will definitely be shaken out of the trees by this one. I just hope it doesn’t go to Nats, leaving the rest of us bereft of it—it’s that good. (To be honest, I’m not quite sure how the new NFL voting will work. We’ll see.) In any case, thumbs way up. No surprise that VBD picked it for their primary topic; I would have done the same.

4. Resolved: It is morally permissible to kill one innocent person to save the lives of more innocent people.

This is almost a prep-free topic. Aside from throwing around a few Utilitarians and making the annual Peter Singer jokes and tossing out the old Mr. Spock quote, what is there to say? On the other hand, it’s pure and simple and the sort of topic that forces debaters to toe the line and actually debate. There will be big ideas on both sides, in conflict, and the rounds will be won by the debater who debates the best. So I can see this potentially as a big vote getter. It’s a little lower on my personal scale, though, simply because of the fact that there’s not a lot of generality for brainstorming. No one’s going to learn much from this topic, aside from how to debate. That’s okay, it’s just not great.

5. Resolved: In the United States, jury nullification is a legitimate check on government.

I like judicial topics, at least as far as prep is concerned. Nobody knows nuthin’ so it’s fun from the getgo. I mean, what’s the point of law if the laws don’t matter in a courtroom? Or, what’s the point of justice if it can’t be meted out with reason? Unfortunately, I’m a little dubious here about the connection in the resolution (which is not presumed) between nullification and checking the government, and that could lead to problems. I see this as fun prep, and then you hit the wall of making that connection in a meaningful fashion, which means, ultimately, confused rounds. I think JN has been presented better in the past, but I’ve got a feeling this time the season is right for it. It will be okay, but not great.

6. Resolved: Successor governments ought to pursue transitional justice through truth and reconciliation commissions rather than through criminal prosecution.

A non-starter. Figure you need about three years of prep to sort out exactly what they’re talking about. Start with South Africa, look at every other country you can think of, try to derive a principle, go forward from there? I can’t see it. Every case is so specific, I can’t imagine any check on the rounds starting in Cloud Cuckooland and going higher into space from there. Prep will also be all over the map. Send this one over to PF.

7. Resolved: International lenders ought to cancel the debt of highly indebted poor countries.

Again, the vagueness bothers me. Who are these international lenders? Which countries? Why are they indebted? There are so many dependencies. I could have some fun in prep, but rounds will be all over the place, while at the same time probably stock at the core. This is not something most people sit around wondering about, if you know what I mean, and a good resolution has some niggling problem at its core, where you think to yourself, if we could only figure that out, the world would be a better place.

8. Resolved: In the United States, plea bargaining in exchange for testimony is unjust.

Whoa! Where did this come from? I’m not quite sure how it would play out in rounds, and my guess is that it would be fairly stock, but maybe in a good way (as with #4 above, making a situation where the best debater wins). In any case, as far as prep is concerned, as I say, I like studying judicial areas, and this one will be new to most of us. I’d like to see it on the docket, but I’ve got a feeling I may be in the minority on this one.

9. Resolved: Hate crime enhancements are unjust in the United States.

What we need here is an editor. The way the English language works (and remember, that is my day job), hate crime enhancements = enhanced hate crimes. The idea of enhancements to hate crimes means better and more robust hate crimes. Obviously the intention here was to evaluate whether special punishments ought to be incurred in hate crime situations, and not whether we should have more robust hate crimes. And I guess obviously that’s what people would debate. Still, I do wish that a grammarian were consulted before these things are published. We are meant to be educators, after all. This is like a letter home from your kid’s teacher where there’s words misspelled and the grammar is inaccurate. It’s just frustrating. I like this subject, but if we have to argue this topic as written, I will be petulant for the entire duration, and I’m petulant enough already not to require further inspiration.

10. Resolved: Public health concerns justify government violation of pharmaceutical patents.

Again, I wish we were a little more specific. By not limiting this, we allow people to potentially debate too many different things. I love the subject of pharmaceutical patents, and for that matter patents in general. Intellectual property rights is an exciting area of study. My assumption is that here we’re thinking about AIDS drugs in Africa, so why don’t we just say so? The good news is that aff would be presenting this, and starting there, so at least that’s the manifest grounds for the debate. But I’m sure that there’s negs out there that aren’t occurring to me off the top of my head who will find something else to argue about. Still, this is a good subject area, with great prep opportunities that will probably roll out okay in rounds. IP should be rich for us for years to come.

In summary, quite a good batch of resolutions, with very few that I dismiss out of hand. Assuming that the universe at large is pointed in the same direction, they should work out well.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

False Narratives Part 6

So where are we going with all this?

Obviously to a great extent this is just noodling. I’ve been thinking about the narratives we create to explain ourselves, and one another. I’ve recently run into a situation in the day job where a legend had been built about my actions, and since I didn’t find it particularly true, I tracked it down a bit and did some analysis. The truth of the matter was rather dull in comparison to the legend that was being presented, and although there was a germ of reality at the core of the legend, the full truth was strongly contradictory to the full impact of the legend. The legend was probably fostered because it provided an excuse for actions by others that were of a dubious nature, but more to the point, made those others look good. The legend initially made me look bad, but then I realized that I could play the legend to my advantage, so I let it be. It’s a win-win situation, based on a false narrative. Strange.

There is a difference between a lie and the development of legend. A lie is knowingly contrary to the facts, told for whatever purpose. The development of legend starts with truth, and makes that truth a better story, often casting aside the truth as the story becomes more interesting or more important than the truth it is supposedly illuminating. There’s so many reasons for legend building that it mostly depends on what legend it is you’re talking about to know which ones apply. We’ve been talking about the West as a whole, and talked in a broad sense about the myth of the West. The legends of the West in many ways evolve insofar as they support the myth. That is, there is a central, underlying truth in the myth that spins the legends in a direction that supports or illuminates that underlying truth, setting aside the specific ostensive truth that the legends purport to be about.

If legends are simply narratives, than the best narrator will create the best legends. And by far, the best narrator I know of is the motion picture. The story-telling ability of film far exceeds any other medium. There is power, immediacy, drive, characters that, on the screen, are literally larger than life. Of course, films can be non-narrative, but when a film sets out to tell a story, and does so successfully, it can’t be beat. At least once upon a time films were limited by constraints of feasibility, but CGI has eliminated almost every conceivable barrier to our suspension of disbelief. Anything is possible in the movies. If it’s done well, we’ll buy it. Hollywood has had a lot of nicknames over the years; the Dream Factory is certainly not a bad one, from our perspective.

As we’ve said, the movies set about making westerns virtually from Day One of Hollywood. Which means that, from Day One, Hollywood was in the legend-making business. Movies had the ability to tell the stories, and as they told the stories, they had the history of the stories already told, and the polishing of the chestnuts, the retellings becoming ever more legendary and ever less historical. By the 50s, the idea of making a serious historical picture would be quite a novelty, as compared to the teens, when making a serious historical picture would exactly be the goal. Hollywood knew what it was doing. And The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence is the perfect expression of it. By the early 60s, there was simply little question that most movies were about something other than the reality of the Old West. “This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” The particular legend being printed is about the pacific James Stewart character, a lawyer, bringing justice to the West by standing up to the bad guy Liberty Valence character, and, of course, shooting him. An act of incredible courage, a fulcrum moment in the switch of the West from Wild to Tame. As a result of the event, Stewart becomes a hero. And eventually a senator, all because of that event. Except, of course, it’s not true. It’s a false narrative. But the false narrative is better than the true narrative. We’re making a movie here. Print the legend.

In the end, we move from fact, which is non-narrative, to history, which is an attempt to organize facts in order to make some sense out of them (and which is, perhaps intrinsically, dishonest in its selection of which facts to organize), to legend, which is an attempt to organize the best narratives (at which point honesty is no longer relevant). Underlying it all might be myth, which can be considered one way to do the organization, that is, we select the narratives based on their metanarrative relevance.

So false narratives can serve a purpose, either personally or culturally. And since often the falsity of the narrative is not even a conscious aspect of the narrative, the morality of honesty versus dishonesty is theoretically irrelevant. All that’s left, in the end, is the narrative itself, and the narrative will be judged on its strengths as a narrative, not on its strengths as a vehicle for iteration of facts. And one of its strengths as a narrative will easily be how well it touches on any underlying inviolable truths.

When the fact becomes the legend, print the legend.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

False Narratives, Part 5

There are times when the line between myth and legend disappears. Our usage of the word myth here is intended to encapsulate those aspects of the West that to a great extent defined the US as a culture. Myths in this context are more like values, in the LD sense, than the specifics of legends. The legends may entail certain mythic aspects, but their goal is not the telling of underlying myth. And the myths may derive from the legends, but whereas the legends are about themselves, and about their narrative, the myths are about what underlies the narratives. What underlies the narratives becomes the metanarrative. (Don’t you love tossing jargon like this around?)

The myth of the West begins with the idea of the frontier. It begins with the idea that, as we move west, there is absolute freedom. We can release ourselves from our lives and begin again. We can become or find ourselves. No one knows who we are out there, so we are free to be whoever we want to be. This freedom and this land may test us, but it will also better us. F. Scott Fitzgerald to the contrary notwithstanding, American lives had an explicit opportunity for second acts, and that was by hauling up stakes and moving west. I don’t know of any other cultural self-image that includes such movement. A Frenchman is a Frenchman, happy to be wherever he is in France; substitute most any other nationality and the statement remains true. Even unhappy countries would be happy if they could only overthrow their nasty leaders and be the Blankmen they are destined to be. Americans are restless. They keep moving. They need to conquer new frontiers. And keep in mind we’re talking image here, not necessarily reality. But that’s beside the point.

There’s a loner aspect to the myth of the West, which is seen in the collected legends. We see ourselves as standing tall but standing by ourselves. We draw on our own resources, some of which we may not have been aware we possessed. In fact, you might say that our myth of the West includes us as our own legends of the West. We are all Wyatt Earp or Kit Carson or John Wayne or Gary Cooper. If you know the movie The Fountainhead (the most inadvertently hilarious motion picture of all time) you know the shot at the end of the Coop as God at the top of the building. Make that a mountaintop, and you’ve got the Western conqueror in the nutshell (and it’s no great stretch to see Randian individualism as a part of it).

So the Myth of the West is the endless frontier and the individualist conqueror. This myth, as a part of our culture, feeds back to our image of ourselves beyond the West. As a culture we believe in the process of reinvention, and we believe that there is a place for us to go to undergo this process. The point that this is myth implies that there might be some flaw in it as a conception of reality. It is based on our desires and our perceptions and our personalization of the legends, and as truth it is seriously flawed (as are, the pomos would say, most if not all metanarratives). The conquering of the Indians leaves out the reality of the Native American situation. The taming of the land leaves out the reality of the abuses of the environment. Building the mighty railroads leaves out the reality of abusing the Chinese laborers. Creating a place of freedom excludes the reality of the lack of freedom for former slaves, Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians, etc., which is forever a problem with the American myth of liberty for all. I’m no Howard Zinn, but facts are facts, and my recommendation to anyone in America is, first and foremost, be white, upper-middle class if you really want to enjoy the place to the fullest.

So legends make for good stories, while myths make for good (hopefully) characters. Admittedly, as I’ve alluded, you could define these terms differently, but the result in the end would be roughly the same. And the end, for us, is the end of the West. At some point, there is no West in the mythic or legendary sense anymore. It’s all settled. It’s all conquered. There is no longer any frontier. At this point, we don’t have any reality anymore informing the myth, but just the myth itself (and, of course, history). The myth persists, even though it’s no longer part of anyone’s daily endeavor. We start studying the myth, and retelling the legends, at a remove from their actuality. We’re no longer studying the West, we’re studying what happens after there no longer is a West. Hence the literature and the films. And as our study moves further and further away from the reality into the representations of that reality, we become more ironic and convoluted and self-conscious—in other words, we take on all the attributes of the postmodern. We’re not studying the West, we’re studying the study of the West. We’re getting into the hermeneutics. We’re getting structural and post-structural and critical. The whole thing is becoming an academic exercise, subject to whatever pressures and trends are afoot in academia, rather than a cultural exercise. One wonders at what point the West as culturally formative/informative myth goes away, to be replaced by other culturally formative/informative myths. It does: there’s no question about that. It probably already has, otherwise there would be more Westerns at the multiplex this weekend.

to be continued…

Monday, June 25, 2007

False Narratives, Part 4

I’ve been very sloppy about usage of the words legend and myth, which are far from interchangeable. When we talk about the west, there are definitely myths, and there are definitely legends, and while sometimes they overlap, we should do our best to achieve some sort of clarity. So we should begin with definitions. Go look the words up. Anywhere. I’ll wait.

[Whistle, whistle… Shuffle, shuffle… Scratch the odd itch…]

Okay, you’re back, and you now have definitions. Good. If you’re still confused, let me help clarify. My romantic prowess is legendary. Your romantic prowess is a myth.

Or, let’s try another approach. Legends explain themselves, myths explain something else. A legend starts with a narrative of reality and, for whatever reason, makes that reality into a hyperreal narrative, something even better than reality, something even more real than the reality and which replaces the reality. A myth starts with something incomprehensible or complicated and attempts to make a narrative out of it. In other words, with a legend we have a preexisting narrative, and with a myth, we have phenomena we are trying to understand, which we do by creating a narrative of explanation. (Without specifically attempting to do so, Caveman does cover some of this material, but then again, Caveman covers everything ever, so that shouldn’t come as any surprise.)

What is legend about the West, and what is myth, is often hard to distinguish, and certainly open to interpretation, regardless of your definitions of myths and legends. You can pin down a few things though. There are certainly legends based on various individuals, or groups of individuals. The mountain men/trappers/trailblazers of the earliest years were real people. We think of someone like Kit Carson as heroic by nature, and the facts of his life don’t dispute this. Sacajawea strikes me as providing a transcendent narrative based on fact (she’s sort of the Ginger Rogers to Lewis and Clark’s Fred Astaire, doing the same thing but backwards and in heels). Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show (begun in 1883!) was in the legend-making business, actually hiring Sitting Bull to stage attacks on his show’s wagon trains, and (indirectly?) making Annie Oakley into an eponym for a free ticket. George Armstrong Custer is a legend (an unfortunate one, perhaps, the kind of general only a CIC like George W. Bush could love). Wyatt and Doc are legends. Tombstone is a legend. The wagon trains are legendary. The building of the railroads and the Golden Spike. The great cattle drives up from Texas. The hunting (to near extinction) of the buffalo, some of which was done from the windows of moving trains by British tourists—some sport, eh? The legendary cleaning up of outlaw towns, brought about by those legendary sheriffs and marshals but also by those legendary average people, the teachers and farmers and merchants and clerics trying to make lives for themselves in a new place.

It was the media that made these narratives into legends, that is, into those hyperreal narratives. The first medium to do this was the magazine, and its child, the dime novel. Western stories made good copy, with beginnings and middles and ends and clear-cut good guys and bad guys and lots of action. These stories lasted down through the pulps in the 20th century, and western novels are still an active genre. (For what it’s worth, one of my first publishing jobs was working on western material, inter alia, and I got quite a kick out of it. Met a lot of interesting people, learned a lot of interesting stuff. You may think I’m just blowing off mental exhaust but I have a history with this material, including editing at least one exhaustive book on western movies. In fact, I’m something of a legend myself in western writer circles. Mention of my name to the right people might get you a free Longhorn Beer, if you smile when you say it.) The most powerful medium to work the western narratives was, of course, movies, which, as we’ve said, started with westerns pretty much from day one. In fact, The Great Train Robbery is one of the earliest American movies (1903), filmed in that great western location also known as New Jersey. (Train robberies, by the way, may be a true pomo aside to explore: there were hardly any in the real-life west. Apparently they are a freestanding legend all their own, with more fictional than real examples.) By the 30s and 40s, Westerns are as big as they’ll ever get, with A movies and B movies and incredibly popular western stars looming large in the US imagination. And this overall popularity of the genre in film, as with the versions on the page, is based to a great extent on the presence of those beginnings and middles and ends and clear-cut good guys and bad guys and lots of action. That makes for good movies, insofar as old Hollywood defined good movies.

Westerns as vehicles for legend haven’t completely gone away, but their preeminence is long gone. There’s probably a variety of reasons for this. Any genre will use itself up after a while. You can tell the story of, say, the O.K. Corral just so many times before your audience is twenty-three kliks ahead of you and you’re still unreeling the credits. And sophistication of film per se passed by the simplistic good vs. bad via action formula on the adult level. And as the West drifted further and further into the past, its immediacy drifted along with it. We became too many generations away from it to care as much, so now instead of direct experience of the west all we had was direct experience of westerns, a classic opportunity for a postmodern approach to the genre on the one hand, and the diminution to a trickle of the genre in any approach. Who do you see (if anyone) when you think of Wyatt Earp: Henry Fonda? Kurt Russell? Kevin Costner? Hugh O’Brien? Whichever, you probably don’t see the real Wyatt Earp. Action defined as people shooting each other on horses isn’t as exciting as the action of people shooting each other from cars (and cars didn’t really explode in numbers until after WWII)(and for that matter, car chases have recently begun to lose their luster after fifty years of them). One generation’s personal history is another generation’s multiple-choice question on a history test. Move down enough generations, and it’s only relevant if it’s really relevant. That is, the Viet Nam war was relevant to everyone in the 70s. It wasn’t relevant to children born in the 90s except insofar as they were the children of those to whom it was relevant in the 70s. Children born today will judge its relevance based on whatever impact the war has on them, be it political (the lessons and direct impacts of the war, if any) or personal (lingering family ties to veterans). Add another 30 years, and who knows? A footnote to unrest at home, or maybe even that’s forgotten. A war as well known as the one from the halls of Montezuma or the one on shores of Tripoli? In our books, WWII holds out, and so do the Revolution and the Civil War. There’s room in any one mind, personal or cultural, for only so much history.

So we hold some of the legends of the west still, but almost of necessity it’s of the legends as legends. We remember the best stories because they were good stories and were therefore told over and over, usually with embellishment. Sometimes the truths behind these stories were shaken if not stirred, and their literalness is long lost to all but the most diligent historian. As we said at the beginning, “When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend.”

But where’s the myth in all of this?

to be continued…

Friday, June 22, 2007

False Narratives, Part 3

The West as an American conception didn’t really exist until the Lousiana Purchase (although movement had begun away from the coasts—GW himself was a surveyor of the wilds of the Virginia back country, which is now Pennsylvania), but that event did not mark the beginning of a mass exodus. Little was known about this land originally, including how to get around in it. Also, it wasn’t exactly uninhabited, and from the beginning the relations of the Americans with the Indians had had their ups and downs, to put it mildly. And in this vast land without roads or trails, where exactly were the places to go? You would move west presumably to improve your lot; where would lot improvement best take place?

The first to venture forth in the early 1800s were loners and adventurers who, it seems, wanted as much as anything to get away from civilization. There was hunting and trapping to be done, and in the early years mountain men would learn the land and mix with the natives and haul in the beaver pelts and blaze trails. The Gold Rush of 1848 gave people a reason to go to California en masse (usually by boat, around the Cape). It’s only after the Civil War that the major expansion of the US truly begins, with serious waves of settlers heading forth. There’s west, of course, and there’s the West. Kansas was the West, although on my maps it looks like the middle. That’s where Wild Bill Hickok was marshall. And that’s where the cowboys ended up: cattle from Texas were herded up the Chisholm trail for shipment by rail to Chicago. The Wild West begins in Kansas.

Most of the westward-moving settlers were farmers, lured by cheap or free land. One big problem about that land was, of course, those other people already on it. Post Civil War, there were soldiers freed up to accommodate the settlers, and the various policies about the Indians were established, few of them to the benefit of the Indians. The nomadic tribes were used to roaming about unhampered, living off the land, and that wasn’t going to be possible anymore. There was much unhappiness and violence on both sides for years, until finally the Indians gave up where they weren’t defeated outright.

The fact that the west was uncivilized, compared to the east, meant that behavior was not always necessarily the most genteel. When there is literally no law, or at least no one to enforce any laws, sociopaths can thrive. Everyone of necessity is armed, and some of them are dangerous. There’s quite a difference between the local police force in Boston and the local sheriff in Tombstone. I would imagine that the rather Marquis of Queensbury fair-and-square shootout duel was a lot less common than the shoot ‘em in the back variety of rowdiness. Would you give Gary Cooper at fair chance at high noon if you could get the job done with more certainty under the cover of night? In any case, outlaws make for good stories, so we've probably overblown their number for the sake of those good stories, but there certainly was a measure of violence in the west that did not exist in the east. It's hard to imagine the Johnson Country range war taking place in, oh, Scarsdale.

If you look at the map, and understand that the West essentially begins in the middle of the country, than it’s easy to realize that half of our country is populated by people who, in 1950, had arrived in the very first post-War migration, or were their first generation descendents. They not only thought of themselves as Westerners, they had pretty good experience of the old West, or had heard about it from their parents. These people had pulled up their stakes and gone off to see the elephant. They had lived in the Wild West. Had broken the land. Had rushed into Oklahoma when the gun went off (or sooner, as the state nickname suggests). Had lived in a world where there were no cars, only horses. The myth of the west was no myth at all to them, it was their personal story, or their family story. It was real. It was their life.

There was also a measure of reality to the earliest western movies. Plenty of real cowboys played the parts of cowboys because they were readily available to do so, and more than capable of sitting a horse. The stars tended to be actors, but you could fill the screen with plenty of the real thing behind those greenhorns. As the western-making business grew, Hollywood easily acquired plenty of the real thing to populate the product. But what’s perhaps most interesting about the early westerns was that they were practically retelling current events. Wyatt Earp died in 1929; Buffalo Bill died in 1917; Geronimo died in 1909; Wounded Knee was 1890. It’s as if I were to make a movie about, say, Ronald Reagan: not exactly ancient history, no matter how you slice it.

The question remains, why were these films and this genre so popular, and the answer is probably the one that I’ve been dancing around, which is that the reality of the west was so important to so many people that they were happy to mythologize it. The cowboys, the outlaws, the Indians, the cavalries, sheriffs, the posses, the wagon trains, the iron horses—they all went from reality to stereotype. The so-called adult westerns of the fifties (which not incidentally saw a rise in all sorts of so-called adult content, to lure people away from TV and into the theaters) to a great extent sought to return to the truths behind the stereotypes, or to honestly study the stereotypes. And what, ultimately, did the West symbolize that everyone was so eager to commemorate? It was, I think, our hardiness. And our heart and strength. Our fairness. Our ingenuity. Our courage. We were the land of the free and the home of the brave and we did brave things with our freedom. While the Earp brothers were cleaning up Tombstone, the Impressionists were cleaning up in Paris (in fact, they were rather old hat), Wagner was putting the final touches on Parsifal, while Mark Twain had yet to pull Huck out of the drawer and finally finish it up.

Of course, the western movies also have intrinsic benefits like action and adventure that can’t be overlooked. If they were dull, no matter how crucial they are to our cultural self-image, they wouldn’t have gone very far. But they weren’t dull, and because of the diversity of the west, the western movies were diverse. There was something for everybody.

After fifty years or so of this material, including its dominance on early television, it was a part of the culture as much as the literal west had once been part of the culture. In fact, by the 1950s, we are getting to the point where the first generation is mostly died off, and all our contact with the west is secondhand, either as the children of settlers, or through our exposure to the genre on the big or small screen. But our image of ourselves, as empire builders within our own borders, remains. We conquered the land. We conquered the Indians. We conquered the outlaws. The problem was, we had reached the end of the continent, and there was no more west to go to. Whatever needed taming had been tamed. They were building drive-in movies where once the buffalo roamed. With the reality gone, all we had left was the myth. There are some who say that the space race of the 50s and 60s, although obviously fueled by Cold War politics, was also an extension of our passage west. We created a new frontier, up there. (Kennedy referred to his administration’s programs as the new frontier, so the idea that the old frontier was gone was manifest, although he wasn’t referring to the space program.) Maybe, but even if it did, it petered out soon enough. So no matter how you look at it, the winning of the West had happened. It was now all entirely history.

to be continued…

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Just as an aside

There's a comment to my contention that the western is, to all intents and purposes, dead as a film/tv genre, claiming that I'm wrong. I thought I had hedged a little bit, allowing for statistical deviations. The commenter lists films like The Unforgiven, Dances with Wolves and others that are exactly the statistical deviations I alluded to. And most of which are rather old. These films, and Deadwood and the others mentioned, are almost inevitably described by critics as attempts to revive a dead genre, or breathe new life into it, or whatever, and they are usually noted as the exceptions they are. I could easily agree that Clint Eastwood is the last of the western folks, but his last western was 15 years ago. Costner did make Open Range in 2003, but I had to look that up; Wyatt Earp was in 94 and Dances was in 90. These people are mostly doing something else.

Even if the evidence could demonstrate that westerns are still an active genre (and the evidence I see on, say, Wikipedia lists of films, doesn't), I don't think there could be much disagreement that the genre does not play the role in the popular imagination that it once did. Saying that B movies, which was where most of the westerns were, went away misses the point that B movies as a production business were replaced by television, which originally was chock-filled with westerns (some of them, literally, old B westerns). Westerns died—and they did die—because people stopped going to them, or watching them. The genre wore out. Like any genre, there are still new examples, just as there's new films noir (in color!) and pirate films or whatever other examples you might like to consider. But there is certainly literature on the West as informing the American image (I'm not making this stuff up), and there is certainly not as much interest in the West these days as there was 50 years ago, at least if one goes by popular entertainment.

I'm trying to explain why I believe this stuff is so in the essay, which I'll continue tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

False Narratives, Part 2

I’ve always been amazed by the incredible courage of immigrants. To leave everything behind—every person you know, every aspect of the culture you were born into—and to venture to a new life is a remarkable endeavor. To do so in the 17th Century, to get on some tiny ship to cross an unimaginably vast ocean to move to a continent you know virtually nothing about, is beyond my grasp.

Coming to the New World (putting aside its initial settlers, whose role in the American narrative is an unfortunate one that underlines the idea that it is the victors who get to write the history) depended initially on where you came from. That is, the major original explorers had fairly different agendas. The British mostly wanted people to settle down and create colonies where they would live, the Spanish mostly wanted to find resources and ship them back home, and the French wanted to convert the savages. At least, that’s the simplistic way of understanding the differences in approach of the major players. Those British settlers started with the east coast of North America, originally finding the easiest places to land and inhabit. The French came in from the north, through Canada, coming down to the Mississippi and eventually out through New Orleans, claiming the Louisiana Territory. The Spanish mostly went south. (As an aside, the line of demarcation which separated Spanish lands from Portuguese lands, which was drawn by the Pope, is an interesting construct. That is, the Pope gets to say who gets what when it comes to claiming new lands, which means that new lands are eminently claimable. This line was early on, when only the Iberians were out and about on the ocean. The French and English when their time came said pooh-pooh to the Pope, and that was the end of that, although they happily stuck with the idea of claiming whatever land came their way that wasn’t already claimed by someone else—from Europe that is.)

So mostly our country, at least in the beginning, is settled by the British. That includes Scots and Irish. Our country at that time is this vast unknown place across the ocean. And it comprises land never particularly far from that ocean. But the first move is crossing that ocean, the immigrant experience. All Americans started out as immigrants for the longest time. Different waves from different places followed over the years, but in terms of our study of the myth of the West, let’s stick with the Brits. Immigration is a different subject altogether.

While initially there was certainly interest and curiosity about the rest of this vast continent that settlers were hugging the edges of, there wasn’t a sense that it was part of a nation to come. The original colonies were perceived by their inhabitants as countries, not states. Countries separate from the Mother Country of England, countries separate from each other, although loosely confederated horizontally and vertically. After the Revolution, much arguing took place about what, exactly, these colonies were supposed to be. A literal loose confederation of the states wasn’t working too well, and the more centralized federal idea took hold. In 1787 that federal idea was put on paper, and we became the United States of America. But it was still plural states. These united states, not the United States. At least not in all minds. More than a few souls maintained that their states were their primary polity. It took the Civil War to finally end that idea (although a few on today’s Supreme Court seem as states-rightist as your most rabid CSA politician).

But the sense of the continent, as a whole, belonging to the federated states was something else. States-rightist Thomas Jefferson, of all people, really got the ball rolling on this with the Louisiana Purchase. For a man in debt his whole life, I guess he knew a bargain when he saw one. And he was always partial to French things, and here was a chance for him to get his hands on a really big, really cheap, French thing. Suddenly the idea that we would start moving west became part of our national image. This idea became crystallized as Manifest Destiny, the concept that it was not merely our wish to take over the whole continent, but it was our fate, our destiny. It was what we had to do.

Lewis and Clark were the first serious western tourists. Sacajawea was the first serious tour guide. The pioneers would follow shortly.

to be continued…

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

On the lost relevance of oaters, or, False Narratives Part 1

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

What I really want to talk about is false narratives, but it’s going to take a while to get there. The quote above comes from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, which is a movie I have little expectation that you’ve seen if you’re under the age of 30. On the other hand, if you’re a film buff, you may know it. It’s a John Ford picture, from 1962. John Kennedy was President. The Beatles had yet to release a record in the US. I was in high school.

The late 60s were the last gasp for the Western, marked in films by a string of progressively weaker John Wayne vehicles and a declining number of TV series and the rather postmodern series of spaghetti Westerns directed by Sergio Leone. Westerns had been a Hollywood staple since virtually day one, but that run was ending. You could say that The Shootist in 1976 was the true swansong of the genre, and it knew that it was the swansong of the genre. John Wayne, who was dying of cancer during the film’s production, plays a gunslinger (a shootist) who is dying of cancer. There have been a few Westerns since then, but they’ve been rare birds. The genre is, for all practical purposes, dead.

The Western wasn’t merely a type of entertainment. It was a much more transcendent genre. Kids played cowboys and Indians, or Davey Crocket, or whatever, as a matter of course. Cowboy stars were kid’s idols going back to the silent movies, and to the dime novels before that, and certainly up through 50s television. The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy and company were icons. The average kid knew the names of Tim McCoy’s horse and Roy Rogers horse and Gene Autry’s horse. Knowledge of who shot whom at the O.K. Corral was a given. But it wasn’t just kid stuff. Adults enjoyed westerns too. They read western novels, they went to so-called “adult” western movies, they watched Gunsmoke week after week on television for years, after having listened to it on the radio for years prior to that. And the westerns did develop an interior mythology of white hats and black hats, schoolmarms and tongue-tied cowpokes, sheriffs and marshals and and cattle drives and range wars and railroads and a whole range of Indians from the Rousseau noble savage to the base mindless killer. And all of it just went away. It died a death. It was a slow death, but a solid one. A kid born in the last twenty years might conceivably never watch a new western movie or a new western television show. Aside from statistical deviation (like the occasional Deadwood), the genre is gone. And it hasn’t been supplanted by something else. That is, another genre as meaningful has not come along to replace it. Unquestionably certain science fiction stories are nothing but westerns in fancy dress, but in no way have SF films replaced westerns in either media ubiquity or mythic significance. That mythic significance is, of course, the relationship of the West to the American narrative. Or, if you will, the myth of the West is a key factor in the American metanarrative, which is reflected in the genre. The myth of, oh, Luke Skywalker, while perhaps primal in the Joseph Campbell sense, is not particularly American. Far from it. But the narrative of the frontier is absolutely a defining characteristic of the American personality. Or at least it used to be. Maybe the frontier has been gone for so long we’ve forgotten it ever existed.

A metanarrative, of course, is the underlying story. In the case of a national, cultural metanarrative, it is the underlying story we tell ourselves about ourselves, although it does not necessarily have to be literally expressed. That is, we don’t have to sit around the campfire every night telling the tales for those tales to be a part of us. For your postmodernists, of course, we need to go beyond the metanarratives (or maybe it’s that the metanarratives break down—it’s hard to tell with these guys). But we’re not looking at this philosophically, but simply examining it on face. The belief in the West, in the frontier, is part of the American character because the West and the frontier were so much a part of the literal American story. One could suppose from the lack of Westerns in our lives anymore, we have moved past this story, or moved past the metanarrative. Perhaps. Others would say that, since there is no longer any frontier, and it’s been so long since there was one, the stories have lost their mythic relevance. Again, perhaps. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to examine this narrative, as a history lesson, and a cultural lesson, and a fairly long digression before I get to what I really wanted to talk about.

to be continued…

Monday, June 18, 2007

Coachean Life: A primer

Well, there’s a bit of bad business on the overall Sailor plate this week, and a Google search of Hendrick Hudson will bring up all the Gory Ds if you're not already aware of it. I do not feel it appropriate to comment on the situation, nor do I feel informed enough to comment on the situation even if it were okay for me to do so. But it does remind one that we are in the middle of one of the most complicated processes known to humanity, i.e., the education of adolescents in 21st Century America. It’s not always easy.

Of course, I’m not a particularly educated educator, and some might suggest that even considering myself an educator borders on travesty. I always think there are some tricks of the trade I would have picked up if I had gotten an education degree, but I also think I bring some unique experience to the process that has some value. Having spent a career in business, dealing with students who will, most likely, also spend careers in business, means that I bring some wisdom that is otherwise unavailable and which may be useful. It’s all well and good to train students in speech and debate because you believe in the skills that forensics instills, but I see these skills, and the lack of them, regularly, and I see how they can be applied effectively, and how not possessing them can mean the difference between success and failure in a chosen career. Teachers may not have the insight that results from this.

But what I’m thinking about is not the lessons taught in a classroom. One of the things I’m struck by occasionally is that, unlike most of the people students come in contact with in their careers, a coach is long-term. Teachers come and go with their courses, but if you’re involved in an extracurricular activity, chances are you have the same coach year in and year out. Most of these coaches are athletic, and there are certain aspects of athletics, and athletic coaching, that are quite different from forensics. Certainly there are valuable lessons to be learned in sport other than just winning, but winning is the goal of athletic competitions, and when you’re not at a competition, you’re prepping for a competition. There will certainly be life lessons learned on the playing fields of Eton, but there really is no football after graduation, or baseball, or soccer insofar as they inform your future careers. Aside from acquiring a little extra skill for the company softball team, or having polished up a good game of recreational tennis, sports qua sports equals sports, plus maybe a little extra physical fitness. On the other hand, presenting oneself to groups, to customers, whatever, having a point of view and being able to explain it successfully, is something you could conceivably do all the time. Meanwhile, in our competitions we’ll have still touched on all those other lessons of graceful winning and graceful losing, of the need to prepare to achieve success, on the value of teamwork and so forth. Personally I think sports are inherently valuable in school, for a variety of reasons. I also think forensics is valuable. Too bad everyone doesn’t do both.

As coaches of forensics, we are in a strange position. We are speakers ourselves; unlike sports coaches, who need not demonstrate proficiency on the field on a regular basis, we must literally speak to our teams, and present to our teams, and hold their attention, and get across points of view every single time there’s a meeting. Because there is at least some controversy over what our activity ought to be, we are forced to claim some sort of partisanship, which may or may not endear us to our students (and, in the case of the Legion of Doom membership, may be perceived as detrimental to their competitive chances); I don’t think there’s a pomo dispute in lacrosse, for instance. We both coach and adjudicate; I don’t think that’s true in sports, as a general rule. Our competitions take days to complete, not hours, and require overnight stays, which means that the adults are not only on the bus back and forth, but everywhere else as well, almost every weekend, although this is more regional than some other aspects I’m discussing. As a result, one coaches twenty-four hours a day for days on end. Since I am far from a font of wisdom 24/7, nor are many of the other coaches I have run into, the best we can hope for is being a marginally not unacceptable role model 24/7. Even that’s not so easy sometimes.

Throughout all of this, we must be mindful of the role we are playing in the students’ lives. It’s easy to see that this role, whatever it is, will arguably be one of the most regular performances, and perhaps among the most important, they will see in their high school careers. It not only encompasses the lessons of forensics, of philosophy, of competition. It also includes the lesson of our example. For good or for ill, they are stuck with us for long periods in deeply dug trenches, and we can only hope that our good outweighs our ill in the final balance.

I do think about this. All coaches should think about this. With one extra warning: you’re not going to be able to put one over, at least not for long. What I’ve left out was that, as high school students go, ours are among the most savvy. They will be wise to us quickly, no matter how self-delusional we wish to be, if we are up to no good. If our values do not match our claims of value. If our failings are not honest mistakes but attempts to serve some other agenda. If we don’t actually teach them something worth knowing.

Damn, that’s a lot of responsibility.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Celebrity Deathmatch: Pinkos vs Fat Cats

Walter Kirn takes on Howard Zinn in today's Sunday Times Book Review. There are two schools of thought on Zinn. One is that he has exposed the true history of the USA, and the other is that he hasn't. (Is that subtle or what?) I am of the latter persuasion. So is Kirn.

Read the article. (I'm not sure if the link will work for people who don't have my Times cookie, but you'll figure it out.)

Friday, June 15, 2007

Fun with NatNuts

There's a fine piece by Jeffers on NatNats over at WTF. He makes the tournament sound like... LD. Clear arguments concentrating on the resolution. No sneaky flow tricks. Doing your best to enjoy yourself while engaging in smart discussion of interesting stuff. Presumably to some in the activity that is a capsule summary of hell on earth, but for most of us, I would imagine it's why we got into this line of haberdashery in the first place. As a regular non-attendee at NatNats, I can only speak to the event from hearsay. I do not have a week off from the day job to attend it, and even if I did, the Sailors are usually disinclined to choose it over graduating, or at least their Regents exams. We have launched a few at it over the years, the ones who've been wily enough to figure out ways of making it happen, but as you know, New York is notoriously on the fence regarding NatNats (hence our district's red light status). But what I've heard is much as Doug describes it, a long week, but fun.

Which puts a finger on my focus with this activity. It should be fun. It should also be work, and hard, and educational. It should be illuminating. It should be a fluid in which the specimen adolescent matures admirably, acquiring meaningful lessons on the road to responsible and productive adulthood. It should be an arena to explore important yet unanswerable issues of human existence. It can, over time, bounce around among all of these, but underlying it at all times, as I say, is the idea that it should be fun. You should enjoy it. You should like doing it, regardless of what your position is in it (which sounds sort of like a veil of debate ignorance). One of my biggest beefs is with those who would make it not fun. I have seen, in my day, tournament directors who treat students like, well, crap. How can that be? Why would someone go through all the hell of running a tournament and not appreciate the participation of the students for whom the tournament exists? It's beyond me. When we run tournaments we should do our best to make our guests welcome, and to treat them well. Most of us do, but a few don't. Go figure. Maybe there's a preemptive expectation that some kid is going to do something ill-advised, and the TD is already dishing out the retribution. I don't know.

Then again, I am the rosiest personality I know. I am easy to please, generally optimistic, and always doing my best to enjoy myself. I am kindliness personified. But the VCA already knows that. Next step: inform the Vatican. They will need to know all of this some day, when the miracles start happening.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Wichita, City of a Thousand Dreams

Ah, Wichita in the spring. WTF is soliciting advice on things to do, and a mention of something called Wild West World was included. Apparently this is a new theme park (you’ll have to guess what the theme is, which is very difficult given the name of the place) and I went to their website, which tells you little other than who manufactured all the rides. Very ACE of them… I was struck by the fact that the Chinese Acrobats are their featured performers this summer. No doubt led by Tex Wong and Lefty Hsu. Then again, go west enough and, yep, there’s China.

The ACE is, of course, the American Coaster Enthusiasts. Personally I think they should have found some way to make it ACME, but they got what they got. I know this guy who very much considers himself and his son coaster enthusiasts: they literally travel every vacation of their lives exclusively to amusement parks to ride roller coasters. Ohio, for them, is Mecca, and since they refuse to fly anywhere, it’s also about as far as they can reasonably get in their allotted amounts of time. (Why are so many unlikely people flyophobes, or whatever you call them? My favorite was Isaac Asimov. I mean, Isaac, really, you of all people…) For them, Disney is about as tantalizing as a grits factory, although there was a little frisson when I was describing Expedition Everest. Anyhow, these guys live to go on roller coasters, but as they put it, while they may be enthusiasts, the ACE people are extremists. They literally do live on roller coasters. Comment from ACEr: “I’ve ridden this one 5,203,283 times since it opened last week. That’s a record.” Response from fellow ACEr: “Damn, I’ve only ridden it 5,203,279 times. I’ll never catch up.” At which point responder secretly slips a little Sal Hepatica on the record-holder’s deep-fried Mars Bar, in the obscure hope of stealing an advantage. ACE people know every coaster, who made it, when, how. And the internet provides them with everything they lovingly need to pursue their hobby. Personally I enjoy the computer simulations of rides, usually provided by the parks themselves. It saves wear and tear on the brain (which, like O’C’s, can be shaken loose if you’re not paying attention during a ride) but still gives you a sense of the thing. No matter how you slice it, I’m a wood guy myself. I don’t really care about inversions and corkscrews. I like that feel that the whole matchstick structure is going to collapse way before you get through with the ride. Metal coasters may turn you into mush, but your sense of danger is only that you’ll fall out of it. With woodies, the sense of danger is that the whole thing will fall apart. It’s the difference between fear of your own inadequacies versus fear of the collected inadequacies of everyone you’ve ever met, and a few that you haven’t. As fears go, the latter is easily the landslide winner. But then again, speaking of landslides, coasters in Japan are built to withstand earthquakes, a regular phenomenon which may hit while you’re riding. Now there’s perhaps the ultimate winner in the paranoia, when the entire earth collapses under you while you’re 400 feet in the air wondering about air time. Aaaaiiiieeeeeeee!!!!!!!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

I now consider looking at ads some form of pastime

I’m beginning to wonder if the iPhone is The One. My interest in phones, as anyone who has ever tried to call me knows, borders on the negative, although I do sort of like texting as a perfectly reasonable way to transmit information without having to keep asking if the person on the other end can hear you. I’m always amazed at people who seem to live on their cell phones, given that whenever I use mine people sound really terrible. It’s not me, either. Cell phones aren’t the same as landlines, if for no other reason than that you can’t hear yourself, which is why most people shout at top volume: they’re not getting the feedback they’re used to (short of deafening the person at the other end, and everyone around them at their end), and the voice of the other party always sounds like it’s underwater, so they overcompensate. Add to this the ringtones that at least 23 states have admitted as legal defenses for justifiable homicide, and you don’t have a device that incites any technolust in me. But all the other things the iPhone can do look pretty good; I was just over at Apple looking at the ads. You just throw in the phone apps as an extra benefit, and you’ve got a pretty nice toy. But also an expensive one. And no one whose sanity was unquestioned ever bought the first version of anything, especially from Apple Corp. I would imagine though that the second generation point four will probably be the one to get. Lots more memory, all the kinks worked out, costing less than an arm, a leg and half your spleen. It’s been a while since I seriously wanted anything electronic (except for this lingering belief I have that if I had a Wii I’d finally get back into videogames). I’m not even planning on upgrading Little Elvis to Leopard, given my belief that upgrading to a new operating system, when the old one works, is only for people who don’t actually do anything on their computers and therefore won’t miss it when its gone, or miss the time lost trying to revive it. If you’re actually writing and creating and whatnot, and everything’s hunky-dory, challenging the status quo is a mug’s game. I mean, I wait to hear the all-clear from the pundits before even downloading version updates. Major updates (remember the early days of iTunes 7.0?) are disaster on a stick. Especially if you have to pay for them.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The "The" Chronicles; I've got a million more Goldwynisms, if you want 'em

Great moments in forensics history: O’C was not happy with his listing on the MHL home page. He even added a comment here. Instead of saying Jon Cruz of Bronx High School of Scientology, it should say Jon Cruz of the Bronx High School of Scientology. Initially I felt that changing it to the Jon Cruz of Bronx High School of Scientology would be enough, or maybe Jon the Cruz of the Bronx High School of the Scientology, and then there was the always popular Jon Cruz of the the. But ultimately I acquiesced, since only he would appreciate an alternate sentiment, while anyone looking at the home page from a neutral corner would think the whole operation is bordering on insanity. Not that it isn’t, but we shouldn’t present that front and center.

I do feel sort of un-newsy. Not that much is happening. The list of people planning to go to Kansas includes me out (to paraphrase Sam Goldwyn), which means that, simply put, my year is over. I need to get my head back into the Legion of Doom game, after having promised Smilin’ J I’d do some work and not having even thought about it, and no doubt he wants it by NatNats. O’C wants to register for Bump, but at this point I’m still only meditating about it. The website says, metaphorically, Gone Fishin’ and metaphorically gone fishin’ I will be, till about August, although I did tell him that if he wants to simply start paying nuisance fees I’d be happy to accept them. Few of the Sailors are even thinking about Yale, which may mean that the few who do go get a fairly free ride, since we have last year’s Bump candy money going into the pot. I’ve heard one or two disturbing things about some local programs going forward, and I need to track them down, but I won’t discuss them here until they’re verified. I’m not exactly in the business of publishing rumors. Unless they’re about OC, and especially juicy.

Give me, say, five more hours in the day, and I’d be in hog heaven.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The treading of forensic water continues

I somehow managed to motivate myself debatewise enough over the weekend to do a number of things. Chief among them was sending out a notice about next year’s MHL. There’s an odd calendar a’ comin’ in. We’ll get our usual first-timer’s event going the week after Big Jake, and Byram Hills has confirmed the venue (and we’re going to attempt to offer JV divisions as well, room permitting—that was O’C’s idea and it seems like a good one, especially with Monticello no longer offering its JV division). What I hadn’t realized was that there’s two weekends in January before Big Lex, which means, theoretically, opportunities for two events. This is a rare occurrence, since Lex is based on MLK weekend, and I think it’s impossible for this to happen except every six years, if the Leaps allow. Of course, the year squeezes in come March, because of an early Easter. There is a possibility of an event the week after Harvard at Jake, since they host some Districts event or other and there would be room to do it; the only problem is, would there be kids to do it? Anyhow, O’C has offered.

So, I updated the MHL site, and updated my tournament calendar, so that’s one thing I don’t have to think about for a while. I put up a new Nostrum when I found a few minutes, which always instills in me a sense of accomplishment. I learned that once again I get to chair the dreaded New York State NFL Red Light District, and promised myself that, someday, I’m actually going to vote in this election.

Otherwise, I’ve been beavering away on non-debate stuff which should be of no interest to you.

Friday, June 08, 2007

It's (almost) summertime; mind the gap; is hiatusable a word; my God is bigger than your God; finalizing the Pups

I’ve had Sailors on the mind this week. I sent out a reminder about summer reading, angling more toward the sociological/political than the philosophical books, given the way things are going these days topic-wise. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that; I should probably also remind philosophy fans that summer is a good time to attack Caveman. I mean, it takes at least three months, plus an empty head, so it’s perfect summer vacation fodder.

I’m also in a sort of public relations mode on Pffft. There seem to be a number of levels of forensics interest, various plateaus if you will, and Pffft fills a gap for those who want to, literally, debate, but who are neither wonk-dedicated enough for policy or philosophy-dedicated enough for LD. That one-month window lets a lot of breezes in. Those students who disappear after their sophomore year would now have something to maintain their interest without controlling their lives. That’s a good thing.

I’ve been keeping Nostrum up. I think I’ll be able to manage one a weekend for the foreseeable future (my writing project is otherwise eating most of my chez time). Normally I would set up for a summer hiatus with something like this, but podcasts don’t seem to be hiatusable as much as some other things. Neither is this blog. If I were to stop for too long, no one would remember it existed (unless, of course, I blew the lid off WTF by publishing the rap sheets of—well, we’ll hold off on that one for now, but if I have to be the LD Smoking Gun at some point in the future, so be it).

Speaking of WTF, they have an interesting mention of a debate league for the home-schooled, whose goal is to proclaim biblical truth through forensics. Really. If they debate among themselves, it would be one thing, but if they debate opponents who don’t subscribe to the same theology, all hell (if you’ll pardon the expression) would break loose. I like their topic, though (which apparently is for a full year): Democracy is overvalued by the United States government. Not to argue it from a religious context but from the simple policy context: if I remember correctly, Iraqis were going to toss rose petals at our soldiers’ feet as they installed a democracy and capitalism and a healthy respect for Halliburton right after the shock and awe wore off. There is a whole western-centered approach to politics that considers democracy the teleological conclusion of government, but one can question this objectively from a variety of perspectives. One can make various socialist claims, or Third Way claims, or whatever, for interesting discourse. Absent God, of course. The problem with God, especially in the Middle East where our innate belief in democracy as a panacea is most manifest, is that there are dueling God conceptions. Both sides are, to some degree, fighting with God on their side. But it’s a different God. Who wants to debate that, aside from missionaries?

Meanwhile, earlier this week there was a flurry of discussion amongst the male tabbers (i.e, the pronounced lunatics) about the Pups, and various changes were wrought. Most importantly, we cut down to two rounds on Friday, balanced by a longer Sunday. This looks good. Three Friday rounds meant an awfully late night for everyone (including the poor tabbers). My guess is that we can catch up on Sunday with back-to-back elimination rounds. A handful of Sailors have expressed their interest in the event; we should have a quorum soon enough. Same hotel as last year, not close enough to walk but nice enough not to worry for your life late at night.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Tsotchke Wars

There seems to be much angina over at WTF over some school banning NFL honor cords at graduation. I read the article when it was posted a couple a days ago, and admit to reading none of the comments, which a moment ago were up to 66, which means the subject has hit deeply. (For all I know, it may have been solved by now, so forgive me if I’m commenting on speculative history rather than current events, but there’s an interesting issue at stake here.)

I’m probably the worst person to bloviate on this. First of all, I don’t go to the Sailors’ graduation ceremonies. I do not wish them to get the idea that leaving the school somehow means they have eluded my clutches. I do not see them as former debaters. I see them as prime judges. As far as I’m concerned, they’re not going anywhere. Even the stinkers like Emcee who went as far away as Emory to get out from under is still expected to show up regularly. Anyhow, I wasn’t particularly sentimental when I graduated high school, or for that matter college (a ceremony I didn’t attend, as I already had a job to go to), so I’m not particularly sentimental when others do. Call me a cad on that one. So the idea of augmented graduation paraphernalia doesn’t register much with me. For that matter, paraphernalia per se doesn’t register much with me, unless it features Darth Tater. The NFL sells more tsotchkes that I personally can shake the proverbial stick at. Rings, shirts, cords, hats, whiskey—for all I know, they even have Darth Tater wearing an NFL hoodie. My theory is, I pays my ninety-nine bucks and get points for people (woo-hoo) and that’s the end of that. NFL does not play a big enough role for the Sailors for them to label themselves as NFLers. They could conceivably want to label themselves as forensicians, but they don’t compete at any NFL-sanctioned events other than Districts, and they are unlikely to choose NatNats over their final exams or graduation exercises, so the symbolic connection of Sailors to debate via NFL is not hardwired.

As far as the controversy of the banned cords, I get the impression that the crux is not that the administrators are anti-debate or anti-NFL, but simply that the students didn’t follow procedure. That’s always problematic. There’s rules, and then there’s actions that may or may not conform to the rules. One can question the validity of the rules, or one can question the adjudication of the action vis-à-vis the rules (which sounds an awful lot like a case structure). Any way you do it, it’s a mug’s game.

There is comfort in rules and regulations and standardized process. But there is also often efficacy, and, presumably, maximization of final results. At the point at which we don’t have to worry about how to do something, because how to do it is prescribed, we can concentrate on the thing itself. (This informs my opinion of theory debate: at the point at which we’re arguing how to debate, we’re not arguing the content of the debate itself, and the two are separate and should be dealt with in separate arenas. The debate round is for arguing the content of the debate; NFL forums and the like are for arguing the structure.) Administering secondary schools is a complicated business. Obviously education of the students is prioritized, but there are almost infinite factors complicating the process. Not least of these is the nature of the students themselves. Adolescents are almost instinctively anti-authoritarian at a point in their lives when valid authorities are perhaps as valuable as they will ever be. There seems to be a tendency of the parents who have the most problematic students to be the most problematic adults. There’s the issue of insuring that the teachers at a school are doing their job; just because someone has a certificate doesn’t make that person an educator. The rules set out by administrators attempt to negotiate these various shoals on which a student’s education can be shipwrecked. If enough good rules are in place to regulate the predictable problems, it will allow time to handle the unpredictable problems, of which there are many, which would mean putting the students’ education first in situations where that prioritization requires hands-on analysis, while not having to waste time on the everyday issues.

So I don’t have any answers, but at least I understand the question. The resulting dilemma in the NFL cords situation probably makes no one happy in the administration in question. Their rule, intended to maintain a certain decorum at graduation, has inadvertently blocked a perfectly decorous activity from being recognized. To cede the issue would undermine the authority of the rule that is of necessity maintaining decorum over the long term. To allow that there can be exceptions diverts the concentration of the administration from important issues that can’t be adjudicated by the rules; there is a process at the school for getting approval for various honors at graduation. On the other hand, the students apparently have a strong interest in NFL as it has informed their high school careers, and feel that an obscure (at least to them) rule is capriciously mitigating against their self-image, and they know that without batting an eye the administrators could easily grant their approval.

The good news is, I’ve got my own problems to contend with. I’m happy that this one is not mine.

Monday, June 04, 2007


I first saw the IAC building on my way down to Stuyvesant in March. It was still wrapped in construction equipment, and I had no idea what it was, but it jumped out at me as a real comer. It’s on the corner of 18th (I think) and the West Side Highway, literally the last building on the west side before the docks (in this case, the Chelsea Piers). I tracked it down and found out that it was designed by Frank Gehry. You might know him from The Simpsons.

I was in Manhattan Friday, over at the Javits Center for the annual Book Expo, where all the publishers lay out their upcoming wares so that all the bookstore people can get free samples of stuff they would otherwise never hear of, or get their kids’ pictures taken with Michelin’s Bib, or as I did, pick up a Superman button to give to O’C. I had never been to Javits before, so that was something of a revelation too. It’s a wide open space, as a convention center must be, dreadfully airless and hot, and fancifully designed along the inspirational lines of the 1851 Crystal Palace, which was the phenomenon of its day, a modular construction of glass and metal with the structural elements clearly visible. Javits makes no secret of its roots, and even boasts some sort of Crystal Palace cafeteria, no doubt just like the one Victoria and Albert used to get their bagels at. The CP is the Grandaddy of World’s Fair exposition buildings, a ginormous space where everything was squeezed in willy nilly to provide a deliberate sensory overload. You were here to see the wonders of the world, after all. You shouldn’t be yawning through the whole thing.

Subsequent fairs kept the concept of the uberbuilding, but slowly branched out. By 1893, the Chicago Columbian Exposition was a whole series of these enormous buildings devoted to specific themes, collected in a grand White City. Walt Disney’s father was one of the construction workers on that fair; L. Frank Baum used the design as the germ of his Emerald City. By 1939 and the quintessential New York fair, buildings had gotten smaller and more specific: modernism had replaced classicism. I don’t know if form follows function when the National Cash Register company’s pavilion is shaped like a giant cash register, but I guess postmodernism’s seeds are inherent in modernism. At the same time, the Trylon and Perisphere are perfect examples of the Modernistic, architecture that claims to be the most up-to-date by predicting what architecture will look like in the future. Or this can be considered Futuristic, like the design of Space Mountain or much of EPCOT. (A lot of academic architecture is arguing orthodoxies and orthographies, which is why I’m not much of a fan of a lot of academic approaches to subjects.) By the time you get to Hanover in 2000, the architecture of the fair is literally and intrinsically about architecture (but you saw that coming, didn’t you). Hanover was pure post-contemporary.

Anyhow, I enjoyed rambling around the Javits, wishing that it were some mythical BIE (that’s the international World’s Fair folks) Expo 2007 rather than the BEA, but what are you going to do? After exhausting myself with the futility of making money off the written word in the 21st Century, I headed off to the IAC, it being in that general neck of the woods. If you’re so inclined you can read what the Times had to say about it ( and see some pictures (the href isn't working for some reason; sorry). It’s not a particularly large or grandiose building, which is one of the nice things about it. It’s exactly the right height for a building in that neighborhood. It fits in, yet it stands out. One expects Gehry designs to be, at least at some level, visual overload, with all those freeform roofs and crooked angles, but this is modest in its nonlinear angularity. It reminds me of a small iceberg, and when you’re close, it’s even more like an iceberg, with cool gray-white glass that you can just barely see through. The interior (at least the part I was able to get into) was clean and inviting, and I gather there’s an open arborium away from the public area, which I have to admit is one of the things I don’t like about modern buildings (the Hearst on 58th has this same problem): making the most dramatic interior spaces private seems to be counterintuitive to the public nature of these buildings. Granted they are privately owned, but not so private as not to be urban landmarks. Once you’re a landmark, you sort of forfeit your privacy. (That’s even true of people, at least in a legal sense.)

Overall, I’m reminded by the IAC of Gehry’s Fred and Ginger in Prague, which is also a surprisingly small but fun structure. Everything doesn’t have to be his Disney music hall or Bilbao. The one I haven’t seen yet that I should is MIT, because I haven’t been to Cambridge since it’s been built. I’m tempted to go just for that. For that matter, I’m tempted to go to Bilbao just to see the Guggenheim.

I’m very easy to please.

Sister Emily visits once a year; my cocktails with O'C (action figures sold separately)

Emily J points out that I seem hung up on feminism. She’s right. By my estimate, roughly half the people I come in contact with are of the female persuasion, so if I have some question that they are being treated somewhat strangely because they are female, it strikes me as worth mentioning. Also, I am not alone in that business of running into females fairly often, making feminism a very easy way into the (philosophically?) popular area of Critical Theory. Since academic feminism is not all CT, especially if you start with, say, J. S. Mill, a student of the game can follow an entire literature from orthodoxy through all its schisms with some personal interest in the situation. There are also, of course, critical theories about race, gays, law, etc. I'm probably equally interested (or perplexed) in these areas, especially as they relate to debate (at least in this blog), and I have yapped on about all of them a little bit—a lot, if you count Caveman—but the feminist issues just seem to have come up more often lately. And since Sister Emily only seems to visit CL as an occasional avoidance therapy, that may explain why she thinks I'm obsessive.

I met with O'C on Friday for an update on everything that's been going on since my last event in March. One can never get enough gossip, needless to say, and much of what he said was substantial, and in some cases even true. I'm not quite sure if I prioritize veracity over quantity in acquiring the latest poop, but either way, it was a pleasant affair. We also discussed WDW at length, and I learned that his brain had been shaken loose by Mission: Space. Since, unlike O'C, on that particular ride I took the wimpo option with no spinning, my brain remained nicely fixed. Which may account for all the differences between O'C and myself. You be the judge.

The Seinfeld bracketology is from LPW. I'm not as up on Seinfeld as a lot of other people, so I'm trusting he's hit all the high points. (And don't you wish you had someone on your team nicknamed LPW?)