Friday, April 30, 2010

Let’s just look at the most important fairs following the Crystal Palace.

The Exposition Universelle of 1889 was the site of a rather large folly created by a successful bridge engineer and roundly excoriated by the culture leaders of the day, who said it would ruin the city. The temporary tower, named after its creator, had some problems going up, especially with elevators (the French, being French, wanted to use local talent rather than hire that upstart American Otis company), but once it was erected, Eiffel was very clever giving those excoriating cultural leaders personal guided tours, and before long the tower was the toast of Paris. They even decided to leave it up until the next exposition! While the fair—commemorating the 100th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille and the birth of the revolution—was happening around the tower, Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley were wowing them down the road with their Wild West Show, while those pesky “Impressionists” artists were being told that there was no place for their ugly crap at the fair. A marvelous moving sidewalk transported the tired feet of visitors from one site to another on the Champ de Mars.

The World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 (it was a year late for the 400th anniversary) was, among other things, Chicago’s announcement that it was a world-class city. The White City was a belle époque paradise that inspired, among others, L. Frank Baum and, probably, Walt Disney whose father, as we said, worked on its construction. Because the Eiffel Tower had been so successful, the fair folk decided that they, too, need an engineering marvel. They turned to George Ferris, who created a giant wheel from which hung large gondolas in which you could hold quite a reception. Tweet the mob! The wheel was not permanent, although it was seen again a decade later at bit further south at the Lousiana Purchase Exposition (the “Meet Me in St. Louis” fair). Midway between the fair and, if I’m not mistaken, one of the railroad stops, was an amusement area named the Midway Plaisance where you could see, in addition to displays of funny-looking foreigners, Little Egypt dance the hootchy-kootchy; eventually amusement areas became known as midways. The Columbian Exposition also brought us the hamburger, Cracker Jack, alternating current and, arguably, our first famous serial killer.

For students of fairs, the treatment of those “exotic” people is a real issue. One must, of course, consider the times, but there is no question that, for all practical purposes, we corralled these folks for public display not too unlike zoos, and didn’t take particularly good care of them. You can track down these stories for yourself. Of course, some of these wild natives were anything but, although from our perspective… I mean, the Japanese may have fairly recently had a closed nation, making their presence unusual in downtown Chicago in the 1890s, but they had what one can only call, for lack of a better word, a civilized society, so their reactions to their display was quite different from, say, tribal Africans. Some fairs brought out local tribals for their displays, for instance in the American Northwest, and there is give and take between the integration of their culture into that of the anglos versus their marginalization at the same time, that makes for interesting study. Ultimately there is no question that we did not, at our fairs, display, say, the French and their bizarre ways as we did display, say, the Eskimos. You can answer for yourself if times, and the way we look at others, has changed.

Sticking to an American viewpoint, we sort of reach a fair apotheosis in 1939 in New York. For fair buffs, this is the Big One. We'll do that next.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The World's Fairs

Our story begins here and there in the 18th Century, when people had what they called exhibitions, where they would display their latest products and technology. The world was, obviously, a different place than now, and if somebody invented a new plow or something, they didn’t accidentally leave it behind in a bar so that Gizmodo could out them on it over the internet two minutes later. These rare, occasional exhibitions were a chance for people to catch up with the latest, although they were relatively local for the same reason they were so important: there wasn’t much in the way of transportation, so if you lived in New York and there was an exhibition in Philadelphia, it was virtually a life commitment to go see it. News traveled slowly, in other words, as did people and technology. But as the world entered into an era of invention, the need to speed things up and the ability to speed things up combined, and by any measure, by the middle of the 19th Century, the world was a totally different place again from the mid-18th. The evolution of technological civilization was picking up speed. It still is, for that matter, but at least we’re used to it. Back then, it was all new. And more than just technology was at stake. The worlds of art and craft were also changing, sometimes in conjunction with techonology and sometimes on their own tracks. There was much to be shared there too.

It is generally agreed that the first bona fide world’s fair was the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations” in 1851. Held in London in The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, this was the exhibition that opened itself up to other countries for them to display their stuff too. By 1851, you had railroads and steam-powered boats, and the world was becoming manageably travelable. Which meant that people could get there, not only from nearby but from far away. The exhibition was, by any measure, an extraordinary success, with millions of visitors. The displays—13,000 of them—included samples of the latest art and technology and design and manufacturing from a number of nations, including the US, India and Australia. You could see Matthew Brady’s daguerreotypes, a Jacquard loom (without which there wouldn’t have been computers), the Koh-i-noor diamond, and my new personal favorite that I just discovered, the Tempest Prognosticator, a barometer using leeches (without which the world would probably be exactly the same as it is today).

And that set the initial tone for future fairs. First of all, the host country would be showing off its stuff as better than everybody else’s stuff (a definite underlying theme of the 1851 Exhibition, of which Prince Albert was an organizer). Second, everybody else would be showing off the creme de la creme of their stuff, to counteract the inherent claims of the host nation. Third, it would include both arts and sciences, often introducing something that became extremely popular. Fourth, it would often include great feats of architecture, like the Crystal Palace. Added to this shortly thereafter was, fifth, it would act as a display for exotic native people, and sixth, it would offer a place where the masses could be amused (sometimes mixed with those displays of exotic native people). New wrinkles in the 20th Century were, seventh, that it would offer a view of the future, and eighth, that it would solve a problem in the present. Nowadays you can usually add, ninth, that it would provide an excuse for a city/locality to build infrastructure (roads, mass transit, hotels, offices) and then promote itself to international commerce.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Continuing the Disney Debate Adventure meanderings

Naturally, after all these years of Disney on the brain, it was a simple extension of the normal universe to expand from family to friends. Of course, a trip to WDW requires kindred spirits, and O’C, of the famous Cinderella autograph, was an obvious starting partner for such a trip, and he was onboard from the start. It was then similarly obvious that the Traveling Tabroom, which has a great time working together but also enjoys goofing around together but gets few chances to do so, would similarly enjoy such an event (if nothing else, as anthropologists studying the bizarre habits of the natives like me and O’C), so I invited them along too. For seasoning I threw in my cousin Denise, the one I went to Disneyland with when I was in college. And my family, of course. A few other folks were invited early on but demurred, for one reason or another. Too bad. WDW is the kind of place where you can indeed batch up a large group of people, sometimes hanging together, sometimes on their own (for instance, there’s no way any of us would wait two seconds for Cinderella’s autograph, so if O’C is on the hunt for it again, he’s going in solo, while I think Kate and I could ride Everest all day, eliminating some of the ribbon clerks in the group from our particular pleasure). There’s a lot of great food opportunities at the interstices, plus there’s a central miniature golf tournament in the plans. Overall I’m expecting a fun few days toward the end of summer, right before we kick into the next debate season. By the way, if you want to meet up with us, the dates are August 27-September 2. O’C would love someone to stand in line with him while he waits for Cinderella’s autograph.

Anyhow, back to business. Disney Business, that is.

The myth of Disneyland is that one day, while taking his daughters to an amusement park and sitting on the bench bored to tears, Walt was struck with the idea of an amusement park for the entire family. He immediately started working on Disneyland. Well, not really.

Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Studios, offered people tours of his studio starting back in the days of the Silents. Movies were popular and people wanted to see how they were made. He ended the practice in the early ‘30s, when, according to Wikipedia, sound came in, making the idea impractical. Universal started it up again, of course, in the ‘60s, until now we have Universal parks around the world.

Walt Disney also founded a movie studio, and built a nice place on which to situate it. You can see, in the archives, plans for an adjacent (or nearby, I forget which) little amusement park, designed much like Uncle Carl’s tour, to show people the world of the movies. This was way before Walt was sitting on that bench waiting for his daughters. Walt was also an inveterate train buff, and had visited an expo for the like-minded, not to mention that he built his own miniature railway around his house; Walt’s father worked construction on the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893; Walt’s tinkering led him to construct miniatures that he would send on a train tour of the country until eventually that idea morphed into building non-miniatures that would stay in one place; and there is a clear connection of Tivoli in Copenhagen as a direct inspiration to Walt in building Disneyland. Walt himself was also quoted as saying that kids would come to his studio because they thought that was where Mickey Mouse lived. (Fairly dumb kids, I think; I never recall a time in my life where I thought cartoons were real. That’s why I liked them, among other reason. Still do.) The point is, there were many, many influences that went into the creation of Disneyland, and some of them were Walt’s own and some of them were spurred by others. This takes away nothing from the execution of the park that was Disneyland in 1955. Far from it. Walt synthesized all of this, and he made it happen, and it was nothing like anything anyone had seen before, although its influences were clear. The official histories have sort of buried those influences in the myth, probably because it makes a simpler story. But not a better one. And besides, whatever its source or sources, it would be the park itself that would matter.

When it opened in 1955, it was almost ready for prime time, although there were glitches, and Tomorrowland especially was less than there. But that didn’t matter. It was an instant phenomenon. There had been amusement parks before, but this was both the apotheosis of the amusement park and the beginning of something totally new, the theme park. And for Disney, it would become the focus of the rest of his life. He still had a movie studio, but his day-to-day connection with it lessened as his connection with the park (and its extensions) grew.

But I think we also need to talk about World’s Fairs. They are not a disconnected subject, but one that eventually intersects with the subject of theme parks. Next time.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Menick, Part Four, the Late Middle Years

Some people vacation at WDW every year. I don’t. Let’s get that straight. To people who never go (there are a lot of people who hate the place, usually drawn from their experience of having never been there), anyone who even goes once in a while is seen as a habitué beyond understanding. So be it. My main vacation this year will be in England, the good Lord willin’ and the volcano don’t rise. The DDA is simply an add-on.

In the beginning of WDW, one would not think of it as one does now. With only one park, the Magic Kingdom, it was for all practical purposes simply the Florida version of Disneyland. For my family, it was a day trip. Liz and I did stay there once in those early days, at the Contemporary Hotel, not long after we got married. But that was unusual, at that time. With one park, it wasn’t what it became. It was fun, but as I say, it was just another Disneyland, albeit, for me, more accessible.

Kate was born roughly two years before Epcot was born. The first time we took her to WDW, when she was four or so, that second park was in full swing; we stayed at the Polynesian, which was the only other hotel on property at the time other than the Contemporary. One monorailed to one park or the other, took young children by the hand as one was advised endlessly, with breaks in the middle of the day to swim and relax. I remember is was September, and the joint was deserted. They would wave you on to repeat the rides because it was easier than unloading you. [Sigh.]

Other trips followed. A stay at the Grand Floridian during a Presidents’ Week vacation. A stay at the Caribbean when that opened, this time with my mother in tow, making this a three-generation affair. At various other times we stayed at Dixie Landings and Montezuma’s Revenge (the name of which, I think, I’m not quite remembering exactly). Years passed. Kate kept getting older. More parks opened: MGM Studios. Animal Kingdom. Blizzard Beach. Pleasure Island. Down the road Universal started warranting occasional visits. There was SeaWorld. Cape Canaveral isn’t far. Going to WDW would become quite an adventure, and you could spend a lot of time there, or nearby. On occasion we made archaeological visits to Disneyland or Disneyland Paris, just to compare. Not habitués, no, but fans, definitely.

What changed as more parks were built on property, and more hotels and more entertainments, was that the place became a complete resort. There was plenty to do for quite some time without ever going to a park, and then, of course, there were also the parks. Now one could stay on the grounds for days and days, and you became absolutely immersed in Disney. This became inescapable because, literally, the place could not be escaped from. You stayed on property and had Disney values/culture surrounding you at all times. Every moment of your day was themed, one way or the other. It wasn’t all Mickey Mouse, as some people might contend, because that would have been easily resisted. It was music and scenery and design to the tiniest detail, so you knew you weren’t home, and you were in a place that was, well, not real, but an awful lot of fun. One can deride simulacra, but if the simulacrum is wonderfully entertaining, why would you? Add to the intense theming the commercialization of everything. There is a gift shop everywhere, with both general merchandise and merchandise specific to the spot on which you are standing. You can get a souvenir of your hotel, of a ride, of a park, of the swimming pool. You can get a souvenir of the souvenir shop. For reasons I don’t quite understand, you get sucked into a lot of this. I absolutely feel the need to acquire Disney hats, for instance, the moment I arrive. That is, in fact, my first official action, the acquisition of the (perhaps first) hat. Kate and I also found ourselves last time getting sucked into pins. I don’t know why, but there’s something about them, and they look nice in a little display box I have at the chez. Sometimes the insanity is inexplicable, which doesn’t make it any more insane. As I said, this stuff is fun. In a word, you go to this resort and, to enjoy it to the fullest, you give yourself over to it. Your reward is that you have a great time. That’s not the world’s worst thing. As I also said, it’s not as if I don’t travel elsewhere. With a few exceptions, I have been to all the countries represented in Epcot. I’m no slouch with a passport. Which doesn’t stop me from liking WDW.

Bottom line? It’s fun. Are there other things? Of course. I can bat around Disney deconstruction with the best of them. But that doesn’t stop me from having fun. It just makes it all that much more interesting.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Menick, Part Three, the Early Middle Years

My parents moved from New York to Florida while I was in college. This was not an attempt to abandon me; they did send me their new address after a while and a court order. My father, who worked for an airline, had been transferred. I fondly remember hanging out with him in a small apartment in Coconut Grove before they got settled, and some holidays in another apartment up in Hollywood right at the edge of a golf course where it was pretty likely you would get beaned if you ventured out the back door during the daytime. The temperature was always in the mid-seventies at Christmastime. They eventually settled in a house near Fort Lauderdale. At one point around this time my father took me and my cousin Denise to Disneyland for no apparent reason. A fine time was had by all.

After what could only be considered the conquest of the New York World’s Fair, Disney was next looking for an east coast site for a new park. The fair had proven that there was a market for his entertainment on the right side of the country, and it was pretty obvious that the location needed to be warm for year-round attendance. (Disneyland Paris later changed this paradigm.) The corporation began clandestinely buying up land in Florida until enough was assembled to announce not just a land but a world. Disneyworld. Part of Walt’s dream was a city of the future as part of his world. There’s wonderful sketches of what this city might look like. Walt was quite the urbanist, and his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow was pretty much the last great gasp of godlike city planning. In real life, people prefer organic cities mixing old and new (see the battles of Jacobs and Moses in New York); the antiseptic planned city, which was a mainstay of futurists through much of the twentieth century, was a doomed idea in the long run. As it turned out, Walt died before he would learn that. He passed away with his company poised to develop what would become Walt Disney World (his brother Roy saw to that name change, and the building of WDW), before EPCOT was finally sorted out. In 1971, the Magic Kingdom opened.

And, lo and behold, my parents had moved to Florida just in time. It was a serious but doable-in-a-day trip from their house to Orlando and back again. The Disney in my soul was salved. For a short while I visited probably once a year, which is far from a season pass but, still, an enjoyable day trip while staying with the Aged Ps. The whole idea of one’s family moving from New York to Florida while the family was still in a family mode, i.e., not in a retiring-to-early-bird-special-dinners mode, while I was still in college, was rather entertaining. All of a sudden seeing the folks meant not going back home but going on a vacation to Florida, easily accomplished with passes (first class) that my father acquired as part of his job. In a way it was like having one’s own resort to escape to whenever one wanted. This was the next link in the chain. We had started with the childhood indoctrination followed by the adolescent crush, and now we had the young adult hip-pocket family-run resort down south that included the Magic Kingdom.

The clarity of the narrative is pristine.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Menick, Part Two, the Less Early Years

Disneyland opened in 1955 and changed the nature of amusement parks forever. Some maintain that Disneyland went so far as to alter the nature of reality (see Baudrillard), but I wouldn’t necessarily go that far. In the ensuing 55 years, the concept of theming has become standard. Go to the local mall if you don’t believe me, and try to figure out why there’s an awning over the door of Hollister’s.

In its early years, Disneyland was mostly in the process of finding itself. It opened with some fairly empty spaces, and some ideas that just didn’t work. The circus, for instance, was counterproductive. Who wanted to watch traditional circus acts for an extended period when there was all the other unique attraction stuff and theming to explore? And Tomorrowland was virtually nonexistent on opening day, because there was just so much startup money and so much time. For its early years the place did what it took to fill in the gaps and determine what was really needed. And after a few years, phase one was complete. Disneyland was not only extremely popular, but it was rich and full and, paradigmatically, the happiest place on earth. (It was also, going all pomo again, it’s own sur-reality.)

Walt Disney, meanwhile, was a tinkerer extraordinaire. He liked to make things, and he liked new things. In the early Sixties, the opportunity arose to do some work for the New York World’s Fair, and he jumped at it. In fact, he over-jumped at it, extending his company’s abilities to the limit (and, for a while, stalling development plans back in Anaheim). At the Fair Disney worked on the Ford exhibit (an endless line of cars as attraction vehicles past newfangled audioanimatronic figures), the GE Progressland exhibit (the Carousel of Progress where the audience moved and the theater stood still, that theater populated by more audioanimatronics), It’s a Small World for Pepsi (boats and mini-A-As) and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln (A-As to the limit). Shortly thereafter, the engineering innovations from the Fair (and the rides themselves) went to California, leading to Pirates of the Caribbean and Doom Buggies and all manner of attraction beyond the phase one. Phase two, in other words.

The 1964 World’s Fair was just down the road from me. Unlike Disneyland in Anaheim, which I visited with full pilgrimage attitude, the Fair was a train and a subway whenever, which meant that I was there a lot (including closing day, when people were literally pulling stuff out of the ground to take home—it was absolutely bizarre). It was a great fair, probably the best since 1939 (which was before my time but which is considered by many to be the ultimate), and certainly better than any fair since. It was a futurist’s dream, in many ways. Some people see it as the culmination of the even better dream of ’39, which perhaps explains why it was the last of the greats. In any case, there was the technology of the imagined future, plus the actual technology of Disney phase 2 (his attractions were among the most popular), plus the whole thing that I was a teenager at the time, and impressionable and enjoying the freedom of exploring the place at will. So add to my cultural connection to Disney from my earliest childhood this new cultural connection at the height of my adolescence. By now, the idea of Disney wasn’t some considered element in my makeup, but instead was an integral, nearly structural part of it. Like many things in one’s life, one didn’t think about it, one simply took it for granted. Later, of course, I would think about it at great length, but the important thing to understand is that, practically from the moment I was born (and I’m not alone here, given that I was part of the Baby Boom), Disney was there. First, the general narratives slipping in through stories and films. Then the weekly and daily television shows. Then the Emerald City of Disneyland, followed by the Emerald City down the road of the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair.

Any wonder that I got hooked?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Menick, Part One, the Early Years

Okay. Let’s get down to business.

The first time I went to a Disney park, according to my mother, who is an unreliable source, is 1955. This is the year Disneyland opened. I maintain that the first year I went was 1958, and that in 1955 we only got as far as Las Vegas because as soon as my father encountered his first one-armed bandit, we were staying put. We saw the entertainer Ted Lewis at a nightclub and my mother and I both recall that distinctly; I also recall being babysat at some desolate Vegas motel the likes of which were torn down during the Nixon administration. What little kid would recall “Me and My Shadow” but not Main Street USA? What do you say to that, Mother Menick?

In either case, my exposure to Disney was at an early, impressionable age. I was also a committed devotee of Walt’s various television shows. I had a little rocking donkey that I would watch TV from those Wednesday nights when the Disneyland show came on, or as my father put it, I would sit on my ass watching television. (His sense of humor was severely stretched by those one-armed bandits in his future.) I watched other shows too, but in those days, Disney was the Cadillac, and everything else was local and low-grade. Disney meant big feature films that blew you away. Everything else was, in our household, referred to as Farmer Brown cartoons, with a lot of barnyard animals chasing one another around. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed those Farmer Brown cartoons. But, well, they weren’t Dumbo.

I watched Disney’s various TV shows probably until they went off the air (and then I started watching the Disney channel when Kate was born, using her as a convenient excuse). This means that my entire life I sat there and watched old Walt introduce whatever, making him a very real person in my little life. He connected to kids well, unlike, say, Ed Sullivan, who I also saw every week and who had the personality of a fire hydrant. As you probably know, the creation of the physical Disneyland was to some degree financed by ABC, in return for which Disney created his TV show. That show, especially in the early days, was directly involved in marketing the park even before it was built, and even as the park was able to stand on its own and the show moved away from its original home on ABC, the connection to the park remained. Each show was either a segment from Fantasyland, Adventureland, Tomorrowland or Frontierland, the same divisions as the physical park. Week after week we saw stories connected to the concepts of these lands, and often we saw stories about the park itself. The park promoted the TV show, the TV show promoted the park, etc. Disney was always marketing his stuff eleven ways to Sunday and back again. Don’t forget that we also had the Mickey Mouse Club, which was on every day for half an hour further beating Disneyana into our little brains.

For kids of my generation, this stuff was mental opium. There was no resisting addiction to Disney, and no desire to do so. The Mouse wasn’t perceived as evil then (although there was a nascent critical literature, which I admit I didn’t read much of in Miss Marino’s third grade). The need to go to Disneyland became palpable. And I was lucky enough to go a number of times because we had relatives who lived out west in Salt Lake City (they were the town’s token gentiles), and my father worked for an airline, which in those days meant readily accessible, and free, airplane transportation. This was a magic combination.

So I saw Disneyland very early on, either the year it opened or shortly thereafter, and although unlike locals in California I didn’t haunt the place, I saw it every few years, just enough to inspire but not deflate a sense of awe. There was no other place on earth like Disneyland. My brain was completely Disneyfied by both the place and my exposure to the other Disney products, having been raised on the television show and, of course, the feature films. Nothing was as sure a bet for parents as dumping their kids at a Disney film matinee while they went off doing whatever adults do when their kids are at the movies. (I don’t know what that is because when Kate went to kid movies, I went with her.) So Disney was not only a part of my regular life, but contained a magical place where that part of my life achieved its apotheosis.

Of such are the attics of our brains stuffed and organized.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

What's wrong with this picture?

If you're not following @NostrumNation on Twitter, you're really missing an awful lot. It's Jules's direct line to the universe.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


I thought it might be a good idea to take inventory, it being the end of the year and all. I know that the VCA hates to miss anything.


Starting at you get everything that I do, which includes the Hen Hud team material, the Metro-Hudson League (with how-to materials free for the taking), my schedule (including a regional calendar of all northeast events, plus), my podcasts and the Nostrum archive (which Jules is too lazy to port over to his own site).


There is, of course, this blog, which is fairly central. Here is where I explain to you in depth what is wrong with you, with forensics, and, occasionally, with something else. Of course, in real life I am not the bilious person I appear to be here. In fact, I am something of a milquetoast. I prefer to tell you what I think of you here, where you can’t punch me, rather than in person.

Additionally there is the Coachean Feed Blog, where I write up various items I pick up off the internet that appear to be of value to forensicians. Since occasionally I tag an article without putting in into that blog, the best way to follow my Feed is here, or through your own RSS reader (I use Google Reader).

The TVFT blog announces new episodes of The View from Tab, and also includes some interesting discussion of our content from the outside world.

For work I run this blog on books and book-related stuff. Not a lot of entries, but what’s there is choice, if you happen to be a reader.

I also provide technical support to Jules and the Nostrumite on their blog; I was the one who recommended they use Blogspot, since I was using it up the Wazoo.


TVFT has morphed into me and Bietz and OC with lately CP and anyone else interested. Earlier episodes included deep background on LD subject areas, Great Debate Adventures (fiction barely disguised as nonfiction, or vice versa), the complete From Caveman to Frenchman lectures, some notes from various tabrooms, and maybe one or two other odds and ends. The webpage itemizes everything.

Additionally I narrate Nostrum, because Jules and the Mite are too lazy to do it, and if you think I suck at it, you should hear them.

Both these podcasts are available on iTunes.


@jimmenick is mostly automatic cross feeds from the Coachean Feed (but not the complete set), plus my own random thoughts. This summer I will be tweeting from the great Disney Debate Adventure.

@debatetab is live when I’m running a complicated tournament, for purposes of group announcements.

@selecteditions is manual cross feeds from the DJ blog.

@nostrumnation is maintained by Jules and the Nostrumite, and has nothing to do with me whatsoever.


My favorite web time suck is my RSS reader, which collates hundreds of sites for me, organized by debate, entertainment, books, news, Disney, etc. I use Tweetie for Twitter, I’ve dabbled with Apple’s web iLife app but mostly I just cop other people’s code, and I’m a dedicated Mac user with the occasional drift into virtualization to run the PC-based TRPC software.

Et cetera

I seem to be moderator of something on, but I seldom look at it. I do have my own Facebook page, plus I seem to be part of some other pages like the TVFT page. I never look at the LinkedIn updates I get, but some people like this site for their DJs and I do connect if someone asks, but don’t come to me for a publishing job because, unfortunately, I don’t have any. I don’t follow threads on WTF (aka VBD) because the noise level is too high, but I do occasionally read and post if something particularly interests me, but mostly I feel that, with all of the above at my disposal, I need to post somewhere else like I need the proverbial hole in my head. I like to buy games but seldom play them more than once or twice; they seem like something I should do but I don’t seem to be able to find the time for them very often.

For entertainment I mostly just enjoy this.

And that, as they say, is that.

Monday, April 19, 2010

And so we bid a fond farewell to 2009-10

It’s nice to see that NDCA honored O’C with a Educator of the Year award. Unfortunately, I gather that when the award was announced, O’C had wandered off somewhere, and was never made aware of it. Let this be a lesson to you, young padawan: Do not wander off. Wandering off never led to any good, but has often led to much bad. Being a wanderer off (or wander offer, as some linguists would have it) is a dangerous business. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

I put paid to my official year this last Saturday with my regular judging stint (this is my third year in a row at the 6-rds RR, which means I can practically set my calendar by it). Six whole flights: what a burden! It was fun, of course, some of the time. One guy played a rap song as his 1AC. I penalized him for not citing his source, and gave him low speaks because, uh, he didn’t speak. I also suggested (for the bazillionth time) that if your judge announces a paradigm of traditional resolution-based bias, ignoring it is worse than just not asking in the first place. I found myself aggravated by the idea that “the Joe Blow evidence takes that out” is an argument. “The Joe Blow evidence takes that out” is a commentary on the argument, which must still be made to convince my antediluvian little mind. Why do we bother to argue at all? Half the debaters are running the same evidence. Let’s number it all, and the AC can say #23, #28, and #3, and then the neg can just refute by saying #7 takes out #23 and I can say Aha, how convincing, and we’ll move on from there. It’s called Lincoln-Douglas Debate, not Lincoln-Douglas Inventory. And I was irritated that I had to drop someone on the basis of a definition, but if you concede a definition and then you run content counter to the definition and get called out on it, if there is any sense of rule-based order, there’s not much I can do, even if I think you otherwise won everything because if your case doesn’t stand, it falls, end of story. Worst of all, I was forced to vote in favor of a case that led to nuclear annihilation. As I said in the oral, it felt so 90s policy to me, and I hated myself for it. But in fact, that was my favorite round of them all. What can I say?

In typical Sailor fashion, we managed to leave behind at least one computer at the school. How does one forget one’s computer? It’s not like a coat, where you go outside and it’s cold and we never forget—Oh, wait a minute. We’ve left a string of coats up and down the eastern seaboard. Oh, well. At least the Panivore was impressed that I used the word fiat on a ballot. I think she imagines that all I understand is the social contract and Danish pop music. Talk about your young padawans!

I have announced to the Tars that we will be having a wrap-up Bean Trivia game next week, which will give me enough time to rustle up some new questions. I think I’m running out of categories: I looking at the Hittites, the unpublished song lyrics of Cole Porter and shoe sizes of the Americas as possibilities. There’s going to be a lot of losing of beans if I don’t fix that up a little bit…

Sunday, April 18, 2010

CP on the Pffft topic

"I often throw out ridiculous topics to my debaters when teaching generic skills such as flowing or case organization. Such topics include “Resolved that ketchup is superior to mustard” or “Resolved that the US should nuke France.” These topics are more fair and debatable than the NCFL PF topic." More...

There's a touch of manifesto to this. But the idea that we might not go to a tournament that ignores us? I mean, duh. Can you say NYSFL?

Been there. Doing that.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Winding down in numerous ways

Any pfffter doing the CatNat Boogie might wish to look at the comments on the TVFT blog. If there isn’t enough there to base cases, then you’re not thinking hard enough.

In preparation for a move at the DJ, I’ve taken down a lot of crap memorabilia in my office and boxed it up. All I have left to look at is a postcard of a Fra Angelico, a ’64 World’s Fair calendar (April is General Electric’s Progressland), a limited edition Cheshire Cat pin, an honorable mention ribbon from the NYCFL, two family photos circa 1984, and a Mid-Hudson League medal (V1.0). In many ways, this arcane assemblage is the story of my life, give or take a few key incidents. I just thought I’d point that out.

Speaking of packing up, I now need to pack down (which ought to be the opposite of packing up) the crap tools in my traveling tab bag. God knows what’s in there in addition to the obvious. I did retrieve the granola bars and put them in my golf bag, so I don’t have to worry about feeding the mice over the summer. But the thing is, at tournaments people give me stuff that I toss in there, and I forget I have it, and then April rolls around and I look and say, Oh, great, a coupon for an iPud for only $24.95, then, oh, pooh, it expired two months ago. If anything good turns up I’ll let you know. I think there’s a Sims game in there, for instance. I never got the hang of that one. Maybe some other stuff of note. We’ll see.

Tomorrow is the last Saturday morning on which I will be setting an alarm until September. If that doesn’t mark the end of the season, nothing does.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

TVFT announces hiatus, @NN announces ignoble return, etc., etc., etc.

We are nearing the end of this season on TVFT. Which is interesting, because until last night, we weren’t even aware that we had any seasons. But taking one consideration with another, it seems that this is the time to fold, while we’ve still got a few chips on the table, or something like that. We were going to comment on the Pffft comments last night, but we were all sort of tired of Pffft, although we did excoriate the CatNat Pffft topic for a while because, well, if ever a resolution deserved looking up the word excoriation in the dictionary, this one is it. I should be going to Omaha just to judge that rez. I’d pick up the con every time, sort of a mercy ballot. Actually, word on the street (if the street is in the Vatican) is that they’re using the resolution to weed out the atheists in the organization. Anyone who casts a con ballot will immediately be sent to Texas for regrooving, after first emptying their pockets of all those two-dollar bills with TJ’s picture on them, not to mention leaving their nickels behind for charity. I think they’re giving the TJ-branded lucre to Parker and Stone to back their upcoming Mormon play on Broadway.

Is the world getting weirder, or is it just me?

Anyhow, last night we also talked about tricks and psych-outs, although mostly that turned into a discussion of the more subtle aspects of the debating game. I actually suggest you listen to this one, if you’re a debater. You might get something out of it. You’ll also get to see the quintessential O’C, because for no known reason, in the middle of the podcast he wanders off. That stuff doesn’t wash out, in other words.

And then I think we’ll wrap it up next week, or maybe have one more show after TOC. I know that Bietz has written a manifesto of sorts to the Advisory Committee (how unusual) with various suggestions, but I don’t know what they are, nor how much he wishes to reveal, although normally he’s pretty forthcoming about stuff like that, given his commitment to transparency. I like to think of it as Open Bietz. Whatever. So one more or two more shows, then a break for a while until so much new stuff builds up for next season that we have no choice but to continue. However, I may try to get some folks on the side to record interviews or something, just to keep the momentum going. We’ll see. Skype makes it so easy to do, I figure, why not?

Meanwhile, if you’re following @NostrumNation on Twitter you saw the message that Buglaroni will be returning. That came as quite a surprise to me, I have to admit, because nothing I’ve seen in the future episodes (not that I’ve seen all that much, although I am a week or two ahead of you for obvious reasons) has any HPB in it. So I guess it won’t be for a while. Still, at least even I can now see the point of following the guys’ tweets, although at the moment I think I’m the only one who does.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Chetan-a-Go-Go; judge ettiquette; the Sailors' Official Team Song; Charmed, I'm sure

Chetan Hertzig has been running his Six Rounds of Spring RR for years now. First it was up in Massachusetts, then in NYC, and now it’s just down the road at Harrison High School. Last year was the second time I went, but I’ve been sending students since forever. Of course, from my point of view, it’s one of my few annual judging events. I can imagine that the students at the other side of the room are just thrilled to see me. My speed abilities get pretty rusty from underuse, for one thing. I’m not terribly against speed, as members of the VCA know, but speed needs to be calibrated correctly for the judges. If they can blaze, blaze away. If they can’t, slow down. Simple enough, and it has ever been so. LD speed wasn’t invented last year, you know. But to flow speed you need to do it often, and I don’t. I’m still poking away on a legal pad because the few times I’ve tried to flow on a computer I’ve not done well with it; again, more experience would probably solve that, but more experience is not forthcoming. I’ve long ago disappeared into the tab room, where my speed and accuracy is fairly decent. I’ll continue doing what I do. Considering the number of coaches who’ve been around as long as I have who neither judge nor tab and who spend entire weekends contemplating their team’s navels, I’m not exactly totally ready for the dustbin. When I am, I’m sure the Sailors will toss me there.

By the way, if you’re supposed to be judging at a tournament and I give you a ballot, the correct response is, “Thank you for giving me something to do for the next hour and a half,” not, “You’re going to make me judge again, you illegitimate offspring of a one-legged goat?” How would you like it if I took a round off? “I’m not going to pair round four,” says I. “I’m too tired from pairing round three.”


As I was driving around last week something called The Sailor Song by a group called Toy-Box came up on my iPod. I’d never heard it before (I’ve got a lot of music on my iPod that I’ve never heard before, and even more that the Sailors hope they’ll never hear again). It turns out that somewhere in my travels I had ripped an album of Danish pop songs. Whatever. Anyhow, in my mind this has now become our team song. I recommend you watch the video on YouTube, and you will see why. Keep in mind that I am not saying that I think this song is good, although I cannot get it out of my head. It is more…unforgettable. So is the video. You won’t thank me for this, but henceforth, whenever the Sailors appear in force, we will be singing this song. Look on my debaters, ye mighty, and despair.

I’ve also managed to get JV addicted to Charmed, an app from hell that is, in a word, hard to put down. It’s of the old match-three variety, but you can turn the Touch in any direction and gravity kicks in… I recommend it to you, too. You can load your own background music, so you can play it while listening to The Sailor Song. Do I have your best interests in mind or what?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

This is why we nail the bed to the floor

“Resolved: That the constitutional right of freedom of religion has wrongly evolved into freedom from religion.” Okay. We can now move away slowly from the crime scene. Bietz suggested in a private communiqué (no communiqué with me is private for long!) that he’s had enough of Pffft on TFVT. The Cats must have heard him loud and clear, and responded with a resolution guaranteed to shut all of us up forthwith. If you don’t recall, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” And I love a resolution of dubious fact modified by a judgment of “wrongly.” While the line of history from the Constitution through to the latest declarations on the subject from SCOTUS is an interesting narrative, one must in this instance contend with a (possibly) false premise leading to a moral judgment? And argued, potentially, in front of panels who have already accepted the premise and drawn a deeply held religious conclusion from it? Either you argue that it hasn’t happened or it isn’t wrong? I’m with Bietz. (By the way, a word to the wise: Flip pro. Oh, wait. It’s CatNats. No flip. Okay, a different word to the wise: Skip your con rounds, unless your opponents are raving lunatics.)

We return you now to our regular scheduled broadcast.

There were some interesting sidelights to the Lakeland tournament last weekend. First of all, O’C chezzed up with us again, as he does here and at Byram. To get him in the mood for the DDA (that’s Disney Debate Adventure), I dug out a bottle of WDW shampoo and a little Mickey Mouse soap I had stolen from my hotel room last time I was there and put them into his bathroom. He loved them. He also stole them, no doubt for the O’C loo back in the city. This didn’t bother me that much, but he also stole the towels, the pens, the alarm clock and the Knight Rider lunchbox. Jeesh.

In preparation for the MHL side of the tournament, we had asked member schools to nominate literally all their novices for recognition with what we were calling the Modest Novice awards. We thought it would be fun to have some jokey awards that acknowledged everyone’s hard work through the year, and also aided in team building and community building, which as I said yesterday, are big with me. Most programs rose to the occasion with fantastic results. It’s one thing to have your own private humorous awards, but when they’re public, it forces a level of creativity that will make the joke work with others. For the most part, they did. We asked that upperclassmen be the ones to come up with the categories, unique for each kid or, occasionally, pair of kids. I’m pretty sure this will be a standard feature of the MHL grand event in years to come. There were things like “Most Likely to Call His Judge a White Supremacist” and, for a policy team with one very big guy and one very little guy, “The Cutest Couple.” I got a real kick out of this.

Of course, there were numerous other awards as well, what with O’C and Stefan both sorting them out and whatnot. They are the godfathers of a new group, the New York State Debate Coaches Association, in aid of getting coaches working together to promote regional debate, so they had recognition awards for that plus the tournament per se, plus the Modest Novice awards, plus the People’s Champion Award (for the challenge round), plus one remaining award I have in my possession and will announce shortly. With O’C, in other words, you’re never at a loss for awards. Come to think of it, I had some old trophies in my house, and when he took the soap and the shampoo, he also stole them!

Then again, for reasons that totally elude me, I now have in my possession, and in the chez, the traveling trophy for LD for Lakeland. Why me, I wonder. Oh, well.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Throwing down the gauntlet

We ran Lakeland’s varsity division this last weekend in a challenge format. Interesting.

We got off to a late start on Friday because we were at the district middle school, which didn’t let out till about 3:30 or so. This was something of a handicap in terms of getting rounds in, but on the other hand, the division was relatively small, about 45 or so, having trimmed itself down a lot after losing its original date in February courtesy of the snowpocalypse. And we did not have a surfeit of judges (which is being kind). We had a pretty good pool, but very few extras. The word on the street was that, if you were a judge, you could expect to be judging something, either varsity or novice, and if you somehow escaped those particular fates, the guy running PF was sitting right across from me trying to wheel and deal, but only with people from his pool who could legitimately go into mine (which was not too many).

By the way, if you’re not on a pairing and you’re trying to hide out so that no one pushes you a ballot, it’s a good idea not to hang out in the tab room. Just sayin’.

We ran round one as a random pairing to give us rankings. Then the games began. It’s very simple. The lowest seed chooses who they want to debate, then the next lowest, until everyone is taken. O’C ran the barking, cajoling the folks into making their decisions, while JV kept an eye on availabilities (we had an odd number, which meant there was a bye to contend with, plus we didn’t want only one school left at the end with multiple unpaired entries), while I did manual pairings as they were called out, literally flipping a coin for sides as I went. Remarkably enough, this went relatively quickly once we got the hang of it (starting after round 2 we just handed out sheets with a list of the pairings we had exported into Excel). After I got all the pairings in I’d jog back to the tab room and run an automatic assignment of judges, which worked every single time! I was shocked. All I had to do was finagle some room assignments, which were sort of baffling TRPC a little bit but not too much. We ran flight A of round 3 on Friday and B on Saturday, which helped move things along, and we broke all 4-1s after 5 rounds, which seemed quite satisfactory.

So what is the point of all of this? Well, it’s late in the year, and it was fun for the participants. This was a regional tournament, and everybody knows everybody and mingles like crazy; I never knew which table to look for my Sailors at, since they kept sitting wherever with whomever, as did everyone else. A word to the wise: if you can make it till April and your team isn’t mingling with everyone else’s teams, you’ve got a serious socialization problem. Since one of my chief goals in this activity is generating that cross-team socialization, I was really happy about this aspect of the tournament. Challenging wouldn’t do for, say, getting a TOC bid, but for building community? Perfecto. (And, fortunately, not a problem for running an on-time tournament, with the three of us making it happen.) There were some goofy things like one Scientologist losing his first round then grudge-challenging the same guy, and losing, then losing his third round and grudge-challenging that guy, and losing again! Our favorite down-four got a special award for that. One way to get applause was to challenge the top seed, but plenty of people wisely stayed in their bracket. And if you weren’t there (as in, you decided that you’d go shoot baskets or go to the bathroom or something during the challenges), the obliging JV picked for you!

For the break rounds, we turned it around. Top seed got to pick. We broke 12, so we did a partial first, letting the top 4 sit it out. Then it got interesting, but still demanding. After all, anyone who made it that far was pretty good, so your choice of whom to debate wasn’t easy. We ended up with a Scarsdale-Hen Hud co-championship. It was either that or have the judges simply pass out from sanction exhaustion.

Would we do it again? Probably. We came up with this as part of the MHL championships rather than the Lakeland event, so next year, assuming that they will be separate, and that the MHL Grand Champs will be in April again, it should make sense at that latter event. I’m game, anyhow. And I think most of the people who were there will concur.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

When I was a kid, we had to debate uphill, in both directions.

One thing that came from our Pffft discussion last night on TVFT was the point that, if a topic had a built-in weighing mechanism, it would help solve the evaluation problem. That is, if a topic is, Obamacare is good, that’s too vague, but if the topic is, Obamacare achieves social equality, then you have a specific goal beyond just pure evidence to evaluate. (I know, the example is silly, but the point is clear.) Since the structure of the round, with a 4 minute constructive, so to speak, is just long enough for case material without any framework (the other two minutes, if this were an LD round), if the metrics are built into the resolution, then everything is inherently more purposeful. I like that. It would be nice if the Rippin’ gurus of resolutions were to give it a little thought. Find not only a subject area but a goal for that content to achieve; that way the debaters need to present arguments in aid of achieving that goal, rather than some vague better-than-the-other-side approach.

By the way, there's even a modicum of insight into my own dark days as a high school debater in this episode. Find out what it was like to debate before the invention of evidence! Not that I was able to remember all that much of it. I think Zachary Taylor was President...

I’m down to three Sailors for Lakeland, which means I can fit them in my car. If anyone else drops out, I’ll be able to fit them in my briefcase. Total implosion, as simple as that. Hell in a hand basket, if you want the technical term for it. Anyhow, O’C has sent me all the details of the challenge format, which is mostly just pairing on the fly, as far as I’m concerned. The issue seems to be keeping things moving, which may be easier than it sounds, as long as people pick their challenge opponents with dispatch. We’ve eliminated strikes, which will help; apparently other challenge tournaments haven’t used them, and I can see how they’d gum things up. I think O’C said that in elims, the challenge would work the other way around, where top seed picks opponent. Fascinatin’. I think that means technically not that we literally break to anything but that I just only schedule the top seeds if we’re still in TRPC (I don’t know how I’d manually pair elims, which is contrary to everything known to tab man). Then again, we can just jettison TRPC at that point. We’ll see.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Extra: From the "Things I wouldn't ordinarily admit" file

All right. I give up. I had no idea that Rosemary Clooney had a singing sister who was at some point her partner. And I admit this as an avid, nay, rabid Rosemary Clooney fan.

I've got to start surfing the internet more regularly. I'm missing out on a lot of good stuff.

She sparkles... How pleasant. / She twinkles... How nice.

So last night’s Sailorfest was, shall we say, sparsely attended. The Great White Hunter, this novice who has debated exactly once because of all his prior engagements shooting poor defenseless animals, showed up for a few minutes, but otherwise it was just the admiralty: the Panivore, SuperSquirrel and the People’s Champion (who thinks he ought to hand out the People’s Champion Awards at Lakeland). We are so into next year as the Great Rebuilding. We’ve already got our recruiting pamphlet, most of which is fairly true and accurate (feel free to adapt it for your own team, but please use photos of your own damned kids: just because ours are better looking doesn’t mean you can claim them, except for one or two, names provided on request). Otherwise, except maybe for the odd chez, plus of course Lakeland and the Chetan-a-Go-Go, we can kiss 2009-10 goodbye.

Anyhow, last night I made the mistake of starting a dialogue about Nostrum; I should have learned from Jules’s experience last week. What I screwed up was letting go of a few facts of where the story was going. The thing is, Jules and the Mite send me the material well in advance, so I’m about two months ahead of the rest of the world in the direction of the narrative. The whole vampire thing was met with great apprehension by the assembled (not quite) multitude, but I assured them that no one sparkled. Sparkled? I knew there was a reason I studiously avoided the Twilight stuff. Vampires do not sparkle. They are the dead, animated by stealing life from the living. They have sought and found immortality, but at a tragic cost to their victims and, occasionally, themselves. I am confident that Jules and the Mite will not create nice preppy vampires. That seems entirely counter to the whole vampire ethos, at least as far as I know it. I have to admit that, aside from a couple of tab rooms I’ve been in, my experience of the living dead is fairly slight. We also discussed some other upcoming content, and I realized that the old business truism holds: if you know something others don’t know, it’s usually better to keep it to yourself. The three captains (active and emeritus) dissected stuff right and left and made suggestions as if I could do anything about it. At least my own team realizes the obvious, that Jules and the Mite do what they want to do, and I am just peripheral to the process. In any case, in the future I’ll keep my knowledge to myself, because knowledge is the one thing that, when you share it, you lose nothing, but when you don’t share it, you get to be all smug and smarmy about it.

We also dickered a bit about the content of this blog, over which I do exercise a modicum of control. There was a general sense of WTF over Monday's posting on government obligations (which has a great comment by PJ, btw, if you haven't seen it). The thing is, occasionally I use my head for something other than a hat rack, as me mayther used to say. You might want to try doing likewise. All this thinking, by the way, explains the state of my hairline: as me mayther also used to say, grass doesn't grow on a busy street. This may dissuade you. In either case, I like to mix things up a bit. One day it's notes from the tab room, the next day it's comments on a resolution, the next day it's what the Panivore had for lunch (right the first time!), the next day it's general social analysis. Get used to it. It's all a part of membership in the VCA.

Jules is probably coming down to Lakeland, by the way. He did say he’d let me know for sure Friday morning, but that I should probably put him into the LD pool. We’ll see. I have to admit that I am looking forward to this weekend. O’C plans to be in full emcee mode for the challenge format, modeling himself on the legendary Robert Q. Lewis, at least as far as the glasses are concerned. This is a picture of RQL and Betty Clooney, Rosie’s sister. What I’d like to see is RQL putting the specs on O’C. We could use that as a Cinderella pic substitute for the WDW trip.

And yes, I really will start blogging the WDW stuff shortly. Let’s tie off the loose ends of the season first, so we can savor every turgid moment of Debate Meets Mickey to the fullest.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

If I join the VCA, can I opt out of freshman English?

April is the cruelest month, breeding LDers out of the dead land, mixing golf and debate…


(I was going over this week’s episode of Nostrum last night and realized that, if you’re not with us on our literary references, a lot of this won’t make much sense. If I say to you Miss Prism, and you look at me as if I have a hole in my head, then we’re not playing on the same field. I realize that you’re possibly still in high school, but you’re supposed to be on the cutting edge of possibly still in high school. I read all this stuff when I was your age. Honestly, I haven’t read a decent book since about 1971, what with various DJs forcing me to read what they want rather than what I want. You don’t think I’m sitting there all day reading Moby-Dick, do you? The thing is, I remember Moby fondly, and recall all sorts of things about it, and dredge them up as called for. It’s about this whale [which is a reference to something else altogether, but I don’t expect you to be all that up on your Comden and Green—I’m not that far out of it].)

Anyhow, April is the cruelest month, as the poet wrote (look it up) because in the debate universe, we’ve got one foot in the camp of still at it and the other in the camp of, it must be over by now. It’s hard to keep track of it because you feel like you ought to be able to finally put an end to it. But no, tonight I’ll meet with whichever hardy Sailors show up to discuss the CatNats “soil” topic, and maybe a little hit of Pffft for this weekend, yet meanwhile, last Saturday I played my first (miserable) golf game of the season. I guess folks who religiously (no pun intended) attend CatNats and NatNats and then run institutes don’t get into this idea that there may be a season and we’re done with it, but most of us sort of run out of gas by around now. By August I’ll be rarin’ to go again, but I’ll admit, for now, enough. Add to this the annoyance of sorting out NatNats for the Panivore (since I’m not going, various souls must be traded to the devil), and you can understand the damp, drizzly November in my—All right. None of that!

For the record, on the first page of a Google search for a certain book, you get Moby Dick’s House of Kabob…

Moby Dick’s House of Kabob?

I think I’ll switch gears completely over the next few days and go into WDW mode…

Monday, April 05, 2010

Government obligations

We talk a lot about rights, needless to say. If we begin our training as debaters with basic philosophy, we learn pretty quickly what we mean by that. My favored validation of individual rights is that it is advantageous for humans to accept that there are fundamental rights inherent in humanity, and to act accordingly, and disadvantageous not to accept their existence and act accordingly. That is, I don’t have to base my possession of inherent human rights on some complex philosophical or theological premise, but simply on the idea that having these rights is more beneficial than not having them, so whether or not they are inherent, they are nonetheless a good thing. So, let’s presume their existence, because we’re better off with them than without them, at which point, it doesn’t really matter where they came from.

We are nothing as philosophers if we are not practical. After all, mostly what we are interested in is ethics, the practical application of morality, i.e., doing the best we can. Balancing angels on the head of a pin is for other scholars altogether.

Basic human rights are fairly few. We have the right to be alive, which means that our existence is self-warranted and therefore cannot be abridged by others. We have the right to do what we want to do, provided that we do not harm others or somehow interfere with their right to do what they want to do while they are not harming us. And we have the right to our stuff, the legitimate ownership of possessions and the benefit of the fruits of our labors.

As far as basic human rights are concerned, I wouldn’t want to go much further than these fundamentals of life, liberty and property because, already, they raise questions of the protection of these rights. Ownership of property and the fruits of our labors is hardly as simple as it sounds, for instance. There are varying cultural definitions of property that undermine to some extent the apparent universality of property rights, for instance. As for conflicting claims of liberty, when what I want to do comes in conflict with what you want to do, we can imagine problems here almost from the point when any two people happen to come in contact, ever. And one can always ask the simple question, does a murderer cede his or her claim to life by abridging someone else’s claim of life?

You can see that as soon as we have populations of people, rather than just one person hanging around in some metaphoric Garden of Eden, we have various rights claims that need to be adjudicated, and rights that need to be protected. To handle this business, we create governments and empower them to do that job. We establish law and order and processes of law and order, and to maintain them and make them viable, we have to give up a little something. If nothing else, we have to give up a little property, because governments cost money to run. We could go a lot further in explaining how rights are abridged for their own protection, but my point here is something else altogether.

Here’s what bothers me, and it bothers me a lot. We have a lot of systematic philosophical thinking on rights and their protection and the establishment of governments, and we can draw on that thinking pretty easily. That is certainly what Thomas Jefferson did in the Declaration of Independence, when he paraphrased John Locke. (If you’re reading this in Texas, Jefferson was a President of the United States and the chief author of the Declaration, but unfortunately for you, he is in your no-fly or, I guess, no-think zone. Sorry about that.) (If you’re not in Texas, I’m not referring to any characters in “Lost” when I mention John Locke. Sorry about that, too.) We can argue handily about natural rights at a lofty, philosophical level, if we are so inclined. But government, especially government in the year 2010, is way more complicated than merely rights protection. We’ve got people literally marching in the streets complaining that government is going to hell in a tea bag, and that somehow it needs to be minimized because it just does too damned much. I’m hardly a deep commentator on the whole Tea Party movement, but it is clearly composed of a lot of complaints about the way things are in the present day, positing much of the blame on the government. Absent any political aspects of this—that in reality this is often one party trying to undermine another party, or in many cases racially motivated—it does play on fears and frustrations that real people really have. These real people aren’t at your local debate tournament, so for just one weekend, instead of hanging out in a high school cafeteria on a Saturday afternoon, hang out at the mall. Take a peep out of the cocoon for a moment. See what’s out there.

What we don’t have, unfortunately, is a handy, readily available theory of government that goes beyond basic rights protection. And this is a problem, because in reality, government does go beyond basic rights protection—way beyond—and we don’t have an acceptable, accepted ethical shorthand for discussing it. We have no ethical road map for how far governments can justifiably go beyond rights protection. We tend to have mostly opinions rather than metrics.

Let’s look at one example of government obligation beyond the protection of rights: roads. Literal roads. Individuals do not build roads, but roads are a requirement of our society. If all the roads in the US were immediately shut down and removed, we could not function. Goods could not travel very far, and if we did not have access to our own family farm, we’d be in serious trouble. (One could look at the history of roads in the US, and find that, with the invention of the car, roads became very much within the purview of government, because at the point where you need paving, a horse galloping across the fields or on a trodden path doesn’t work anymore. Additionally, in the 1950s, Eisenhower embarked on a system of interstate highways, transcending even local governments’ road-building in aid of a national system, reflective of the ubiquitous ownership of automobiles after WWII).

Roads are an example of government doing what individuals cannot do. Because individuals cannot do these things, and because they are required by society, we obligate government to do them. That is my basic premise for understanding extended government obligations. And the things that are necessary but beyond the scope of individuals are not limited to roads. International protection is another obvious job the government does that I cannot do alone. I look to the government to set up the parameters of discourse with other governments, up to and including the conduct of war. I may have opinions on the subject of whom we should fight, just as I have opinions on the subject of where a road should lead, and in a free government I have avenues for expressing those opinions, but ultimately it is the job of the government that I support, and which I am inherently a part of as a citizen, to conduct that business.

The question that is raised is the determination of the limits of what government should do that individuals can’t do. Additionally, one must consider in the mix what can be done neither by lone individuals nor the government but by non-governmental groups of individuals, be they corporate or otherwise. That is, there are jobs that religions do, for instance, that we believe are outside the scope of government (or that most of us believe should be outside the scope of government, but now we’re back in Texas where there is no separation of church and state because Jefferson, by not existing, never raised that pesky issue). There are jobs that corporations should do that we consider to be outside the scope of government. But the question is, which of these jobs are which? How do you argue that providing health care, for instance, is a government job? Or providing broadband? Or welfare? Or anything, even roads?

What you probably need to do is view the issue, first, from the perspective of what only the government can do, and assume that because only government is capable of it, government is obligated to do it, if we agree that it is an important enough benefit to society. Keep in mind that all government works have a cost, so if we consider that the government engage in a particular chore, we have to be willing to pay for it, which means that we need a cost-benefit analysis to decide whether or not to do it. Still, this is the easiest sort of obligation to fulfill, because there are no competing claims on filling it. If only government can realistically take it on, if we decide we need it, the government is obligated to get it. Our roads are a good example of this. Costs of roads are not insignificant, and in some odd vision perhaps some corporation could be created to provide them, but when all is said and done, it is worth it to pay for them and reasonable that the government be the agency to build them. Not a hard call.

Education is an interesting example. Our government has taken on the obligation of educating the young. We tend to make this an obligation of local governments rather than the vaster national government, but that’s an insignificant distinction. We are obligating our governments to do this. Why? I mean, there are plenty of people who believe in home-schooling. There are people who prefer religious-based instruction in at least primary education and often secondary education. Because we believe strongly in government-supported education, we allow for those not availing themselves of this education to get at least a share of it by also supporting home schools and parochial education, at least to some extent. And on top of this, we draw the line at providing college education to all as part of the basic education package, but still we provide state institutions underwritten by the government to compete with private institutions, and we provide government-underwritten loans. The thing seems to be, we value education enough to warrant obligating the government to provide it because, for the most part, if government doesn’t provide it, it will not be fairly accessible to all. If the government stopped providing public education, a lot of people would still be educated, but not all, and we consider this wrong.

From the education example we can begin to draw an idea of what government ought to do beyond the absolute essentials. Or, if you will, to draw an idea of what the absolute essentials are. One big thing seems to be not that only government can do it, but that only government can do it fairly. If it were not done, a lot of individuals would suffer harm as a result.

How about housing? Housing is obviously essential to our lives. Does the government have an obligation to provide us all with some sort of housing?

The difference between housing and education seems to be that, with the latter, the government provides an open door through which citizens can avail themselves of the service of education, whereas with housing, we would actually have to provide some sort of literal, physical object, a house or an apartment. What, exactly, would comprise a fair house for a family of five? Tough one. So while we believe, in a humanitarian sense, that people need a roof over their heads, we don’t literally set a claim that the government will give them one. Instead, we provide general funds through which people who are homeless can find some sort of shelter. We subsidize them, in other words. If you lose your job you get unemployment insurance, at some point you can get food stamps and things like that. We don’t get you an apartment, but we help you to pay your rent. Not much, though. You might end up moving in with family or something. You might lose everything. We grieve for you, but we don’t solve the problem for you in any specific way.

So what is the underlying reason we support education and not housing, the reason we have decided that education is a government obligation and that housing is a personal obligation, aside from the specificity of the property involved? I would suggest that we connect housing to something beyond and aside from the government. Our homes are a reflection of our lives as a whole, our income and spending, our jobs, our position in society. Housing is, to a great extent, tied into the capitalistic system of working for profit and taking a share of that profit to support ourselves. That’s what people do with jobs, and jobs are considered the fabric of the corporate capitalist system. To be a member in good standing in this system, you work. (Those who have lost their jobs in the recent recession talk a lot about the anomie that results from losing their positions in society.) If you don’t work, you are not a member in good standing, unless you are actively job hunting and therefore presumed to be simply on hiatus, a member in good standing in absentia. So if you don’t have housing because you don’t work, your position as a non-member of society in good standing deprives you of any potential entitlement to housing. Why should the government provide you with what you should be providing for yourself? This could also be tied into the idea that providing housing is in conflict with property rights. Government protects the property you have, but it doesn't get you property. Maybe housing cuts too close to the core of individual rights?

Mostly I think the difference between housing and education does, in fact, seem to point to a difference of fairness. While it would be unfair not to provide education to all, we do not perceive it as unfair not to provide housing to all, because while the former would be impossible for many to obtain, the latter, housing, would not be impossible if people just got a job and worked. Maybe, also, the numbers would be smaller. Not providing housing to all affects a small number, whereas not providing education to all would affect a vast number.

Because it is so difficult to establish meaningful parameters, we argue endlessly about what the government should do just about everywhere. Libertarians want the least amount of government possible, leaving life to one’s own devices. Socialists want the most amount of government, creating a system of the most achievable fairness. Most of us are somewhere in between. If we could only devise a mechanism for measuring when the actions of the government are balanced by the fairness of the results of taking those actions, we would have a reasonable blueprint for action, and a reasonable guide to when those actions are obligated.

And that is how I would address a resolution calling for the government to take on the burden of any action above and beyond protecting basic human rights. That is, I would, in my case, set up a mechanism for measuring when the actions of the government are balanced by the fairness of the results of taking those actions, compared of course to the results of not taking those actions, and I would use those results as the tool for mandating or not government actions. Yes, it is absolutely consequential, but one can reasonably argue that virtually all government actions must be weighed consequentially, since they exist in the real world and not merely in philosophical papers. More to the point, the government “must” inherently do only a handful of things that are intuitively obligated, or if you prefer, deontologically obligated, at least by the definitions of government we use in basic political science. But as I say, all government actions are, by definition, real world, and therefore subject to real world analysis. They must satisfactorily meet the criteria of desirability and achievability according to a real world test (there can be no absolutes in politics, only presumptions based on reasonable data).

This is not relevant to CatNats and "soil rights,", but mark my words: these resolutions will come. If not in LD, then every time you turn around in PF. Unfortunately, people in PF rounds often don’t provide the underlying thesis analogous to LD’s V/C, giving judges little to go on. (See my PF notes, elsewhere.) If at the very least you can begin with a political model of some sort, and then measure how action plays out in that model, you’ll give me something I can follow and understand and, as a judge, measure. It’s worth a try. But the bottom line is, when you venture out of protecting basic human rights, you venture alone, without the body of literature to support you, that is, without an accepted ethical framework forged over centuries. You are forced to provide your own ethical framework, your own rationale why this must be done, not because it's good but because it's obligated. Plenty of things are good, but that doesn't make them government obligations. Constructing and deconstructing government obligations is a big job. But as government gets bigger and bigger, somebody's got to do it. Often, that somebody is us.

Have fun.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

All right, it's April 1

I have no spoofs in aid of this particular holiday, no remarkably witty tricks to pull, no memorable burlesques that you will be talking about for generations to come. I will leave that to others with more wit and imagination than I.

To make up for this sad lack of creativity, I have dug up my old O'C interview. Newer members of the VCA may never have heard this, while older members who recall it fondly will have a chance to relive it. Older members who cursed it to hell and back and wished never to be reminded of its existence, on the other hand, will just have to look elsewhere for the April First entertainments.

Jim Menick (sort of) interviews O'C: the mp3.