Saturday, December 04, 2010

Judging Day

I dove head first into my daughter's world today, caravaning behind Gonzo to Clackamas High School, ferrying three from the Cleveland debate team. Cleveland's team has grown big and strong under Gonzo's leadership. He and Tara formed a natural alliance, as Tara, a Cleveland student, had started out on the Lincoln team, given Cleveland had no team. Gonzo was moving over from Marshall, so the timing was propitious. Cleveland started a new team right when Tara was ready for a leadership role. This was Tara's anniversary of sorts, as her first debate tournament was here at Clackamas, two years ago.

The first event that I judged was a series of 10 minute speeches which students had researched and mostly memorized. I used a stop watch, took notes, then scored and ranked the students relative to one another, per instructions.

The first speaker spoke passionately in favor of a boycott against one-dimensional autotuned pop music such as stuff by the Black Eyed Peas. In contrast to the golden age of folk music and rock and roll when real values and edgy viewpoints countering the mainstream's were expressed, today's lyrics tend to glamorize binge drinking, drug use, and sex at a young age.

Today's music industry is transparently about exploiting youth and making money. Corrupting messages delivered by bands of little talent gives foreign nationals a bad impression of America and attacks the integrity of future generations. Let's boycott bad music now. I could see where this message would get some agreement from senior-boomers like me. I did like that BEP hit Boom Boom Pow quite a bit (a kind of geek anthem).

The second speaker took a strong line against giving psychologists greater powers to prescribe controlled substances (medications) more like psychiatrists do. She argued that states providing these expanded powers have tended to experience more malpractice lawsuits from patients and their families. The added schooling is expensive and that reduces the choice to the public in terms of fees i.e. if prescribing psychologists cost as much as psychiatrists, where's the choice?

She did not address the idea of giving patients more powers over their own treatment, no doubt because it would seem counter-intuitive to give more control to the more incapacitated. Taking more responsibility for one's own medical records and treatment would entail more public education all around, assuming access to treatment options to begin with. Making everyone more like a medical doctor with respect to their own conditions sounds like more pie-in-the-sky utopianism I'm sure.

The third speaker spoke passionately about the evils of ethnocentrism and America's reputation abroad for being extremely ethnocentric. She was Muslim herself, but did not thereby share the anti-American views she had encountered overseas. Racial profiling is simply not helping Americans live up to their own values. America is in danger of living up to the negative stereotypes being applied by those most suspicious of her motives.

The fourth speaker spoke about the situation in Palestine and the plight of the people there. He quoted Ronald Reagan challenging Gorbachev to take down the Berlin Wall. He advocated a two state solution, not the no state solution of the anti-nationalists. The latter position doesn't in itself offer any details about how to decide water rights or how to prevent land grabbing by any given faction. A need for governance remains, even when "nations" aren't considered jurisdictional.

Yes, I'm inserting my own editorial remarks. The speaker felt America's foreign policy blunders in the Middle East might be so severe that recovery of international prestige would be impossible. Being on the wrong side of history has its disadvantages, he argued.

The fifth speaker counseled moderation in all things and ridiculed those who artificially pump busyness into their lives in order to avoid really dealing with the deeper issues. Being over-busy simply leads to frivolity and unreflective living. On the other hand, his recommendations on how to take it easy seemed a tad on the superficial side. Also, whatever happened to "doing what needs to be done" i.e. using one's "free time" to engage in "what matters"?

Although my editorializing may give the impression that I was scoring based on how much I agreed or disagreed with a given position, this was not my role as a judge. I could have my own thoughts of course, but my criteria were based on speaker effectiveness. Speeches are supposed to be delivered with some passion, some intent to persuade, but without seeming too forced or artificially pumped up with rhetorical tricks of the trade. There's a fine line between passion and artifice, I agree.

I also judged two public forum debates. One had to do with Americans' right to know. Many references to Wikileaks were made (one of the stricken resolutions was about that explicitly -- each side, aff and neg, gets to eliminate one of three choices).

The other debate had to do with going green, versus the costs. China figured prominently in the latter debate, as a nation to whom the USA owed trillions.

The former debate eschewed all mention of the Vietnam War and parallels between Wikileaks and the Pentagon Papers. I was interested to read a school-posted time-line regarding the Vietnam War in one of the USA history classrooms. Diem's failure to hold elections, per the Geneva Accords, given Ho Chi Min's evident popularity, goes somewhere between I Love Lucy's debut and Elvis Presley becoming the King of Rock and Roll. The time-line sets this war against the backdrop of American popular culture (an ethnocentric approach).

I judged a radio event, which is about reading prepared editorials as if on the radio. Topics included: bed bugs; frivolous lawsuits; airport security procedures; taking care of one's aging parents.

I also found one chapter in the library by Bucky Fuller in an an anthology called The Futurists, edited by Alvin Toffler. Bucky's chapter consists of excerpts from congressional testimony and includes his bizarre cosmology, which I don't understand, wherein Planet Earth is destined to become a star someday, by which time the humans will have presumably moved away to "avoid incineration" (Bucky's words). This is not the expected fate of the Earth according to any of the other contemporary models I know about. The sun is supposed to engulf the Earth as a part of its life cycle. Whether humans have found somewhere to go by then, or will exist at all in a recognizable form, is not for my century to know, although speculation is always a source of science fiction.

And yes, I got to sit in on a Lincoln-Douglas (LD) debate wherein my daughter faced off with her opponent on whether drug abuse should be treated as a medical or criminal matter. She was assigned the affirmative position, which didn't mean advocating zero control over controlled substances. More responsibility would be placed with average people perhaps. As it is, the criminal justice system is manifestly unjust (she argued) as those with serious drug problems need medical treatment, not incarceration. Her opponent painted a picture of profligate drug use and a society in chaos, not unlike today's. He argued that criminalizing drugs provides a deterrent.

Of course I was not a judge in this debate or for anyone from Cleveland (that'd have been a conflict of interest), nor did the judge know I had any relation to a contestant (not that this would have mattered). Plus I was not the only non-judge adult present with undisclosed relationships. Tara was awesome, better at keeping her cool than her more flustered opponent. I'm pretty sure she won that round.

Regrettably, I missed two other opportunities to sit in on Tara's LD debates. Finding her in this mob and figuring out where the rooms were... I just didn't have it together. Instead I wandered between the Judges Lounge and the Media Center, eating too many bagels and cold pizza slices, drinking too much coffee. Whenever I encountered Tara, she was excited and clearly enjoying her sport.

Listening to student banter in the hallways, especially with regard to global affairs, was most enlightening. "Russia still has a KGB, it just has a different name" and "the CIA won the Cold War" were two overheard snippets. Both sides wanted to keep it cold (the colder the better) so I'd say the victory was shared in that sense. I also listened in on the judges' banter (being one myself). I heard a lot of praise for the students and their phenomenal performances. Many of us were first timers as judges. However some of the more seasoned judges were having a problem with how the LD format is going, though they blamed the coaches, not the students. There's really quite a bit of jargon to wade through, a somewhat elaborate metaphysics.

Speech and Debate is a great multi-generational event. Adults experience teenagers being well-dressed, polite, intelligent and friendly towards one another. They're also good sports. Tara said I should have attended the semi-final LD event were her opponent "kicked my ass, but he was really good". She has sincere admiration for worthy opponents and learns from them. That's impressive right there.

At the end of the evening, I got to join two other judges in a final round of Dual Interpretation, a kind of drama, with pairs of students both introducing and commenting on their selection, then performing in a somewhat ritualized manner. The event was ranked novice, yet I was frankly blown away by the excellence of these performances. Ranking them was a hard thing to have to do. Teenagers, when encouraged to excel, really rise to the occasion. I am inspired and thank Gonzo (and of course Tara) for affording me this opportunity.

The awards ceremony was awesome as well. Cleveland won the best overall debate team award (not the first time) while Tara came in 2nd overall in LD (she'd actually won her semi-final event). The people in the tab room, who have to design and score all this stuff, have my lasting admiration as well. This is quite an advanced little subculture to have stumbled upon. America: there's some hope for her yet. She delivers beautiful children. Now if she'd just stop eating them, squandering their talents.