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The Poison Ivy League Part 1-By Way of Introduction…

May 3, 2011

When David Vincent Kimel realized that he’d forgotten who his first debate partner was, he resolved to write a full and honest account of his adventures on the Harvard Debate Team in the style of his hero, Julius Caesar, talking endlessly about himself in the third person and consequently providing his readers with the illusion of an objective story. He avoided beginning this work for some time, and with good reason too. In the first place, he was embarrassed to expose the outrageous behavior of so many people in an open forum. This isn’t to say that everyone was a villain; on the contrary, almost every character was alternately a victim or a bully as the circumstances demanded. The intercollegiate debate circuit has true virtues that deserve to be celebrated. But the rampant use and abuse of sundry substances, unbridled (and strategic) promiscuity between participants and judges, not-so-hidden racism and misogyny, bitter and often vindictive personal struggles, and embarrassing and even insane behavior among students from some of the best schools in the country would have to be addressed for the account to ring at all true. And if Kimel ignored the more scandalous behavior of the characters in his story, it wouldn’t be at all interesting for his readers, as few or as many as they might be. Ultimately, then, he decided to write the entire history of his career and not to conceal anything, but to be truthful to the best of his ability, altering the names of most of his characters to protect their anonymity but still describing everything that happened, and how, as he argued with the brightest children of America at the end of their childhoods weekend after weekend until he won the title that he craved and then found himself unexpectedly alone.

The story of the American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) extends back to the early 1980s when the circuit was founded as a sort of coarse parody of European debate by David Martland and Richard Sommer of Princeton and David Bailin and J. J. Gertler of Amherst. Two-person teams from various schools would bark strategically at each other round after round, with one side randomly assigned the position of “Government” and the other that of “Opposition.” The Government proposed any debatable topic under the sun, and the Opposition was forced to contradict it with no prior knowledge of the subject at hand. After five rounds of preliminary debate, the eight best teams would advance to quarter-finals. The four winners then advanced to semi-finals, and the final round consisted of the last two surviving teams. Every weekend, various universities hosted tournaments, with students from that school judging their peers; so, for example, every school but Harvard would compete at Harvard’s annual competition.  Two-person teams were awarded points based on competitive success and the size of the specific competitions they won, since some schools’ contests drew greater crowds than others. At the end of the year, after a national competition at which one duo was crowned champion, prizes were given out for the top teams of the year. The greatest honor was first place Team of the Year, TOTY, the single most successful two-person pairing based on cumulative performance throughout the year, though “National Champion” sounded neater on a resume’.

As time passed, various older rhetorical organizations of loud-mouthed social pariahs were incorporated under the single competitive banner of APDA, and the Ivy League and most liberal arts colleges began to adhere to this style, as they do to this day, though there exist other forms of debate that are popular, for example, in the Midwest. Whatever the case, when Kimel began his career in 2001, APDA was barely as old as he was. There exists little nostalgia for the early days of the activity. Back then, bizarre cases were often run with humor as a primary goal, and rounds usually had a rhetorical rather than analytical emphasis. For example, one National Championship’s final round centered around the question of whether the captain of the ship which caused the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill should kick back and get drunk when he realized what he’d done. This sort of ambiance, however, was eventually considered in no way fitting for an activity involving the efforts of so many intelligent people at so many selective schools, and over time, players became more serious at the game. A later final round, for example, involved whether the Egyptians ought to have built the pyramids—this question, at least, called for analysis rather than rhetorical absurdities in order for it to be addressed successfully.

Over time, as the circuit gained respect and more would-be lawyers subsequently began to flood it, debate cases began running the gambit from the ridiculous to the complex. The schools of the North pioneered dry gravity in debate, preferring topics about politics and the law, while the South adhered more faithfully to the standards of the early activity, preferring topics about nonsense. This thematic divide continued to exist long after Kimel began to debate. Incidentally, the monikers of North and South were based more on philosophy than geography—“The South” began at Columbia and extended to the University of Virginia, while “The North” included Stanford, the University of Chicago, and even Princeton and Swarthmore. Both regions of the country produced great orators, but Brian Fletcher of Yale, who ended his career at the turn of the millennium, was widely considered to have been the most successful participant of all time. Legend has it that he was the first to propose independent arguments for his side of the case rather than simply contradicting his opponent’s assertions point by point, though Kimel took this myth with a grain of salt.

So much for the early history of APDA. The institutional memory of the circuit is embarrassingly ramshackle. When Kimel first made his appearance, Princeton and Yale were dominant and the Harvard team was in a period of long decline. In fact, though it sometimes produced National Champions, it had never fielded a single Team of the Year in all of its history, and it was exciting news whenever participants advanced past the first five preliminary rounds of debate to quarter-finals or beyond, since many of the players were only infrequent participants.

Kimel first encountered debate as a competitive enterprise at Hamden Hall, a small private school in southern Connecticut just down the road from his mother’s house on the lake where Eli Whitney lived and worked. His first debate coach very nearly drove him from the activity forever. The man once discounted all religions by saying that they caused every major war in history. When Kimel countered with the Peloponnesian War, or any number of wars between polytheistic societies that had nothing to do with faith, the miserable fellow sarcastically called him a “mutt” for being half Italian American and half Israeli and threw a stapler in the direction of his head in frustration at losing the argument. This robbed the activity of any sense of joy and adventure that it might have held, though Kimel still attended a handful of tournaments until his sophomore year and even won a state championship. Despite general non-involvement, he did attend Harvard’s high school tournament twice. One judge provided the following helpful criticism on his ballot: “your voice is annoying, and so are you.” That was the last of his high school debates.

Harvard left a poor impression on Kimel as a bitterly cold place filled with bitterly cold people. Later, though, the prestige of the college and the obvious benefits of attending it, once admitted, helped him to see beyond what had originally jaded him. Like every student there, he was lucky to get in, though his career as a professional over-achiever gave him better odds than most. Besides debate in high school, Kimel acted in plays, did community service work in New Haven, was editor in chief of the newspaper, managing editor of the literary magazine, and captain of the Academic Decathlon team, winning several national prizes. School was his life, and he seldom received telephone calls from his classmates unless they wanted him to tutor them for upcoming tests; this ended when he jokingly told a fellow student that the Cold War was fought at the North Pole and she wrote as much on a quiz. He lived with his mother, stepfather, two sisters from his mother’s second marriage, and two mentally handicapped foster-siblings. In the summers, he went to Israel, where he was born, to visit his father, stepmother, and four half-siblings there: twin boys, a younger boy, and a girl.

After graduating valedictorian, Kimel decided to major in Classics at Harvard, with an emphasis on ancient history. His areas of special interest were the early Roman emperors and the wider social history of the Empire. Since most of the classes he took were offered by the History rather than the Classics department, he did not make many friends in his own major. This allowed debate to fill a social and recreational gap. He was, however, at that time also very active in theatre. He played Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady” during his first semester and acted in a supporting role in “Arsenic and Old Lace” in the spring, in addition to taking part in the chorus of “Sweeney Todd” on the ART main-stage in Boston. He even acted in a student-produced film during which he had his first kiss. His co-star was nervous about the smooch, cautioning him not to look directly into her eyes because his stare reminded her of some trauma from her past. To placate her, they only touched lips—he resisted any urge to suck.

It was an informational session about HSPDS (the Harvard Speech and Parliamentary Debate Society) that sparked his curiosity in taking the activity up at college. At first, he was entertained by trivialities like banging on desks in support of good arguments and holding his hand to his head when rising on a point of order or asking a question as if he were wearing a wig, a throwback to the British formality of the parliamentary style. These silly details, combined with the thrill of being able to debate any topic imaginable with no restrictions on discussion in each round, cemented his interest. Besides, the President of the Harvard team at the time, Agrippina, was drop dead gorgeous, and Kimel realized that attending tournaments might afford him further opportunities for staring at her in mute awe. This was enough to inspire him to debate at the MIT tournament, where he made it to a bubble round (a round whose winners can break to out-rounds if they did a good enough job in the four preceding rounds). He also, alone among the novices, received a speaker award, which proved enough to catch Agrippina’s attention. The most interesting fact about the tournament in retrospect was probably the fact that Kimel was almost hit by a car crossing the street before the competition began, which might have ended this story altogether sooner.

When Kimel proceeded to drift away from debate in favor of theatre, an invitation from Agrippina to partner with her at the Wellesley Tournament at which older Harvard debaters paired themselves with freshmen participants called him back for what he thought at the time would be a single weekend. He was, of course, about to be mistaken, and here the story begins in earnest.


The Poison Ivy League Part 2-Harvard Hosts a Tournament, Kimel Loses a Bed

May 3, 2011

The fact that Agrippina invited Kimel to partner with her at the Wellesley tournament was somewhat scandalous at the time, because although he’d fulfilled the membership requirements for the Fall term when he judged at the Harvard tournament and housed debaters in his room, he’d not done so for the Spring, when everyone was supposed to help judge at the high school competition. Still, in those days, Harvard novices could only begin to debate after the MIT tournament (around December) as a cost-saving mechanism, since the team was so poor. The upshot of this was that few debaters had had a chance to show their potential yet besides Kimel, so Agrippina had good cause to decide to extend her invitation. If she hadn’t, he most likely would have left the activity completely, since his only experience of it was the debacle of the Harvard tournament he’d attended in the Fall as a judge.

As a novice at the competition, Kimel had been given terrible rounds to judge. The exception to this general rule was the first round, at which a competitor from a border-state school delivered a fantastic speech in a hypothetical case about whether a submarine commander should launch nuclear torpedoes in a case of ambiguous authority on board the ship. Kimel gave him a 27 out of 30 (in effect, the highest score one can get, though a handful of 28s per year might also be given out). One of the heads of the tabulation room asked Kimel who the speaker was, laughed upon hearing the name, and lowered the score to a 26. After that Kimel was relegated to judging boring down-rounds featuring teams with severely losing records.

The conversation in the Judges’ Assembly Room seemed insufferable. People kept dwelling on words Kimel had never heard before, like “the exclusionary rule” and “libertarianism.” Freshmen bobbed their heads as if they knew what their elders were blathering about. There was no discourse on a human or individual level. In the General Assembly, there was alcohol everywhere—tides of it, as if the room took Homer’s epithet “wine faced sea” literally and replaced “wine” with “cheap liquor.” Certain competitors would even steal sips from flasks before, during, and after their rounds. Women were outnumbered by men by a margin of at least four to one. Racial and ethnic minorities (besides East Asians, who were well-represented) were so few that they amounted to more than five participants overall in a room of scores of people. Whites, particularly Jews and Northern Europeans, comprised the majority. These latter details actually amounted to little in terms of Kimel’s opinions, but might be valuable for readers unfamiliar with the general composition of the circuit.

Kimel was given the dubious honor of housing one of the largest teams in his room because his freshman dorm was on the spacious side. One of the older members of this team confided in him that the social circle at his school was among the worst on the East Coast, since it was divided into rigid cliques largely defined by wealth and wardrobe. He went on to reveal that he only hung around with most of his friends to buy drugs from them. When Kimel woke up in the morning to take a shower, he found this memorable competitor lying in his bed beneath the covers.

Largely apathetic about debate and seeing it as more of a bizarre spectacle than an activity that could engage him, Kimel took the time to see only one out-round at the Harvard tournament. The very debater who’d slipped into his bed in the morning rose to speak. Kimel had never heard a more cogent, wry, or powerfully inventive debate speech—here, he thought to myself, was creativity at its sharpest, honed like a sword for battle. All of his negative opinions about the circuit and its members seemed to melt away. He would never be able to think so quickly on his feet, he thought to himself.

The Harvard tournament had long since passed by the time Agrippina and Kimel went to Wellesley. It was, however, in the back of his mind as he waited for the rest of the team at Johnston Gate by Harvard Yard. The team usually got to tournaments by renting damaged cars from a place called Rent a Wreck, which loaned out sputtering jalopies to young drivers. But since the trip to Wellesley wasn’t so long, everyone was traveling by bus and commuter rail. One of the first people to arrive was Sulla A., whom freshmen on the team mentioned looked something like Kimel. He was supposedly the most serious about the activity and the most ambitious, and had had some success on the high school circuit besides. He was debating with the second-ranked person on the team—the Vice President and Comp Director Claudia, whose job it was to recruit new students. This Claudia was a brilliant thinker, but her accent was so thick that she drew the mockery of the people whom she usually defeated. When Kimel met Sulla A., he joked that they should debate together some day as Romulus and Remus.

Agrippina arrived late. Kimel complimented her on her dress, and she thanked him for this courtesy. In retrospect, he would come to value everything that was about to ensue as a treasured memory, though experience would one day prove that he was wrong about many of the assumptions that he made that day, a fact which later turned out to be so disorienting and disillusioning that it robbed his first experience of success at debate of much of the value and excitement which he’d felt, naively, at the time. But all of this would only be revealed one year later, when important secrets about that day were finally revealed to him.

The Poison Ivy League Part 3-Kimel’s First 29

May 3, 2011

A few more words on the rules of APDA are in order. Opposition would seem at first glance to be the more difficult position than Government, since the latter can prepare cases beforehand and enjoys the advantage of total surprise. Actually, though, Opposition is typically easier because it’s usually simpler to poke holes in arguments than to build them up. The first speaker for the Government is the Prime Minister, who opens and closes the round. The Leader of the Opposition delivers two speeches against the Government’s proposal, separated by the speeches of the Member of Government and Member of Opposition, which help along their respective sides. Participants are awarded points from 23 (atrocious) to 27-28 (astounding), and ranked 1-4. In order to be eligible to compete at the National Championship, people needed to reach a final round at a tournament of any size; this, at least, was the rule when Kimel was on the circuit and for the vast majority of its history. Someone in a final round then became a “half-seed” at other tournaments—if he or she debated with another “half seed,” the team was ranked a “full seed.” Theoretically, this is important in the pairing of first rounds, in which seeds are not pitted against each other, but against unseeded, and hence theoretically worse, teams. The result of this is that at most tournaments, the first two rounds or so involve dominant seniors destroying novices and incompetent participants. There are other peculiarities of the style that will become apparent with time, but these are the most important details.

Once the team got to Wellesley, Agrippina and Kimel learned that they were competing against (“hitting”) a team that was half-seeded, like they were, which was theoretically an error. Their opponents included one of the best speakers from MIT, a junior named Cassius. He was a sharp if tweedy character who had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of arcane subjects. He will appear in this story again. Kimel’s first impression of him was that he spoke with a sense of dry condescension toward people whom he considered less intelligent than himself, a character trait not uncommon on the circuit; in fact, cross apply it to virtually everyone, with a few notable exceptions. Cassius had apparently begun his career as a stammering novice but had evolved into one of the North’s best up-and-coming voices. Besides, he was a junior and still had the upcoming year to improve. He complained vehemently to the tournament organizers about hitting Agrippina and Kimel, but they ultimately went forward with the round anyway. Kimel’s confidence was bolstered by the fact that he and Agrippina were considered a difficult first-round draw, at least at this tournament. Harvard was on Opposition. The case Cassius ran was that attempted murder should have the same judicial consequences as murder. It was a stock case that Agrippina and Kimel defeated handily, particularly since Cassius’s partner was not up to his caliber. Kimel brought up the example of strangulation in this round, since someone could stop choking someone in mid-throttle and should intuitively be in a distinct legal category from someone who never stopped the act, an argument for any method of murder that is not instantaneous.

Agrippina and Kimel continued to do well at the tournament. They were assigned to be Government for the third round and were up against a talented team of physically enormous fellows—a hybrid of Cyrus from BU (a raucous and good-humored speaker with an alarming knowledge of pop culture) and Marcus from MIT (highly intelligent, confident to the point of haughtiness, and an aggressive speaker with no patience for fools). Kimel wanted to run an Opp choice case, letting the Opposition select what side it wanted to defend, about whether the historical Brutus ought to have joined the conspiracy to assassinate Julius Caesar. Agrippina discouraged this and explained to Kimel before the round that while one could theoretically run any case in the world, the best speeches were invariably on “serious topics.” As a Classics major with an interest in history, Kimel assured her that the case was at least serious to him, and he insisted on running it. He then went on to speak a 29. This was gracious of the Wellesley judge, since the score was nominally reserved for Jesus and Gandhi by the policy of the tournament. For a while after this, some people on the Harvard team called Kimel Jesus, but the nickname didn’t stick. To Kimel’s knowledge, the history of debate has not seen many 29s, and while he doubts that he deserved it, notwithstanding a clever joke about toga parties, it increased his notoriety as a novice who had, after all, only debated at two tournaments up to that point.

Agrippina and Kimel ultimately won 4 out of 5 rounds and broke directly to semi-finals, hitting another team from MIT. After his 29, Kimel now had free rein over the case book. In Agrippina’s words, this was by now “his tournament,” and she muttered that she would support any decision he made. In the event, Kimel ran the case that Prometheus should not have given fire to mankind and gave what might have been the most memorable PMC (first Prime Minister Constructive Speech) of his career. “You are a mighty giant!” and “You forged mankind from mud!” proved to be impressive catchphrases. Unfortunately, however, Agrippina went on to drop the ball with a halting speech, and Kimel gave a confused PMR (second Prime Minister Rebuttal, or closing speech). Harvard lost. Still, he’d had a wonderful time being the center of attention for a weekend among people who seemed both very smart and very arrogant, and the thrill of competition against sharp competitors and the promise of out-speaking them inspired him to take APDA more seriously than he had up until then. Kimel regretted that he didn’t have a chance to see Yale A debate, who also lost in semi-finals. Livia and Tiberius were considered the best pairing from the North and were almost notorious for their ability to win rounds, though at that time he knew nothing about their personalities or styles.

Sulla A congratulated Kimel on his success once they returned to Harvard. After speaking with him for a while, Kimel found him to be a friendly, genuine person with a passion for the activity that then dwarfed his own. When he learned that they’d both been randomly assigned to live in the Eliot House dormitory, Kimel was sincerely pleased by the news; in the days before randomization, legend had it that the Catholic JFK was rejected from living there by his Protestant peers. Later, the man who would prove in the eyes of most observers to be Kimel’s most consummate rival at debate would eventually become his roommate, and one with whom Kimel could never recall, for all that happened next, a single domestic argument.

Sulla A had a man named Porus who followed him around at tournaments like a dutiful shadow, since, despite Kimel’s sudden appearance, Sulla had long since established himself as the most talented and dedicated member of the novice class, and Porus probably hoped to debate with him eventually; in those days, most people had different partners every weekend. But when Sulla A ditched Porus to partner with a stronger speaker for the Fairfield tournament, Kimel agreed to go with him instead. In retrospect, Kimel’s attending the tournament is somewhat unfortunate, since if he had only debated twice his freshman year, he would have technically been novice his sophomore year and likely have won the Novice of the Year Award. Besides, Fairfield would prove to be one of the worst experiences of his debate career, and Kimel’s survival on the circuit in its aftermath is a testament to how much he enjoyed his time with Agrippina at the Wellesley tournament. She promised to debate again with him some day, a fact which Kimel kept in the back of his mind as he was submitted to the worst of debate at Fairfield. In fact, the very name of the tournament would soon become a byword for corruption.

The Poison Ivy League Part 4-A Debacle at Fairfield

May 3, 2011

Kimel’s mother was once a student at Fairfield, and he thought that the tournament would be an interesting opportunity to see her school and perhaps visit his home on the outskirts of New Haven. As a freshman and a novice, he was completely unaware of the gossip already circulating about the competition before it even began.

The TOTY (Team of the Year) race that season was down to the wire between a pair from Princeton, whom the vast majority of the South supported, and Yale A: Livia and Tiberius. In those days, large schools had vassal colleges whose tournaments they helped to run—for example, Harvard would traditionally help along the Wellesley team’s tournament, and Yale would assist Fairfield. Because Tiberius was the dominant political personality on his team, gossip predictably affirmed that he was setting out to fix the tournament for himself. To Kimel, however, this assertion always seemed tendentious. The judging at the tournament was among the worst Kimel had ever seen, and short of forcing campus-nobodies to vote for his victory again and again, it would have been difficult for even Tiberius to do anything to amount to much of a difference over the outcome of his rounds. Whatever the case, all of the judging at Fairfield was atrocious, conducted by unenthusiastic strangers with no knowledge of APDA or its style. The best answer to the gossip is that the ultimate result of the tournament proves pretty obviously that the outcome was out of Yale’s hands.

There were equally colorful rumors floating around the North that in the final round of Fairfield’s rival tournament, one side deliberately lost to the other, ensuring the TOTY title for Princeton. Princeton had evidently performed so strongly that year that many people felt as if they were the rightful holders of the title, especially since both Livia and Tiberius had another year on the horizon to win honors and had stepped on many toes in the meantime besides. They say that when the results of the final round were announced, a speaker sarcastically addressed the audience with the request “if you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.” The room burst out laughing and did so, mocking the fact that Tiberius was disabled and had neither hands nor feet. In retrospect, 2001-2002 represented one of the worst seasons ever in terms of North-South relations. Kimel went on to hear rumors surrounding this weekend for many years later, so engrained did the myth of what happened become in the collective imagination of the circuit.

Of course, poor Porus and Kimel were completely unaware of the high stakes that weekend when, mirabile dictu, they were pitted against Yale A for the first round. Kimel suggested running his case about Brutus and Julius Caesar again – the one that had won him the unprecedented score of 29 a few weeks earlier. Disaster ensued; one of the most unpleasant rounds Kimel ever beheld took place. First, Tiberius delivered his LOC, the first speech of the opposition, which contained a torrent of points—many of them unconvincing, but so many in number and so artfully organized that it would have taken a Cicero to sort through such a web in eight minutes. A Cicero Porus was not, and he proceeded to give a vicious speech accusing Yale A of making up lies. His unpracticed style made his words seem like a string of ad hominem attacks. Then Livia stood up and reaffirmed everything Tiberius had said, charming the judge into nodding throughout her speech. “Why are you being so mean?” she hissed at Porus. Another rainstorm of Tiberius, and there was little Kimel could do in the last five minutes. Harvard lost the round, and Porus and Kimel came to deeply resent Livia and Tiberius that weekend. Kimel’s opinion of Yale A would change over time as he came to appreciate many aspects of their style, but from the perspective of a novice, they made far from a positive first impression. Novices were cannon fodder in their eyes, and they made them know it.

Porus and Kimel kept losing round after round after that, many times undeservedly. In particular, Kimel gave a very insightful speech in a round about Beowulf, pleased to be placed on Opposition against the case. It didn’t matter—English was not the judge’s mother-tongue. Porus and Kimel ended up going 2-3, Kimel’s only losing record in his entire career. The out-rounds which followed were nothing that deserve to be immortalized in prose, and Porus and Kimel were still so annoyed at Livia and Tiberius that they gave them little stock as they made their speeches. Porus and Kimel even refused to participate in the final round’s floor vote, and were pleased that Yale dropped the round to a random team. This was perhaps callous, since TOTY was on the line, but they were still angry about the first round.

On their way home from the tournament, Sulla A and Kimel agreed that it would be a good idea if they tried to debate with each other the following year. Besides Porus and him, Fabius was also at the tournament, unabashedly judgmental and garrulous to the point of death, an opinionated man eager to give his opinions, and a good mimic besides. Josephus might have been there too, whose voice in those days had a tendency to fly into the soprano-range during a speech. Kimel has a vague memory of Rufus being there too, another novice, chanting “Yeah, Harvard!” in his breathy voice. Sulla B did not attend. He was another novice who seemed very interested in debate, but one who as yet lacked eloquence—he used to say the word “like” as a crutch in those days. But his wit and confident bite augured good things for him, even then.

Kimel was involved enough in the activity now to be interested in the Member at Large elections which were going to be held the following week. Agrippina had encouraged Kimel to apply and explained the cursus honorum of the team to him. Sophomores became a Members at Large, and juniors the President, Treasurer, or one of the Vice-Presidential positions. Senior years were spent without formal office. The elections would take place under the new administration of Scipio, who had just won a contentious election against Fabius the previous week. More on these intra-team politics next.

The Poison Ivy League Part 5-Characters of Two Different Sorts…

May 3, 2011

There used to be a good-intentioned rule on the Harvard debate team to the effect that everything that was said at elections was supposed to be kept secret. Everyone who ran for office had to stand a public interrogation. Then, when they left the room, the voters would debate the candidates’ vices and merits and usually follow the advice of senior members of the team after everyone had been thoroughly roasted. No matter how stringent the rules against divulging what was said behind people’s backs, however, they were invariably broken, since if there is any moral at all to this story, it’s that in a society of people who spend their leisure time listening to their own voices, there are few secrets.

Scipio had beaten out Fabius for the position of President. They would have made very different kinds of leaders. Scipio was bookish, effete, and borderline anti-social. He spent most of his free time with his girlfriends. Fabius was gregarious, loud, and one of the largest “personalities” on the circuit. He was dating a girl on the Amherst team, Messalina, with a personality in size to rival his own. Scipio seemed to be a safer choice for President insofar as he was less potentially abrasive than Fabius, but it is unclear who would have made the better captain.

Fabius was the type of debater who thought he never lost a round. When he was clumsy with his words, he could be inadvertently insulting. For example, he once asked the intensely competitive members of Kimel’s class if they wanted him to rank them in terms of talent. He also delighted in making brutal fun of people in his extended social circle. But these details of his personality, which could easily have been flaws in a lesser man, seemed somehow endearing in Fabius to those who knew him well. He was ultimately a fair-minded and practical person who would have made a good President—the ambiguities of his character were perhaps worse-suited to the role of Tournament Director, which he won. Scipio as President proved to be an instructive example in the exercise of power, and readers can ultimately decide for themselves if he was an effective helmsman for the team or not. Kimel considered his greatest flaw to be that his high-minded idealism sometimes clashed with a tendency to play favorites. While he seemed shy and modest, Kimel guessed that beneath the surface, he enjoyed the power that came with his seniority on the team and was not only comfortable in the role of the elder statesman, but luxuriated in it. Anyway, many debaters’ personalities seem like a mixture of the self-important and the absurd in rough sketches of their characters, but people were seldom entirely what they seemed.

One of Scipio’s first Issues with a capital I as President was to do away with creaky old traditions on the Harvard team, like favoring people who had found success at debate for positions as Members at Large. Now, novices who, though perhaps less talented, either showed more “dedication” or were members of an ethnic or gender minority would be favored. The upshot of this decision is that neither Sulla B nor Kimel were named Members at Large, while people less qualified than they were given positions, some of whom never debated again in their lives. Both Sulla B and Kimel had firmly committed themselves to more participation in the following year and we were very disappointed at the news.

To Kimel, the situation seemed like playing favorites while making pretensions at impartiality, particularly since Scipio went on to appoint Sulla A the Room Manager, traditionally the position given to the next President. In fact, Scipio even said as much to Sulla A, joking with him about the implications of his appointment. And later that year, when Sulla was compelled to duck into a food carousel to retrieve something in a locked kitchen, Agrippina went so far as to say that the next President should always have to do as much as a hazing tradition. This blatant favoritism irritated Kimel so intensely that he made a mental commitment to beat Sulla out for President the next year. They were at least equal in power as speakers at that point, and Kimel was determined that his commitment to the team be proved. More honestly, he enjoyed prestige and being the center of attention. But Sulla was equally determined to become President, and was a better player at the political game than Kimel was, at least then.

Agrippina’s quip about Sulla should have been a hint to Kimel that not all was well between him and her. She knew exactly what she was saying, and that he had just lost the Member at Large election besides. But he idealized her in those days and still looked forward to the opportunity of debating with her again at a tournament the next year, an imbecilic hope.

The Poison Ivy League Part 6-Nationals, 2002

May 3, 2011

Kimel did not compete at the National Championship in 2002, which was held at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). From the perspective of anymore north of Columbia, this was the Deep South, and the colleges of the North predictably lambasted the tournament as corrupt and biased. The competition broke to quarter-finals, and the top team from MIT was kept out of the break in favor of a team from Maryland due to a supposed error in the tabulation room. Readers can only imagine the uproar that this caused, especially since the best teams from the North, including Yale A, were kept out of the elimination rounds. The top team from Princeton ended up winning the tournament to the surprise of few people. Several Northerners consoled themselves by drinking enough alcohol to black out.

At the end of the competition, the yearly superlative awards were given out. Princeton took home both the National Championship and the Team of the Year titles. The Novice of the Year (NOTY) was Licinius from Cornell, auburn-haired and snappy. He was one of a series of excellent debaters from that distant school who will appear again and again in this story, although the college’s program has since seen itself sadly reduced. Interestingly, for all of Harvard’s later successes, few if any of its members were highly honored on the NOTY board, proof that the award is not necessarily predictive of later success.

Kimel heard many complaints about UMBC Nationals, ranging from the poor quality of the judging to the very smell of the campus. Since he didn’t attend, he can say nothing other than repeat that North-South relations were probably at their lowest ever this year and gossip at the hands of talkative people often turns malicious. When Agrippina accidentally overpaid for the teams Harvard sent to the tournament, Porcia, “the Mouth of the South,” refused to return the difference. Rumor promptly suggested that the cash was used to buy enough weed to fuel a year of Southern get-togethers. There was of course no proof at all of this slander on the UMBC team, but it was repeated so often and with such self-assurance that it gained the aura of fact, particularly at Harvard. This argument over money, ridiculous in its particulars, came to epitomize the struggle between North and South in the eyes of many debaters, and to this day, it is unclear if UMBC ever recompensed Harvard for Agrippina’s last mistake as outgoing President.

The last event of Kimel’s novice year was Incest-Fest, a raucous in-house tournament held at the end of every season at which two-person Harvard teams are randomly paired together for four rounds of ridiculous cases, the four highest speakers then breaking to finals. Kimel was paired with Sulla A in the fourth round. They were hitting a graduating senior. The round soon became too heated for a friendly in-house tournament, and Sulla and the senior began a series of angry exchanges. Sulla criticized the senior’s rhetorical style. The senior suggested that Sulla was no one to critique him or his oratory. It was all extremely awkward, and even more so when Sulla then found himself paired into the final round, which he promptly lost.

Sulla A was extremely ambitious; a Member at Large and the Room Manager for the next year’s tournament, he had even run for Treasurer and allegedly only narrowly lost out to Trimalchio, a committed sophomore but as yet unsuccessful on APDA. Had Sulla won a position on the Administrative Board as Treasurer, it likely would have significantly worsened relations on the team among people in Kimel’s class, which contained several ambitious personalities. At Incest-Fest, Sulla displayed a kind of single-minded over-zealousness that would often get him into trouble during the upcoming year—the climb to Olympus would prove steep and difficult at parts. For Kimel’s part, he was often mistakenly called by Sulla’s name by confused older members of the circuit until at least the end of his sophomore year. Why, he wondered to himself, couldn’t he and Sulla A both be called Kimel instead?

The Poison Ivy League Part 7-Interlude at Harvard College

May 3, 2011

Readers might be curious about Kimel’s life beyond debate, at least for the sake of additional context to the main narrative. When aspects of his non-debate career are essential to the story, they will be brought up. But in addition to these passing mentions, there will also be four interludes following each of Kimel’s seasons on APDA to fill in any thematic gaps. This is the first of these interludes.

Kimel did not get along with his freshman year roommate, a rail-thin, nasally fellow whose mid-western wholesomeness he offended with his off-color jokes and contentious conversation. Kimel soon made friends with a boy across the hall who had a slight nervous tic. Since this was also true of the historical Emperor Claudius, he thought that they would make a good team. Later, though, he asked out a girl in their dorm, Cynara, whom Kimel also liked, and their relationship was never the same afterwards. Still, Kimel chose to room with him for his sophomore year, which ultimately turned out to be a disaster, but that’s a story for the next interlude. At least they were randomly assigned to one of the best dormitories—Eliot House on the Charles River. Some complained that the dormitories lost their character due to randomization. An older tradition of applying in person to live in specific dorms still survives to some degree at Princeton, though most of the other schools of the Ivy League have wisely decided to faze it out. No amount of good intentions could eliminate fraternities, however, which although technically banned from Harvard, operated as a network of selective gentlemen’s clubs (“finals clubs”) just off campus which always let women into their parties but never, as many a socially frustrated freshman discovered, other men unlucky enough not to have been born rich or athletic.

The Poison Ivy League Part 8-Overview of the 2002-2003 Debate Season

May 3, 2011

The 2002-2003 debate season was characterized by the total dominance of three Northern teams—Yale A, whom we have met, Yale B, whom we have not, and MIT A, which came to consist of Marcus and a lanky French-Canadian named Gallus, to the detriment of Cassius, the odd man out on the MIT team. Some combination of the six members of these teams, all seniors, would feature in almost every final round every weekend in the North. Although it is common for younger competitors to look up to their elders on the circuit, objectively speaking, Kimel came to consider Yale A the most menacing team he ever saw compete, and Germanicus of Yale B the most noble speaker.

2002-2003 was a season of many highs, to be sure, but in retrospect, the overwhelming strength of a handful of competitors was stifling for the circuit at large and robbed up-and-coming sophomores and juniors of the experience of debating deep into out-rounds. The ultimate effect of all of this was a decided decline in terms of the quality of the circuit from 2003 to 2004. At the same time, if 2001-2002 represented a nadir in North-South relations, 2002-2003 wasn’t much better. The North was so obviously dominant that talented upper-classmen could get away with saying that competing south of New York City was like “arguing in a retarded kindergarten.” This popularity of this saying proves the degree to which the dryness of Northern cases had eventually solidified into a sense of moral superiority. Kimel resented the joke—his mother was a social worker, and he had grown up among the handicapped.

Harvard had never sent anyone to the APDA Novice Tournament since, as previously mentioned, the team was poor in those days and typically waited until MIT to let freshmen compete at all. The news that a novice from Yale named Terentius won top speaker meant nothing to anyone. In the weeks to come, Yale A won Williams, and Scipio and Pallas, a senior on the Harvard team, won Smith over Marcus and Gallus of MIT. Everyone looked forward to October’s Harvard tournament, the first important competition of the year that promised to draw well over a hundred teams. Readers will recall that on a weekend when a school hosts a debate, the members of its team judge rather than compete. In this way, APDA is unique in being completely student run and fueled, and there is a sense of real community for recent graduates, or “dinos,” as they help out at various tournaments, at least until they see the last of their juniors graduate, at which point, probably really feeling like fossils, they invariably leave the activity for good.

Kimel was determined to make himself stand out since he was not on the Board and if he wanted to have a shot at the Presidency, there was a lot he needed to prove. So when Fabius asked for volunteers to help him run the tournament, Kimel offered to be put in charge of food. This was an important appointment, the most difficult after rooms, and he wasn’t even a Member at Large. Aemilia, who was one, was assigned to help Kimel out, but it was ultimately up to him to find a restaurant, dictate the menu, negotiate a price, arrange for the delivery of food, and supervise cleanup. The job also ended up involving dragging things long ways and so many other random, manual tasks besides that Aemilia and he often laughed about their experience in the years ahead. But ultimately, even though Fabius never thanked him formally for everything that he did, it was certainly kind of him to give Kimel a shot at a position of authority.

There was no party at the Harvard tournament between the first and second days of the debate. Typically, tournaments run from Friday afternoon to Saturday evening, and there is alcohol served somewhere on Friday night. Nevertheless, Fabius did arrange for certain teams to have access to booze. Aemilia and Kimel promptly found themselves dragging things again, along with another Member at Large, Marina, who probably never attended a tournament. She was very angry to have been asked to help, and when they got to where the delivery needed to be made, she declared “this is my price,” took about a third of the liquor, and stormed away. At least some people were more helpful; certain ambitious freshmen chipped in to clean up. Here was Kimel’s earliest memory of Sulla C (yes, three Sullas), and Scott.

The final round of the tournament was Yale B against Marcus and Cassius from MIT. Germanicus’s nobility was reflected in his style during the round, involving whether the Turing Test is the best indicator of artificial intelligence—the idea is that if a third party observer could not differentiate between a computer and a human when having a conversation, the computer was meaningfully conscious. Germanicus was magisterial but friendly, well-informed and pragmatic, fluent but not above a dry joke. The off-handed confidence with which he spoke, his obvious enthusiasm for the activity, and, above everything, his strong intelligence all stand as testaments to his greatness as a debater. His partner, Atticus, was never as impressive as Germanicus rhetorically, but he was more than smart enough to make their combined powers as a team formidable. As for their rivals, Yale A, Livia and Tiberius dropped a contentious round in semi-finals to MIT. Kimel wasn’t present, but apparently, like many high-end rounds, it was really a draw, and the temperaments of the judges came to decide the day.

The reason why Kimel wasn’t present was that both he and Porus discovered that they were not ranked very highly by Fabius as judges, which hurt their feelings. But Patricia, a senior on the team (along with Agrippina, the nerdy Pallas, and incomprehensible Claudia), soothed them over by telling them a story about when she herself was ranked lower than she thought she deserved to be thanks to team politics. She later went on to become a Rhodes Scholar, for what it’s worth. Also taking the edge off of this, at least for Kimel, was the fact that Scipio decided to unilaterally declare Sulla B and him Members at Large after the tournament ended in recognition of their hard work. Not everyone took this gesture well enough to forget that a distinction had once existed, however. Sulla A went on to specify at the elections that he was an “original” Member At Large to differentiate himself from the hoi polloi.

At the end of the tournament, Sulla A and Kimel decided to debate with each other at the perfect upcoming competition—Wesleyan, where some of Sulla’s closest friends from high school ran the team. They hoped that this meant favorable judging and a shot at elimination rounds.

The Poison Ivy League Part 9-Feeling Out the Harvard Team

May 3, 2011

Considering how many teams have debated on APDA, are debating on it now, and will debate on it in the future, it is remarkable how many memories of long car rides, horrendous “banquets,” and nights spent on sofas and floors will die over time. Next will disappear the recollection of old friendships and rivalries, and finally, the activity in all its colors will blend into the muted pastels of the half-remembered college experience itself. It’s unfortunate that every team doesn’t have a Kimel to record its ups and downs. Sometimes as he wrote, he thought about Cornell, so far away from the other schools, and the dedication of the senior members of that team, who nurtured Licinius (who was NOTY), Titus (who was not), and Cato (who perhaps should have been), three of the best debaters in the 2004-2005 season. There are certainly a thousand and one anecdotes for every individual one recorded here.

Sulla A and Kimel went to the Wesleyan tournament together and found that their dynamic as a two-person team was less magical than they would have hoped. Sulla was invariably nervous before rounds, and Kimel afterwards, so that there was a constant tension between them. Sulla consistently delivered good speeches in his polished, deliberate style, but when he slipped up, he did so with melodramatic flair, like during a round where he casually mentioned the mentally handicapped children who once lived in the attic with Kimel and thoroughly confused the campus judge. Kimel’s style, more extemporaneous, fast, and lively, consistently showed him off to the worse advantage in terms of their individual performances per round. Still, they did well enough to break, hitting MIT A in quarter-finals. Sulla was also fifth speaker, not a mean accomplishment for a sophomore.

As Government, Harvard ran the case “Opp choice” (letting the Opposition decide on their stance), whether the Brothers Grimm should have sanitized their fairytales of the grizzlier and sexier aspects of the oral and textual traditions from which they drew their stories. Sulla and Kimel lost the round deservedly, but this was a great case that would serve Kimel well until the end of his senior year, as was one that argued the Catholic Church should repudiate excommunication due to its lack of Christian spirit. Gallus did not perform as well in the round as Marcus. Both had evidently begun the activity as stammering failures, but gained cocky confidence over the years, so that Marcus was an intimidating force by 2002-2003, and Gallus was equally formidable, at least when he was on. As the Romans put it: they are able, who seem to be able.

Harvard was thrilled when Scipio reached the final round of the tournament with Cynthia, the Singaporean Vice President and Comp Director, beating out Cyrus from BU in semi-finals. Cynthia had a crystal clear, veddy British accent. Claudia, Agrippina’s usual partner (when they debated at all), was also from Singapore, so it was unclear why their ways of speaking were so different. Claudia was a brutal debater who thought quickly on her feet, but Cynthia, gossipy and sweet, was more pleasant company.

It’s clear that Scipio enjoyed a very promising start to the year, appearing in two final rounds in almost as many weeks. He was a unique debater—not rhetorically impressive, but a brilliant thinker who made one excellent point after the next. He only improved over time. Fabius was more consistently eloquent, but often not as incisive. On the topic of Fabius, at the following week’s Vassar tournament, he and his girlfriend, Messalina, placed second. Pallas, the be-spectacled senior, placed fifth with a sophomore on the team who had served in the tabulation room of the Harvard tournament, virtually dubbing him the next Vice President and Tournament Director (there were two Vice-Presidential positions on the team then): Jason Wen. Kimel and he decided to debate with each other at an upcoming competition, since none of the people in their class had consistent partners yet and they’d both seen early successes. First, they competed as Harvard E at Brandeis and went 3-2. Luckily, they decided to give it another go at Bryn Mawr, and here was the future Harvard A’s first success story.

The Poison Ivy League Part 10-Kimel’s First Victory in Outrounds

May 3, 2011

Having never debated in the South before, Kimel wasn’t sure what to expect besides a very long train ride after Jason and he left Boston with Sulla A for the Bryn Mawr tournament. Still, as a lifelong devotee of “Gone With the Wind,” he was hoping for good things, Philadelphia being the Deep South by APDA standards. All that he had to base any assumptions on were malicious gossip and the weekly rants he heard in meetings against the antics of the UMBC (pronounced “Umm-Buck”) team.

In fact, the tournament was more fun than most Kimel would attend that year or any year. This wasn’t because Bryn Mawr had a strong debate program (in fact, the school barely participated in the activity), but thanks to the easy-going characters of the people who were there to compete and judge that weekend; it’s not an empty compliment to say that in many ways, the ambiance of the tournament was healthier and more welcoming than in any competition that season in the North, dominated by six seniors with no patience for bumbling sophomores.

Sulla A was debating with his girlfriend Metella, a complicated character on the Swarthmore team. She had once dated Jason, and would go on to date Lucan from Princeton; she apparently had a thing for dark-haired nerds from over-priced schools. But Metella seemed like a nice girl to Kimel, and he supposed that the competition was a convenient chance for Sulla to spend time together with her in a social setting. Kimel played the piano for her the first night, and she was very kind to him in her compliments. He went to bed soon afterwards on a large windowsill, the only space available besides the floor. Parties were none too thrilling because he didn’t drink in those days. In fact, he never touched alcohol until he was 21.

Jason and Kimel broke to quarter-finals the next day. The Temple team adopted them in out-rounds, since they had no one to watch them compete; Sulla and Metella were busy losing quarter-finals across the hall. It was friendly of the Temple team to stick around, when they might have just gone home. Jason and Kimel were hitting the top seed (best performing team from in-rounds) at the tournament. They ran the case that the character Mersault should agree to take communion at the end of Camus’ “The Stranger.” One of the first points was that as an existentialist, Mersault values absurdity; Kimel explained that since it would be absurd for an atheist to accept communion, he should take communion. That juicy little syllogism, which sounds so off-the-wall in retrospect, was enough to make some of the best teams that debate season implode.

Harvard’s opponents didn’t know what to say. They began to curse Jason and Kimel out, and one of the speakers took off his shoe and waved it menacingly in the air. Kimel was insulted by their complaints and gave a devastating PMR putting them in their place; insults are not rational arguments, he said, to the strong applause of the Temple team. Harvard won the round and Jason and Kimel found themselves in semi-finals. The feeling of winning an out-round was one of a kind, akin only to the excitement of being on the wings of a stage before an entrance.

Now Harvard was hitting the top-ranked team from the South that year, two seniors from Swarthmore. They were ultimately number four on the TOTY board after the dominant top three pairs from the North. Their tactics this round probably don’t reflect them at their best. The first speaker called Kimel’s case that Medea shouldn’t kill her children “tight,” a case that is impossible to debate because the Government’s side is simply correct. Jason’s speech, even-handed and observant, proved that the case was debatable. The second speaker agreed with Jason so heartily that he proceeded to give eight minutes of new analysis which Kimel had to face in the PMR (the Prime Minister’s rebuttal, the final speech of the round). By the technical rules of debate, Swarthmore should have lost the round for these shenanigans, and one of the five judges (the only non-campus judge with experience on APDA, incidentally) agreed; still, Harvard didn’t control the room as well as last time, and Kimel wasn’t surprised that he lost the round. Lucan from Princeton, Metella’s future squeeze, ended up winning the tournament with Vergil from NYU, the only openly gay man on the debate circuit. These two would go on to become two of the most notable senior-competitors in the upcoming 2003-2004 season.

Whatever the case, it was exciting to make semi-finals, and even though Jason and Kimel proceeded to go their separate ways, they had as a foundation to their friendship and future partnership the memory of a great weekend. Their lack of availability to debate again together was a function of the large size of their class and a lack of consistent partnerships on the team. Still, Kimel was feeling confident going into the Middlebury tournament the following week. Sulla B and he were planning on debating together.