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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.

One Comment leave one →
  1. J.J. Gertler permalink
    February 28, 2012 1:49 pm

    APDA founded as a coarse parody of European debate? Nay, sir; rather, as a cloying simulation of Canadian debate, much in the way that a smitten teen might begin to dress in the manner of a desired paramour in a hopeless attempt to catch the eye. Never got to second base with CUSID, either. When we first caught sight of European debate (at the 1981 Glasgow Worlds), we discovered it to be nigh beyond parody.



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