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The Poison Ivy League Part 20-Overview of the 2003-2004 Debate Season

May 3, 2011

In many ways, the 2003-2004 debate season represented a pitiable collapse after the graduation of so many dominant teams. Even the most experienced seniors were tremulous and callow in out-rounds compared to the glory that had been Yale and MIT. To put it poetically, they were like so many chicks emerging from hidden nests, spared the talons of hawks but taught to fly too late. It was really anybody’s guess who the next Team of the Year would be. In fact, the eventual winners had one of the lowest cumulative point totals in APDA history, proving that their dominance was not exactly dominant. For Kimel, his memory of the season was grounded more in great stories than great rounds. Here was all the drama of Messalina and Fabius and Metella and Lucan, Princeton A, B and C at each other’s throats, the interesting progress of Sulla A’s Presidency, and the excitement of winning his first tournament.

Messalina and her partner, a junior named Alexander, started off the year by losing the Williams tournament to Licinius from Cornell, another junior and former Novice of the Year. He didn’t debate very often but invariably performed well when he did. The previous year, Cornell’s Licinius, Titus, and, in particular, Cato had managed to sneak into several out-rounds but had yet to win a tournament. They were all three adept at running dry cases and not below meta-debate—arguments about the nature of debate itself, like whether the Government successfully met its burdens, etc. The boys from Cornell would eventually became masterful speakers in out-rounds, comparable to the best speakers from the past when they were at their best, but not yet.

As Kimel watched the final round of Williams, he thought to himself that its real star was Messalina. Until then, he’d never seen her debate, and really only knew her as Fabius’s high-strung girlfriend. Though she lost on a 4-1 decision, she proved herself to be very insightful in the round, especially good at suggesting creative analogies. On another occasion, for instance, she brought up the example of playing an old-fashioned video game, stopping and starting repeatedly without the option of saving, to describe the process of pushing law cases through to the Supreme Court again and again. Unfortunately, like Josephus, she delivered speeches in a voice that was more squeaky than melodious, and others dismissed her talent more readily than they should have. Self-conscious and insecure, she didn’t take this lightly.

APDA was probably a stressful environment for Messalina, who had gone to college young and was still as slight and fragile-looking as a child. Misogyny is a general problem on the circuit thanks to the overwhelming majority of men involved with the activity and the fact that debate rewards stereotypically masculine characteristics: aggressive wit, argumentativeness, and a cocky insistence on being right instead of reaching a compromise. Of course, female participants have always done well on APDA, but in many ways they faced an up-hill climb. Assertive, they might be belittled as bitchy. Soft-spoken, they might be discounted as too demure. Kimel saw more than one woman break out in tears when discussing the difficulty of finding respect, let alone success, on the circuit. The very language of successful debate was dotted with sexist and violent imagery. If you lost to someone three times, you were his or her “bitch,” and it was possible to “skull-fuck” a contest by winning all out-rounds and the top two speaker awards. Those who survived on APDA needed to be tough enough to transcend stereotypes and outdo very self-important people in élan.

Livia was one of the most successful participants Kimel ever saw to develop a completely intimidating in-round and out-round persona, conveying a larger-than-life, more belligerent version of herself that more often than not carried her to finals. As the new season opened, none of her sisters could quite match her in effectiveness or reputation. Sempronia from Brown, the top speaker at the Williams tournament and future Speaker of the Year, was talented at broadcasting a “character”—loud and very insistent—that commanded the respect of small rooms, but the mask became notoriously ineffective in out-rounds, where she went from seeming commanding to unsure. No one ever lost so many quarter-final rounds as she did. Messalina was not as polished as Livia or even Sempronia, but armed only with her intelligence and high vocal register, she became one of the year’s most successful participants, sneaking deep into out-rounds again and again and outlasting some of the best teams of the year. Denied the respect she deserved as a speaker and thinker, she learned to attract attention by acting out the highs and lows of her relationship with Fabius on the public stage. When she did so, she could descend into a parody of herself, but insecurity can sometimes be mistaken for vanity, and she was always very polite to Kimel. Overall, he came to consider her one of the most memorable characters of his entire college experience.

Kimel didn’t break at Williams but watched Jason and Porus lose quarter-finals in a hot, sticky room that smelled of cabbage. The Sullas also broke to quarters and lost. The following week’s Smith tournament didn’t turn out much better for Kimel or for the rest of Harvard. The teams of Sulla B/Trimalchio and Fabius/Messalina (the Harvard-Amherst hybrid) both dropped in quarter-finals. Cynthia and Josephus advanced to semi-finals. A team from Maryland, Piso and Plancinus, ran the case against them that there should be a sin-tax on junk food. The pair beat Harvard very handily. Outspoken and rough, the boys had a sort of lively chemistry between them. They’d survive to cause trouble to many good teams in the days ahead. Their devil-may-care attitude didn’t always work to their advantage, though. In the final round at Smith, they ran the shocking case that Marty in the film “Back to the Future” should knowingly sleep with his mother when he visits her in the 1950s. Vergil from NYU, against whom they ran it, did not find it very funny. A college administrator was in the room, and the round was an embarrassing waste of time; Maryland lost in a landslide. Then again, mocking cases in final rounds were still commonly run in the South, and with sectional tensions still as raw as ever, people chalked up the awkwardness in the air at Smith to bad taste from Dixie.

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