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The Poison Ivy League Part 46-Austerlitz at MIT

May 3, 2011

MIT was to be the final competition of the semester. Vespasian, its puppet-master, had by now become Jason’s best friend, and Kimel knew that if there were ever a favorable field for battle, this was it. Openly immodest but seldom arrogant, he had come to greatly enjoy the prestige of his position at the head of the TOTY board and the admiration that the position entailed. When married to his general amiability, his celebrity was such that a large portion of the circuit, at least in the North, was almost as eager for him to win the award as he was to seize it. But he couldn’t take victory at MIT for granted by any means, and his competitors, conscious of their own accumulated victories, were out for blood. Lepidus and Antony had won Wesleyan, a 16 point contest out of a scale of 20, to say nothing of the 20 point Fordham tournament. Crassus and Pompey had won the less prestigious but still important GW (16 points) and American (12 points) competitions. Still, Kimel and Jason’s 18 point win at Columbia and 20 point win at Brown were nothing to sneeze at, and a 20 point victory at MIT would propel Harvard A to the greatest single semester point total in APDA history. For all of these reasons, Kimel knew that the stakes were high. In fact, the competition would prove to be the pinnacle of his success as a Harvard Debater.

The road through the tournament was by no means straight and narrow. Vespasian arranged for Kimel and Jason to have sympathetic judges, to be sure, but this only meant that they were inclined to reward strong performances when they were merited, as they usually were in Harvard A’s case during in-rounds; victory was by no means promised at any point, though. In fact, Vespasian accidentally worked against Kimel and Jason’s interests when he confused their order in the eight team break. At MIT, the teams which broke with the highest totals were to be allowed to pick their own opponents. Kimel and Jason should have had the second pick, but were accidentally placed down the list. Whatever the case, no one chose to face them, and they were left to debate Terentius and Tertius from Yale. Lepidus and Antony failed to break at all. Crassus and Pompey slipped into outrounds but were invariably chosen as early-targets when the time came for rounds to be paired, which was an insult to their dignity as speakers. Whatever the case, they proved the foolhardy teams who chose to face them wrong when, round after round, they defeated the best of the North and paraded triumphantly into finals over the bodies of Harvard B and Cato and Titus from Cornell.

Kimel’s performance in his quarter-final round against Tertius and Terentius was perhaps the best of his career; that it wasn’t taped was lamented more than once, particularly since there were few members from Harvard in the audience, everyone being preoccupied with their own rounds. Terentius was a quiet, dignified speaker with a calm and erudite charm about him. At the Worlds debating championship that year, he went on to partner with the redoubtable Livia and win a joint top-speaker award with her. This accolade, a great honor, seemed unexpected for Terentius, for while he invariably spoke well at APDA tournaments, he almost always faltered in outrounds when more aggressive, assured tones were in order. Though he hit Kimel half a dozen times in his career, he never managed to outmaneuver him. It was too easy for Kimel to make gentle fun of his quiet, musical voice and to drive his points home with greater élan than his somber Canadian peer. When Terentius and Tertius ran the case that the US should remove all of its troops from the Middle East, Kimel’s full arsenal of knowledge about the region of his fatherland was unleashed, combinined with his aforementioned advantages over his opponent. What about Red Sea ports and their submarine bases, he asked, to say nothing of small-scale stations designed to pick up cell phone and other signals from suspected terrorists? Tertius was reduced to maintaining that the Red Sea was not in the Middle East, all but assuring Harvard’s victory. Cassius, one of the dino judges, seemed particularly impressed by Kimel’s maturation as a debater.

In semi-finals, Harvard A hit Harvard C. Kimel ran what might have been in retrospect his most creative Opp-choice case: namely, if a savior figure like Jesus were to be crucified in a hypothetical world, would it be better for the Bible to cast blame on one dastardly individual for the death, or on society in general? Kimel knew that if one individual were signaled out for blame, it would undermine the world’s collective responsibility for the sin and undercut the death’s redemptive value. But if a group were signaled out for censure, it would mean that in the future, that specific ethnic or cultural unit might be oppressed. Essentially, the case explored the ambiguity of the Christian crucifixion narrative in terms of the relative fault of Judas, Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, and the crowd of onlookers. Unfortunately, the round was muddled, with both teams claiming the historical case of Christianity for its side. Petronius and especially Josephus were fiercely determined to win, defending the side that an individual rather than a body of people should be accused of the evil. They drove home the point that blood-guilt on minority groups was an inherent danger of the case. It took all of Kimel’s eloquence to explain that collective guilt could be seen as a metaphor for the common inadequacy of all humanity compared to the brilliance of the child of God, and that shared responsibility implied the promise of shared forgiveness. He and Jason won the round on a 3-2 decision, with Vespasian casting the deciding vote. Kimel was greatly relieved at the news, because the debate truly could have gone either way, and he overheard one of the dino judges complaining about the case when it was over.

Kimel and Jason now found themselves against Pompey and Crassus in finals, that pair who defied the low-opinion that the cream of the North held of them by defeating them one by one. In the final round, they ran a hypothetical case Opp-choice. Suppose, said Crassus, that before the upcoming Beijing Olympics, a mass of demonstrators should begin to protest in Tiananmen Square—should the Government of China leave them alone or brutally crack down on them? To Kimel, the side of peaceful protest seemed so clear that he hesitated for a long while before choosing to defend it, fearing a trap. In fact, he and Jason defeated the case rather easily. Even Hitler, Kimel commented, held off on his oppression of the Jews before the Munich Olympics, wary of an international outcry. China’s attempt to seem modern and self-assured to the First World would be completely undermined by violent tactics more at home in a Maoist regime. Kimel’s performance was pitch-perfect, enlivened rather than undermined by his naming “jousting” as a summer Olympic sport. But Crassus was very much convinced by the point that large-scale protests could spell the end of communism in China as it had in Russia, and was clearly flustered when Harvard won the tournament on an 8-1 decision. All the way home, he evidently complained about the biased judging, and only a handful of honest voices dared to defy his interpretation of the round. The careers of Crassus and Kimel did not truly coincide until 2004-2005, and neither had much chance to see each other at their bests. Then, when they were at their bests, envy often muted praise. Until nearly the end of each other’s careers, they perhaps viewed one another as upstarts. For now, though, Kimel was completely triumphant, squarely at the head of the APDA pack and a newly crowned member of Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa besides. Little did he know what the gods of chance had in store for him, and what an ugly game the TOTY race, to say nothing of life in general, could truly be.

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