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The Poison Ivy League Part 51-Opening and Closing Doors

May 3, 2011

Classical scholars since at least the time of Gibbon have pegged the beginning of the Roman Empire’s decline to the death of Marcus Aurelius and the coronation of his mad son, Commodus, in 180 AD. However, at least until the defeat and humiliating capture of the Roman Emperor Valerian in 260 AD, life largely progressed as normal in the capital city after Aurelius’ death. But despite appearances, something new was indeed in the air. For the eighty years between the expiration of the philosopher-king and the catastrophe at Edessa, a gloom hung over the empire, a sort of polluted haze belched out from below, the kind that diffracts light and creates glorious sunsets almost beautiful enough to distract viewers from the poison lurking in their very nostrils. What was a succession of mediocre emperors and the beginnings of an umpteenth civil war in the eyes of most observers compared to the glorious spectacle of Rome’s one thousandth anniversary celebrations held by Philip the Arab, a violent usurper whose face even today graces the banknotes of his homeland?

For Kimel, February and March were like those eighty ambiguous years rolled into two months. To be sure, the marble facades of Rome still shone brightly as ever. Honors were still won, friendships were still strong, and the future still seemed promising. But lack of success at debate soon threatened Kimel’s title, and he was forced to resort to base politics to secure access to that for which he hungered. And hunger itself was only a distraction from a deeper and altogether more sinister condition: Hamlet’s curse, the indecision of the artist in the face of growing up. Until the end of March, greatness on APDA, the possibility of graduate study, and the strength of his camaraderie with Scott remained as crutches for a man already secretly disabled. They were soon to be removed, and Kimel would be promptly left to topple on his own devices. Now sing through me, Muse, of opening and closing doors.

Between the fourth and fifth of February, New York University held its annual tournament. At 100 teams, it was one of the largest of the year, and even reaching the final round would have virtually assured Kimel the title of TOTY. In fact, Harvard crowded out semi-finals, representing three of its four teams. In one room, Harvard B faced off against Arianna and Scott, a new and unexpectedly effective partnership. In another, Crassus and Pompey were left to battle it out for the circuit’s highest honor against Harvard A. Having just soundly defeated Metella and Sappho in quarter-finals on Opposition, Kimel and Jason were now on Government and produced an old case for the skirmish: that the NAACP should not have staged a boycott of the state of South Carolina for flying the Confederate flag. The case had been strong enough to disarm Antony at Brown; the argument that African American workers would be harmed by a lack of tourist dollars was hard to disarm. The laurels were Kimel and Jason’s to lose. They lost them.

Kimel had never quite appreciated the artistry of Crassus and Pompey before that round. To be sure, the case was so old that he was able to anticipate every response to its arguments. His opponents even missed the most piercing counter-point: that few people would take the NAACP’s boycott seriously, and with minimal real-world economic harms, it was mostly a symbolic gesture of disapproval. Simply emphasizing the gross injustice which the Confederate flag symbolizes for African Americans, Crassus and Pompey completely carried the sentiments of the room and dominated the round. Unique and unexpected arguments were not this team’s forte, but a sort of raw charisma was. Pompey was magnificently mocking and calculating in equal parts. At his best, the sound of defiance and self-assuredness in the voice of Crassus was enough to make the strongest analysis seem insubstantial. Challenged to name other means by which the NAACP could voice its objections, Kimel read at least ten off of a pre-prepared list. But the unexpected liveliness of his adversaries and their primal abilities brought out like cornered beasts scrambling to defend their survival in the TOTY race robbed his speech of persuasive vigor. William and Mary won on a landslide, their style and substance as speakers, it seemed to Kimel, virtually united.

Having deservedly lost their respective rounds, Kimel and Scott went off to philosophize rather than watch the Sullas defeat William and Mary in the final round. But the following week, Crassus and Pompey unexpectedly won the BU tournament over Petronius and Josephus. Triumphing over 81 teams, the victory was just great enough to push them ahead of Harvard in the TOTY race. For their part, Kimel and Jason had lost a messy octo-final round to a resurgent Piso and Plancinus. Kimel was robbed of his title—he now set himself to winning it back by any means necessary.

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