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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.

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