So the last theme was complicated enough that I stopped halfway through. Walter Lippman’s Public Opinion, a fascinating book really. It makes a sham of our democracy, for one, because it asks the fundamental question of democracy: what are we voting for when we pull the lever?

In our system, we’re wrapping a lot of different preferences into a single choice.   We vote simultaneously for a person, a party apparatus, and an ideal or set of ideals. Some people vote based purely on what they think is the personality of the leader in question; so and so is a “good honest guy”, while the other is “shifty and sleazy”, which are calculations the average voter is in no place to make.

Another voter will vote based on the competence and the positions that the candidate takes, the platform and ideals, or the ideals and the notions of the party that he takes. But usually the character issues trump these things, which leads to all kinds of non democratic outcomes. A person may believe politically in the Republican Party’s ideals, but if they were a voter in one of the many districts in 2006 where the Republican was tarnished due to scandal and corruption, they had little choice but to vote Democrat anyway. And it happens in the other direction too, though not much of late; you have to have power to have corruption, and until recently the Dems had neither.

So what does it mean for someone who is a bona fide conservative to vote for a Democrat because their local Republican stole money from casinos or came onto a Congressional page? It surely doesn’t mean they’re voting for a liberal social policy, or for an end to the war in Iraq. It means their choices on ideology, on logos, were circumvented on ethos and pathos. Aristotle comes back to bite us. So sometimes we end up with policies we don’t like, because the bastard who did speak for our ideas was too awful to vote for.

One of the benefits of parliamentary systems is they avoid a lot of this. Each individual party member is less of a figure on their own right and more of a direct representative of the party. You vote for the party, not for the person, and not even sometimes for the Prime Minister, who is chosen by the party. That means if they Labour Party in Britain decides that Tony Blair is personally a liability, they can dump him, as dump him they did. Wouldn’t the Republicans love to dump Bush right now and replace him with someone more appealing? But they can’t, because in our system we vote for the person, while in Britain they vote for the party.

The sad part is, our system was set up that way on purpose. Washington in particular was wary of parties and political associations, and thought they were inimical to good democracy; they actually thought it was better, or even possible, to vote for the character of the person and leave ideological questions aside. Of course, the electorate then was a small, wealthy connected group of men, while today it’s a huge diverse mass of different citizens. But, Washington was wrong even in his own time; parties formed and solidified maybe 10 years into the lifetime of the Constitution, and never would wither away.

So we’re left with a system that awards mandates to all kinds of undesirable things, because that’s how it works. Is that democracy? In a direct sense, of course it is; the people’s will does get expressed. But on key questions, decisions are routinely undemocratic, where the vast majority of people’s preferences do not get expressed, because there is no option to express them in the system, or because the issues at hand are outweighed by other issues. If the American people were voting on solely health policy, they would have voted for Kerry in 2004; but they voted first on Iraq and security. Why, then, does Bush’s preferences on health care policy get to win out? That’s the problem with our system, and with our democracy.

So how do imperfectly expressed preferences have anything to do with what I said yesterday? That’ll be tomorrow’s post.

structure, substructure, restructure

I’ve always been fascinated how structure, of all things, becomes the rallying cry for divisions in extemp . I guess I’ve caused one of them, by pushing and shoving new approaches and ideas along. However, I didn’t really do that and commit to layering so much because I wanted to create a new extemp orthodoxy, but because orthodoxies in general are silly, and the current one was especially so.

Unified analysis is this notion that you should take a question, answer it in a vague way, and then give three independent answers to the question. That way, if one of your answers fails to convince, the other two still stand. You’ll notice that it’s anything but unified, but that’s a digression. It was also The Way to do extemp not too long ago.

I find it dissatisfying for a lot of reasons. The actual answers given tend to be weak and vague, things like “The United States should deal with human rights abuses in China by taking decisive action” or “Hillary Clinton can be elected president by appealing to key groups.” That doesn’t make much sense to me; the central notion of argument is a thesis, and with such a vague, wishy-washy thesis, the answers always seemed to fall short of what they could be. There’s no hope of evaluating whether you’ve answered the question completely or correctly this way; you’ve given me three reasons why you’re right but without weighing them against reasons why you might be wrong, I’m left fundamentally dissatisfied. And unimpressed.

So. Where’d this come from?

I tend to believe part of the structure wars come from camps. Camps are hard in extemp; you don’t get to deliver the student a finished product at the end. In interp they wind up with pieces, in debate they have cases and cards; in extemp there’s not much you can leave them with besides skills. And skills are much harder to teach in two weeks than producing a cutting. So camps, needing to show something to be viable, have had to come up with a Product, and I believe that UA is driven by this. UA is a good way to make a bad, or mediocre speaker appear to be better. They aren’t actually analyzing the question better, but they’re a lot clearer, and clarity helps a great deal. So it helps the kids reach another step, and that helps the camps.

The nefarious part comes when camps teach their doctrine as holy gospel and the only truth and reality. That, of course, is bull, though it does help the camps along; if a given camp is the only purveyor of the One True Way, then surely you need to attend it. So it enforces rigidity and bad dynamics in extemp. Students tend to fear breaking out and trying something different, since they’ve been told in no uncertain terms that faulty substructure in extemp will lead to the downfall of our civilization. Or at least that judges will tune them out and fail to consider whether they’re, you know, smart or correct or such. It doesn’t happen because of vile conspiracy, just aimlessness that finds a formula that works, I think.

What’s funny about it all is that judges could care less. The purpose of structure is clarity; if you have clarity without distinct structure, all will be well. If you have structure, but your thoughts are unclear, UA will not save you. But students care a great deal, since if there’s anything that a high school student wants it’s to be part of a club. And if there’s anything a high schooler fears, it’s to be singular in a way that opens you to criticism from the circle of peers they admire. For extemp dorks, that’s other extemp dorks; they know the quarterback isn’t going to like them, but they’ll be damned if they lose face before the other prep room denizens.

So we teach them how to analyze at my camp, sure, and we do teach a specific structure. But we’re careful not to make it gospel, and we’re careful to listen to other styles. I suppose that means we don’t sell the snake oil well. That’s fine by me.

The last nice day

So it’s days like today that sometimes fill me with somewhat morbid thoughts; it’s a beautiful, blustery day, the kind of warm day that punctuates October and gives us those quiet moments of respite.   I love sitting as I am now, in the sunroom with the windows wide open.   I like staring out on the world, and wondering where my friends are right now, what they’re doing, whether they’re happy or not.

I wonder too, because I’m a morbid sort sometimes, if this is the last nice day of 2007.   It could well be; all from here forward might descend into drizzle, cold, sleet and snow.   And because my mind is harmfully expansive sometimes, sooner or later it strikes me that someday, maybe not today (but maybe so!) we’ll have the very last nice day, the day after which the world turns dark and cold, a cinder in the empty swim of space.

Well, bummer.

It’s amazing how a beautiful day in October can make me need a hug, but it can sometimes. I’m finding as I age that I’m less content and less stable alone that I used to be.   I was a really self sufficient little antisocial bastard in high school, possibly because high school social interactions are always painful, and some of us have low thresholds.   Now, I’m not.   The consequences of that are probably dire.

But for now the wind is warm and the crickets are singing.

The limiting factor

So on Saturday we had the annual Hall of Fame tournament, a lovely time when we can pat one of ourselves on the back. That’s rare enough in our activity except when done for the wrong reasons. It’s easy enough for coach recognition to spin out of hand and before you know it, you’re running the Emory tournament. However, we recognized two people who served and coached well. Joyce in particular is a singularly quiet and non self promoting individual. So I don’t feel bad for that.

What is interesting about this weekend’s tournament is that we tried a new format. Instead of the usual 3 rounds plus a final and leave by 6 that we aim for, we did 4 rounds, no final, and left by 4. It was a blessedly short day, we arrived home when the sunlight still shone, and I didn’t have that feeling of raw discomfort that comes of spending too much time in a high school.

Of course, the kids hated it. They didn’t have terribly good justifications for hating it, besides “I want finals!!!!” but hate it they did, so it’s unlikely to survive this brief experiment of two tournaments. That’s a shame. I’ve come to realize, through the context of late league discussions, that we’re really running on a tripod here. The essential goal of the activity is student’s education. But two essential ingredients, money and adult time, are sometimes overlooked.

When we have a league discussion about various issues, inevitably it turns into a contest of whose position benefits the students best. I don’t agree with that calculus; for the activity to survive the burden of fund raising cannot be crushing, nor can the time spent on the part of coaches and tournament staff (who are virtually always volunteers) cannot be overwhelming.

In the MFL, that threshold is being reached. Our tournaments are within striking distance of being as quick as we can run them; we can save probably another 45 minutes, but for the most part they’re as efficient as they can be. However, they still run very long, meaning I cannot feasibly do much else from Friday night when I go to bed early, until Saturday noontime when I wake in recovery. They’re also at the edge of viability, with a whopping 120 trophies required at minimum to even hold an event. Some would suggest we determine the educational merit first and then do whatever it takes in the realms of money and time to make the educationally optimal path happen. I don’t agree; I think if you wait to talk about reality, you’re going to shove yourself out of business rather quickly.

What’s ironic was someone suggested we raise tournament fees in order to hold events that accommodate working class students.

At any rate, I may be reaching an endpoint. I cannot continue to put this level of dedication into a single activity; my friendships out of forensics are suffering, I haven’t had a prospect of a relationship in a year, and so on: and this tale of a personal life in tatters is not terribly unusual in the world of forensics coaches. With such a significant personal tax, and without the kind of expected support of speech programs in Massachusetts that say, Texas enjoys, all this extra effort comes out of the coaches. Little surprise then, that despite interest among kids and interest among parents, willing coaches are the limiting factor of growth of the MFL.

So we’ll keep having tournaments, and we’ll have finals, and we’ll leave at 6 instead of 4. And a few more people will be unwilling to coach, unwilling to enter this activity, unwilling or unable to run for the state Board. It will remain an activity among the few obsessed, who are willing to pull out all stops if it will help an extra ten or twenty students compete and learn. I understand the impulse, but it more than anything has lead me to search for a better balance. If I can’t find a way to jigsaw personal life with league life, league life will go.