Consensus and Legitimacy

I teach the kids a lot about the concept of governmental legitimacy. Basically speaking, if a people governed believe that the government has the right to lay down laws, for whatever justification, then they are more easily governed. The belief of the governed is what matters most, though; for thousands of years hereditary monarchy was a perfectly legitimate way to run a country, and people didn’t have much problem with it. But beliefs changed, and now it’s no longer viable; while kings in 1200 had paltry armies and no police, modern dictators have to create vast mechanisms of control and fear to hang on. Even still, many are forced to have democratic trappings to keep it together. The Roman emperors never did get around to eliminating the Senate, for much the same reason.

Legitimacy is a complex thing. It requires trust. You need to assume the government is at least trying to think through issues the way you do. Nationalism ties into that a lot these days; people don’t trust other peoples to look out for them. Serbia lost its legitimacy among the Kosovars, since the government of Serbia suddenly decided that it mattered that the Kosovars were ethnic Albanians. Once it mattered to Belgrade, it suddenly mattered to the Kosovars as well, and they would not trust the central government again. Belgrade had declared that the Kosovars were not Serbians in their regard, and the natural response was to leave Serbia. The alternative would have been unrest and bloodshed, or repression, which is the only tool an illegitimate government has to survive.

I’ve recently been pondering this in the context of the various boards and groups I’m embroiled with. Right now the LOPSA board enjoys a good amount of legitimacy, since one of the lynchpins of legitimacy and nationalism is defining yourself as not being another group; you’re not so much “us” as “not them.” We have a very convenient if rather sleepy them to not be at the moment; SAGE is controlled by an outside group of people with interests entirely different than those of sysadmins, and therefore the governance thereof is illegitimate. I feel just about everyone knows it, too, since SAGE has pretty much done nothing over the last year. It will die on its own, and then we’re going to have to make our way without a convenient foil.

Forensics is another beast. Right now the MFL is trying to achieve some fairly sweeping change; eliminating one event (Radio), adding another (Impromptu), and substantially changing a third (Group Discussion). I myself believe all three changes would be positive, though I’m only hugely passionate about the last. Change is always tough for a collective organization, since those who have a stake in the way things are — a concrete reality — are always more passionate about it than those who have a stake in the way things could be — an ephemeral guess. Change is even harder given that the underlying purpose of the activity is competitive. However, right now we’re a little hamstrung in that our state league board does not include some of the most respected folks in it, for various and sundry reasons. It’s difficult to make a change stick when too many trusted folks are outside of the decision process; so even though these changes were hashed out to death and considered from dozens of angles by the Board, people suspect we missed something. So the debate drags on, nothing new is said, and nothing changes.   The “us” versus “them” divide is within the league, and while it’s not so pronounced as previous internal divides, it is nonetheless there.
Over in New Yorkland, there’s an ongoing dispute about the nature of their state tournament, which as far as I can tell is the natural byproduct of the fact that New York is not One Big League the way we do in Massachusetts. We evolve and change slowly in the MFL, but we do so together, so the state tournament is no different than any other. New York has a number of local leagues, who then have to decide how to do things when they come together. So the local conflicts get delegated up into the statewide conflicts, and the waters grow ever muddier. Brooklyn comes to one conclusion through a wrenching process, and then Rochester reaches a different one, and the Mid-Hudson leaguers a third; but then they have to hash out the whole thing all over again at the state level. Apparently that hashing doesn’t happen well, or often; one faction prevailed, and the other stays out of the game as a result. Not good.

That can be somewhat awkward for me at times, because I get along with almost all of the coaches I knew from New York, and I can never keep track of who hates whom. “Let’s have dinner with so-and-so!” turns so readily into an awkward and uncomfortable silence in that kind of situation.

I tend to think that the real problem in New York is a lack of a venue for bitching. Bitching will always happen, but without a time and a place set aside for official bitching, it has to happen under the radar, where it takes the guise of hurtful gossip instead of constructive feedback. Some folks have a hard time with that concept, since it’s always better to get along.   When you bitch at someone and they take you seriously, they’re no longer an evil strange Serbian in your eyes, but part of the “us” again.   We had our MFL coaches’ meeting, and boy did they bitch, and while that was rather unkind since a lot of the bitching seemed to assume that the Board had taken action willy-nilly without thinking of the consequences, at least it tied everyone back into the League.

In a setup like New York’s, there’s bound to be even more dissension. However, they seem to close it all up and off, and so the dissenters, frustrated and voiceless, quite literally gather up their kids and found their own damn tournament. A sad situation that it had to happen. But that’s not my battle, just an example of what to avoid. I’ll go to NY States this year and get them running (because I’m a glutton for punishment), and I’ll probably attend the NE Championships next year with some kids in tow, unless Menick again decides to schedule it against a calendar that was quite clearly published on my league’s website for anyone to see months and months ago.

But if they add a 17th required event, they’re going to have to find a new damn president.

George Mason

So we had a great time, our happy band of Screaming Jews (L’CHAIM!!!) at the George Mason tournament this weekend. The tournament ran behind and confusedly, in the way of tournaments that have outgrown their host site and a reasonable schedule. The judging was a bit…interesting, and the breaks were difficult, but our kids did OK anyway. I was exhausted by the schedule — three straight days of waking up at 6:30, going to bed at 11 or so, on top of that vaguely tired sense one always gets at tournaments, that comes of ten straight hours of uncomfortable furniture and too much ambient noise. But at the same time, we had fun, laughed a lot, won a lot. It’s a good campus for a tournament, and there were a lot of people there, and the food spreads were enough to make a Yalie weep.

We also managed to completely smash three trophies; we de-winged a pair of eagles and one smiling George Mason head is now in several pieces due to some grand klutzitude. We’re speechies, not athletes; who expects us to be coordinated? I told the kids that it’s simply a demonstration that at Newton South, it’s about the education not the trophies.

Who gives porcelain speech trophies anyway? At a travel tournament, even? Crazy.

So, we also cleaned house; everyone finaled, we won both round robins, and 1st in HI, 6th in Prose, 3rd in Extemp, and three semifinalist spots. People were looking at us like I should be in coaching nirvana. Really I was much happier that evening laughing and carousing at a stupid PF Chang’s with the kids.

And now as I recover another MFL controversy flairs up over details. Already I can tell that people care too much about the particular point afoot to have a calm rational discussion about it, and we’ll end up watering down the original intent through a series of late compromises. So far, that’s one of my flaws in leading this league; I am generally apathetic to the nuts and bolts of tournaments and rules and leagues, and so I expect others to be as well; and when someone works themselves into tears as to whether we should offer radio, I never see it coming. When we have a virtual shouting match that includes willful misunderstandings and whisper campaigns and agendas, well, it’s enough to again make me question what good, if any, I’m doing this league. Or doing myself, for that matter.

It’s one of the reasons I find myself ever more comfortable in my original home of debate, not speech; debaters don’t mess with rules and procedures nearly as much, and at least the controversies about kritiks and such are within the context of the activity. Sure, the process of handing out TOC bids is probably one of the most corrupt and backhanded imaginable, but for a local shlub like me, that’s easily ignored.

I need to find a hobby that is not full of adults obsessed with the competitive success of children. I care if my kids come out smarter, and am happy if they win. Most others in this line care if their kids win, and are happy if they come out smarter. That’s human nature, I suppose, when placed in a competition: you want foremost to win it. I have the advantage that this isn’t my job, my life, or my primary focus; external sources of ego help out a lot. But that doesn’t make it any more excusable for those wrapped up in it.

No, I don’t have the day off

I’m not bitching about it, though, given that I was ready to come in and put in a day’s effort anyway.   I like getting things done while no one else is around, since it actually happens when no one else is around.

This weekend was the Gracia Burkill Memorial, a nice tournament at Natick that happens once a year in memory of the coach at David Prouty, who coached herself Dick Gaudette among others.   So it goes way back, in other words.   Sarah was very pleased that the tournament is now a “real” tournament, when before it was just a small unserious afterschool affair.   The MFL doesn’t have afterschool tournaments anymore; the overhead is perhaps too great, and our weekends are all full up, so it’s not like we lack for opportunities to spend far too much time in high school cafeterias.

Sarah also foolishly volunteered to take part in efforts in judge training, which is something of a tilting at windmills task, but at least we can standardize our ineffective efforts.   Judge training is a game of trying to prevent the least common denominator.   We react to funny stories of judges screwing up elementary aspects of tournaments, such as the judge who thinks extemp time signals mean she should start signaling with 5 seconds left in the speech.   We hear the horror stories of the day, and tut tut about the unfairness of it all, and try to legislate away the story.

That’s really no way to run a league; chasing down the corner cases and random moments of appalling idiocy is really not productive, as our efforts are finite and the potential domain of stupidity vastly unlimited.   And the bulk of our judges are good, honest, thoughtful and intelligent souls who dedicate themselves to doing what’s best for the students.   So I wonder if we shouldn’t just standardize our judge training process, make sure the major bases are covered, and then inspire an attitude among the coaches and students that when a random judge does do random things, it’s part of what we roll with, not a tragic end of the world.

Kids care about trophies and the competition aspect of things far too much, and most of the coaches do too.   Most coaches think that the worst possible outcome of a tournament day is one where results are screwed up and rules are applied incorrectly and the wrong person wins.   Personally I have a hard time with that, since it’s such an unsatisfying standard; it cannot get me up in the morning at 5 AM to go to a high school, knowing full well I’m not getting home until 7 at the earliest.   I care about running fair and accurate tournaments, but it’s not the highest value for me; I’d sacrifice both those things for the educational value and overall health of the activity.   I think that attitude of mine pisses people off in the MFL sometimes.

Ah well.   Screw them all, I’m president and none of them ran.

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.