A Theory of Justice: the Musical!

I saw A Theory of Justice: The Musical! on its last run at the Edinburgh Fringe. It’s a show bound to appeal to debaters on the title alone; though I weep for the state of modern LD that one of my stronger junior debaters asked “What’s that a reference to?” in response. LD was derailed a little from it’s usual ground a few years ago, not by the influx of policy debate styles I think, but because we had a slate of resolutions focused on individual moral choices, not state functions. When that happened, the basic prep work of a lot of debaters shifted from the concepts of justice and liberty, focused on the state, to deontology and personal morality, which is different literature altogether. Rawls and his ilk were left behind; we have LD debaters who don’t know what the social contract is. Someday, someone will “discover” it anew and present it excitedly to a bemused coaching staff as the Next Big Thing.

Until then, the Musical!. It chronicles the struggle of philosopher John Rawls to either invent the next big theory that both synthesizes and revives political philosophy, or get laid, depending on your point of view. There’s this girl, you see, a student he names Fairness, that he pursues by trying to concoct a Grand Theory of political philosophy. To do so, he travels through a Time Vortex that the physics department conveniently opened in Harvard Quad, whatever that is. He then consults with the various surprisingly musically inclined philosophers of the past.

The production values were, shall we say gently, collegiate. The vortex was a rotating gel, and the set was simply blank with two large veils hung from the back. Yes, veils. The lighting was full of holes; actors’ faces were often in the dark, overzealous use of spotlights, that sort of thing. But I’m sure the lighting hang was just a standard one common to six shows in the same venue, so there’s only so much you can do. The singing was one of those shows attempting to make up in volume what it lacked in other qualities, and the dancing looked exactly like a bunch of painfully white Oxford students trying to dance.

Rawls was a bit too hamfisted in his delivery. Sure, suspension of disbelief wasn’t exactly on the agenda anyway, but Rawls just was flat and kind of broke the veneer of believability sometimes with overdoing some lines. Nozick was written as his archnemesis, chasing Rawls through time to prevent the creation of a theory that might reconcile Americans to income redistribution and taxes. He’s marching at the orders of his dominatrix mistress, Ayn Rand. That character was more fun, by nature; he was played by an emaciated Robert Pattinson stunt double with good comic timing and great Sinister Looksâ„¢.   Nozick was fun as a classic cartoon villain: he cackled a lot but was ultimately harmless.

The rest of the cast was ensemble. The utilitarians were a barbershop quartet, a cute idea, though their song didn’t sound at all like barbershop, though maybe only Americans could tell? The best song was Rousseau, in the guise of an aggressive French ladies’ man who steals Rawls’ love interest away for a scene or two. And the show stealer, of course, was Immanuel Kant, whose entrance late in the show as the six foot tall Deontological Fairy Godmother with a baritone voice as powerful as a howitzer helps Rawls cut through the crap and reach his final a-HA! moment.

But this ain’t Rent. Technical brilliance and magnificent music would have been wasted on the idea. It was supposed to be funny and cute, and it was. The humor was all in-jokes, given in full grand elitism without any hints or clues for the civilians who may be in the audience. It dropped little hints and jokes about how terribly long and unreadable Rawls’ great book was going to be. “I know! I’ll put all the conclusions in the first three chapters!” he says at one point to Fairness, who expresses doubt about the idea. Socrates is a live marionette sitting on Plato’s lap, saying whatever he wants, in front of a crowd of philosopher students who are collectively gayer than the Bronx Science coaching staff. Towards the end, the Veil of Ignorance is revealed as a device that removes your personal selfish motivations; when Ayn Rand is pulled behind it she promptly disappears as there’s nothing else to her.

If you get these jokes, the show is fun. If you don’t, I have no idea what you’d think just happened. So it’s not for everyone, but it was hilarious enough for me.


Yale survived and even flourished without me, which is good for both its future and my own.   I got September back this year, and it turns out to be a lovely month, with all kinds of nice cooling weather.   Though today it’s raining like hell, but ah well.   They even refrained from doing anything embarrassing in the awards ceremony, which I appreciate.   I was also sick all day Saturday of Yale, which had it happened when things depended on me there would have been an adventure.   I survived, though recovery has been slow. So that’s all to the good.

Now we have a lull prior to Bronx.   Bronx will be about four weeks long, so that’s good.   I’m running IEs, so there’s going to be a curious beat to the weekend, where I’m round-robinning for the first day, then this magical Sushi tour that Cruz is so enraptured with, then a full day off apart from coaching, since there’s no speech on Friday, which will give us time to panel and arrange.   Then we’ll be over at Fordham on Saturday for IEs, then back to Bronx for bubbles coaching presumably, then IE and debate elims together back at Bronx on Saturday.   Woo boy.   It also means we give Cruz another awards ceremony, and this likely a large and well attended one, as IE people are more into that kind of thing than debaters are.

We’ve failed to record a TVFT after about three times trying.   That’s par for course.   Timezones and too many people, it happens.   I’m also thinking of the best way to commit my Standard Economics Lectures to media.   I have given them at extemp camp and practices many many times at this point, and wouldn’t mind getting them down in a form where people can digest them at leisure.   But I don’t know that my style of teaching is suited to either video or audio-only.     I do have a good outline going though.

And I’m blogging.   Perhaps regularly.   We’ll see.


You know, there’s nothing like a summer night in New England.   We don’t get too many scorching ones, and at night it’s even more rare to feel the heat.   Tonight I’m just sitting on the deck of the Sapphire, writing the EXL camp book by the light of a citronella torch.   There aren’t many bugs, but I like the torch anyway, for the pagan sort of light it casts.   It’s one of those nights where the blue and the sounds and the just-enough wind are such perfect conspirators in making one stop and think.   The deck right now only wants for one more torch, a bottle of fine scotch, and a few people to talk of weird things.

Reading Menick’s blog lately in full torrent mode has been difficult.   One because I go for my daily dose of bile and get all this other crap instead, that I used to skim over elsewhere.   I get what he’s trying to do, but I can’t say as I like it.   Content of different types should be easily separable; the paradigm of the web involves being able to slice off what’s of most use to me without having to wade through the rest.   That’s why I get my news from RSS these days, not television.

Plus, the policy posts bug me, if only because when they start talking about counterplans, namely CP, I automatically assume that Menick’s talking smack about me again.   I expect Vaughan has this same problem with JV LD.

This weekend is camp move in weekend.   The first year I was excited for camp; last year I was stressed for it, mostly because I was juggling too many other things to really dedicate my full attention to any one of them.   That last year’s camp succeeded so well is probably a testimony to my own relative uselessness.   However, this year I’m feeling calm.   We’ve made a great schedule — it gets better every year — and I’m teaching fun things.   Better yet, I have outlines of most of my classes already written, either from having taught them before, or from having time this past month to sit and craft them.   Some are even fully written, for the long elusive camp book that I’ve finally given some serious attention to this month.   Writing English is much more restful than writing code, which either works or doesn’t, with a hard edge.

I’m liking this new balance of life, and much looking forward to this sort of pace in the coming season.   A big event, then a few weeks to a month off to make the next event happen the way it ought.   Quality, not quantity.   It has reinforced my thinking on a number of fronts, especially regarding to some of the tournaments I was on the edge of continuing with or not.   I want to be able to sit on the shores of Lake Shirley in a thick pile carpet and taste the relaxation that to this day I still only know when I’m back home in Fitchburg.   The weather smells better there, and the rain is cooler and more real.   I miss the fireflies I’d see right now, and the Milky Way, and the birch trees.   So I should see them more this fall.

But for now, sitting in my favorite spot outside above, during my favorite time of year for it, some more writing.

Menick strikes again

I disagree with everything Menick says in his  last post.  Since his last post was agreeing with what I say, we have a neat Godelian moment there, eh?

 But at any rate, Jim’s right, the community really doesn’t talk a whole lot for a bunch of talkers.  I’ve always wondered why that is.  Perhaps because it’s a competive activity, and some folks prefer to hold their cards close to their chest.  Perhaps because some of the problems we face aren’t endemic, but derive from individuals, and no one likes to call out individuals in public.   Perhaps because as educational funding has been whittled away and never seems to bounce back, our community has been cut down to the people who only do it because we love it, and who squeeze it into odd moments of our lives, like Jim and I do.  If people like Jim and I could dedicate the normal 40+ hours a week to this game, we’d probably have more leisure to do it right.  As it is, we do well simply to do it.  People gotta eat.

I’ve long faulted the NFL and the NCFL a bit for not fostering more intercommunication between coaches.   Morseso the NFL, since the NCFL national tournament is not exactly chock full of spare time, while the NFL proceeds at an expensive leisurely pace.  The NFL tournament is also the annual convention of the coaches, and it’d be nice if we could, you know, do something with that.

There are plenty of issues in forensics, but for the most part we’re a leaderless, voiceless community.  We each do our thing in our local community, but there’s little wider effort.  I wonder if that’s a chicken and egg problem; if we had leadership, we’d have more resources?  It’s hard to say; it’s not like education as a whole lacks for voice and leadership, and we’re sinking as part of that ship, albeit slowly.  

The internet provides a good platform for these discussions and I hope we can spark more of them.  It’d be even more good if others would contribute; it’d be nice to point to someone as the “sane” coach writer, to contrast with myself and Menick.  Maybe coaches are also not writers, or are technophobes, problems Jim and I do not share.   But as he points out, if the community doesn’t introspect at all, then it’s simply begun to die out.h