Political Absurdity Begins In Grade School

Round One… FIGHT!

Some of you may be wondering how we got here.

I have a hunch, and I want it spread far and wide. This knowledge needs to be universal. Any time you read a new meme or tweet or slanted story (especially one you agree with), this bit of info should be standing on your shoulder to remind you of how we got here.

With any luck, it’ll be the Teflon™ that keeps the hyperbole from sticking.

All Things Lead To The Bomb

A while back I had the “pleasure” of judging a high school debate tournament at Harvard. Spoiler alert: it was as near to a personal hell as I’d ever imagined. Picture a parade of stressed-out teenagers explaining why everything from UAV’s to relaxing trade restrictions on China would lead to the extinction of all life on Earth.

No, seriously. That’s where every line of reasoning ended up. But here’s the part that you need to remember:

In most debate classes, they teach these kids to go straight for the “GNW” card (Global Nuclear War) so that their arguments will carry more weight.

I know, I just lamented hyperbole three paragraphs ago, but I’m not making this up. I wish I were.

  • Repealing “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” will literally cause World War III.
  • Hillary Clinton’s email server will literally cause World War III.
  • Moving the Vernal Pool Fairy Shrimp from “threatened” to “endangered” will literally cause World War III.

You get the picture. If I had a dollar for every kid that mentioned The Bomb that day, I could have bought an actual nuclear bomb.

Six Degrees of Extinction


Now remember: Your congressmen, senators, presidents, political strategists, attorneys, and even investigative journalists probably went through debate classes as a child. This sprint-to-the-extreme mindset has been institutionalized for a long time. Is anyone surprised that all we ever see in public discourse are scare tactics and exaggeration?

It’s not debate, it’s the Nuclear Holocaust Kevin Bacon Game. Every one of those kids played the same angle: go from initial argument to the destruction of all mankind in as few steps as reasonably possible. Why? Because that’s what they’re taught to do.

The only difference between high school debate and what we see every election year are that the kids are forced to do exhaustive research before they open their mouths.

Captain Ebel’s Advice

Remember this lesson. Spread it far and wide.

Make it the piece of grit that irritates your brain whenever you read a political story on Facebook.

Remember what all these political assclowns running for office or writing op-ed pieces have been trained to do since they were 13 years old- scare you into believing the worst possible outcome.

And then… take a deep breath and walk it back a few steps. Remember that fear makes you easy to control, but facts make you powerful. If they’re not giving you any facts, all they’re doing is whining like a stressed-out teenager.

  • Midwest debate, at least in my limited scope, has been driven by avoiding arguments like this. Maybe you fell into a bad batch? If not, holy shit.

  • As the old friend who talked Matt into attending and judging at the Harvard tournament, I’m taking this space for “right of reply.” 1 – That tourney was Feb 2011! I feel terrible that it scarred you so badly you’re still thinking about it! 2 – Thank you for coming and covering part of my judge quota. You’re sweet for doing it. I’m sorry it wasn’t as relaxing for you as I had hoped it would be. 3- You were judging JV division. Yes, what you saw does reflect many of the norms of HS Policy Debate, but that was at its most dumbed-down. While I’m not a fan of the more right-wing side of debate those norms represent, it is still better when done by better debaters at higher levels. 4 – What you saw is not representative of ALL high school policy debate on the national circuit. My team does a much more “alternative” style of debate that I think you’d be much more into (and you sounded more into it when I was talking to you about it…)

    In conclusion, however, I want to stipulate that your post ends with a very important truth: that the norms of debate and our education system at large are far more right-leaning than the high school both Matt and I attended would indicate. The way we teach kids to think is supposedly “objective” and that’s more easily done when we’re just counting wars instead of thinking about the individuals who actually die in those wars. This leads us to dehumanize individuals and entire populations for the purpose of selecting “best policies.” You are absolutely correct that this is a bad thing, Matt, and I am doing my utmost to teach my debaters a version of thinking which includes ethics and eschews far-fetched nightmare scenarios. Yes, Karl Rove and Dick Chaney were taught some of their tricks in a high school debate classroom, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater — not all of us are so bad!

    Love ya, old buddy! BTW: I’m sure it was coincidence, but I love that you posted this on my birthday. I’m going to fool myself into believing that you posted this b/c you were thinking about me!

    • OMFG you read this shit!  🙂  It’s not the debate that scares me, it’s the CHILDREN.  They eat people.

      Anyway, it is true that your kids were much less “everything leads to the bomb” than the kids I encountered, but I seem to remember that every single round I judged all led to the same conclusion: total extinction.  I hope the tone wasn’t read as “school debate programs should all DIEDIEDIE”, but rather “maybe if we want our congressional/presidential politics to be less hyperbolic and Trumpy, we shouldn’t be teaching our kids to race for the most ridiculous outcome with every argument.”  That’s all, and you seem to be one of the few doing just that.

      And happy birthday…  try not to start any thermonuclear wars while celebrating!

      •  Of course I try to keep up with what’s going on in your world! You’ve been one of my best friends since before I knew enough to value you as such! Another by-the-by type note: NCFL Nationals was this weekend. My group had several teams in late elims, one reached the top 8 in the country. 🙂

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