Noah Millman

A Euro-Quake? Or an Anglo-French-Quake?

esfera / Shutterstock

I’m torn as to how to react.

On the one hand, I’m one of those people who feel the great problem with the EU is the democratic deficit – that it wants to evolve into something resembling a true government, but agglomerates power by stealth, without transparency, and won’t give any real power to representatives directly elected by the people.

On the other hand, it’s notable that the most dramatic votes for Euro-skepticism were from countries who are fundamentally opposed to remedying that democratic deficit – because they are more concerned about protecting their own national sovereignty. France thinks of Europe as a French-led union of states, and has historically opposed that vision to the German notion that the EU would evolve in the direction of a federation (modeled, naturally, on Germany itself). The UK, meanwhile, has always been ambivalent about the EU – understandably, since for three centuries the UK’s primary foreign policy objective was to prevent the emergence of a single, dominant power on the European continent.

According to The Economist, extreme Euroskeptic parties gained 63 seats in the European parliament as a result of these elections. Of those, 31 – 50% – were from France and the UK. By contrast, all of the states who have joined the EU since 1986 put together added only 9 extreme Euroskeptic seats. Germany’s Euroskeptic representation also increased – from zero to 7 seats – but that’s still only 7% of the German delegation. A far cry from France’s or the UK’s over 30% showing.

Solving Europe’s core structural problems might well make the EU more popular in Germany, and also more popular in Poland and Belgium and Spain. But those same reforms would probably make it even less popular in France and the UK, because they would necessitate a sacrifice of even more national sovereignty in exchange for reducing the democratic deficit.

Similarly, immigration pits the interests of National Front and UKIP voters against the interests of citizens of EU members like Poland and Romania that benefit from the free movement of labor.

So it’s probably wrong to see this election as a European referendum against Europe. If anything, the differential results feel like another bit of proof that there is not a single “Europe” to vote one way or another.

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Tom Friedman v. Math

CSIS /  cc
CSIS / cc

I love a good fish-in-the-barrel hunting party. Here’s Fredrik deBoer on Tom Friedman’s latest, as deBoer puts it, “gem-encrusted masterpiece“:

Tom Friedman takes aim at a basic mathematical concept when he declares that”average is over.” He then proceeds to demonstrate that he doesn’t understand how averages work.

I’ve been arguing for a while now that “average is over.” It has to be when every boss has cheaper, easier, faster access to software, automation, robots, cheap foreign labor and cheap foreign genius that can produce above-average so easily. Everyone needs to find their unique value-add, their “extra,” and be constantly re-engineering themselves if they want to obtain, or advance in, a decent job that can’t be digitized.

Consider this article published in The New York Times on April 23: “EASTON, N.Y. — Something strange is happening at farms in upstate New York. The cows are milking themselves. Desperate for reliable labor and buoyed by soaring prices, dairy operations across the state are charging into a brave new world of udder care: robotic milkers, which feed and milk cow after cow without the help of a single farmhand.”

Overnight, an average farmhand went from knowing how to milk a cow to having to learn how to program and operate the robotic cow-milker — to keep a job. That takes above-average skills.

Average cannot be over. The average can move, and any individual’s position on the distribution relative to the average can change. But there will always be an average. Friedman is like the living embodiment of that Garrison Keillor joke about the town where all the children are above average. Tom: if everyone learns how to program and operate the robotic cow-milker, that becomes an average skill, and whatever economic advantage accrued to that skill will disappear. If everyone actually had “their ‘extra,’” then it wouldn’t be an extra.  The sentence “Everyone needs to find their unique value-added” might as well be the sentence “I do not know what the word ‘unique’ means.”  You can tell individuals to get ahead and say screw the rest and blather on about unique value-added skill sets. But those everyones just don’t work, Tommie.

If you teach every kid to code, there’s no value in knowing how to code. If a college education becomes a universal public good, it’s great for democracy, for our communal intellectual and aesthetic fulfillment, and for the moral principle of equal opportunity to explore, think, and create. But it means there’s no more economic value in having a college education. Average may be over, Tom, but the three sigma rule sure isn’t, and so what are you gonna do about the 68% of people who are always going to be pretty close to average?

So: in the spirit of my last post, I will proceed to defend the indefensible Tom Friedman.

Here are some possible meanings to “average is over” that are not mathematical nonsense:

  • While it will always be possible to calculate a variety of different “averages” for American wages, the colloquial meaning of “average” assumes that these numbers are similar. And they are decreasingly so. The mean, for example, may be rising, while the median may be falling – and the mode may be getting less and less meaningful as a number at all. All of which would mean that, as an analytical tool for talking about the health of the economy, the “average” wage is becoming less and less useful.
  • America has an above-average per-capita income relative to the rest of the world. If we want to maintain that above-average income, we need to upgrade the skills of our workforce so that our workforce’s skills remain above-average relative to the rest of the world. Otherwise, the relatively-unskilled portion of our workforce will see its income degrade toward the global average. Which would be substantially below-average relative to the historic American experience.
  • Unskilled or semi-skilled labor may be obsolescing on a global basis, as more and more tasks, not only in manufacturing, come to be automated. The “average” person in terms of cognitive ability has, for centuries, relied on readily-transferable but extremely limited skills to provide a limited livelihood, first as farm workers, then as industrial laborers, finally in a variety of low-level white- and pink-collar service jobs. Recent stages in this process have required meaningful cognitive advances simply to stay put and remain productively employable. In the future, nobody will remain productively employable without more specialized skills and the ability to acquire new specialized skills in a rapid timeframe. What will happen to those who don’t make the cut remains unspecified.

I don’t know for sure, of course, because Friedman speaks in buzzwords rather than in language intended to convey actual meaning, but it’s plausible that all three of the above meanings are floating around somewhere in his brain when he says “average is over.” And all three of those meanings are reasonably plausible.

But what they all point to, as deBoer’s piece is intended to point out, is the question of distribution. If “average is over” means that a smaller percentage of Americans have incomes close to the average – the bell curve is flattening, or the center of the curve is moving down as the right-hand tail gets longer and fatter – then that’s an important fact about our economy that demands explanation. And action.

What that action should be depends in part on our understanding of why it’s happening. If the main driver of stagnating median wages and rising inequality is the rise in the average skill level in China and India (the second meaning of “average is over”), then upgrading the average skills of the American workforce is a plausible response.

But if we’re going to ask the question in that form, it’s worth noting that some of the countries that have done a better job than America of moving up the value chain and keeping median wages up approach their workforces very differently than we do. Japan has a quasi-feudal corporate culture dominated by large conglomerates, with strong two-way loyalty and effective lifetime employment. Germany’s economic engine, on the other hand, is mid-sized firms, and the Rhenish model of capitalism gives workers an explicit seat at the table in the management of enterprises – as opposed to managing enterprises exclusively to maximize shareholder value. Finland couples a flexible labor market and relatively easy entrepreneurship with a very generous welfare state and effectively universal unionization. Canada’s boom has been driven substantially by natural resource wealth, but they also have a highly protected and regulated financial sector, and an immigration policy that, while it attracts more immigrants per-capita than the USA does, also focuses on attracting the most-skilled.

In other words, it’s all well and good to say “we have to upgrade our skills to stay ahead,” but we don’t have a political culture that presents a good way of pursuing that goal. We have a hard time talking about unionization, immigration, finance, etc. as relevant factors in determining the actual skill level of the American workforce, or the incentive structure that drives that skill level. We assume, instead, that upgrading skills is a matter of individual initiative, and that the state’s role, if any, is to facilitate that initiative, whether by reducing regulation or providing opportunities for retraining and the like.

And if automation is the driver – as Friedman’s example suggests – then upgrading skills may not be enough. In a utopian future where robots wind up doing most of the work, we simply won’t need that many people to manage the robots, or to design better robots. In that scenario, questions of ownership of the means of production once again become central, just as Marx predicted.

I’m skeptical of the last notion – that we’re simply going to make most humans obsolete – for reasons that deBoer would no doubt agree with (basically, that I think we’re nowhere near true artificial intelligence, and hence nowhere near the creation of robots that could truly replace the most essential human capacities). But the second proposition points in a variety of potential directions, not all of which are dreamt of in Friedman’s philosophy. So let’s take the opportunity to talk about that. Maybe Friedman will eventually even listen, and open up his mind a bit.

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The Devil’s Defense Attorney

Reading Rod Dreher’s piece on NPR, in which he hypothesizes the kind of show he’d love to listen to regularly, I was struck with inspiration. You know what I would listen to?

The Devil’s Defense Attorney.

An absurd proportion of our discourse today is devoted to outrage porn (Dreher has been known to indulge in this himself). You read a news story that sounds outrageous, you declare yourself outraged, and you proceed to suck your thumb about how the significance of this new outage. It’s a reliable business model, the perfect match for the other reliable business model, smarm.

This is a bi-partisan pastime; the outrage could be the latest excrescence from the fever swamps of the right or the eye-rollingest drivel from some left-wing fruit loop – or, for that matter, the purest expression of Friedman-Gladwell conventional (as in convention center) wisdom.

So here’s my show format: every week (or, heck, every day), the producers scour the internet for the most outrageous story – and build a show around defending the apparently indefensible.

You’d have to be assiduous about being fair-minded, picking things that outrage right and left, sensible center and radical center. And, because the same host would have to argue from wildly different premises each week (or day), she couldn’t promote a specific ideology. Rather, she’d merely have to make the case that a defense existed out there, one that was deserving of some degree of respect even if it wasn’t endorsed.

Would the show always succeed in convincing people of that defense? I hope not – some outrages are genuinely outrageous, and even among those that aren’t there are plenty of non-outrages that are nonetheless simply wrong. But maybe, just maybe, it would force those who profit by outrage to reckon with the possibility that, before the week was out, they would be obliterated by the devil’s defense attorney, and would therefore be forced to, you know, make actual arguments – and, more to the point, present the facts in something more closely resembling a neutral manner.

That’s a utopian hope, perhaps. But hey, if it had no effect on the discourse, then it would never run out of material. So as a business proposition . . .


Double Feature-Feature: I Kill With My [Censored] Edition

A bit of Scarlett Johansson in Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin"
A bit of Scarlett Johansson in Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin"

What happens when you take a camp premise seriously?

I once saw a production of a musical adaptation of Dracula that did that. Dracula’s leitmotif was sombre and doomy, Van Helsing sang forcefully about the urgency of combatting “the children of Satan” – it was all played utterly straight. And, of course, it was unintentionally very funny. Bram Stoker’s original novel is wonderful, but it’s also lurid and outlandish right from the get-go, and you have to acknowledge that, and not pretend that you can treat it as straight melodrama, or you’ll wind up with something very silly indeed.

The question came to my mind again when I recently went to see “Under the Skin,” the Scottish science fiction fable from director Jonathan Glazer starring Scarlett Johansson. The premise of the film: Johansson is an alien life form whose task it is to seduce solitary human males to their dooms. She drives around Glasgow in a white van, asking directions of the men she passes and then offering them a lift. When they get in, she flirtily chats with them and ultimately invites them back to a secluded cabin, whose interior I will not describe because it is one of the signature horrors of the film.

This is, as I say, a pretty campy premise – actually, the seductress picking up men in her white van is worse, a low-budget porn premise. And I worried: won’t the characters in the film understand that? If they do, won’t that spoil it for the rest of us? And if they don’t, won’t that spoil it worse, by making them seem idiots?

I went in hoping, in fact, that the film would be cleverly conscious of its own campiness, and thereby transcend it – that it would be an updating of “Liquid Sky,” the early ’80s cult classic. There are some obvious points of comparison, after all. Both films are about female visitors to a strange and hostile city. Both films identify sex with violence and death, both reverse the trope of male predation and female victimhood, and both show us that reversal from the female perspective. And both involve aliens with a taste for human flesh, albeit in the case of “Liquid Sky” the woman is not herself the alien – she just has aliens living on her roof.

“Liquid Sky” was self-conscious – but no less-affecting for that. It’s a highly idiosyncratic nightmare portrait of New York at a certain point in time, a lot more distinctive and convincing than, say, “Escape From New York” if not nearly as coolly accomplished as, say, “After Hours.” And, taken seriously, it has something real to say about the despair of that sexual moment as well:

So I was taught that I should come to New York, become an independent woman. And my prince would come, and he would be an agent, and he would get me a role, and I would make my living waiting on tables. I would wait – till thirty, till forty, till fifty. And I was taught that to be an actress, one should be fashionable, and to be fashionable is to be androgynous. And I am androgynous not less than David Bowie himself. And they call me beautiful, and I kill with my c—. Isn’t it fashionable? Come on, who’s next? I’ll take lessons. How to get into show business: be nice to your professor. Be nice to your agent. Be nice to your audience, be nice. How to be a woman: want them when I want you. How to be free and equal: f— women instead of men, and you’ll discover a whole kingdom of freedom. Men won’t step on you anymore, women will. So come on, who’s next? Who wants to teach me? Come on, teach me. Are you afraid? You’re right, because they’re all dead. All my teachers.

That sure ain’t Shakespeare, but it’s not “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” either. It’s something that has gone through camp and come out the other side, into something like sincerity. Is that what “Under the Skin” aimed to do?

As it turns out, “Under the Skin” does almost the opposite. It does an exceptionally good job of threading the narrow eye of the needle that avoids camp entirely, in spite of its outlandishly camp premise. It does this by emphatically identifying us with Johansson’s alien perspective.

We first glimpse Johansson when she receives her skin, from what appears to be the corpse of the human she’s modeled on (it’s a bit vague what’s precisely going on, but the emotional tone is clear). But this skin is provided her by a male handler, a kind of evil Power Ranger, complete with dopey motorbike. He’s effectively her pimp – so from the beginning, we’ve avoided identifying Johansson with a kind of male horror fantasy of female sexuality. And we’ve also avoided the porn fantasy by showing us the existence of a power structure of some kind behind that fantasy’s enactment.

Then we travel around with Johansson in her white van, observing as she does – and the crowded streets are shot in such a way that we never get a sense of purpose to any of the activity we observe. Johansson’s eyes flit about, looking for prospects; she isn’t trying to understand what these creatures are doing, and so we never understand. They’re just a mass of humanity, a herd from which she culls a gullible few.

Moreover, we’re in Glasgow, and the male citizens of Glasgow speak in an almost impenetrable accent, while Johansson’s accent is vaguely London – the kind of accent someone might learn to play a British character in a not-very-good film. She’s not trying to fit in; she’s barely trying to pass. She speaks what sounds like a script, and barely varies it; when she picks up a severely deformed man, she shows no sign of noticing any difference from her other marks. If she weren’t so good-looking, there’s no way she’d pass the Turing Test. And yet she’s the only one we can reliably comprehend.

All of these factors help us forget the camp absurdity of the premise, which no longer feels like it is even terribly important. It’s certainly never explained at all; the movie seems completely uninterested in motive. It’s just a given that this is her social role, and the movie is interested in what it’s like to be her.

But who is she? Why invent this person, and ask us to spend time with her? About half an hour in, after an exceptionally horrific scene of callousness on Johansson’s part, where she kills an unequivocally good person and leaves another innocent to die without even noticing, I began to wonder what this film meant on a metaphoric level. It didn’t seem to be interested in satirizing the sexual dynamics of contemporary Scotland, not in any direct way.

And then Johansson’s character changed, abruptly. She felt pity on one of her victims, and allowed him to escape, and as a consequence became completely unmoored from herself. She wandered in a daze, eventually to be taken under the wing of a sympathetic (and strangely incurious) Scottish man, before fleeing him in turn and winding up the victim of yet another man, one as one-dimensionally predatory as she had been.

What did this reversal mean, this reversion to female victimhood that seemed to flow inexorably from the alien’s minimal concession to humanity? There was something dark and sad being said here, something that harkened back to the junkie-eat-junkie landscape of “Liquid Sky,” where our protagonist, primed to be a perfect victim, discovers new powers of predation, and gets no satisfaction or release from them. Johansson seemed to me to be representing yet another new womanhood, not the worn-out androgene of 1982, but something lush and overtly feminine, but as scripted, anhedonic and cold as the men who follow seduction guides. She has no history that brought her to this state – it’s not a choice, but a role she is given by others. But having learned that role, she’s lost and helpless when first she tries to be human. That’s a heck of an abyss to find at the bottom of a movie with such a camp premise.

But if stare into a camp premise long enough, it seems, eventually it will stare back at you.

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Climate Change Isn’t Just About Sea Levels, And Adaptation Will Require Action, Not A Sense Of Futility

The latest four alarm fire on the climate change front is the melting of a chunk of west Antarctica’s ice sheet, which appears to have passed the point of no return. Should that unstoppability encourage us to surrender to the siren song of futility?

I don’t think so. I have long maintained that we need to focus at least as much on the adaptation front as we do on the emissions-control front, because a lot of climate change is already “baked in.” And some rise in sea levels and increases in storm surges are particularly certain in the near term. Coastal cities like Miami, New Orleans, New York, etc. are going to have to invest heavily in infrastructure to keep the sea at bay, and the allocation of the cost of adaptation is going to become a significant political issue in the years and decades to come.

But though a rise in sea levels and an increased incidence of extreme weather are the easiest parts of climate change to understand, they aren’t actually the most important. Human beings adapt pretty readily to flooding. We know how to build sea walls, and ecologically-sophisticated systems of flood control. In the extreme, we know how to move – we are a highly mobile species.

It’s less clear how well we’d adapt to wholesale changes in the ecology attendant on changes in CO2 levels. An increase in the acidity of the oceans, for example, could significantly disrupt the marine food chain (what’s left of it after over-fishing). A wide variety of land-based species are also sensitive to changes in the climate; global changes could have an unpredictable global impact on overall biodiversity. The earth, of course, will adapt just fine; the terrestrial climate has seen some pretty huge swings over geological timescales, and the diversity of life has recovered from multiple mass-extinctions. Human beings, though, have only been around for a million or so years (much less depending on how picky you are about what counts as “human”), and large-scale civilization is only a few thousand years old. We have no idea how well that civilization would adapt to widespread ecological disruption.

Moreover, there is a synergy between efforts to reduce the impact of human activity on the environment and efforts to repair or adapt to the consequences of that activity. The slower the rate of CO2 and methane emissions, the slower these changes will progress; in effect, we’d be buying time to adapt. Adaptation efforts cost money; it makes more sense to raise that money through Pigovian taxes on the kinds of activities that contribute to the problem than to pile up debt or impose taxes that impose more of an economic drag. And breakthrough technologies that could radically reduce emissions would be just as useful to China and India as they are to countries on the developmental frontier. China will certainly not sacrifice economic development for the sake of the environment; take a look at their air quality if you doubt that. But could they be bribed to continue development on a greener path? I don’t see why not – it’s a question of price. Could we afford to pay the bribe? That depends on how big the bribe has to be, which in turn depends on the state of alternative energy and emission-capture technologies – which, in turn, is an argument for spending money to move that frontier.

None of the above is news. So why do the points need to be made over and over again?

Or, let me ask the question another way. Why are so many conservatives comfortable with arguing that it’s good for the rest of the world to free-ride on a collective-security regime where the bulk of the costs are born by the United States (to be sure, TAC-style conservatives are much less-likely to do so), or that it’s good for the rest of the world to free-ride on a pharmaceutical research regime where an outsized share of profits are generated on the backs of the American taxpayer, but balk at applying the exact same logic to fighting climate change? What kinds of threats spur us to action and what kinds make us numb with futility? What kinds inspire us to bear any burden and pay any price, and what kinds make us worry about being played for a sucker?

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What We Debate About When We Debate About Debate

Patrick Henry College's NEDA debate team at the 2006 NEDA National Tournament DebateLord /  cc
Patrick Henry College's NEDA debate team at the 2006 NEDA National Tournament DebateLord / cc

I see this weekend is high school debate weekend over at TAC. On Thursday I reminisced about my old high school debate coach, on the occasion of his passing, and yesterday Rod Dreher lamented the state of college debate, a discussion he continued this morning. Dreher ends his most recent entry thusly:

I think it’s indisputable that people will employ all sorts of rhetorical strategies to win, but I cannot bring myself to believe that we should be training people to “win” by overwhelming their opponents with information or bizarre rhetorical gamesmanship, e.g., ignoring the stated topic of the debate and using it to yammer on about racism, nuclear war, or whatever you’d rather talk about. What is the underlying moral lesson in teaching kids that debate has nothing to do with logic, eloquence, or, above all, an exploration of the truth, and everything to do with winning?

My point wasn’t that we should teach students to win at all costs – and that wasn’t how we were taught. We knew the difference between someone who played to win in a sportsmanlike manner and someone who was just a jerk. If we faced an opposing team that was obviously less-proficient, we would slow down, go out of our way to explain ourselves, and try to stick to arguments that they might comprehend. We tried not to humiliate people. If we faced a team that was particularly clever, we tried to match them in cleverness; if we faced a team that had a more “meatball” approach – a few big, hulking arguments backed with huge amounts of evidence – we’d show that we could play the game that way, while also demonstrating that we were maybe a bit more clever. We tried, that is to say, both to be courteous and to show a sense of style. But we certainly played to win, always. It’s a competitive activity.

What I was arguing against was whining, either in a debate or outside it. Debaters should be prepared for other people who are willing to use strategies that are, arguably, less than sporting, or less educationally rewarding, or wildly at variance with your expectations, or what have you. You could face a jerk who reads his evidence so fast you can’t understand a word, or a debater who makes a meta-argument about how we shouldn’t discuss the topic, but rather his preferred subject, or whatever. You’ve got to figure out, on the fly, how to handle whatever is thrown at you.

But I was also making a point about the value of understanding that diversity of rhetorical strategies as such. In fact, I was packing a bunch of notions together into a single point – so allow me to tell three anecdotes from the glory days to illustrate different some of the different parts of my argument.

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Anecdote #1: “The Cat’s Meow”

Among the most prestigious tournaments of the year on the high school circuit is the Tournament of Champions at the University of Kentucky. For both the National Forensic League and the Catholic Forensic League, each district held its own qualifying tournament. For TOC, to qualify you had to get to a certain level at a qualifying tournament – could be semifinals, could be quarterfinals or even octafinals if the tournament is big enough. These qualifying tournaments were not purely regional; big national programs competed at most or all of them. So to get to TOC, you had to be competitive on a national level.

As a consequence, TOC was the venue where debaters set out to impress each other, by coming up with brand new, fiendishly clever arguments that nobody else would be prepared for. Our sophomore year, the team we most idolized was a team of juniors from our rival, Stuyvesant High School, and at TOC we saw them set a new standard in cleverness. That year, the resolution was, “RESOLVED: that the Federal government should establish a comprehensive national policy to protect the quality of water in the United States.” This was how Stuyvesant’s A team began their first affirmative that year at TOC:

Krebbs was a bearded man, a platinum blond Jesus with spaniel eyes. He was no close friend of mine. I had met him at a cocktail party where he presented himself as National Chairman of Poets and Painters for Immediate Nuclear War. He begged for shelter, not necessarily bomb proof, and it happened that I had some.

When I returned to my apartment, still twanging with the puzzling spiritual implications of the unclaimed stone angel in Ilium, I found my apartment wrecked by a nihilistic debauch. Krebbs was gone; but, before leaving, he had run up three-hundred-dollars’ worth of long-distance calls, set my couch on fire in five places, and torn the door off my medicine cabinet.

He wrote this poem, in what proved to be excrement, on the yellow linoleum floor of my kitchen:

I have a kitchen
But it is not a complete kitchen.
I will not be truly gay
Until I have a

There was another message, written in lipstick in a feminine hand on the wallpaper over my bed. It said: “No, no, no said Chicken-licken.”

There was a sign hung around my dead cat’s neck. It said, “Meow.”

That’s from chapter 36 of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Cat’s Cradle, and the team from Stuy went on to propose, by way of protecting America’s water, to ban “Ice Nine,” a fictional form of ice that appears in the novel and that has the unfortunate characteristic of transforming liquid water into this peculiar form of ice at any temperature. Needless to say, if such a chemical ever got loose, it would wreak havoc on the environment (not to mention being a formidable weapon of war if it could be controlled).

Of course, Ice Nine is entirely fictional. Which is why their first affirmative ended with a one-minute “underview” arguing that science fiction is good for expanding your mind, and debate is all about hypotheticals anyway, so it’s good to debate as if science-fictional inventions and occurrences were potentially real.

The opposing team in the round I watched was apoplectic. How were they supposed to debate a ban on a fictional substance? It’s absurd!

I thought it was the coolest debate strategy ever. All I wanted out of the activity, from then on, was to figure out how I could possibly top that.

Now, you might disagree and say that changing the topic, meta-argumentation, and the like are just empty sophistry, and a waste of intellectual talent. If you were the judge, you’d have dropped Stuy like a rock for not taking the activity seriously. In other words, you’d have been the man, a suit, Principal Ed Rooney - and bully for you. But we knew what was cool and what wasn’t, and Stuy were the coolest cats in Kentucky that weekend, whether they won or lost.

But here’s the thing: what’s cool to one cat ain’t necessarily cool to another. What I see as cool, the kids who won CEDA might have seen as a bunch of posturing and signifying in a language that meant nothing to them. And vice versa. What’s the principled argument for saying that quoting Kurt Vonnegut shows wit while quoting Chuck D shows contempt for the activity? I can’t see one.

Which is why I have less sympathy for opponents who sputter about traditional standards than I might – because I know how I reacted to similar sputtering against Stuyvesant. Their opponents didn’t have to roll over. They had to fight back. Argue that banning a science fictional substance would lead to concrete harms. Or that Ice Nine would have benefits. Or that debating banning a science fictional substance was not the right way to get the benefit of reading science fiction. Or all of the above.

Convince me, in the moment, that you deserve the win. That’s your job as a debater. And try to be cool about it.

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Anecdote #2: “One Fish, Two Fish”

Junior year, the topic was: “RESOLVED: that the Federal Government should implement a comprehensive agricultural policy for the United States.” A more boring topic could not have been invented, in the opinion of all of us debaters from New York City, Chicago, Boston and other major agricultural centers. But by the middle of the year, we’d come up with a pretty cool way of changing the topic. On the affirmative, we argued for subordinating America’s agricultural policy to the needs of our European allies, effectively requiring “pre-clearance” of all such policies with their trade negotiators before doing anything. The goal was to avoid a trade war, which, if it erupted, would weaken NATO, which in turn would encourage the Soviets to invade Turkey en route to Iran and Iraq’s oil fields, sparking World War III. Now we were talking!

Unfortunately, on the first day of one tournament, news broke of a big new trade accord. The threat of trade war had receded; our case was no longer compelling. What to do? We decided to pull out a warhorse from summer debate institute: soil erosion prevention. We couldn’t prove that soil erosion would cause World War III, but at least we had a card (from Paul Ehrlich, I think) claiming that soil erosion would be worse than World War III. That was some consolation.

We weren’t thrilled, but we didn’t really have a choice. And then, as we debated from round to round, we noticed something. Nobody actually had any good arguments against preventing soil erosion. Indeed, nobody had bothered much to research soil erosion – it was boring. Instead, we faced a series of preposterous arguments claiming that, for example, adopting our policy would strengthen the Federal government, which would scare China into shifting to the Soviets – which would cause World War III. (Or maybe I have that backwards – it’s been a while.) Rather than jump at the chance to debate whether, in fact, detente with China was going to lead to World War III (by encircling the Soviets), we decided to point out just how preposterous this argument was.

Round by round, I honed a little speech, my “one fish dies” speech, which said, in effect, that everything the negative was claiming was transparently ludicrous (don’t worry, we went into chapter and verse on what was ludicrous about it), and that nobody was even trying to argue that soil erosion caused no harm, or that our plan wouldn’t, in some measure, improve the situation. Therefore, if even “one fish dies” as a result of your voting negative, you’ve made the wrong choice.

Opponents hated this speech – but they, generally, didn’t know what to do about it. It moved them out of their comfort zone of technical tit-for-tat, and questioned fundamental assumptions of the activity. It was, in a sense, a meta-argument – just a traditionalist one. But it wasn’t a whine. It was an attack – an attack delivered both with the kind of rhetoric that laypeople assume debate should foster, and the technical point-by-point delivery that people immersed in debate expected.

And we won the tournament with it.

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Anecdote #3: “The Last Days Of Disco”

That spring, we faced our old rivals from Stuy at TOC. We were hoping to be affirmative – we had worked up a new, super-cool case, in imitation of them: time capsules. We began with an overview of ten reasons the earth is utterly doomed, from nuclear war to global cooling to species extinction to AIDS to asteroid strike – we had a list of ten completely different plagues any one of which would wipe out human civilization. But not humanity: we argued that some human beings would likely survive, and rebuild. But rebuild what?

Well, hopefully not agricultural civilization, as we went on to argue that agriculture was the bane of human existence, and that humans had been much happier and healthier when we were hunter-gatherers. Therefore, we would compile a comprehensive study to prove the perniciousness of agriculture, and bury the study in time capsules in a variety of strategic locations chosen to maximize the chance of surviving the various cataclysms to come. Hopefully, when future humans dug the capsules up, they would learn the lesson and avoid developing agriculture.

It was a great case. You could argue anything you wanted about how it would lead to World War III or whatever – we didn’t care, because we said World War III was inevitable. All we cared about is the aftermath. And, needless to say, nobody else was prepared to debate whether agriculture was a good idea in the first place.

We lost the coin flip, and had to take the negative. But that was ok. We were ready for them.

Their case was almost the mirror image of ours. It was something called “Foresight,” which meant doing big studies to try to predict the future, and then basing our national policies on those studies. This, they claimed, would prevent all kinds of disasters that would affect the economy and environment, and, of course, wreck American agriculture.

We had a two-pronged attack in response. First, we argued that the studies would never be completed, would never work, and would just add a thick layer of bureaucracy over every decision. Rather than protecting us from disaster, they would leave us incapable of responding to any contingency. Second, we argued that though they wanted to use the studies to protect the environment, all anybody in government would actually care about was boosting economic growth, so that’s what the studies would be used to accomplish – and the relentless pursuit of economic growth was the biggest threat to the world of all. We had lots of cards that said this.

Our first negative was pretty stoked when he finished his speech. We had obliterated their case.

And then their second affirmative stood up, and conceded both arguments. Yes, we were right, their studies would fail, would create more bureaucracy, would prevent anything from getting done. And yes, we were right, all the government really cared about was promoting economic growth, and would bend any new knowledge to that end. And relentless pursuit of growth would destroy the planet. Therefore, the only hope for the planet was gumming up the works of government with endless studies so nothing could be accomplished. Vote affirmative.

We never recovered. Oh, we did our best – we fell back on secondary arguments of various kinds, fought hard on badly reduced ground. But our heart wasn’t really in it. They had “discoed” us – turned our own arguments against us. We were simply outclassed.

After we lost, we talked about the round with our assistant coach. We told him there was nothing we could do – we were discoed. And he forcefully disagreed. Why, he asked, didn’t you run a counter plan to simply halt economic growth? If they conceded your argument that ending growth was the most important thing, then your plan is better than their plan, by definition, and you win.

My initial response was, “okay, I hear you, but that’s a weird argument, and a really weird thing to do, to run a new counter plan that late in the game. How could we have thought of that?” But I was blinded by jargon and convention. It took me months to understand what he was really getting at. You can’t legitimately win by conceding that your own plan will fail. If that’s a plan’s only virtue, then there is surely a more direct and efficient route to get the positive results associated with that failure. So why adopt the plan? Say that, and it will become clear to the judges that voting for this plan is absurd.

Now, that’s a very subtle argument on one level. But on another level it’s bone obvious. The former is the level of formal argumentation that dominates policy debate. The latter is normal human thinking.

Both modes of thinking are valuable for debaters – and, for that matter, lawyers, politicians, anybody who needs to make arguments on a regular basis. We get into trouble when we lose sight of one or the other – when we think that the formalisms of argument are meaningful in and of themselves, or when we dismiss those formalisms cavalierly and suggest that anything “real people” can’t understand is nonsense. Without those formalisms, we wouldn’t have been able to argue at the level that we did. But if we forgot what those formalisms stood for, we’d lose sight of obvious truths that could win us a debate, and even teach us something.

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Arguments about the worth of argument are as old as argument itself. Socrates wandered about Athens proving, to his own satisfaction, that nobody knew anything, except him, who at least knew that he didn’t know anything. Was that productive? Was it more or less productive than what the Sophists were up to? We tend to lionize the former and anathematize the latter, but it’s worth recalling that the Athenians weren’t always clear that there was much of a difference (other than that Socrates didn’t charge a fee).

Did the style of debate I practiced warp our intellectual development? You can judge my case from this blog. Our Stuyvesant rivals? One, Hanna Rosin, is a far more prominent opinionatrix than myself. The other, David Coleman, is, from his perch at the head of the College Board and through his leadership in designing the Common Core, in the process of reshaping the contours of American education. So I guess we have to hope not!

But we don’t have to rely on hope as a strategy. There’s plenty not to like about how high school and college debate is practiced – perhaps it’s worse now than there used to be, or perhaps not; I’m not close enough to the activity to be able to say. But I can say that the only way to shape the future is to engage with it, directly.

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Richard B. Sodikow, z”l


Earlier this week, I learned that my old high school debate coach, Richard Sodikow, had passed away. After my actual parents, it’s hard for me to think of an adult who had a greater impact on my adolescence, and as a consequence it’s hard for me entirely to fathom his departure from the world. Consider this blog post an attempt to do just that as best I can.

Richard – which we never, ever called him, until suddenly, upon graduation, we could; that transition was itself hard enough to fathom – was, like most great teachers, a man too passionate to be properly balanced. Where most of us live compartmentalized lives, with boxes for work, for family, for social and for solitary pursuits, Richard was consumed by one overriding passion: for high school forensics, and for the students who competed under his tutelage. We were his work, but also his family (he never married), and his primary social pursuit. I’m not sure he had much use for solitude.

That tutelage was administered primarily at the Bronx High School of Science, where he founded the debate and speech program in 1969. (Richard himself had graduated from that high school fourteen years previously, and graduated well shy of his 18th birthday, as was the custom in those days with bright hardworking youngsters.) The team rapidly grew to one of the largest and most consistently competitive in the country. His philosophy as coach was strictly meritocratic, on the old City College model. Anyone could join the team, provided they put in a minimum number of hours; there were no tryouts. They could compete at any tournaments that allowed for unlimited enrollment; only when there were limited available slots did he show preference for the “top” competitors on the team. And no one was ever cut because they didn’t perform well enough in competition. It wasn’t his responsibility to tell you whether it was worth your time and effort to compete; it was yours.

He was an inspiring but terrifying teacher of the old school, someone gleefully eager to show you up but never small-souled enough to want to put you down. But you didn’t want to be shown up – and he wouldn’t let you back down. If you made a foolish remark or response to a question, for example, and tried to get out of it by saying you were “just kidding,” Richard would bellow: “KIDDING is an obnoxious operation performed upon a female goat to remove her otherwise unbearable YOUNG!” And he was as awesome as an English teacher as he was as a debate coach. I remember, he began his first lecture on Henry IV part 1 (yes, a high school teacher who gave lectures), by writing on the blackboard the lecture’s title: “Everything You Need To Know.” This turned out to be a chronicle of the Kings and Queens of England from William the Conqueror down through James I – not, you would think, the most auspicious beginning for a bunch of restless high school students, but he had such a commanding voice that we were riveted. We then proceeded to read the play closely, analytically – and also out loud, theatrically. Richard always played the part of Falstaff himself, a character with whom he identified to an alarming degree. My lifelong love of Shakespeare I owe to him, more than to anyone else in my life.

I owe him as well for giving me a proper perspective on my own talents. Debate came very naturally to me, and in plenty of programs I would have been encouraged to believe myself one of the elect – pushed to excel further, of course, but not to question a hierarchy of values according to which my talents were the worthiest of admiration. Richard did, of course, value those same talents very highly – he wouldn’t have been a high school debate coach if he didn’t. But he understood our activity as being embedded in a larger social framework, not as a thing in itself and capable of making a proper estimation of its own worth.

I can best explain what I mean by this by reference to a particular peeve of his: student complaints about judging. Again and again, debaters would come to him complaining that they didn’t deserve to lose a particular round. The judge wasn’t experienced enough, or was biased, or simply didn’t understand their argument. Maybe she was somebody’s mother – somebody who knew nothing about debate. To which Richard invariably would reply, as if issuing the first commandment: “The judge is always right.” It was the cornerstone of his philosophy of debate. Your job, as a debater, was not to make the cleverest or deepest or in-some-sense “truest” arguments, but to convince the judge. If you failed to do that, you lost – and you deserved to.

This was a more radical perspective than it might seem. By the time I was engaged in the activity, high school policy (or “cross-ex”) debate had evolved in a highly technical direction. Arguments followed a rigid formal structure, replete with obscure lingo, and delivered at the speed of a tobacco auctioneer. From the perspective of most of us debaters, the winner of a debate could only be discerned by someone experienced enough to accurately record the flow of argumentation, who could understand the lingo, who knew the arcane rules of the debate world. Richard understood the lingo – he taught it to us. He understood the formal structure – a lot better than any of us young upstarts did. But he was also a lonely voice reminding us that our notions of what mattered were so much idle chatter, because we were not the judges.

There’s been a lot of that kind of chatter lately about the decline of debate, at the high school and college level, into a combination of “meta” argumentation (debate about the rules of debate, rather than about the topic) and the abandonment of structured argument entirely in favor of “personal testimony” (see here for a good example of such chatter). I understand the laments – but I also understand the other side, inasmuch as I remember what debate was like in my day. Our vaunted technical rules were not designed to persuade, nor were they designed to force us to learn about the topic; rather, they honed our skills where we were already strongest, and were designed to make it easier to shift the ground from the official topic to what we would rather talk about – which was usually global thermonuclear war.

Don’t get me wrong: I learned an enormous amount from researching, and an enormous amount from practicing the art of argument. If I were running a program, as Richard did, I would tilt strongly in the direction of traditional practice, and against newfangled approaches that scant the development of those vital skills. But if I, as a debater, had ever lost to someone who, instead of arguing back, recited a poem, or testified about her personal experience, and had complained to Richard about the loss, I know what he would have said. The judge is always right. If I couldn’t convince the judge that my argument was more deserving than my opponent’s poem, then I had failed. And I deserved to lose. Because here’s the thing: out there in the real world, people will employ all sorts of rhetorical strategies to win, and you need to be prepared for all of them, not just the ones you enjoy the most or think are the most intellectually rewarding.

My debt to Richard is not only intellectual. His impact on my emotional development was more complex, but I recognize a substantial debt of gratitude there as well. Like many people who spend their lives among adolescents, Richard had a bit of the arrested adolescent about him. His emotions were all out on the table. When he was depressed – and he could get deeply depressed – he would stare at us across the desk and ask, in all sincerity, “I want to die; why won’t you people let me die?” And he cared more about our lives than, frankly, an adult ought to do – he lived through us. But he did care, and we – at least I – really appreciated knowing that.

I was a pretty hormone-addled teenager, far too embarrassed by that fact to actually talk about it, and far too addled not to have to do something about it. As the James Spader character put it in the movie, “sex, lies and videotape,” “Well, at that time, uh… I… I used to express my feelings nonverbally, and often scared people that were close to me.” I got mocked by Richard for my . . . nonverbal expressions of feeling often enough, in the way that I got mocked by my peers. But I also got accepted, in the way that I got accepted by my peers. And that meant a great deal, at the time. Teenagers go through all kinds of emotional dramas, some ridiculous and some deadly serious. He rode through the rapids with us; for some of us, he’s a major reason we made it safely ashore. I can think of any number of other students, bright kids who were failing out of school, who were struggling with abusive parents, or who had attempted suicide, who found in him a deep well of empathy under that monumental edifice of erudition. But empathy never meant being a willing accomplice to folly. When I think of  some other coaches I know who implicated themselves in their students’ vices, even acting as their procurers, I appreciate all the more how different Richard was, how seriously he took his responsibilities, as a teacher, mentor, and true friend to his students.

That empathy, that caring, took its own toll, sometimes, because teenagers are capable of extraordinary feats of ingratitude. I remember coming to the debate room once and finding a chair had been thrown through the window of the closet. What had happened? I asked another student. Oh, so-and-so failed his final, so Mr. Sodikow threw a chair. I knew the situation: Richard had been tutoring this kid, practically dragging him bodily over the line to pass this class, to no avail. Did he throw the chair at the student in rage, or in an empty classroom in frustration? I assume the latter – the student in question showed no signs of fear or hurt. But even so, it tells you something about how badly we could hurt him, and how ill-equipped he was to absorb that hurt. Kind of like us.

Richard mellowed quite a bit in retirement. He enjoyed his status as a living legend on the debate circuit. But though he was forced to slow down, he never actually rested. That’s part of why it’s so hard to think of him at permanent rest now. If you want to get a sense of the man, the power of his voice and his impish sense of humor, even in his frail latter years, take a look at this speech he gave at Emory University, a bit over a year ago.

For years after his retirement, he continued to keep tabs on us, his former students, far better than we, or at least I, kept tabs on him. That failure of mine is something I will regret until I follow him where he has gone.

May his memory be for a blessing.

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Market Failure In College Reputations

Ross Douthat’s most recent column, and a follow-up post on his blog, treat the arguments of a recent book about the “party pathway” through college at a large, unnamed Midwestern university. The book’s point is that this fraternity and sorority-centered path is only realistically available to wealthier students, and poorer students wind up suffering in one of two ways: either from exclusion from a social world that is vital to future economic prospects, or by being sucked into that world, and spending money they don’t have on activities that actively hurt their grades, and hence their future economic prospects.

I haven’t read the book, so I probably shouldn’t comment on the picture it paints. But I do have an overarching question, to whit: what’s described sounds like massive market failure that I’d like to understand better.

Here’s what I mean. The “party pathway” is only possible if you don’t have to study much. That means you have to take less-demanding classes. That means you graduate with a degree in a less-demanding field, or that your degree in a more-demanding field didn’t actually require you to master the most demanding material.

This is information that employers, presumably, both care about and can acquire. That is to say: they should know that communications majors from Rich Party U will be less well-educated on average than English majors from Less-Prestigious Grind College. They should also know that they have demonstrated poorer work habits. So why would students from Rich Party U be preferred for employment?

They shouldn’t be. And if they are, that’s a pretty substantial market failure.

Of course, I can think of a wide variety of reasons why such a market failure would persist for a good while, from hiring managers favoring fellow alumni, to the slow pace at which perceptions of institutional quality change, to the noise associated with a variety of other demographic changes obscuring the signal of changing institutional quality, to old-fashioned racial, ethnic or regional prejudice, to the possibility of pre-selection, i.e., that the more prestigious schools are still attracting students who are smarter and worked harder in high school, so that employers effectively look past the actual college record, and are paying attention only to the selection process by which they got into college in the first place. And no doubt there are other factors in play.

Nonetheless, at the end of the day we’re still describing a market opportunity for any firm that decides: I’d rather hire 4.0 GPA graduates of Nowheresville State Teacher’s College than 2.5 GPA graduates of Big Midwestern, because they’ll work harder, and probably for less money. And if those decisions start happening more and more, then Big Midwestern will have to re-think its party-oriented recruitment strategy (and maybe even its spending priorities).

At a minimum, I’d like to hear an argument why not. Because hectoring has a poorer track record of driving cultural change than losing money does.

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Psychological Rationales For Threat Inflation

Daniel Larison is spending this morning talking about the absurd level of threat inflation in our national dialogue. I’d like to throw my own 2c into the conversation by asking the question, why does this phenomenon obtain? Why is our national commentary so consistent in representing threats as much larger than they truly are?

I have a few ideas.

First of all, this is a very natural if perverse consequence of our position as a continental power with no local enemies. Consider: the power differential between the United States and its immediate neighbors is more lopsidedly favorable than it is for any other power in the world, by a considerable margin. The United States, over the course of its history, set out to dominate overwhelmingly its continent and even its hemisphere. We achieved this goal, and we achieved it substantially through violence: wars and threats of wars with our former colonial master, wars with our neighbors, wars to prevent the rise of new rivals by fission, small wars to sustain our dominance over small states, etc.

Now, if that is your standard for security, by definition the mere existence of threats that cannot be eliminated utterly makes you feel insecure. We think of ourselves as living in a world in which threats are obliterated permanently, not a world in which threats – much more distant threats, to be sure – simply have to be lived with. That dynamic manifested itself as a persistent anxiety during the Cold War, the conviction that if the Soviet Union were not rolled back and ultimately eliminated, that we would never be secure – that, indeed, it was worth contemplating the deaths of hundreds of millions to “secure” the future.

And then the Soviet Union was eliminated. This was the ultimate proof that America’s approach to security – eliminate all threats – can be effectuated on a global scale. How, after a demonstration like that, can you possibly revert to a state where you accept a certain level of risk as normal, some threats as too remote to be worth combatting? How could such a stance do anything but make you feel like you are experiencing decline?

Which brings me to my second reason.

Relative decline is an inevitability for any entity that achieves a certain level of prominence. Once Microsoft controlled 90% of the operating system market, it could not grow relatively more dominant. Even if its absolute profits grew, its relative market power would inevitably decline either due to the rise of new rivals in its core market, or changes in the structure of the business that made its core market less important than it once had been. Or, as it turned out, both.

The United States, at the end of World War II and even more dramatically at the end of the Cold War, was the overwhelmingly dominant power on the planet. We could, of course, grow still more powerful – a larger population, a larger economy, new technologies of warfare, etc. But on a relative basis, it is hard to see how we could grow even more dominant.

As a consequence, we are haunted by a narrative of relative decline, which makes it difficult to perceive when a development is a genuine threat. The rise of India, for example, doesn’t provoke much in the way of anxiety when we think, “that’s ok; they are on our side.” But as soon as our interests diverge materially (as they do persistently over Iran, and periodically over relations with Russia and other matters), we grow distressed: we can’t even keep our allies in line. Ditto for Germany, Japan, Brazil. Rivals like Russia or China provoke even greater anxiety.

The threat of acute and catastrophic loss isn’t particularly realistic, unless we create the situation ourselves, by destroying our national patrimony in a vain effort to maintain an unrealistic level of dominance. (And that could happen; it’s what happened to Britain with the entry into World War I.) But the threat of steady erosion of our dominant position is not only realistic but likely. And where does that erosion stop? Hence the anxiety that fuels threat inflation.

Related to the above is the changing demographic character of the global landscape. The United States was founded by white Europeans, and for most of our history we thought of ourselves as a white power. Moreover, for the first century and a half of our history, the dominance of the European powers over the globe – in terms of economic power, military power, and sheer demographic weight – increased in an accelerating fashion.

None of that is the case any longer. Decolonization reduced the power of our European rivals, but the former colonies did not all line up in the American file. The rise of Japan was followed by the rise of smaller east Asian states and now the rise of the Asian mega-states, China and India. Latin America and the Muslim Middle East have grown into substantial regions, demographically and economically, and are no longer obviously under Western control (or even influence). Africa’s demographic momentum, meanwhile, will carry that continent to far greater prominence by the end of the century than it has ever achieved before. And immigration has changed the demographic character of both the United States and the various European states.

The United States has the ability to adapt to this changed global (and domestic) environment, but it is not surprising that there are substantial attendant anxieties.

Meanwhile, add to all of the above the fact that, as the globally-dominant power, we are the inevitable foil for any power wishing to distinguish itself, and the inevitable object of petitions from any power seeking assistance against a local rival. Our experience of the world, to a considerable extent, is of other countries and movements within countries either denouncing us or asking us for help. We have been important in enough places for long enough that we don’t have to stick our noses in to be involved; we will be dragged in, rhetorically at least, and then we have to decide how to respond. That’s not the way China, India or Brazil experiences the world.

Finally, there’s the question of our identification with those petitioners – the small powers who may be referred to either as “allies” or “clients” depending on the emotional valence of the relationship for the speaker. The United States was once a small country that grew to global dominance, and thinks of itself (rightly or wrongly) as a liberal and magnanimous hegemon. Deep down, we still think of ourselves as the underdog, and even when we remember our overwhelming power we remember where we came from and identify with underdogs – at least when they are asking for our help rather than fighting against us.

So when the question gets raised, “is it in our interest to help?” there’s a part of us that feels such a question is churlish; when the question gets raised, “can we actually be of help?” there’s a part of us that feels such a question is insulting. Are we really suggesting that this little pipsqueak country – whether it’s Israel or Taiwan or Georgia or whatever – has the guts to stand up for itself, but we, the great big superpower, are afraid to stand with them? Or aren’t sure it’s worth the bother? And this, in turn, creates a need for threat inflation – because these sentiments only go so far on their own in motivating action. It’s better if we are convinced that what we want to do is also what we need  to do.

So it’s not surprising that we, the strongest and arguably most secure large country on earth, are obsessed with threats to our security. We’re like professional-class helicopter parents with their children: we’re terrified of risk because we’ve had so little experience of it; terrified of downward-mobility because we’re so well entrenched on our high rung on the ladder; terrified that our little ones won’t forgive us if we fail to protect them from making the necessary accommodations with the finite nature of life.

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Play’s The Thing: Theatrical Notes For April

Arnie Burton and Robert Sella in The Mystery of Irma Vep, by Charles Ludlam, from Red Bull Theater at the Lucille Lortel; photo by Carol Rosegg
Arnie Burton and Robert Sella in The Mystery of Irma Vep, by Charles Ludlam, from Red Bull Theater at the Lucille Lortel; photo by Carol Rosegg

What with one thing and another, I haven’t been able to comment on the theatrical scene lately. I saw three shows this past month that really deserve comment, however, and two of them are still running. So, however briefly, here’s the comment.

If you love “Rebecca,” or Dracula, or The Carol Burnett Show, then The Mystery of Irma Vep is the play for you, a thorough sendup of Victorian (and pseudo-Victorian) gothic and Hollywood’s (particularly Hitchcock’s) screen translations thereof, in the true Burnett style. Charles Ludlam, the late author, dubbed his theater ridiculous, and that’s exactly what it is – not absurd or surreal: ridiculous. And director Everett Quinton, having appeared in the original production, is in the best position to understand the distinction – and he does.

A two-man cast, Arnie Burton, Robert Sella, play seven characters, most of them women, and cycle through them at a whirlwind pace (at one point, Burton even plays opposite himself). Costume designer Ramona Ponce deserves a medal, but the dressers who have to help the actors execute those quick changes deserve bigger ones; at least they got to join the curtain call.

What these wonderful actors are doing isn’t exactly acting – it’s play-acting. But it’s the most extraordinary, energetic and inventive play-acting, self-aware without ever being smugly so. They aren’t winking at the audience in order to trick it into letting its emotional guard down (a common strategy at least since Urinetown); they are sharing an enthusiasm.

Which reminds me of what Susan Sontag said about camp, of which this play is an exemplar:

Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.

Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of “character.” . . . Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as “a camp,” they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.

The works being mocked are not bad works – and they are not ruined by being sent up. Indeed, quite the opposite; you can feel the extremity of gothic emotions more fully if you don’t have to take the works entirely seriously.

The Mystery of Irma Vep plays at the Lucille Lortel in New York through May 11th. [Full disclosure: I'm on the board of Red Bull Theater, which produced the show.]

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David Ives’s extended foray into verse comedy may also be a variety of camp – if so, it’s a particularly high variety. Ives has an almost uncanny ability to compose rhyming couplets, and his signature trick is to wed classical form to contemporary idiom, thereby demonstrating that verse still works – and works the way it always did – if it sings in a language we speak. This is an eminently worthy project, but nobody wants to go to the theater to listen to an eminently worthy project, so I should stress: it’s invariably also very funny, and more often than not quite moving as well.

His latest, The Heir Apparent, an adaptation of a play by Jean-François Regnard, currently running at Classic Stage, is the slightest of Ives’s three forays in this mode (the others – that I’ve seen – are The Liar, based on Corneille’s play, and School For Lies, based on Molière’s The Misanthrope) – less moving, but still funny. The play revolves around an old miser, Geronte, nearing his deathbed, due to make a will; needless to say, relatives are circling like vultures, one of them – a bankrupt nephew, Eraste – especially determined to flatter his way into his uncle’s heart so that he can win the hand of his lady love, Isabelle. His plans are foiled initially when Geronte decides to wed Isabelle himself, and thereby get a new lease on life. Getting those plans back on track involves a variety of farcical business, mostly orchestrated by the inevitable tricky servant, Crispin.

It’s a frolic, enlivened especially by a warmly-felt performance from Paxton Whitehead as Geronte, and by the manic energy of Carson Elrod as Crispin. But the play lacks the cumulative quality of truly great farce, and is too willing to flatter the audience to work as satire. Ultimately, we never forget that these people are just playing. In the season of Thomas Piketty, perhaps we can take this scenario seriously again? That might actually make it more deeply funny.

The Heir Apparent plays at Classic Stage through May 11th.

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Finally, my last entry you cannot see any longer, as it’s closed, and unfortunately you’re unlikely to get another chance any time soon. Paula Vogel’s early play, And Baby Makes Seven is a strange creature, and rarely revived for that reason. But, having managed to see it at the New Ohio Theater last month, in a lively production directed by Marc Stuart Weitz, I feel it deserves more – and better – attention than it’s generally received.

The play revolves around a decidedly modern family: a lesbian couple and their gay male friend, flatmate, and sperm donor. So why isn’t it called And Baby Makes Four? Well, because the two women, Ruth and Anna, are – inhabited by? possessed by? just in the habit of pretending to be? – three young boys. Ruth (Susan Bott) takes turns playing Henri, the French boy from the movie, “The Red Balloon,” and a feral creature named Orphan who mostly expresses himself by snarling. Anna (Constance Zaytoun), meanwhile, plays Cecil, a precociously intellectual little man who seems, initially, to be merely the insufferable expression of her own superiority, but who turns out to have some actual wisdom to impart.

The man, Peter (Ken Barnett), doesn’t have an alter ego and, at the start of the play, is getting quite worn out with having to deal with the three boys – particularly since Ruth’s “kids” seem to be getting more and more out of hand. He’s particularly concerned that they drop the act before a real child comes along, as one will very shortly. And so a pact is made: we’ll kill off the imaginary children one by one, making room in the home for a real child.

The publicity and dramaturgical material talk about Vogel being ahead of her time in depicting a gay (and plural) family, and it is reasonable to read the play-acting as children in the light of once-favored theories of sexual development that held that gay people were “arrested” at an earlier developmental stage – and Peter’s anxiety as ultimately about being whether he can be a father if he’s gay. But none of that is what I actually got from the play. I agree that Vogel’s play is ahead of its time, but what it connected with for me is the curious relationship we – or some of us – have with childhood, and the need to hold onto it, the need to nurture one’s inner child very explicitly. It shows up everywhere, and in a variety of forms, from Dave Eggers to Wes Anderson to Lena Dunham. The games Vogel’s women play are very twee – but twee is a thing now.

The explicit message of Vogel’s play, articulated by Cecil on his deathbed, is: don’t be afraid to play with your children. The implicit suggestion is that we can’t do that if we don’t remember how to be children ourselves. We need to nurture our imaginary lives not only for our sakes but for theirs.

Is that true? I’m not sure. But it’s advice big swathes of our culture – in Brooklyn where I live, at any rate – have already taken, and that, in many ways, I’ve taken myself. And so far, the kids seem to be all right.

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