Friday, December 24, 2010

The Power of Words: A Review of Mark Oppenheimer's 'Wisenheimer'

My only disappointment with Mark Oppenheimer’s recently published memoir, Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate, came about a third of the way through the book.

That is when Oppenheimer, who now writes about religious topics for the New York Times, reveals that the debate world he inhabited in junior high and high school was not that of policy debate – the sort familiar to the vast majority of high school debaters who compete under the auspices of the National Forensic League and the National Catholic Forensic League – but rather a more rarefied style of parliamentary debate, more familiar in Britain and Commonwealth countries and, apparently, in New England prep schools like the one Oppenheimer attended.

If one needs further proof that Oppenheimer's debate experience was different from that of debaters on the NFL circuits, one need only note the utter absence of any reference in his book to the R.E.M. song, "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)," widely rumored to be about the habit of policy debaters to "pile bodies on the podium" as they try to inundate their opponents with disadvantages.  That the song was popular during Oppenheimer's high school years, yet he fails to mention it, shows the distance he and his teammates kept between themselves and policy debaters.

This break in our parallel lives did not deter me from reading the rest of this memoir of life as a debater because, despite its idiosyncratic foundations, Wisenheimer is perhaps the most accurate literary portrayal of the debate world in a genre that is strewn with misleading examples, not the least of which are the earnest-though-off-the-mark screenplays for the 1989 Kirk Cameron vehicle Listen to Me and for the later (2005) and better film, Thumbsucker.

Perhaps I am alone among debaters (among those who competed seriously, there really is no such thing as an “ex-debater” or “former debater,” any more than there is an “ex-Marine” or “former Eagle Scout”) who scour the entertainment media for realistic representations of our lives, only to be met with disappointment at every turn. (This is what it was like to be a gay teenager watching TV in the 1970s, hoping that someone like you would show up on the screen. It didn’t happen or, if it did, it was wildly wrong.)

The closest thing in recent years to accomplish what Oppenheimer has done is, perhaps, Gary Alan Fine’s Gifted Tongues: High School Debate and Adolescent Culture, but that is a densely argued, deeply researched sociological study, with the appropriate detachment that such a book requires.

Wisenheimer, on the other hand, is a breezy, deeply personal reflection about one person’s life and the characters he encounters. It is also a story of how a preternaturally loquacious boy channels his love of language – and, more important, his compulsion to argue – into a suitable, productive direction.

That is another parallel between Oppenheimer’s life and mine. Although he was born the same year that my high school debate career was just taking off, the personalities we displayed in our early childhoods were much the same.

He explains:
From the time I learned my first words, my parents were worried. For one thing, I never stopped talking. Some children never stop moving, other children never go to sleep, but I never stopped talking. All young children go through their inquisitive stages – ‘Why is the water blue, Mommy?’ … ‘But why does it reflect the sky?’ – but mine was extreme. What my parents remember about me as a two-year-old accords perfectly with my own faint memories of that age: the unquenchable desire to say more, to be understood better, and, above all, to have conversations with adults. I found children my age maddeningly slow. I’d ask them a question, and they didn’t know what I meant, or they would take forever to answer. Grownups, by contrast, talked smoothly, without hesitation, and their conversations went on and on.
Yes, yes, yes.

Oppenheimer and I shared an early love of books and, although his parliamentary-style debate in the Connecticut Valley League differed in kind from the Oregon-style policy debate that engaged my classmates and me in the 1970s, we both shared a pre-Internet-age approach to research that required long hours in the library, pawing through card catalogs until eyes bleared and wandering the stacks looking for that perfect quotation. (I don’t recall the last time I saw a reference to the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature in any book -- or anywhere, for that matter. Oppenheimer fondly remembers using it.)

As an example of what a typically competitive high-school debater in the days before the World Wide Web would do to obtain research materials, Oppenheimer recalls preparing for a series of debates on a still-current topic, drug law reform. In this passage, he’s remembering an event in 1988 or so:
After three extemporaneous tournaments in the fall, I was excited to be able to prepare again, as I had for the Star Wars debates in junior high. I began to research drug legalization with a particularly freshman zeal. To gather information on the more relaxed drug laws of Western European countries, I embarked on a project of writing letters to various foreign embassies in Washington. I mailed my requests for information in early December… and by Christmas break I had received generously sized pamphlets describing the Dutch, Swedish, and German legal regimes regarding narcotics. When I presented my haul at the last debate team meeting before break, [the] team co-president, an earthy, hippieish senior girl named B.J. Chisholm, looked at me and said, ‘You wrote letters?’ I detected both admiration and an equal measure of annoyance, as if I were trying too hard.
He wasn’t trying too hard, however.  He was doing what had to be done to succeed.

I have written previously how it was estimated in the 1970s that, each year, a high-school debater competing on the national circuit did the equivalent amount of research to that of a master’s degree student writing a thesis. I suspect that at Marquette High in Milwaukee, where I was a fourth-string player, the top debaters were writing the equivalent of a doctoral dissertation. How else could they routinely win national championships year after year after year?

I remember that, as low on the totem pole as I was, I wrote a new affirmative case each week throughout the season my junior year, in an attempt to throw rival teams off the scent of what our best teams were doing. The topic was environmental policy, so one week my partner, sophomore John Pilarski, and I would present a case about mercury pollution. The next week we’d argue endangered species. The following week it would be nuclear energy, ad-nearly-infinitum.

The middle two-thirds of Oppenheimer’s book is a blow-by-blow account of his career as a high school debater, which included several tournaments overseas. (There’s something NFL debaters can seldom add to their lists of accomplishments; score one for the parliamentary competitors.) This is framed by a long prologue about his alienation as a child and a short epilogue about college.

Oppenheimer applied to two universities, Harvard and Yale, and – for him – chose correctly to attend Yale.  Yale’s debate team, like those of most other Ivy League schools, is firmly in the parliamentary model. The Yale Political Union is a manifestation of that.

At Harvard, had he chosen to continue to debate, he would have found himself among the fast-talking, hypothesis-testing, Kritik-embracing geeks whom he rues in comparison to his own milieu of persuasive, oratorical perorators within the parliamentary tradition.

As he puts it,
… beginning in the 1970s debaters – as they call themselves in the large national leagues – changed [the style] to something hardly recognizable as debate: in order to cram in as many different arguments as possible, policy debaters now talk superfast, pausing every few sentences for a deep breath and then starting again at top speed. What’s more, they use jargon, like DA or disad for disadvantage, that makes their debates indecipherable to the nondebater, and even to someone like me, a debater not used to their style.
If you don’t believe this characterization, check out the 2007 documentary film, Resolved.  You’ll find yourself gasping for breath just by listening to its real-life high school debaters.

And if you think Oppenheimer’s complaint is new, check out Michael McGough’s October 10, 1988, article from The New Republic, “Pull It Across Your Flow,” in which he notes that a then “current debate textbook notes that ‘accomplished intercollegiate debaters’—the role models for high school contestants—‘speak at an average rate of nearly 270 words a minute.’”

It may be a matter of taste, this divide between policy debate and the more oratorical parliamentary style, but I’m sorry, in all my years as a competitive debater, coach, and judge, I never heard any First Affirmative begin a speech with “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, honorable judge.” Honorable judge? That just strikes me as pretentious.

I don’t want to leave the reader with a misperception of how much I enjoyed Oppenheimer’s memoir.  Despite the divergences in our debate experiences, I found Wisenheimer to be a tremendously entertaining book, tender in its recollection of adolescent misery, salutary in its tribute to intellectual pursuits, encouraging in its demonstration of triumph over adversity.

Like James Magruder’s novel, Sugarless, which similarly portrays the individual speaking events side of high school forensics with uncanny accuracy, Mark Oppenheimer’s Wisenheimer is a worthy, if rare, addition to a growing literature about competitive speech.  I’m glad I chanced upon it.

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