Monday, May 01, 2017

Political winds of high school debate

The California High School Speech and Debate Association (CHSSA) held its annual state championship last April.  As a high school debate coach I've been attending state tournaments (when students qualify) for about 14 years, and I've noticed a shift in the political expression of students.  This tournament in particular was different.

California is, numerically, a blue state, but CHSSA includes many school districts in red regions: in suburbs, non-urban coastal areas, and inland.  Through the W. Bush years the political commentary from debate competitors at state tournaments, and even at local tournaments in Southern California, tended to be conservative and relatively kind to Republican presidents.  There were frequent references to the wisdom of President Ronald Reagan.  I recall little criticism of W. Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Young people's views appear to have changed over the last few years. At this year's states, I judged a round of Extemporaneous Speech, in which students have thirty minutes to prepare a five to seven minute speech on political topics that often involve foreign policy. In the round I judged the speeches on foreign policy were eye-opening. Below is a list of three topics from the round, followed by a summary of students' points.

Topic: Trump's strike on the Syrian military 

Student's points:          

The strike made no strategic sense beyond enhancing the President's image and was counterproductive by generating bad PR for the U.S.

The North Korean "crisis" 

Student's points:                  

The North has been firing missiles into the ocean for years without any crisis. Trump is manufacturing the crisis for his own political benefit.

The Mother of All Bombs (MOAB)     

Student's points:  

Trump continues Obama's policy of drone strikes in Afghanistan and the Middle East that has killed hundreds of civilians and turned people in those regions against us.  On top of this, Trump dropped the MOAB, the strategic purpose of which does not appear to extend beyond the political needs of the President.

Granted this is a small sampling of students, but they are representative of a high achieving group that is sensitive to the relative persuasiveness of various arguments.  For them, the prevailing wind is skeptical.

[Postscript, 6/24/18: I just returned from the 2018 National Speech and Debate tournament in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, where I watched the final round of Lincoln-Douglas Debate (known for its complex values-based format) in which the resolution was, "U.S. targeted assassinations via drone strikes, by killing civilians, work against U.S. interests."  The Affirmative stated that killing civilians, whether intentionally or not, promotes terrorism by making the U.S. appear callous, warlike and hypocritical, considering how Americans would feel if a foreign power killed American civilians on our soil in pursuit of its enemies.  The Negation, who lost the round, seemed uncomfortable in negation, at one point conceding, "I understand that the U.S. government may not reveal truthful information about civilian casualties it causes...."]

What makes this seeming shift in students' political views especially interesting is that high school debate is often prep school for future politicians. Many presidents and other political leaders competed in high school debate (former Secretary of State John Kerry is said to have had a formidable "kill shot").  This batch of kids, whom we call Millennials (or, since 2011, iGens) has apparently either noticed on its own or picked up from its parents the idea that, even in the case of national security, or especially in that case, the government's actions and claims should be viewed skeptically.  

Could this trend in young people be part of an overall post-partisan trend that includes adults? Listening to NPR's "Wait wait don't tell me!" on my way to the state tournament Saturday morning, I heard a harsh assessment of former President Obama's hands-off posture towards Trumpism, with a fair amount of outrage that instead of helping a troubled nation figure itself out, Obama allocated time to earn $400,000 for speaking to an investment group.  I don't recall the Clintons being reviled by NPR for the millions they squeezed from the 1%.  Is American political thought waking up?

It's an exhilarating idea, but I'm not sure that people who fear our military industrial complex as much as they fear North Korea should take much heart in this partial awakening.  Bear in mind that it won't be represented in the media.  None of the student positions detailed above has been promoted on CBS, NBC or ABC network news, the organs of our state. Quite the reverse: the North Korean crisis is presented as a real thing, requiring breathless presentation of fast breaking events; the attack on Syria, we were told, made Trump look "presidential," not crazy; the MOAB was necessary because of a North Korean threat 3,000 miles from its target.

More hopefully, in Florida, after students at Stoneman Douglas High School were traumatized by a shooter who killed 17 of their classmates, several Stoneman debate team members appeared on the national media stage and pre-empted the gun control discussion.  Unlike matters of foreign policy, which are theoretical to most people, gun control in this case is personal, and the Stoneman debate students used this to maximum effect to move the Florida legislature to enact gun control measures that no lobbying group or single politician could have done.

We need these high school debaters in office as soon as possible! 

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