[eDebate] My Prayer for Dr. James Unger
Tue Apr 8 13:03:29 CDT 2008
Just wanted to take a second to ask you to Bless and look over a man that met a lot to my understanding of the world, as well as my career. While I never had more than a couple of seconds of conversation with Dr. Unger, as we never hung in the same circles, the impact that he had on my life, not different from many others who have spoken out on the list, was substantial and relevant. I think however, that if I try to find a big picture understanding of the meaning of his life, as it relates to a series of experiences that I've had, perhaps he can can assist leading me in directions that progressively move forward his legacy in ways that work for those that come after me.
Dr. Unger was the Director of Debate at Georgetown in the summer of 1978 when I as a young, rising sophomore at his first debate camp, walking down the stairs where the Exorcist was filmed, and failling in love with these French pastries, called crepes, at a little bakery just off the Hoya campus. There I was judged by a young superstar national college debater named Steve Mancuso, who still says that he doesn't remember, although I'm sure there were few 275 pound Afro-wearing, pimpish looking African American debaters on the high school or college circuit at the time. That just shows you how color-blind this incredibly thoughtful debate dude was :-) . Years later, after I took a job coaching policy debate at Louisville, that same Mancuso guy was the only debate coach to give me a shot at one of the major debate camps, and he made more than a sincere effort to incorporate issues of diversity into the curriculum at Michigan, encouraged me to use my newfound racial conscious as part of the argument foundation and curriculum, and spent many a night arguing, dialoguing and trying to understand my black nationalist and radical leanings, all the while taking my camp salary back from me in penny games of poker. God, please let Dr. Unger know, that Steve Mancuso is an honored and storied and important part of your legacy.
It was also at that debate camp, for the first time I began to understand why a pure policy debate framework failed to address concerns related to race. Once I learned that nothing prevented me from writing policy arguments like affirmative cases, counterplans, and disadvantages about the plight of black folks, I like Malcolm, was "gone on debatin' " in ways that I was never taught, nor understood when at the Georgetown Institute. Even though the critique was being discussed, I was a policy guy through and through, and now that I had the racial political consciousness to go along with my debate training, I was ready to make debate achieve a dual purpose: the benefits I already believed policy debate had to offer, but with the added benefit of using debate as a platform similar to Malcolm's use of debate, who I was just learning about thanks solely to another important historical debate figure, Dr. Robert Branham and his article on Malcolm's debate career.
But it was also during my time at Michigan where I learned "why" I was never taught these connections: the painful and harsh reality that the predominately white debate community hadn't, didn't, and likely wouldn't treat my issues and argues the same. Was this a product of intentional racism: of course not, it was a product of an institution called the NDT and later CEDA, having a value system that kept its members from seeing the contradictions created by that system.
Let me explain: no one cared that I debated about race, but they did care how that was accomplished in ways that met the standards laid out by the game. The policy game privileged big impacts over little ones, so your race argument needed more than just "racism", as that couldn't stand up competitively against a good nuclear war. So I went searching for "my nuke war", and thanks to Dr. Clarence Munford, and his discussion of how racial inequities in the world were moving us towards a North-South nuclear conflict unless we stopped resource inequities based on racial inequities, where the white North raped the South countries of color of it's resources, eventually this would spiral into nuclear war. He discussed all of this in the framework of white supremacy. I thought his arguments spoke to me, made logical sense, and were as good, if not better than most impacts the game had presented me through terrorism, economic downturns, and risks of accidental nuclear war or first strikes. I was pleased.
So to say I was more than surprised to see the reaction of my institute staff colleagues as they came up with an assortment of reasons why the impacts weren't good. "Munford's framework of white supremacy is ridiculous", "the impact scenario isn't realistic", and the author lacks "any policy credibility" were just a few of the concerns expressed. I was taken aback and truthfully very hurt and confused: not necessarily because the criticisms didn't have some merit, but rather, because those doing the criticizing had to look at these impacts in some sort of vacuum, separating them from the weak, ridiculous, and real world laugh-ability that followed the construction of EVERY debate impact. Even if the accidental nuclear war scenario was more probable than Munford's, the decision to link it to Clinton's political capital on environmental issues couldn't pass the smell test for any real world policy maker. The loss of that broader big picture honest truth about policy debate uniquely when it came to big race impacts became a strategic problem that I couldn't rationally understand. Because of this, for me, it became one of the first products of institutional racism. But perhaps this revelation was left for me to pursue the changes needed, to be the agent for the change. Perhaps one day, those folks that I respected that made me feel so devalued, would later see the contradictions that I saw in their challenges. Maybe I too, could one day be a constructive and progressive part of Dr. Unger's legacy God. Maybe...
I had learned that policy debate operated just like democratic society, privileging majority interests over minority concerns. You see, this universal theory works better in homogenous societies but breaks down the more multicultural a society becomes. So the Georgetown debate camp didn't teach me to debate race, because as the game was conceived at the time, race could never be "strategic" enough. And now, years later, even though I thought I figured out a way to make race comparable, place it on the same playing field as other impacts, I was finding out that the community was willing to make unique sets of arguments to reduce and minimize the strategic value of the bigger impacts, in ways that ignored that these same reasons were equally true of the construction of all policy debate impacts in the game, just generally ignored because it made for a better game. In spite of all that, my teams persevered, getting pretty good at defending race arguments, but always concerned with the community skepticism, I could never get my white debaters fully comfortable debating my race arguments. And as such, they never fully committed to debating race, although the tools existed to do just that. Debates that usually started about race, ended about other things.
I found solace in my disillusion by turning those early supporters of the critique. shannahan and Texas figured out much earlier what I began to realize, that the game's emphasis on universal and majority impacts gutted any ability to discuss minority viewpoints. The critique was an attempt to solve that. But it was never truly accepted into the game as a true alternative to the problems with impact assessment by the policy folks. Sure, eventually many tolerated it as an "okay" substitute because no one had any better way to access the issues that the k could get to. For me, the decision to stop letting students find strategic ways to run from race debates. But I decided that just having a race k being read by a group of white debaters was an insufficient solution. I decided that slowing the debates down, making race the sole point of clash on a topic, and finding students comfortable with making debates about race was the logical extension of writing a kritik. Corny perhaps, but I made a decision to be the kritik.
So I found a group of debaters, comfortable with debating race alone, and untrained in speed, which lead to complexity and diversion away from arguments. The goal: to stop all diversions from debates about persuasive, compelling well-evidenced debates about race. And everything would have worked brilliantly, except for one thing.
I underestimated the NDT/CEDA debate community. I underestimated their discomfort with seriously talking about race. I underestimated their ability to talk about race in ways much different from societal conversations about race. But most of all, I underestimated their competitive nature, and their unwillingness to be put in a "losing" situation. So we went from having topic debates in front of who we perceived to be the best judges in the country, to preferring the best "critical/performance" judges in the country, slowing becoming part of a larger anti-establishment movement interested in challenging the norms and conventions of debate that stifle many important educational outcomes, some previously discussed.
That choice was a net loss: to my personal goals in debate; to my students; and to the larger debate community. During that choice, I/we became closer to many wonderful people: bill shannahan; toni nielson; jon sharp; the list goes on; but I/we also grew further from another great group of people: ross smith; scott harris; george ziegelmueller; karla leeper. And God, that choice was unintended. I wonder if Dr. Unger ever had regrets from the choices he ever made regarding debate conventions, I wonder.
My prayer God, is that Dr. Unger has left a legacy of folks still on this earth, like those who write tributes to him, and those who staunchly defend their worldview of what debate should be, will all come together and consider thinking about some fundamental questions. Like how can competitive debate become an activity that more strategically and fairly represents minority interests? Should debate strategically privilege the biggest most universal impacts over the concerns that are most pressing for minorities? Where the conventions that Dr. Unger created more useful in a homogenous debate community that require some reconsideration in a more diverse society? God, I wonder would Dr. Unger see that as friendly to his legacy or antagonistic?
Your story inspires me Dr. Unger as you made decisions to challenge the system you were a part of, to make it better at the time for those participating. In the same way, I hope my story inspires others to consider that what debate should look like is never stagnant, but grounded in meeting the needs of its participants and finding it's purpose. Isn't that why debate theory is always evolving? Are these considerations any different? The cries in debate that transcend ideology say that currently policy debate isn't meeting those needs nor are the challenges to it. But my prayer is that one day, this community of basically fundamentally good people wlll find some common interest, some common ground, some common purpose, to work towards a better debate community that addresses the real needs of all of its real participants.
I believe it is a question of compassion and ethics. People must decide to once again care about one another, starting with the recognition that everyone who decides to participate in NDT/CEDA debate makes comparable, albeit different sacrifices to debate. Some sacrifice time to research, some sacrifice respect, others sacrifice identity. At the end of the day, if we take the ethical step to care about each other, we then can move to finding ethical ways to engage one another in topical policy debate. My prayer is that consideration for such change is not long coming. May you rest in peace Dr. Unger. Thanks for your commitment to our activity, it is appreciated.
In the Lord's name I pray,
Ede Warner, Jr.
Director of Debate Society/Associate Professor of Communication
University of Louisville
308E Strickler Hall
ewarner at louisville.edu
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