Why Parli Now, More Than Ever, Needs the Kritik
BY ARMAND DOMALEWSKI
A friend called me last night, asking what I’d been up to, how I’d been filling my days.
“I…have no idea.”
I honestly couldn’t remember. I had memories, sure, but they weren’t really mine. I’ve been sleepwalking through life, glancing from the dull glow of spreadsheets to the dark turmoil of Twitter. I know, I know, that phrase sounds so absurd and silly and so goddam Millennial, but…f*ck, man, what else do you call an unrelenting barrage of human viciousness, blasted at your brain at the rate of 140 characters a second? The cracks of my brain are flooded with the vomit green fumes of tear gas, twisting and winding its way throughout the mesh of my mind. The neurons are patrolled by snipers clad in camouflage as inappropriate for the grey of my brain as it is for the ashy streets of a small southern town, and the neural pathways are ground underfoot by the thick black soles of boys dressed for war.
I can feel the dull thud of rubber bullets slam into the barriers of my skull; I can hear the screams of the people who dared think, for a moment, that they deserved to be treated like human beings, not “f*cking animals,”; I can see the cold, still body of a boy, left to rot in the street for the crime of being young and stupid and black.
Let’s focus on that for a moment. Put aside the bigger issues of structural racism, brutality, police militarization. Just think about Mike Brown’s body, left lying in that hot, hot Missourah sun, for four hours. Think about the cop who blasted apart this young man---and I say blasted, because what else do you say when you aim eleven rounds at a child---and leapt into his car, thinking so little of this life he’d ended that he afforded him less dignity than we did the body of Osama Bin Laden. Think about the flies that buzzed around his black skin, the stench of his rotting corpse; think about how someone’s little boy had been reduced to an animal carcass, rotting in the street like the piece of meat that the unrelenting machinery of white supremacy had worked so hard to reduce him to.
Think about that, and ask yourself, how could this happen, in America?
Look, if you haven’t noticed by now, if you are unconvinced that America has a problem with race, if you think Mike Brown deserved to be executed for the crime of stealing a few cigars, if you, like Bill O’Reilly, simply don’t believe in white privilege, this essay probably isn’t for you. (Though you ought to read this.)
But if your bigger concern is, Armand, what exactly does this have to do with Parli and did you break into Artems’ parents secret Russian vodka stores again, then, let me explain.
Parliamary debate is primarily focused on debating discrete problems and discrete solutions. Sometimes those problems come in policy form (“The economy sure sucks, fellas!”) and are answered with policy prescriptions (“We better pump up that stimulus taxes, boys!”). Sometimes those problems are broader questions of value (“I’m afraid of those terrorists, Jim, but I sure don’t want that gub’mint lookin’ into my secret fun time files!”) and we debate how to solve those dilemmas. Sometimes, when the Gods of Topic Writing are particularly cruel, those problems are in the past (“Jenna, I’m not sure what to think of [insert shamelessly ripped off Extemp topic here.] Was it, on balance, good or bad?”) and we debate whether they’re solved or not (“Yes, after twenty minutes of research on a laggy wifi connection, I can definitively state this complex sociopolitical phenomenon which armies of professors spend their whole lives studying is ‘bad.’”) But all forms of parli ultimately center around a specific technocratic mode of thought in which the world’s problems can be solved by getting a bunch of smart people in a room, arming them with research and data, and having them hash it out over a vigorous discussion. Now, don’t get me wrong---I love this game. I read Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias, I gobble up policy briefings on renewable energy tax credits, credit derivative swap regulation, and superfund cleanup policy, and I have long, nuanced, nerdy arguments about the finer details of zoning law, convinced that this is what the ladies want to hear in San Francisco’s trendiest hipster bars.
But as much as I love the game of technocratic policy style debate, I have to admit that, at its core, it is deeply dishonest. High school debate left me with a deeply distorted vision of American political discourse, where experts on both sides clashed on the details of policy, and the deep divides of American politics reflected these deep divides in the halls of academia.
They don’t. It’s all bullsh*t. I’m sorry you had to learn this way, but it’s true.
If ask the experts who spend their lives studying the biggest political issues in America, they are in almost unanimous agreement about the major challenges we face. 97 percent of climate scientists believe in climate change. An overwhelming majority of economists believe Obama’s stimulus was a good idea. It is hard to find a civil engineer in America who isn’t terrified of the state of our infrastructure. And yet we continue to debate these questions as if they haven’t already been answered, and convince ourselves that training another generation of students capable of digesting the right data and making the right arguments can somehow be enough to change the world.
They need more.
They need the K.
The K, for those who are unfamiliar, is slang for “Kritik,” which is a type of argument that originated in policy debate and has spread, in many forms, through multiple types of debate. The K comes in many shapes and forms, but its basic premise is fairly consistent: we must critique the basic assumptions that underlie our rhetoric and advocacy. The policy debater argues whether we should send more troops to
Iraq to fight terrorists; the K debater argues that this isn’t the relevant question, since the outcome of this round is unlikely to shape the decisions of actual policymakers. Instead, she contends, we should interrogate the use of the word “terrorist,” and the way this language labels whole classes of people as unworthy of due process, how it creates an amorphous monster that somehow amalgamates groups that despise each other like ISIS and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and most importantly, how it affects the thought process and actions of the people in the debate round.
There are a lot of common complaints about the K.
“They’re not talking about the topic,” folks complain.
“Just because they aren’t talking about the topic in a way that is socially prescribed does not mean they are not talking about the topic. Or perhaps the topic is awful: who exactly benefits from discussing the sale of girl scout cookies?”
“You can just prepare the same K over and over,” they comment.
“If you’re losing to the same K over and over perhaps that is your fault. And somehow I doubt your recycled heg and econ DAs are fresh as roses every single time, either,” I point out.
“It’s just…crazy…and weird,” is usually where the discussion ends up.
“EXACTLY,” I shout, excited we have finally gotten to the goddam point of it all.
Debate is no longer solely a space for nice blonde white boys in snazzy blazers to safely recycle talking points from the mainstream discourse and get a firm handshake from the Dean. Debate is much more than that. Leftist debaters respond to your plan to gently raise the minimum wage with a call to rethink the economic relationships that make “should we try not to let people starve on the streets” a controversial question. Libertarian debaters respond to your plan to intervene in Sudan by asking you why the United States is obligated to fight every evil, and challenges you to consider if it is not sometimes the cause. Anarchist debaters respond to your plan to cut corporate taxes to boost the economy by asking why we need an economy at all.
Neoreactionary debaters respond to your plan to support elections and reduce otherization by asking why you think such a thing is possible, if perhaps we aren’t better off with tribes locked in a perpetual cold war.
Many of these ideas are stupid. Many of them are wrong.
But they are still important.
They expand the discourse beyond Democrat and Republican. They force you to confront more than just the facts of an individual policy, but instead to examine the history and social context that shaped it.
They open up new lines of flight in the same way new thinkers always have, by disrupting the polite conversation of the elite and challenging the assumptions of the powerful.
But this isn’t what debate is for, many of you would reply.
What is debate for, then?
Many of you will say that debate is to train future policymakers. I don’t think is wrong, exactly---I hope to be one someday! But let’s be honest---how many debaters actually become future policymakers? And should we really be orienting our entire activity around the small percentage of debaters that do end up sitting at mahogany tables and signing important documents?
Our activity is still young. Perhaps we shall see an overwhelming wave of ex-Parli debaters flooding elected office. Perhaps Nadia Cochinwala will be President, Basil Abushama her First Dude, and Rohan Bhargava and Sameer Ziaee will lead the opposition.
I hope this is true.
But it is unlikely.
If other forms of debate are any guide, most of them will be lawyers, doctors, and businesspeople. I am more concerned that my lawyer understand the deeply embedded racism in the justice system than that she know how monetary policy works. I am more concerned that my doctor is cognizant of the history of horrifying medical experimentation in black communities than I am than that she knows the optimal financing mechanism for solar energy. I am more concerned that a businessperson is aware of the massive gender biases in the professional world than I am that she is intimately familiar with US-Russian relations.
I am not saying some issues are not important; I am just saying that for too long we have prioritized one set of issues over another, and it is long past time that we rebalance.
We need to teach our debaters that there is not a policy solution to every problem. We need to teach our debaters that it is just as important to organize as it is to orate. We need to teach our debaters that without MLK marching on the streets of Washington there would be no LBJ signing a Civil Rights Act in its halls.
We need to teach them these names:
We need to teach them that while the specifics of these cases may be different, the root causes of their deaths are the same; we need to teach them to think not just about plans but about power, and how it shapes the way all of us interact with police, prisons, and politics.
I can’t promise that teaching the K will save the next Mike Brown.
But I can promise that it can help.
It can help make us a little more kind.
It can help make us a little less racist.
It can help us make a little difference.
I just pray it’s not a little too late.
Mr. Domalewski, a regular POI contributor and staunch advocate for better debate resolutions, competed in NPDA parli for Santa Clara University and San Diego State University. He was ranked 15th in the nation during his senior year and placed second at the Pacific Coast Championship. Mr. Domalewski coached Mountain View, Evergreen Valley, and Dougherty Valley. His debaters have won the National Parliamentary Debate Invitational, the Stanford Invitational, the Parliamentary Debate Tournament of Champions, and closed out Santa Clara Spring. Mr. Domalewski has a B.S. in Economics from Santa Clara University and is currently a tax policy research associate focusing on tax credits for alternative energy and low-income housing. Mr. Domalewski serves as a member of the POI Advisory Board.