Saturday, December 1, 2012

Sihanouk + High School Speech & Debate

I've been paying attention to politics since the late 1970s when I enrolled in high school debate.  Here's a tale from that time written in an October email to a college friend.  I am thanking him for the PDF of two chapters he sent me from the Jung Chang and Jon Halliday biography of Mao:

Thank you.  I've printed out and will read this week.

Interesting that you should send me since, with the death of Norodom Sihanouk last week, I started thinking about the Khmer Rouge again and the
idea that if one could understand the power politics of Cambodia of the
1970s and early 1980s one could understand a lot about how the U.S. sought
to reformulate itself after abandoning Vietnam in 1975 (part of which was
championing the Khmer Rouge government in the U.N. following Vietnam's
invasion of Cambodia in late '78).

In high school I debated.  In addition to debating you could also do
individual speech events.  Before going on in my junior and senior years 
to the more prestigious and stressful "Extemp" (Extemporaneous Speech --
you'd get a half hour to prepare a seven minute speech on a specified
current event topic) and Impromptu (for the truly gnarly -- you'd enter
the room and select one of three current topics presented to you and
immediately deliver I think it was a five-minute speech; it could've been
six), I did, my sophomore year, a "radio" speech (you'd just sit at a desk
and read your speech like you were a radio announcer) devoted to Pol Pot,
Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge.

I didn't even write it.  I think I got the speech from a guy on the team
who had written it mostly by cribbing one Newsweek article and I think he
had done it once but then wanted to do another event so the debate coach,
I think, asked me to do it on short notice (probably because he had
already registered the slot at the upcoming tournament and didn't want to
eat the entry fee).  I ended up getting a trophy for the speech at that
tournament, something like third or fourth place.  This would've been the
fall of 1979.  So I ended up doing it into the new year and having some
more success with it.  Not because I was a great radio speaker or the
speech was hot shit but because Pol Pot, I think, had captured the public
imagination at that point.  There is always a fascination with slaughter.

I flamed out spectacularly in the spring of '80 at the University of
Oregon tournament, the final big competition of the year before the State
and National qualifying tournaments.  At the debate coach's insistence I
expanded the radio speech on Pol Pot into an eight-minute oratory, which
is a memorized rather than read speech where you take a strong stance on
your topic.

In the first round I got up in the room before the judge and all my
competitors, one of whom was a good guy, a guy from Medford for whom I had
a lot of respect and who I had played soccer against, and I got about a
minute into the speech and I totally froze.  I couldn't remember a thing.
After a little bit of struggle I said, "I can't do this."  And I walked
out of the room.

This is known derisively and ominously in high school debate circles as a
"walk out," the ultimate in failure.  I think I told some of my buddies on
the team, but I didn't until later in the tournament -- I think he had
already heard from the oratory judge in that round -- tell the debate
coach.  He was not pleased.

But what still burns, what I can still see and feel clearly, is the look
on the guy's face who I played soccer against.  I looked at him when I
said "I can't do this."  And he looked back at me -- because he was a good
guy, a star, and he was being empathetic, you know -- and he was confused,
panicked and ashamed.

Anyhow, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1978 were a hyperreal
version of Mao's cultural revolution, no?

Your buddy,

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