Thursday, 7 May 2015

The bad guys won

Well, the title is a joke.

What the bad guys won — they were sharp, smart students from Oxford Univeristy — was a debate on the future of classical music, which I heard last weekend in Anchorage, Alaska. The debaters from the Oxford Union (a venerable debating group) were Matt Handley and Carin Hunt, and they were bad guys because they took what at first seemed to the audience like an anti-classical music stand:

This House believes classical music deserves no support beyond that which the market will provide.

Alaska blog_1Boo! Hanging classical music out to dry. They were opoposed by Matthieu Ostrander and Jonathon Taylor from the Seawolf Debate Program at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. A program that, in the world of intercollegiate debate, is ranked 17th in the world. Go Alaska! That’s impressive. Otrander and Taylor opposed the Oxford proposal, saying that classical music deserves all the support it can get.

And now two clarifications. First, this was a formal debate, meaning that the debaters don’t necessarily hold the positions they took. And shouldn’t be judged by whether you agree with what they say. The winning side should be the one that debates most effectively.

Second, the proposal didn’t quite mean what it seems to, or at least not what I thought it meant. Oxford didn’t say that classical music should only be supported by the commercial marketplace. They didn’t rule out private donations. They just meant that classical music shouldn’t get government support. While the Alaska team argued that it should.

I was there because my wife was one of three “celebrity judges,” the others being Hobo Jim Varsos, a beloved Alaskan singer-songwriter, and Zuill Bailey, the cellist, who’s dug deep roots in Alaska because he runs the Sitka Summer Music Festival there. Anne and I had never been in Alaska before. Thanks to the generosity of KLEF, the Alaska classical radio station, we both could come, and bring our son. We’d go back in a heartbeat. Alaska is unforgettable. We felt the sharp breath of wilderness everywhere, even in Anchorage.

Back to the debate

The audience was clearly for classical music. We know that, first from their applause at various points (almost always on the pro-classical side), and from a vote by text-message before the debate started. The audience opposed the proposition by a wide margin.

And then, at the end, was almost evenly split! Because their votes counted, and because the judges voted for Oxford two to one, Oxford was declared the winner. Which was fascinating. Classical music skeptics prevailed with a crowd overwhelmingly in favor of classical music. They won my wife’s vote, and she’s a classical music professional. Hobo Jim sided with them, too, even though, as a local, his heart was with the Alaska team. Only Zuill gave Oxford thumbs down.

So how did that happen?

Neither side went very deep into the debate’s difficult question. Clearly, the subject was new to them. They’d prepared as well as they could, but missed many subtleties, no surprise, since they were on unfamiliar ground, and the territory — if you read through what’s available online — isn’t very well mapped. I won’t nitpick, won’t point out things they seemed to get wrong. But Anne, my wife, noted an oddity. The Oxford debaters, coming from Britain, a country where the government supports classical music extensively, opposed that support. The Alaska team, from the U.S., where government support was minimal, wanted more of it.

Which is reasonable, on both sides, and would have been interesting for both sides to note, but neither mentioned it. Instead, both sides led with general points, neither one surprising. The Oxford team made fun of classical music’s old, white audience, and the Alaska team stressed classical music’s transcendent value.

Oxford, though, was faster on its feet when its points were challenged, and came up with something interesting, which may have impressed the audience. Both sides agreed that classical music was in trouble, but where the Alaskans said this meant it needed help, the Oxford team said that cutting its support would teach it to help itself. Not a bad thought, and it could well have been one reason they won. Even people in love with classical music might agree with it. For this alone, Oxford deserves to win.

Kudos to all

Overall, both sides were impressive — lively, fun, smart, and personable. I liked them both.

And special congratulations go to two people. Steve Johnson, who runs the Seawolf Debate Program, and Rick Goodfellow, who founded and runs KLEF. Together they conceived and produced the debate, as a way of getting attention for the program, for the station, and for classical music. They certainly succeeded.

Johnson is a dynamic presence. No, understatement. To judge from his opening presentation, before the debate began, he’s an irresistible force, making it hardly a surprise that the Seawolf Debate Program has done so fabulously well. When he’s coaching his teams, or recruiting likely debaters from Alaska high schools, who could say no to him?

Though he did, I thought, load the dice a little in his introduction. He said classical music was a search for truth and beauty, which is exactly the kind of point his team made when they said classical music deserved government help. The audience warmly applauded when he said this, which to me meant he’d curved space a little bit, so that for the audience it tilted even more toward the pro-classical music side.

Rick Goodfellow (and also see the station’s home page) is another force of nature. Anne and Rafa and I spent time with him, which was a pleasure. He’s in love with music, ideas, and getting the impossible done. He wanted us in Alaska, and he brought us there, giving us plenty of time to see things. Many thanks to him, and kudos again for everything he does. We couldn’t have been happier.

Original Content: The bad guys won

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