NASHVILLE: “Bulk information overload, that’s my favorite argument in debate,” Lena Grossman tells me in between bites of pizza during a short lunch break after winning a round at the Billy Tate Southern Bell Forum, a highly competitive, invitation-only debate competition held annually in Nashville. She thinks the U.S. government vacuums up more digital data than it knows what to do with — which hinders investigations more than it helps. “The evidence is always going to be better. … It’s just unbeatable,” she says. “People are lazy in research sometimes — but the strategies against this argument just don’t exist.”
Jonah Jacobs, a dark-haired junior at Glenbrook North High School, also near Chicago, gave up football for debate after a bad concussion. He tells me he spent the entire summer researching the ways intelligence sharing with other countries benefits the U.S. economy. Jonah’s partner, Anthony Trufanov, was half of the national championship team last year. Many high school policy debaters literally gasp for air as they rush to make their arguments, but Anthony breathes between words, using an inhalation technique he learned from mastering Systema, a form of Russian martial arts. He says he’s enjoying debating about surveillance because he likes finding “nuanced solutions to complex problems.”
IF YOU’RE LOOKING for an intense, thoughtful, and detailed discussion about the U.S. government’s power to spy on its own citizens, you won’t find it in Congress. But you will find it in high school classrooms all across the country this year.
Nearly 20,000 American students participate annually in policy debate, where teams of two compete at the local and national levels.
This year, they are defending or attacking one central proposition: “Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially curtail its domestic surveillance.”
Delegates from various state associations and debate organizations choose the upcoming school year’s topics every summer. This year, Stefan Bauschard, a longtime debate coach now at Walter Panas High School in New York, proposed surveillance as the topic. He told me he was inspired by the work of Intercept co-founder Glenn Greenwald.
(Greenwald was a debater in high school. “High school debate was one of the most formative intellectual experiences of my life,” he tells me. “And it’s both bizarre and gratifying to see that debaters are now focused on a topic on which I’ve done so much reporting. Competitive debate takes place at a very high level of sophistication and knowledge – the work that is required to succeed is immense – and I have literally no doubt that the surveillance and privacy debates they’re having are vastly more informative and advanced than what one hears from the average TV news show.”)
For example, he writes, “On the op-ed pages or the cable news shows, pundits (or government officials) can make vague appeals to the number of terror plots stopped by surveillance. But in a debate, those assertions get subjected to intense scrutiny — and they quickly fall apart.”
Due to some of the oddities of high school debate, the policy debates aren’t easy to follow. The debaters share a unique and complicated language of terms and techniques, and they talk too fast for most people to understand, to fit as many arguments into their allotted time as possible.
But if you listen very carefully, you can hear a chorus of young people expressing their wariness about government surveillance, wrestling with how it impacts their own lives — and totally not buying the government’s arguments that fighting terror excuses warrantless spying on average Americans, especially of religious and racial minorities.
LENA AND FAITH, from Niles West, have amassed countless data points to support their argument that the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ and foreigners’ data — whether it be phone records, message content, or open source information, on purpose or by accident — has more disadvantages than benefits for the American people.
“Why didn’t metadata solve the Boston Marathon bombing?” Lena asks. The Tsarnaev brothers slipped through the cracks, she says, thanks to a lack of communication and FBI agents’ overwhelming workload.
“Why didn’t metadata solve the Boston Marathon bombing?”
None of this used to matter to them at all. “I had the attitude that if you don’t have anything to hide, it doesn’t matter. That changed for me,” Faith says. The more Lena learned, she tells me, the more she found the government’s power to collect information “creepy.”
Sometimes, debate being what it is, Lena and Faith have to fight on the negative side and find ways to derail their opponents’ plan to limit surveillance. Most debaters at the tournament told me that the negative side is often harder, because there are so many ways to argue against different aspects of surveillance, often on moral and technical grounds that can be challenging to counter with factual evidence.
But it doesn’t mean they won’t try — and win. In one round, Lena and Faith argue against a legal ban on the surveillance of Muslim-American communities, on the grounds that the government was going to surveil them whether it was legal or not. They win. Afterward, Faith talks about the strategy they used to fight the other team’s emotional argument against discriminatory spying. “It’s a little Donald Trump-y,” she says, shrugging. “But you gotta do what you gotta do.”
HIGH SCHOOL DEBATERS generally avoid a flat-out strategy of arguing that surveillance is necessary to prevent terrorism. In stark contrast to lawmakers and national security officials, they don’t think that argument works. “Terrorism is just not really happening,” Emily Silber, another Niles West debater, tells me during lunch, laughing.
More often, they’ll argue that ending any one specific program won’t be enough to change anything, because the government would probably find a way to get around the new restriction.
Some debaters are surveillance purists, like Lena and Faith, and think the argument should be solely about the U.S. government’s electronic collection of American communications data, exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013.
“We have a unique chance to talk about getting rid of government surveillance.”
And a third category includes more radical, “identity” debaters. They argue that debate shouldn’t focus on any specific government program, because the entire government as it currently exists is inherently racist or discriminatory. They argue that suggesting new policy or reforming current programs effectively legitimizes violence toward minorities. These debaters use poetry, personal experiences, and loud, explosive arguments to shift the conversation toward changing the government itself.
In an affirmative argument, students might propose eliminating a specific surveillance program, like shuttering the TSA’s “SPOT” program (Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques) as a first step in countering Islamophobia.
The opposing team must then argue that the affirmative team’s strategy would not work, for whatever reason — that it wouldn’t actually address the root problem, or is otherwise flawed.
AT THE ANNUAL debate competition in Nashville, 52 pairs of students from across the country meet just after New Year’s Day to compete for three days of intense debate. I almost never see anyone without a Starbucks coffee or a bottle of water — but no sweets. That’ll make your mouth sticky, which makes it harder to talk fast.
The classrooms are quiet in between rounds, other than some manic shuffling of papers, the soft click of computer keyboards, and a few whispers between teammates.
In one room, the two boys from Glenbrook North break the tension and talk to me about their strategy.
“We have a unique chance to talk about getting rid of government surveillance,” says Jonah, the former football player.
“I think it’s rather unfortunate that the government doesn’t engage in such nuanced debates over surveillance policy,” he emails me later. “From what’s publicized about the congressional debates, they seem to focus too often on the ‘yes/no’ aspect of the questions of ‘privacy vs. national security.’ … Due to the meticulousness of the research debaters have done, there doesn’t appear to be a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to either.”
“How do we curtail surveillance? By tearing shit down.”
One of the nation’s top debating duos hails from Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas — famous for its role in desegregation. DJ Williams and Payton Woods are among the relatively few black debaters at the Bell Forum.
Payton begins one debate round by launching into an eloquent speech about surveillance as a paradigm of racialized violence that directly follows the tradition of slavery and plantations. “How do we curtail surveillance? By tearing shit down,” he says.
Teams that oppose Little Rock Central have trouble coming up with specific proposals to counter DJ and Payton — which is exactly their plan. “We can inject our own understandings,” Payton insists when the opposing team tries to argue he went off-topic.
Ella Fisher and Jax Rounds, from Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, California, have come up with a unique way to argue against U.S. surveillance. When they get assigned the affirmative side, they argue that the TSA should no longer be allowed to use body scanners at airports because the technology identifies transgender bodies as “anomalies.”
Ella, a petite high school senior with short brown hair and a slightly boyish style, has a powerful emotive tenor when delivering her speeches. “The scanners actively reinforce the idea of a ‘non-normal’ body,” Ella says during her passionate opening. “That definition of a normal body is the problem. This is a form of institutional violence that spills into everyday violence.”
Before the tournament, Ella tells me that debate has helped her grow into herself. Debate is my “community of people,” she says. It’s clear from meeting her that this is true — and that she actively hopes to expand that community. She often asks me if I’m following the fast-paced debate rounds, and if I have questions.
Jerry Wang and Raam Tambe end up winning the Nashville tournament. The duo from Peninsula High School in California argues that military commanders shouldn’t be allowed to force doctors to hand over sensitive medical information about soldiers, especially about mental disorders. In 2010, the Army expanded on the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996, designed to safeguard medical information, by allowing military commanders more information, such as a log of medical appointments.
IT’S FASCINATING to listen to these high school students as they not only discuss surveillance in theory, but also relate it to their own lives. And they’re talking about it with friends, family, even strangers in the airport.
Ella’s teammate, Jax Rounds, has been debating since sixth grade. He tells me he’s changed some of his online behaviors now that he knows the scope of surveillance in the U.S. — and thinks debate has allowed him to think more independently, unlike classmates who might be “coddled” and unchallenged, he jokes.
“I bet no one even knew or cared about privacy before going to debate camp,” Lena from Niles West tells me. “But after, I knew people who were freaking out and just obsessed with that whole terror versus privacy controversy. Because of what I know, I am super careful on social media.”
But personal reactions to the topic vary.
“If anything, debate has made me more apathetic about surveillance. It loses its shock value after a while,” says Emily from Niles West.
When I ask Dan Lingel — a coach from Dallas Jesuit High School in Texas — he says social media is a big factor. “It’s amazing how little expectation of privacy they have, already they’re fully aware their stuff is being tracked. … Maybe it’s a generational thing.”
And maybe there’s something else at work, too, says Batterman, the coach from Atlanta. “I think part of this has to do with socioeconomic status of elite-level debaters (they tend, unsurprisingly, to be wealthy),” he writes in a PGP-encrypted email.
“Part of it seems cultural. Some students are terrifyingly trusting of their government. But as they became more literate in surveillance issues, I think a lot of the students became more skeptical about the value of bulk-collection programs and more reticent about the government wielding that degree of power.”
Bauschard, the debate coach who initially proposed surveillance as a topic, says, “In many ways, minorities and the poor are disproportionally exposed to it, and many students have embraced debates about these particular issues. And they have explored other ways that surveillance is present in ways that we don’t even suspect, such as in welfare laws and in the collection and reporting of Common Core test data.”
THESE DAYS, Lena and Faith are on top of every new development in the world on the path to this year’s spring tournaments — the national championships.
“It can be difficult to keep up with every new event, especially leading up to the final tournaments in the wake of Scalia’s death, the FBI-Apple battle over encryption, and so much more, but change is the nature of this activity and especially such a timely topic as surveillance,” Lena writes in an email.
A few nights before the Nashville tournament started, a Wall Street Journal article reported that the NSA, in targeting Israeli communications, swept up communications belonging to members of the U.S. Congress. Lena and Faith hastily edited their arguments to include facts from the article, and to suggest that Congress would be more likely to favor limits to spying because members would now feel like targets.
That was a good argument, but a bad prediction. Congress still has no stomach for a genuine debate about the limit of government surveillance in modern society. For that, we need to listen to the children.
At Common Cause’s “Blueprint for Democracy” conference on March 8, Edward Snowden was asked if he had a message to share with debaters this year. He said he was “encouraged and amazed” that a discussion was taking place “on such a broad level.”
Are you a high school debater who’s been developing an interesting argument about surveillance? Maybe it’s personally powerful, or unique, or unbeatable? I’d love to hear about it. Send me an email at [email protected] describing your argument — and feel free to include pictures or video.