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Model United Nations got pretty wacky (and ultra-competitive) when you weren’t looking

By John Teti • August 6, 2013

Over the weekend, The New York Times published an account of today’s university-level Model United Nations programs, some of which are quite different, I assume, from the Model U.N. that I completely ignored in college. Rather than seeking out faux-international harmony through reasoned debate and understanding of political nuance, in certain circles Model U.N. is now all about “winning”—and winning in a variety of fantastical non-United Nations scenarios. You’ve got kids reenacting The Wire and Prohibition-era mob wars. One student played the role of Darth Vader in full costume for a simulation of the Star Wars Empire. (I assume trade embargoes factored prominently.)

The dominating spirit of competition at these new Model U.N. conferences has made some traditionalists uncomfortable, since the real United Nations is designed to rise above the zero-sum power dynamic that an all-out focus on victory tends to foment. And the author of the Times piece, Anjli Parrin, notes that the consensus-driven Model U.N. is “still the prevailing model.” But the upstarts make for a more interesting story filled with details like these:

Each delegate tries to further his character’s agenda by forming alliances and outmaneuvering the others in the room. Batch’s goal was to preserve the imperial navy. “I thought the best way to do that was by being loyal to the empire, which was under control of a dictator,” Mr. Diaz said, “and when he got killed, to Darth Vader, who was second in line.” The tactic worked, and at the end of the weekend, he was named best delegate.

In a shiny top hat and period dress, Jocelyn Perry, a University of Pennsylvania senior, tapped her gavel to let Bugsy know his speaking time had elapsed before recognizing the gambling kingpin Meyer Lanksy. The rest of the students-cum-gangsters sneered and ridiculed one another, jostling for supremacy over America’s illicit trade. Meanwhile, in nearby meeting rooms, 1,200 students in other small “committees” recreated scenes from the Civil War, a Pakistani cabinet meeting and the cult TV series “The Wire.”

Underscoring just how extreme the competition has become, many students refer to a phenomenon known as the “golden gavel,” in which a delegate sleeps with the chairperson in the hopes of winning. Two students told me they are convinced they lost an award this way. Others I spoke with had only heard rumors — but, they added quickly, not involving regular competitors.

The “golden gavel,” good lord! The entire article is well worth a read. Given the competitive tension of the piece, my favorite detail is the kicker paragraph at the bottom of the article—“Anjli Parrin graduated in May from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.” That and the conspicuous lack of dates in the story suggest that Parrin wrote this story as a thesis project and then got it published in the Times, which is not a thing that happens very often (although it is well-deserved in this case). So congratulations, Anjli Parrin, you win journalism school!

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30 Responses to “Model United Nations got pretty wacky (and ultra-competitive) when you weren’t looking”

  1. DrFlimFlam says:

    All I can think of is Community.

    CRISIS ALERT!

    • Girard says:

      I remember being in Forensics/”Speech & Debate” in high school, and my partner and I (we were in an event called “duo interpretation” where two people reenacted scenes from plays or books, acting out all the different characters – basically an excuse for omega nerds to recite Monty Python skits and drama dorks to recite various plays) were kind of turned off by the seriousness of a lot of the competitors.

      Eventually, we started currying favor with other in-it-for-fun teams by taking parodic pot shots at the too-self-serious teams in the introductions to our piece (while the piece it self had to be adapted, you could write your own introduction to set the context for your excerpt). This nonsense was so much more well-received than any of our actual performances (even by the people we were ostensibly mocking) that we eventually just chucked our chances of winning under the bus and began writing elaborate full-length parodies (or parody medlies) of other groups’ pieces, knowing we’d be disqualified for performing original material, but riding the wave of populist adulation for our stupid silly jokes (and insular NE-Ohio Forensics League references).

  2. Aurora Boreanaz says:

    A few years back at the Tropicana in Vegas, there was a “Mob Experience” exhibit (now closed).  It had detailed history of many of the big players in the Vegas Mob Era, including Meyer Lansky.  A lot of the families and relatives donated or loaned belongings for the exhibits.  It was really fascinating.  Despite probable bias in favor of them, it really did seem like the Mafia at least ran the casinos pretty cleanly.

    (Incidentally, there was apparently a lot of Mormon funding for the casinos as well…yet another example of a religion bankrolling activities they allegedly forbade for their own membership.)

    • SamPlays says:

      “In the casino, the cardinal rule is to keep them playing and to keep them coming back. The longer they play, the more they lose, and in the end, we get it all.” 

  3. Spacemonkey Mafia says:

       The Golden Gavel sounds like a civic-minded remake of the Plum in the Golden Vase, a 17th century Chinese erotic satire.
       One of the characters dies of an overdose of aphrodisiacs, which sounds like a hell of a lot more fun than swearing allegiance to a burnt-up old Jedi to keep the navy intact.  

  4. boardgameguy says:

    According to some small, almost transparent text at the end of the article: “A version of this article appeared in print on August 4, 2013, on page ED20 of Education Life with the headline: The Dog-Eat-Dog World Of Model U.N..”

  5. His_Space_Holiness says:

    Children, children! Do you want to be like the real UN, or do you want to squabble and do nothing?

    • The_Helmaroc_King says:

      Say what you will about the Empire, but at least they had an ethos.

    • LeGrandSigh says:

      As someone who spent a semester in grad school interning full-time at a UN entity, I have some authority to say that “winning” at the real UN mostly involves doing nothing.  And drinking.  My Friday workday ended at around 3 because I was sent to buy bottles of wine for the weekly department parties. 

  6. As a person involved in entirely too many behind-the-scenes shenanigans in my high school Model Congress, I am fully in favor of all of this and look forward to the real-live government these kids grow up to lead.

    • boardgameguy says:

      Then you’ll be excited to see them leading the real-live Westeros.

    • Fluka says:

      You want the ones trying to kill Jabba the Hutt as your government leaders.  Unfortunately, you get the ones on the travel teams who think that MUN is SERIOUS BUSINESS.

  7. Electric Dragon says:

    The Moon shall join your coalition!

  8. Fluka says:

    Ugh, competitive college MUN.  I knew people in one of the “traveling teams” mentioned in the article, and it was every bit as unpleasant as it sounds.  (It’s even worse thinking that a bunch of these kids go on to be government interns…)

    High School Model UN, however, was one of my teenage obsessions, to the extent that I was co-president of my high school’s team.  While more “educational,” MUN has more in common with fantasy role-playing games than anyone would like to admit.  Like the article says, you have a character defined by your carefully researched nation or official’s political positions.  You are given a quest (a goal for the committee to accomplish), and using the gameplay rules (formal parliamentary procedure) and with the guidance of your dungeon master (chairman), a narrative emerges as you interact with your fellow players. It’s essentially school-sanctioned LARPing.  Like many such ventures, the best experiences are the types of small “special” committee (e.g., Security Council).  They often have a “MIDNIGHT CRISIS” where staffers come and knock on your door at 2 am because “There has been a crisis, and the delegates must assemble to solve it now!” (This sounds less fun now that I’m pushing 30.)

    My all-time favorite experience was being on a simulation of the Chinese Politburo as the Minister of Foreign Affairs.  The committee mostly started with local Chinese issues (you know, crushing dissidents and such), until it evolved into a national security crisis involving India.  The kicker being that the students next door were playing the Indian Cabinet, and responding to our every move.  I’m pretty sure we declared nuclear war on one another at 5 am, before our chairpeople intervened.

    • Spacemonkey Mafia says:

      I’ll trade you two Vote Of No Confidence -Double Strength Played on a Natural Gas Deposit cards for your Sub-committee Sequestration with Dual-Surprise Delegation Gem Slots card.

    • His_Space_Holiness says:

      Any Model U.N. session that doesn’t end in nuclear armageddon is a session wasted.

      • ItsTheShadsy says:

        I wonder if any dedicated group has ever successfully derailed a Model U.N. group into total chaos. Model U.N. always struck me as especially stodgy, so I wonder what would happen if someone actually attempted to, say, kidnap the staff of an embassy and declare total war?

        • Fluka says:

          Honestly, I spent every session hoping it would happen.  Our chairpeople always kept us in line, but there must be at least a *few* historical simulations of the Cuban Missile Crisis that have…gone poorly.

          I did get to be Iran on the International Women’s Committee once.  That was super-fun.

      • SamPlays says:

        Armageddon is so high school. Play with the pros and focus on perpetual escalation.

    • SamPlays says:

      As a thirtysomething, someone knocking on my door at 2am to play negotiator for hypothetical global issues would definitely lead to armageddon. Please tell me that MIDNIGHT CRISIS involves pizza, beers and someone’s Criterion Collection. It’s the only way to stop this war from happening.

  9. Carlton_Hungus says:

    Perhaps the real UN needs more of this advancement of international goals for sleeping with the chairperson . . .

    Just seems like a savvy negotiating tactic to me.

  10. Boonehams says:

    I was in M.U.N. back in high school.  It was bonkers and absolutely no one took it seriously.  Well, some did, but no one from my school.

    The only school-related activity more chaotic to me was Boys State.  The “town” I was in was full of rejects–literally.  As we went around introducing ourselves, we were asked why we were at Boys State.  We all had the same stories to tell; we were all there because 1) we were the only ones who had applied, 2) someone more qualified dropped out, or 3) we were the victims of a prank.  As one person astutely put it, in front of our advisor and the entire town, he was there “’cause some f****t signed [him] up.”

    For the rest of our time there, that became the go-to excuse we gave anyone who questioned what we did.

    • George_Liquor says:

      I did a mock trial in high school. In retrospect, I took it far more seriously than I should have.

  11. Flying_Turtle says:

    I’m only playing if I get to be the moon. Lunar hegemony!

  12. JohnnyLongtorso says:

    Ladies and gentlemen, your future members of Congress.