Last fall we wrote about (among other things) our experience with the UCL Union debate. We happened to stumble upon their meeting and simply observed the proceedings. Then today, while browsing the interweb, we came across an article by Jonah Goldberg in which he details his own debate experience at the Oxford Union. Though long, it’s a great read and an excellent insight into the Oxbridge experience.
Oxford’s Preposterous Proposition
Justifying America to a doubtful audience
By Jonah Goldberg
Last week, I appeared at the Oxford Union to debate the proposition: â€œThis House regrets the founding of The United States of America.â€ Such is the extent of anti-Americanism out there that this was considered to be a reasonable debate topic by Britainâ€™s best and brightest.
It was an exhilarating and daunting experience. I do a lot of campus speaking and yet, going in, this felt like the functional equivalent of Rose Bowl. Ultimately, it turned out otherwise. But I only really realized that in retrospect.
In fact, I havenâ€™t been that nervous before a speech or debate in years. One of the things that makes the whole thing so intimidating is how unrelentingly British the entire affair is. You debate in black tie. The President of the Union, a very sharp young man who looked like a cross between Harry Potter and Elvis Costello, wore a kilt. The pre-debate cocktail party is held in the Oxford Union library â€” or one of them â€” the shelves groaning with leatherbound collections of The Economist and other journals going back more than a century. The pre-debate dinner is quite formal with toasts to the queen and ceremonial beatings of the Irish.
(I made that last part up.)
Regardless, the pomp and ceremony is authentic, not kitschy, and it comes easily to these kids who seem to be oblivious to how British they really are. The net effect of all of this is to make this American visitor feel all the more the outsider, like my cultural fly was permanently unzipped.
My colleagues in the debate were Peter Rodman, a former foreign-policy muckety-muck in the Reagan administration (and NR senior editor) and all around good guy, and Matt Frei, a convivial and charming Brit who covers the U.S. for the BBC. Plus there was one student debater on our side, an earnest and sharp young man who looked like he raced to put on his tux after arduous rehearsals for the Oxford theater troupeâ€™s edition of Godspell. Lanky and long-haired, when he first told me he was one of the debaters, I immediately assumed the hippyish fellow was the anti-American. Instead, he was on our side.
The defenders of the proposition were originally scheduled to be one student plus three invited speakers: two Islamist radicals and a bona fide Communist.
But the Communist chickened out at the last minute, reportedly explaining that he didnâ€™t want to debate because he feared his side would lose. Now, a few short points need to be made here. First, this was remarkably shabby on his part. Second, why on earth a devout Communist would shirk at the prospect of fighting for a lost cause is beyond me. I mean hasnâ€™t that ship sailed? And, lastly, the Communistâ€™s cowardice was an enormous disappointment because Peter Rodman and I had prepared to debate a Communist. We yearned to debate a Communist. I mean how often do you even get to meet an actual supporter of Stalin and Kim Jong Il? And, yet, they dangled this bloody ideological chum in front of our eyes and then cruelly yanked the bait away at the very last minute, informing us less than an hour before the debate. They replaced the Communist with a Canadian which, even I had to concede, was a very poor substitute for a Communist.
Moving on, the first speaker for the proposition, a very bright Oxford student named Charlie Holt only reinforced my fear that we were going to be outclassed. Something akin to Hugh Grantâ€™s mini-me, Holt had a very light sarcastic touch which allowed him to be biting while seeming lovable at the same time, like a barking toy robot puppy. As I commented from the floor â€” in an effort to defang him â€” he was just an adorable â€œlittle fellowâ€¦I wonder where you put the batteries in.â€
The Islamists were more interesting. The first to speak, was the head of the now moribund British Islamic Party, David Pidcock. He turned out to be something of a quintessential leftwing loon. He began by talking about how George W. Bushâ€™s grandfather was a primary financial backer of Hitlerâ€™s rise to power. He also explained how great the U.S. Constitution is and how much he has advocated it as a model for the Muslim world. But then he explained that he was saddened by the fact that the U.S. Constitution had been suspended. I expected this to be a lead-in for his denunciations of Guantanamo and the Patriot Act. Instead, it was the prologue to a long explanation of how the plutocrats in America had conspired to create the Federal Reserve which has ruled America from behind the scenes ever since. Or at least I think thatâ€™s what he was saying. As I commented, I fully expected him to start ranting about how the Fed is sapping our precious bodily fluids.
Jamal Harwood, the other Islamist and head of Hizb ut-Tahrir (read about this â€œpeacefulâ€ group here and here) was a much more serious and philosophically consistent fellow but, also, not a particularly impressive speaker either. Going in, I had assumed that the Islamists would be at minimum good talkers because demagogues always are. Instead, both men were oratorical mediocrities. They were outclassed in every way by the students on their side. Iâ€™m going to try to write up a more substantial analysis of what the Islamists represented for the magazine. But, the gist of Harwoodâ€™s indictment of America was that America represents modernity and individualism, and these things are bad. If you believe that modernity and individualism are bad, thatâ€™s a perfectly legitimate argument. But, to say America is too modern is not really the sort of argument cosmopolitan lefties at Oxford want to hear.
For example, Harwood went on and on about how America is selfish and crime-ridden. When I rose on a point of information to ask if he was aware that Americans are in fact vastly more charitable than Europeans and that crime rates in America compare very favorably with those in much of Europe, he said he didnâ€™t care because he was hardly there to defend Europe. It was an honest and consistent answer, but not very helpful to his cause.
Anyway, we won the day by a margin of 2-1. The Islamists brought some Muslim supporters with them, the source of pretty much the only applause they received. In one sense this was a big victory. In another it was pretty depressing. The proposition, after all, was essentially that America should never have been born. If the question hadnâ€™t been so extreme, it is entirely likely we would have lost, big (see for example Rich Lowryâ€™s narrow defeat last year). Imagine if Britain had an election and a leftwing-Islamist party gained a third of the national vote. People would be flipping out.
What follows are my prepared remarks for the evening. They only imperfectly jibe with remarks as given, as I tried to stay away from the text and speak off the cuff as much as possible (which is why these comments are written the way I wanted to say them). Our own Iain Murray, an Oxford Union veteran, advised me to highlight the common British and American heritage, which was typically wise advice. Moreover, Rodman and I figured that since he went last he could deal more effectively with the various points raised by the bad guys. I salvaged as much of the Communist bashing as possible, but I ultimately ad-libbed a bunch of Canadian stuff as well. As I was the second speaker against the proposition, my strategy was to go on the attack, both against the proposition itself and against my opponents. This was the advice from everyone I talked to. The Union audience respects aggression, humor, and more aggression. In fact, the design and energy of the room is such that when I concluded my remarks, I felt like I should throw my sword at the upper decks like Maximus in Gladiator, shouting â€œAre you not entertained?!â€
In short, I had a grand time, and now that I know how it works, I would love to do it again. So without further ado, hereâ€™s my plan of attack as I entered the arena:
Though, I must say that the proposition tonight saddens me.
Until recently, it never would have dawned on me that good, decent, and wise Britons, proud of their heritage, proud of their culture, honored to call themselves sons and daughters of this great nation and co-authors of its future achievements, would lament the birth of a sister democracy and comrade-in-arms â€” particularly when that democracy stands upon the shoulders of British giants.
There is no denying the question before this house is shameful.
No decent mother questions whether her daughter should ever have been born lest she already has an answer in mind.
And whatever regrettable commentary it may be on the child, the mere posing of the question is even more pitiable comment upon the mother.
Unless. Unless, of course this is all a grand joke in the great satirical tradition of Monty Python, Simon Pegg and the farcical oxymoron that is David Cameronâ€™s â€œconservatism.â€
There is hopeful evidence on this front.
When I learned that tonightâ€™s proposition would have as its champions two passionate defenders of sharia law and the hijab plus one spokesman for the Communist party, it dawned on me: â€œAha, this is all a joke.â€
This house regrets the birth of America as much as Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail had naught but a â€œflesh wound.â€
I donâ€™t know how it is in Britain, but in America, Communists are nearly extinct. A few aging relics do linger on â€” like Japanese soldiers refusing to surrender long after the war. They live in an archipelago of academic backwaters, their bunkers brimming with yellowing copies of The Daily Worker and the Guardian, saturated with the strong stink of despair mixed with the suggestion of old urine.
Communists are more commonly seen as comic-book villains or mythical creatures rumored to have once existed in fairy tales or, perhaps, James Bond movies.
A Communist!? My goodness, were Dr. Doom, Lex Luthor, and Ernst Blowfeld unavailable?
Did the most sagacious pundits of the Klingon Empire not return the Oxford Unionâ€™s phone calls?
Do the Oompah Loompahs refuse to fly coach?
Iâ€™m sorry, but my honorable opponentâ€™s party stands â€” as a matter of principle! â€” in lockstep solidarity with the murderocracy of Kim Jong Ilâ€™s North Korea. He stands as the living exponent of the criminal tradition of Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Tse Tung, and he dares damn the United States of America from the safety of historyâ€™s dustbin. Please.
Surely, this evening was intended as a gag.
Where is the hidden camera? When will my opponents tear off their masks and laugh at the put on, joining us at the pub for beer and cigars giggling at the whole thing? As they say on MTV, Am I being punked?
And then there are my other â€œhonorableâ€ opponents: The gentlemen representing the â€œmoderateâ€ face of political Islam.
The Islamic Party of Britain holds that open homosexuals may receive the death sentence. Hizb ut-Tahrir openly desires a world â€” not merely a United Kingdom â€” where rejection of Islam by its adherents would bring a death sentence, and where Jews and Christians must live in official ghettos.
Both represent theocratic visions that make President Bushâ€™s supposed â€œtheo-conservatismâ€ seem like a lapsed Unitarianâ€™s weekend hobby.
Indeed, despite some vein-popping hysteria here and in Europe, the fact is that America is no theocracy, and it mixes religion and government less you folks in Britain and Europe do.
However, on the off chance that there are some in the room who do not get the joke, or â€” worse â€” that someone here isnâ€™t kidding, let me make a few brief points.
First, there is no objection my honorable opponents could make to the existence of America that could not be made about the existence of Great Britain herself.
At least two of these men reject the Enlightenment. And Iâ€™m not talking about the French one. But the good one from Scotland. (When it comes to Enlightenments, as Michael Meyers says in So I Married an Ax Murderer â€” â€œif itâ€™s not Scottish, itâ€™s crap.â€)
And all three of my opponents stand against the kind of Liberalism the United States, the United Kingdom, and this very Union represent.
The United States is not flawless, to be sure, but we are the fruit of freedom, the flawed champions of liberty and defenders of decency.
And, if you are honest with yourselves, you know â€” KNOW! â€” that should any of my opponents succeed in having their perfect world realized, those of you who did not stay in Britain to fight such oppression would count yourselves lucky to find asylum in the United States of America.
And, you know full well, that the United States of America would gladly offer it.
Second, whatever causes some of you to roll your eyes or titter at these statements must either be of very recent vintage indeed or, again, you must stand athwart Britainâ€™s own history yelling, â€œStop.â€
And, if the case is the former, then your vote against America will be a badge of honor, for I want the support of no man who counts the United Kingdom as a villain.
But, if your position is the latter, if you were a fan, friend, or ally of the United States, until George W. Bush was elected â€” or until he allegedly seduced your own prime minister with some sort of Jedi Mind Trick into going into Iraq or some other recently minted grievance, let me say this: How childish of you.
To reject a former colony or ally for most of the last 400 years only to say that it was all for nothing because of a war you honorably enlisted in yourselves? For shame.
If in 2001 you would have voted against this proposition but today you want to vote for it, if you honestly think the last six-plus years erase all that was good about and of America for the previous four centuries, then you are either suffering from what we in the United States call Bush Derangement Syndrome or your friendship was never worth anything to begin with.
The proposition is not that the Bush presidency, the war, slavery, or even disco should be regretted. It is that the United States of America should be.
And that proposition would reap the scorn of Edmund Burke, William Gladstone, Winston Churchill, and countless others.
Please, my friends, let us be grownups. This is not Cambridge.
Lastly, let me just note that if the ugly fantasy at the heart of the proposition were somehow made real and America had never been born, then a lot more than democracy and freedom would suffer. America is the engine of global prosperity â€” a job we inherited from Britain.
From penicillin to the iPod, the artificial heart to rising crust pizza, jazz and the Simpsons to the Marshall Plan, America â€” through its ingenuity, openness, generosity, and adherence to the liberal principles it inherited from this great land â€” has championed the relief of manâ€™s estate (in the words of Francis Bacon) and the liberty to let your freak flag fly (in the words of David Crosby).
Yes, anti-Americanism fashions itself a form of anti-globalization. But this is most often a ruse. Do keep in mind that my opponents represent a truly tyrannical form of globalization. Whether itâ€™s â€œWorkers of the World Uniteâ€ or the World Caliphate, the choice they are presenting is globalization for losers, while America, to the extent it represents globalization at all, offers the globalization of liberty.
The mere fact that you had to select three men from outside this heritage to defend the proposition, is proof enough that it is indefensible from within it. For, again, if you want to lament the birth of America, you must lament all that has been born of America.
And if you are prepared to do that, you are prepared to regret all that was born of Britain as well.
To which I say again: Surely you must be joking.
Mr. Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online.
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