Junior Jeffrey Parker, a history major from Winston-Salem, N.C., is spending the spring semester in Oxford, England, after also spending the fall term there. Twice a month, he will share his experiences and observations from England as one of GW’s many expats. God save the Queen.
Alan Keyes doesn’t care about black people either. Of course, I already knew that. You probably already knew that, too. Now, thanks to the black neoconservative’s appearance at the Oxford Union, so does a good portion of the Oxford University student body. God knows that you, as a GW student, get enough politics, so I won’t bore you with a polemic. Also, I didn’t actually go to that debate, which sort of presents a problem as far as writing about it seriously. Unfortunately, the timing of Mr. Keyes’ glorious display of his oratorical skills came on the same date as a Regina Spektor concert, throwing me into full-throttle, existential crisis mode. Actually, that’s a lie. I thought about it for roughly 14 seconds, and in the end, the side of me that loves beat the side of me that loves to make fun of people, and I went to the concert.
What actually occurred at the event is of little consequence for my purposes. Actually, the rest of this column might warm the hearts of all those God-fearing, apple-pie-eating patriots, because I’ve frankly come to bemoan irrational anti-Americanism at the Oxford Union, perhaps the most prestigious debate society in the world. Say what you will about my beef with Mr. Keyes, but it’s not irrational; it comes out of reason and experience, something that’s been missing at recent Union debates that have been reduced to rhetorical exercises for aspiring reactionaries.
Such a position is far from the well-deserved loftiness of the organization’s position in the public and academic imagination. Famously deemed “the last bastion of free speech in the Western world” by former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, the Oxford Union is a hotbed for elevated discourse on a range of issues. The Union both produces eminent figures out of its own ranks and draws in the brightest stars of myriad fields to debate, speechify and otherwise wax eloquent to the not-so-unwashed masses at Oxford.
For the most part, the Union has lived up to its ideals. Attending the weekly debates has been one of the most rewarding parts about being at Oxford, and the speakers (both invited guests and students) have been riveting and pretty reasonable on both sides. This is not to say that I don’t disagree with some of them – you’d have to be an automaton not to form some opinions, and I know I’m not a robot from the way my flesh crawled when a lord defended the British gassing of the Kurds in the early 20th century. As reprehensible as this idea was, it was at least proposed within the context of a serious discussion (in this case, in proposition of the motion “This House believes we got it right in Iraq”).
Such is not the case when America comes into play. During the Iraq debate, people might have disagreed on most points, but they all came together in support of mocking America, for reasons appropriate (starting the war) and inappropriate (having a president who talks funny) to such a forum. Sides are bitterly divided at the Union, but they can all share a laugh when America is mentioned.
The debate at which Mr. Keyes spoke struck me as an opportunity to extend this laugh for a good three hours. Never mind the fact that they invited Mr. Keyes; the entire premise of the debate was patently ridiculous. The discussion topic was whether Hurricane Katrina effectively destroyed the myth of racial equality in the United States. First, I’d like to know who exactly bought this myth of racial equality in America to begin with. I know there’s racial inequality, or more accurately, class inequality, in America. I know that it’s perpetuated by structural elements in our society, most notably a public school system funded by property taxes. And you know what? I didn’t need Kanye West to tell me anything to be able to see exactly how dire the situation is in America, and I’m not entirely sure the Oxford Union could help enlighten me further.
Coming to England, I was somewhat prepared for this onslaught. When I requested advice before leaving, one friend suggested that I tell people that I’m Canadian. Now, I’m under no illusions regarding the severity of my situation here. I’m not in any danger of being killed over my nationality, and God knows that the anti-Americanism is softer in a land where the head of state has been eager to please our presidents, regardless of party. That said, it’s disappointing to see what amounts to thoughtless jingoism coming from an institution as revered as the Union. I do not mean to suggest that I particularly support the actions of America in every area, but I ask for reason in place of meaningless jibes directed at a nation it seems few of them know much about.
Actually, I liken my experience as an American at the Union to my experience as a Southerner at GW. There are a lot of things I abhor about the South, and I make those criticisms to anyone who cares to listen. However, hearing some New Jersey denizen who had never been south of Trenton before college make tired redneck jokes unworthy even of Jeff Foxworthy makes me cringe. When I’m in the South, I find myself having to tell my friends that have never gone north of Fayetteville, N.C., that the South has a lot of problems, that there’s a reason I got out. Once I get out, though, something kicks in. It’s not pride, necessarily. No, it’s more a function of frustration at constant misrepresentation. I’m a much better Southerner away from the South than I am when I’m there.
And so it is in England. If you talk to me (or read me), you’ll get a pretty constant stream of bile and cynicism regarding the current state of American culture, from the trash on the radio to the trash in the White House. When people start talking about it here, though, I bristle far more than I ever would at home, and I think this says more about the state of the Oxford Union than it does about the state of the American one, and more about my own defensiveness than either of those.