THE OXFORD UNION last week staged a most provocative debate, one that might have embarrassed the British monarch. Days before Queen Elizabeth II was scheduled to arrive in the U.S., the debating society considered whether the colonies were even worthy of a royal visit. The motion: "This House regrets the founding of the United States of America." Mercifully for us, the motion was defeated, and the queen has proceeded with her travel plans.
Several years ago, I was asked to lead the debate at the Oxford Union. (Don't be impressed. The same honor was bestowed on Kermit the Frog.) It was the first year a woman had been elected president of the union, and she wanted to leave her mark. The motion was: "This House believes a woman's place is on top." (My team, arguing for the motion, carried the day, in no small part because of the facile assistance of ringers whose cut-glass English trumped my American twang.)
The evening began with a black-tie dinner. But before a spoon could be lifted, the host stood and solemnly raised his glass for The Loyal Toast: "The queen." Standing erect, everyone echoed him: "The queen." As an American who puts hand to heart for "The Star-Spangled Banner" or the Pledge of Allegiance, I was puzzled by a salute to the sovereign. "Why to the queen rather than the prime minister, who is elected by the people?" I asked. My Oxford host squirmed, then replied: "You are a citizen. We are subjects."
From dinner, the debaters were led into a chamber that looked like a banquet hall out of "Beowulf." This is where the stomach-churning intimidation starts. Surrounded by ancient heraldry and shelves sagging with leather-bound books stretching back to Chaucer, Americans inevitably feel self-conscious. As one said at the anti-U.S. debate: "[I felt] like my cultural fly was permanently unzipped."
The Oxford Union is not just any university debating society. Former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan called it "the last bastion of free speech in the Western world." This prestigious forum regularly brings together leading thinkers from around the globe to grapple with the cutting issues of the day — censorship, racial equality, whether homosexuality should be a bar to becoming an Anglican bishop. In 1933, the union garnered international press coverage by debating and passing the motion: "This House would under no circumstances fight for its King and Country." This year's debate was equally controversial.
To argue for the we-regret-creating-the-U.S. motion, the union invited the head of the British Islamic Party, the leader of the British branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir (a global Islamic party) and the general secretary of the Communist Party of Britain. The communist canceled at the last minute (reportedly because he was afraid his side would lose). He was quickly replaced by a Canadian, whom both sides later agreed was ill-equipped to represent communism's particular brand of anti-Americanness.
Still, the anti-Americans gave it their best shot. They bashed President Bush and his misdirected foreign policy while indicting the U.S. as a crime-ridden "me, me, me culture," selfish in terms of philanthropy and beset by racism, dysfunctional public schools and millions without health insurance. They alluded to the war in Iraq, which the British call "Tony Blair's war" whenever they take to the streets to demonstrate. The prime minister is being forced to cede his office because of his close ties with Bush, and cartoonists regularly pillory him as the president's lap dog.
When the Americans and their British allies started pacing the creaking oak floorboards in the union's Old Library in Frewin Court, they hurled invective at the Islamists for their "reactionary ideology" of misogyny, homophobia, the stoning of adulterers and bans on sex and alcohol — hardly ideas that appeal to university students.
While admitting flaws in the messy experiment of U.S. democracy, the pro-American side heralded the ideas of Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. The Brookings Institution's Peter Rodman, a former assistant secretary of Defense, pointed out that for more than 100 years the U.S. has spent its blood and treasure to liberate Europe and Asia in two world wars. By attitude and inference, the two Americans on the four-person team suggested that but for the U.S. intervention in World War II, Britons might be speaking German today. But that was as close as they came to challenging their hosts. Instead, the members of the pro-American team cleverly aligned themselves with the shared values of Britain and the U.S. They championed the idea that in the 21st century, all people should be free to partake of equal opportunity no matter their race, color, creed or birth — yet made no mention of how the British perpetuate a class-ridden society in which heredity still largely dictates wealth and privilege.
The Loyal Toast illuminates the real difference between a U.S. citizen and a British subject, and it is reason enough for me to extol the creation of our country. To those at Oxford who debated otherwise and lost, I say that most U.S. citizens are proud to live in a country that was founded on the idea that we never have to bow to a monarch.
I write this during the welcome visit of the queen, who is in the United States to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first British colony in the New World. As she toured Jamestown on Thursday, there were about 300 cheering Americans — but no Loyal Toast. And if some bowed or curtsied as the queen passed by, you may be sure that such obsequies are only out of respect, not obligation. After all, democracy in the United States means never having to say "your majesty."