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The great debaters

This week six mighty figures locked horns. The subject in question: is America a force for good? But the real battle taking place was for title of Britain's most persuasive speaker

Thursday, 1 May 2008

FOR motion that America has lost its moral authority

Matthew Parris

America has not fallen lately into the gutter, she was always there along with every other nation state. America never did have moral authority to lose, she's lost the appearance of it and that is to be welcomed because the appearance was always a lie.

Moral authority? America's supposed virtue has been nothing but a two century long triumph in political marketing. Where shall we start? In the very beginning, with the virtual extinction of the continent's native peoples? With George Washington? I've seen the slave quarters at "Monte Bello". America was no worse than other nations in the context of that epoch, but she was no better.

But to preach the contrary of what she practiced makes the hypocrisy particularly disgusting. This is a country built upon land grabbing and slavery, and a country which even after the Civil War remained a byword for racial segregation and discrimination right on into the 1960s.

Ask yourself why Martin Luther King was so necessary, so revolutionary, so late and assassinated. Think of the trailer parks today. Think of Senator Joe McCarthy, J Edgar Hoover and their witch hunts.

George W Bush and the neo-cons didn't invent intervention and the flouting of international law. Who provoked the Spanish War at the end of the 19th century? Stealing territory from a rival. Who invaded Mexico, and carved up Colombia on order to run the Panama Canal as its own fiefdom. Who tried to invade Cuba after a corrupt puppet administration had been ousted? Who invaded Vietnam, who interfered in Nicaragua or Granada? Who tried to strangle the League of Nations at birth.

The motion before us could have been put to any audience, in almost any decade since 1776. America has lost her moral authority more often than Fanny Hill lost her virginity.

Mr Jacobson has rested his case on the assertion that we on this side are suggesting that somewhere else has a moral authority that America lacks, that either Britain does or Europe does, or that al-Qa'ida does. But on this side of the house we do not assert the supposed equivalence of al-Qa'ida and America. We do not assert the supposed superiority or moral authority of European nations over America. We note that America claims moral authority but submit that she neither possesses it nor is widely accorded it.

George Bush is not an aberration from American moral authoritarianism; he is the distillation of it. He is not the traducer of the American electorate; he is the creation of it. America is not discovering its virtue it is simply losing its nerve.

There never was a state of moral elevation from which America could fall. But if there was, then, my God, has she fallen.


Martin Amis

I'll approach this motion, if I may, by the scenic route. The French writer Bernard-Henri Lévy recently wrote a cautiously sympathetic book about the United States called American Vertigo. American Vertigo recalls other titles, American Psycho, American Gigolo, American Beauty, American Graffiti, American Pastoral and so on. It is an adjective unlike any of its national equivalents. An American Dream for instance is rich in implication. Whereas an English Dream has no allure and practically no content. German Gigolo. Swiss Psycho. Danish Werewolf in London.

When we look at Dreiser's An American Tragedy we don't feel the need for more information. We don't think "what kind of title do you call that?!" No we collude. We grant the idea of "The American" has achieved a sense of its own achievements and originality, its lustre and complexity, its innocence and also its fragility. Its desire for good almost sure to be thwarted.

In as much as countries are like people, they are like men – and not very stable or assuring men either. They are touchy, vain, insecure, weak on self-knowledge, stoutly chauvinistic and obsessed by questions of face.

America is exceptional and most obviously exceptional in its power. If American is a man he is the world heavy weight champion. And yet there is another stranger sense in that America is exceptional and remains a singularity in this league of gentlemen. It has a unique characteristic which we tend associate with the feminine.

All countries want first of all to be respected. But America's defining anomaly is that it wants to be loved. Let's call to mind an immortal and terrible irony, as the US army entered Iraq what was it expecting? It was expecting to be met with sweets and flowers and dancing in the city squares.

In the period after the Second World War the United States installed democracy in Japan and Germany. This was also the time of the Marshall Plan and the support for the captive nations of Eastern Europe. Thereafter the US enhanced its own attractiveness as a nuclear target to protect its allies and supervised the astonishingly peaceful end to the Cold War.

Then too there have been interventions with a broad variety of motives and outcomes on behalf of Muslim populations in Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, Lebanon, Somalia and more quietly in Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake.

After the Boxing Day Tsunami, America began flying aid missions immediately and there were troops on the ground in three days – there number eventually rising to 18,000.

The future is always the remorseless unforeseen. We are entering an age of mass proliferation. Will we be better equipped for this without American generosity?

I ask you not to endorse this reflexive, directionless and sterile hatred of the hegemon. The present administration is coming to an end and we may reasonably hope that the new president will be sharply attentive to what has been so blithely neglected. While it's true that good intentions can be terrifying enough, they are on average decisively better than bad intentions.


John Gray

The topic I want to address is not a very pleasant one, it is torture. Now Simon Schama has pointed out that there are many ways America can recover from the moral morass which he agrees has occurred under the Bush administration.

I thought it would be worth dwelling on the fact that torture has been renormalised by the world's leading democracy. It's been normalised not only by its practice – because although we had a very valuable prohibition after the Second World War it was still widely practised by the British in Kenya, and to begin with in Northern Ireland, on a vast scale by the French in Algeria, and on an even bigger scale by the Soviets in Afghanistan, so it was never eradicated. But it was prohibited.

There are many advantages to its prohibition. It seems to me to be almost a litmus test of civilisation. It at least means that you can't use evidence acquired under torture in courts of law. And one aspect in which I think Britain has lost its moral compass is the way in which we debated as far as the House of Lords as to whether it would be allowable to use evidence obtained by torture in British courts. I feel ashamed that the question should ever have been asked.

And if I were American I would be ashamed to hear the President and vice-President say there's nothing wrong with waterboarding.

I share Simon Schama's view that there are lots and lots of honourable Americans who have resisted this sort of thing all along. But it went ahead anyway. What's more, the institutions that have tried to prevent even worse moral horrors are not political institutions. The institutions that have so far prevented an expansion of the war to Iran were actually the Army and elements of the intelligence community who brought out a report saying the Iran threat was overhyped.

The motion is not that American has lost its moral authority irrecoverably. It says lost and it has lost it now. I hope this moral authority can be recovered but I'm not sure it can. All I know is what has been done and so long as the world's leading regime does not denounce torture I can't be party to its leadership and I can't accept that it retains moral authority.

I want to judge America by the same standards as I judge other nations. I don't think if America disappeared from the world it would be necessarily more peaceful, more stable, or even notably better. It might actually be more dangerous.

All I want you to agree to is that against the background of these extraordinarily high claims that have been made for America's moral authority, its behaviour over the last eight years or so has destroyed and undermined that claim.


Howard Jacobson

There is – I don't disagree with the opposition – something wrong with America.

So America has ceded the moral high ground has it? Well to whom? Russia? China? Syria? Austria? Tell me something, if morality is in such fine fettle elsewhere, how come the entire human rights community expresses outrage the minute we send a foreign national home?

I'm not going to say you're better off on full board in Guantanamo Bay but in many countries I could name, Mr Chairman, you are. America has lost its moral authority, the proposers of this flimsy motion argue, though I doubt any one of them would be much affronted if accused of losing his.

Moral authority indeed. There's a woman in [Dewsbury], mother of the abducted schoolgirl Shannon Matthews, who has so many children to different men that the children who share a father she calls twins. And we dare pass judgement on the morals of anyone else. Who the hell do we think we are?

We are Hizbollah, or al-Qa'ida, if we could quite summon up the courage to go that far. We nearly did when those twin towers came down. We got as close as the space between Mrs Matthews common-law husbands to saying that justice had been done. In parts of the Middle East, they danced in the streets.

Question Time isn't quite the Middle East, but the snarling dogs that comprise the audience couldn't wait for the ashes of those towers to cool before telling Americans that what they'd sowed they'd reaped.  

As John Gray has asked in his book... "When will Jews be forgiven the Holocaust?" I ask the same question, when will America ever be forgiven 9/11?

Al-Qa'ida didn't only blow up the World Trade Centre, it gave expression to a spiritual revulsion from America that was the mirror image of this enravishment. Don't be surprised to learn that Bin Laden sits in his cave playing Sinatra, listening to his [Barbra] Streisand favourites.

The American adventure, however crazy, has been our adventure. Its gains and losses, our gains and losses. We are none of us innocent of America; it didn't sprout unassisted from virgin soil.

America is still the best and bravest idea of a serious good time that's ever come our way. Don't wet on its flame. Don't give succour to those who out of pietistic fear or malice or envy would see it go out.

The American brand is tarnished, some say. But in whose eyes?

I thought I would respect you all. I thought I would come here and meet the most intelligent audience in London, and enjoy myself... [But] you've gone for the old knee-jerk reaction, you know nothing... You've simply swallowed a line which is already out there.

People are mouthing this anti-American stuff, it's an absolute disgrace. I don't care whether you're right or wrong. How can you bear to be in the same room with one another? All thinking the same fucking thing!


Will Self

On the "Today" programme this morning Simon Schama argued that all the fatuous wrong headedness of the Bush administration will soon be washed away. Guantanamo will be dismantled, extraordinary rendition curtailed, the water board dried off and put away. Dream on Simon. This is an elite liberal's view of the impact of political systems on people's lives. Amendments of the Bill of Rights don't cut much ice with a kid that's been maimed by depleted uranium shells lying in the wreckage of Fallujah.

After the Brighton bombing the IRA issued its famous statement, "We only have to be lucky once, you have to be lucky always." I believe, as evil and as grotesque as it was, on 9/11 al-Qa'ida was lucky once. Since then America has been behaving as if the terrorists will be lucky always. It's a crazy and immoral logic that looks to the Book of Revelation rather than Thomas Paine for its justification.

People here in England have a warped view of American democracy. Over here we know about but don't see the enormous 2.3 million-strong criminal gulag that has grown up in America – so that one-in-four African American men are in jail or on bail. Go to any big north American city, walk into the projects, see the way people live in the bosom of the wealthiest nation on earth, see the sick and the maimed, because there is no adequate healthcare. See those in rags and then come back and tell me that this is a polity, that this is an economy that should be listened to as a fount of moral thinking. I don't think so.

The U, S of A. The champion of free trade who insists all US Aid must be spent on its own goods, that supports its farmers prices to the hilt. The champion of free trade which dumps surplus grain on freefalling third world markets. The champion of free trade that practices protectionism with all its might. The defeater of Aids that insists its money cannot be spent on condoms and needle exchange programmes, the only Aids prevention that works. And while we're at it, the biggest exploiter of the world's resources who will not look the consequences of global warming in the face.

If you were wavering on this motion, I haven't heard anything that's made me have a flicker of doubt about what we're saying on this side, much as I respect those opposing it. From Martin Amis we have a kind of futurology, smoke and mirrors. From Simon Schama we have the same old historicist arguments. And lastly, we have Howard Jacobson's weird bluster. It's just such fun provoking you. If you used that f-word anywhere on a platform in the free-speaking United States of America he'd be out of public life on his ass.


Simon Schama

Listen to the motion, everybody: "America has lost its moral authority." Two big words, "America" and "Lost", as in irrecoverably lost – the case that Will has just tried, in his way, to make.

The Bush administration is not the point. They are – in the rather wonderful formulation of Billy Bulger, the leader of the Massachusetts senate for many years – "Forgotten but not gone".

Eighty one per cent of the American public in the last opinion poll [believed] the country has dangerously lost its way, has ceased to set an example. But what is that evidence of? That is evidence of a moral reawakening, if ever there was one.

Let's just take the most right-wing of the current presidential candidates, John McCain. McCain is committed to closing Guantanamo. He's against all forms of torture – and of course we believe him because he was himself tortured. He's going to propose carbon and gas emissions [targets] which are higher than the average EU standards, he's against (at his own cost to his own party) deporting illegal immigrants. Those candidates in the Republican Party who stood for the most repellent aspects of continuing the Bush administration's policies are precisely the very candidates to rapidly faded from view.

America at least does have an opposition party that is proposing to end the war in Iraq, not the case in this country, with the honourable exception of the Liberal Democrats. In the depths of the 1930s depression, there was Franklin D Roosevelt. I cite Roosevelt and the election of 1932 simply to suggest that however black and morally full of abdication American history sometimes seems, the genius of the founding fathers and flexibility of the Constitution meant there was always a possibility of self regeneration. That is one of its glories.

America did not have to elect Abraham Lincoln in 1860, it had spent a generation procrastinating over the slavery issue. Lincoln made it quite clear he would fight a war against the states who ceded over slavery. He made it quite clear that this hideous double life America had led, proclaiming on the one hand equality for all men on the backs of slaves, could not go on.

I'm really sorry that the prosecution, and maybe a few of you in this room, have no sense of what is happening in the US right now. What is happening is the flocking of millions to the polls, in order to register their sense of moral nausea at the evils done in their name.

I seem to be the only person who isn't a cynic about the moral ideals on which America was founded and which in the case of the Marshall Plan and other historical moments seems to me still has manifest life going for it.

This year is the moment when America will turn to what Lincoln called "The better angels of our nature". And its 44th president, President Barack Obama, will see it happen.

Motion that America has lost its moral authority carried by 433 votes to 290

Most persuasive speaker: Matthew Parris

With thanks to Intelligence2 for organising the debate 

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