Proposition speaker Laurence Kotlikoff, American Economist and third party candidate in the 2012 US presidential elections, expressed his incredulity that such a “young, vibrant, hopeful” audience could possibly oppose the American dream. He acknowledged the challenges facing America, including failures in national security, a disastrous fiscal policy, and “smart machines taking our jobs”. But he proposed a series of simple solutions, such as carbon tax and a system of health care vouchers. After inquiring from the Union secretary how many minutes remained for him to fill, he went on to extol the benefits of teaching remotely through internet screens.
But Kotlikoff’s optimism failed to soften the heart of opposition speaker Adam Brand of University College, who declared that there was “something very wrong with America.” He argued that its system is “rigged in favor of white middle class and upper class men” and asked “why should I dream the American dream when I could be Gandalf and be two times cooler?” He blamed the American dream for the controversial right to bear arms; according to him, the pressure resulting from the delusion of freedom combined with the desire for freedom at the expense of others, “drives” people to commit atrocities like the shootings at Columbine and Connecticut.
Proposition speaker Donald Pease, director of the Future of American Studies Institute and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Dartmouth College, passionately affirmed that “the American dream must be dreamt”. In his view, the purpose of a dream is not to reflect the current state of affairs, but “to envision a way of life that we can reproduce” and “make mobilization possible”. In increasingly lofty terms, he called upon the American dream as an essential ally in the “planetary” battle of the twentieth century.
Opposition speaker Robert Griffiths, current leader of the Communist Party of Britain and founder of the Welsh Socialist Republican Movement, retorted that “anyone who dreams the American dream is either fast asleep or high on drugs”. He poured scorn upon America’s “corporate fat cats” and rattled off a list of all the victimized nations across the world where “it might be best not to mention the American dream”, including Iraq, Cambodia and Vietnam. Proposition speaker Ray McGovern, a former CIA agent, countered Griffith’s cynicism with a sentimental little tune from ‘The South Pacific’; “You gotta have a dream”, he warbled, “’cause otherwise, how you gonna make that dream come true?’ He then adopted an Irish accent and told the whimsical story of two nuns struggling to fetch milk and petrol for the needy, in order to demonstrate the need for faith. He meditated upon what he called the “zigs and zags” of history and referred to the start of the Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Iraq war as particularly big “zags”. But he celebrated the rise of the internet as the most triumphant “zig” of free years, as a means of disclosing injustice to the purifying air of public scrutiny.
On the opposition side, activist and whistleblower Craig Murray reminded the audience of his recent promise to speak drunk before the union and assured them that he was a man of his word. But drunk or sober, he is never afraid to court controversy; he was removed from his post as the UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan for revealing the country’s human rights abuses against the wishes of the British government. He heaped insults upon the heads of the previous proposition speakers, declaring Ray McGovern’s Irish accent to be “the worst he’d ever heard”. Donald Pease he referred to as an “intellectual” and admitted “he’d had no idea what he’d said”. Just in case he “hadn’t been controversial enough”, he condemned US treatment of Palestinians as equivalent to their massacre of American Indians, and compared George Bush’s invasion of Iraq to Hitler’s invasion of Poland.
Proposition speaker Maajid Nawaz continued in the radical vein, as he related his experiences as a former member of the controversial Islamic political group Hizb ut-Tahrir. Having been taken underground and tortured by the regime of the U.S backed dictator Mubarak, and then sentenced to five years as an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, he described himself as a victim of “the suspended American dream”. He admitted that his history, Muslim identity and British origins scarcely seem to fit the proposition side of the debate, but he urged the audience to appreciate the quality of American ideals even if they disagreed with American practices. In his view, blaming the American dream for failures of the American government was as misguided as blaming Islam for terrorism.
The final speaker, the American playwright, author and critic Bonnie Greer, contrasted Nawaz’s ideals with the grim reality of American life. She argued that individual success stories, like that of Martin Luther King or Barack Obama or even herself, fail to capture the true state of American society. Instead, she looked to a range of social and economic statistics, and concluded “the greatest health risk to an American citizen is to be born with black or brown skin”. However, she based her critique of the American dream not upon cynicism but genuine concern for the future of her country; she urged the audience to vote against the American dream and help America to “wake up.”
Whether idealistically praised or cynically belittled, the words ‘American Dream’ possess an undeniable power. Yet the war in Iraq and debt crisis of the recession have challenged this power as never before, revealing cracks in the foundations of national identity. The final two speakers brought together the opposing sides of cynicism and idealism. Both acknowledged the difference between ideals and reality, but both shared a desire to heal the rift between the two.