The Debating Society That Gives Larry Flynt, John Edwards, and Michele Bachmann a Voice

The last bastion of real debate sits in Oxford University.

The Bodleian Libraries at Oxford University in the United Kingdom.
National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
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Matt Vasilogambros
March 13, 2014, 7:51 a.m.

Ox­ford Uni­on, one of the world’s old­est and most re­spec­ted de­bat­ing so­ci­et­ies, has in­vited such renowned lead­ers as Win­ston Churchill, Moth­er Teresa, Ron­ald Re­agan, and the Dalai Lama to speak. And on Fri­day, the so­ci­ety is adding one more name to that list: Michele Bach­mann.

Soak that in. Yes, the Min­nesota Re­pub­lic­an and tea-party stal­wart is the latest speak­er in a large series run by un­der­gradu­ate stu­dents at Ox­ford Uni­versity in the United King­dom. Upon an­noun­cing her up­com­ing speech, she called the in­vit­a­tion to join the club of Ox­ford­i­an speak­ers a “high hon­or.”

But Ox­ford Uni­on doesn’t in­vite just the most his­tor­ic­ally im­port­ant minds of the world. Con­sider some of the oth­ers who came over the past sev­er­al months:

Hust­ler founder Larry Flynt, talk-show host Jerry Spring­er, cult movie icon Tommy Wiseau, failed Delaware Sen­ate can­did­ate Christine O’Don­nell, con­spir­acy the­or­ist Alex Jones (he can­celed), and former pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate John Ed­wards.

In keep­ing true to the so­ci­ety’s mis­sion, or­gan­izers in­vite people who aren’t in the main­stream of polit­ic­al and cul­tur­al thought. While many people would view some of them as ex­treme or bizarre, they’re simply giv­ing a dif­fer­ent per­spect­ive, says Po­lina Ivan­ova, the pres­id­ent of the Ox­ford Uni­on.

“It is a so­ci­ety that was ori­gin­ally foun­ded to pro­mote the vir­tue of free speech,” Ivan­ova, 21, said in an email. “We see it as simply a dif­fer­ent opin­ion, and one that should be heard, dis­cussed, de­bated.”

And why in­vite the ec­cent­ric per­son­al­it­ies like Wiseau or Spring­er? “Be­cause they’re awe­some,” said Ivan­ova, who is in her fi­nal year at Uni­versity Col­lege. “We don’t only in­vite people for heavy polit­ic­al dis­cus­sions.”

The primary audi­ence for these speeches is un­der­gradu­ate stu­dents of Ox­ford Uni­versity, but it’s open to post­grads and alumni, as well. And while the speak­ers high­lighted above may be a little (read: quite) off-col­or, the so­ci­ety does land sev­er­al big names from the news such as former South Afric­an Pres­id­ent F.W. de Klerk, former CIA Dir­ect­or Mi­chael Hay­den, and re­tired Gen. Stan­ley Mc­Chrys­tal, just to name a few re­cent speak­ers.

All of the speak­ers are by the stu­dents who run the so­ci­ety. It’s a speak­er series that rivals some of the biggest or­gan­iz­a­tions here in Wash­ing­ton.

But this all doesn’t come without hic­cups. Ivan­ova ex­plains:

Dona­tella Ver­sace wanted white lilies on stage and to smoke in our de­bat­ing cham­ber, An­dre Le­on Tal­ley wanted scen­ted candles. On a more ser­i­ous note, Per­vez Mush­ar­raf wanted the por­trait of [former Ox­ford Uni­on Pres­id­ent] Benazir Bhutto taken down, so as not to be on the wall dir­ectly be­hind him dur­ing his speech. The Uni­on com­mit­tee at the time de­clined his re­quest.

Bach­mann, in con­trast, will likely be a breeze for the so­ci­ety. She is set to dis­cuss how bur­eau­cracy is tam­per­ing with eco­nom­ic growth and cre­ativ­ity in the eco­nomy.

So, if you’re a down-and-out Amer­ic­an politi­cian or a per­son who is of­ten dis­missed for your views or rhet­or­ic, fret not. There’s a for­um in the world just for you. And all you have to do is fly to Eng­land.

COR­REC­TION: An earli­er ver­sion of this art­icle misid­en­ti­fied the magazine foun­ded by Larry Flynt.

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