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Dept. Of Discourse: Oxford On The Hudson

Dept. Of Discourse: Oxford On The Hudson
January 8, 2007

by Rebecca Mead


The name of Robert Rosenkranz, the businessman and philanthropist, is not universally recognized, even on Park Avenue. “I know a variety of Rosenkranzes—which one is he?” asked Robert Albertson, a principal at Sandler O’Neill, as he mingled at a reception at the Asia Society and Museum the other evening.

This Rosenkranz was picking up the tab for the reception, and also for the formal debate that followed it in the society’s theatre, on the proposition “Hollywood has fuelled anti-Americanism abroad.” Rosenkranz, who is reminiscent, in his build, wardrobe, and winter tan, of Michael Bloomberg in his pre-populist incarnation, is the chairman of Delphi Financial Group. He is also the sponsor of Intelligence Squared U.S., a spinoff of a debate series that originated in London in 2002. The British version has presented debates on such topics as “Enough money has been spent saving Venice” and “Foreign aid to poor countries has done more harm than good.” Rosenkranz hopes that his debates—modelled on those conducted at the Oxford Union, with three speakers for the motion and three against, holding forth for eight minutes apiece—will provide an Athenian tonic to a public discourse coarsened by Bill O’Reilly-style incivility.

Before the recent debate (admission forty dollars) at the Asia Society, Deirdre Byrne, a former litigator who now sells real estate in the Hamptons for Sotheby’s, explained the series’ appeal. “There is no intellectual component in my work, so I have to seek it out somewhere,” she said. Richard Huber, the former C.E.O. of Aetna, who now has business interests ranging from wine and ice-breaking in Chile to supermarkets and emerald mines in Brazil, said that the format promised to be much more enlivening than the snoozy events offered by the Council on Foreign Relations, of which he is also a member. “They tend to be pronouncements,” he said.

The debate was not entirely devoid of pronouncements, the debaters largely lacking the oratorical light-footedness that is the hallmark of an Oxford Union speaker. (The platonic ideal of such a debater, Christopher Hitchens, had been conscripted earlier in the season, to advocate that “Freedom of expression must include the license to offend.”) Roger Kimball, speaking in favor of the proposition, leaned toward quasi-British bombast, characterizing anti-Americanism as “a rank garden” for which Hollywood “merely supplies a layer of what you might call fructified manure.” Richard Walter, who is the chairman of U.C.L.A.’s screenwriting program, spoke against the motion, in the vernacular of the benighted community in question. “Most art sucks—excuse me,” he said. He pointed out that sex and violence are not new to entertainment, noting the bloodbaths in “Hamlet” and “Macbeth.” “This was not invented by eleven Jews at Paramount Studios a couple of weeks ago,” he said. Victory went to Walter’s team, which escaped penalty when a team member’s cell phone went off during the proceedings. (“I have Spielberg on the line,” she said.)

After the debate, S.U.V. limos ferried participants to Daniel, where the conversation continued over seared tuna and roast duck. Alexandra Munroe, Rosenkranz’s wife and a curator at the Guggenheim, discussed whether movies could be categorized as art with Thomas Struth, the photographer (whose work she and Rosenkranz recently added to their collection), while Pamela Wallin, the former Canadian consul general, and Ted Kotcheff, who directs “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” speculated about whether Angelina Jolie has a Middle East adviser. (If she doesn’t, Barbra Streisand certainly does, they decided.) Byron Wien, who was the chief investment strategist at Morgan Stanley for twenty-one years and is now the chief investment strategist for a hedge fund, said that he had been persuaded by the motion’s opponents, despite believing that their position was fundamentally flawed. “If you took the whole product of Hollywood, good and bad, and netted it out, it would be a negative for America,” he said. But he was relieved that the debate provided a respite from the conversations he usually experiences at social events. “I was at a dinner last week,” he said, “and all you hear about is Palm Beach and having the right caterer.”