Memo from New York: The Oxford Union precedent

Democracies look weak from the vantage points of dictatorships. We shouldn't make them look even weaker.

September 30, 2007 20:45
1 minute read.
Memo from New York: The Oxford Union precedent

Ahmadinejad 224.88. (photo credit: AP [file])


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There was no freedom of speech issue in the Ahmadinejad-Columbia affair. Free speech issues arise when someone seeks to suppress speech and the US Constitution's First Amendment protections come into play. Nobody sought to censor the words, views or threats of the president of Iran. His views are well-known throughout the world. The UN General Assembly is a better platform than any university podium. Had anyone tried to suppress his views, the issue would arise whether incitement to genocide and Holocaust-denial are protected under the Bill of Rights. But that issue did not arise. The real issue was whether it was appropriate for Columbia to invite this man or, as was incredibly suggested, that the university would have, or should have invited Adolf Hitler in similar circumstances. A lot has been written about this, but there is one consideration that has not been mentioned: Dictators are not familiar with the intricacies of democratic societies, and are prone to misread its signals. A historical precedent comes to mind. In 1938, the Oxford Union infamously decided "not to fight for King and Country." It was a minor affair within Britain - one of many manifestations of civic and democratic society in action. But Hitler, totally unfamiliar with the vagaries of free societies, attached great significance to that silly vote and saw it as another proof that the democracies were weak, decadent and lacking the will to fight the might of Nazi Germany. Needless to say, the students who cast their votes in 1938 did not imagine the consequences of their decision. Eventually they did fight for King and Country, and many of them died in battle. There is a danger that the president of Iran - a country that will soon have nuclear weapons - will similarly misinterpret the invitation extended to him by one of America's top universities, and that the Iranian people will misread the sight of the applause he received, selectively shown by the government-controlled Iranian media. Democracies always look weak from the vantage points of dictatorships. We should not make them look even weaker. This, and not First Amendment freedoms, was the real issue in this unfortunate affair. The writer is a former president of the Interdisciplinary Center-Herzliya.

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