My First NYT Foray

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A reader sends me Mental Floss's NYT archive latest - featuring moi, on April 20, 1983. Yep, I was in the NYT at 19 years' old, over a flap involving a debate I had set up as president of the Oxford Union. I'd managed to get then-defense secretary Casper Weinberger to agree to debate the leader of the anti-nuclear movement in Britain, historian E.P. Thompson. The Thatcher government had a policy of not debating their prime critic on the anti-war left, and, once they found out, talked Weinberger out of it. I was pissed, but what could I do? I was pro-Thatcher, but I was equally pro-debate. I didn't believe then that anyone should be out of bounds for political debate:

Mr. Sullivan, the union president, is a 19-year-old student of history and French who describes himself as a supporter of the Government. He reported that Mr. Weinberger said on Friday that he thought a debate might be an "inappropriate" forum for a person in his position and that he did not want to seem to intervene in the British domestic political process with an election in the offing.

"He made it quite clear that he was not in the least apprehensive about confronting Mr. Thompson," Mr. Sullivan said. "When we first talked on Feb. 9, he seemed exceptionally keen to come, because he is eager to put his case to young people."

The debate was eventually rescheduled, after I was president, but the then-president invited me to take part in the debate. I did - and chose to debate on Thompson's side. (Bonus fact: Benazir Bhutto was my dinner date.)

The motion was

"This House believes there is no moral difference between the foreign policies of the United States and the Soviet Union."

I made the Catholic/Tory case that foreign policy cannot be described as more or less moral in the aggregate. The pursuit of national interest is amoral. But the methods can be either. You had to get specific. Weinberger's speech rested on a core neocon argument that because America was a democracy, its foreign policy was therefore definitionally more moral. I remember interrupting Weinberger to ask:

Does an immoral act become less immoral if we have the right to choose to do it or not?

I was being a little arch, I know. Objectively, I believe now and believed then that the US was morally superior in actions and intent to the Soviet Union. But my question was a useful corrective to the pretensions of American uber-exceptionalism. And in the Union, I always tried to debate for the losing proposition. It was much more fun. And, yes, my side lost. I think every side I debated on in the Union lost. I picked them that way. Better to hone your skills.

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