In times of crisis, university students are expected to debate great events, and this week some University of Toronto students, sponsored by The Toronto Star, will discuss the conflict now engaging much of the world.
Those who read modern history might find themselves thinking about 1933, when the Oxford Union considered a motion, "That this House refuses in any circumstances to fight for King and Country." It was the most famous university debate ever.
Fortunately, the Toronto students at Hart House on Wednesday night won't face such a distressing and divisive question. There seems no chance that our government will ask anyone to fight for Queen, country, or anything else. In official Ottawa, enthusiasm for the war against terrorism now ranges from tepid to lukewarm.
Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has said, with the courage that has made him the most successfulé Canadian politician since Mackenzie King: "Of course, we don't want to have a big fight there." And Defence Minister Art Eggleton has pronounced: "We are not going to send our people into a condition in which they are unwelcome." Canada has redefined valour in the style of Miss Manners: If the Afghans (or whoever) haven't the common decency to appreciate our presence, we'll snub their tacky little party.
It was different for the Oxford debaters in 1933. All of Europe was suddenly in danger. Adolf Hitler had become chancellor of Germany on Jan. 30. The British had no hope that the Americans would do the heavy lifting when things grew difficult -- which is of course the basis of our own foreign policy.
The Oxford Union met on Feb. 9. David Graham, a student who later made a career at the BBC, drew up the question about king and country. He was no pacifist; he just wanted a lively evening. But his fellow students were in a pacifist mood. Having heard the debate, the union voted for the affirmative, 275 to 153. All hell broke loose. Newspapers ran hostile editorials and Winston Churchill denounced the vote as "abject, squalid, shameless." It was later said (though never proven) that Hitler was emboldened by this indication that the finest young minds in England would prefer surrender to war. After 68 years, that Oxford debate still echoes. Roy Jenkins, in his just-published biography of Churchill, calls it "notorious."
Our Canadian debaters, free from the prospect of combat, will address a different theme, "Be it resolved that the terrorists have a point." This event is a prelude to the World Universities Debating Championships, in Toronto on Dec. 27-Jan. 4. Apparently the committee that wrote Wednesday's resolution conceived it as a way of making the forthcoming debates look serious by comparison. Certainly no one will ever be able to concoct a more fatuous resolution.
Do the heartless mass murderers who attacked the United States on Sept. 11 have a point? Everyone already knows the answer: Yes, of course they have a point. Who doesn't have a point? Hitler certainly had a point, likewise Stalin, also Mao and Pol Pot, too. Nobody on Earth with a grievance lacks a point; it's a non-question. What matters is how the point finds expression. Is there anything legitimate about what happened on Sept. 11, or should the whole world rise up in fury and smite the perpetrators and all those who supported them? That might be worth discussing.
Readers of The Toronto Star already know its views on these matters. While no friend of terrorism, the Star understands that the terrorists have a point, or points. But the conflict that has resulted (the Star implies in much of what it publishes) does not demand any exceptional sacrifice from Canada.
The Americans, after all, got us into it. That was the argument put forth by the Star's "editorial page editor emeritus," Haroon Siddiqui, on Sept. 19, under the heading "It's the U.S. foreign policy, stupid." Mr. Siddiqui said that "America has many enemies ... due to American complicity in injustice, lethal and measurable, on several fronts." Of course he mentioned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict first. The public, he said, senses this truth about the United States. "Some put it crudely: America had it coming." Now "a broad spectrum of the Canadian middle class ... is coming to the view that America needs, beyond any tactical strikes or smart bombs it might deploy, a more humane and even-handed approach to the world." This is what Canada loves to hear: If only Americans would straighten themselves out, and heed our sound advice, these problems would disappear.
On Wednesday night, after two teams of student debaters speak, a panel moderated by John Honderich, publisher of the Star, will discuss the issue; then the audience will offer questions and comments. The panellists will be David A. Welch, who teaches political science at the University of Toronto, and two Star columnists, Thomas Walkom and Joey Slinger. No doubt all of them will approach the issue in the cool and civilized manner for which our nation would like to be famous.
It sounds like a perfect Canadian evening. No one will feel called upon to act and everyone will enjoy a brisk discussion. In the struggle between civilization and chaos, Canada will take its place on the sidelines. Meanwhile, our government will be available (as always) to serve as honest broker. Providing, of course, that we are not asked to go where we will feel unwelcome.