Big and clever? Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the Cambridge Union

22 Feb

I have a dirty little secret. As an undergraduate, I was a debater. Joining debating societies was the first thing on the agenda at both of the universities I’ve attended. I’ve spent my fair share of time perfecting heckles and delivering speeches to chambers both packed and near-empty. I spent a year helping to run one such society.

Back then, I was always the one mounting a full-throated defence of unrestricted free speech, believing that there was no-one who truly deserved to be denied a platform. Bring us your fascists, your communards, your firebrands and your heroes and we’ll give them all a voice. For me – and many others who immersed ourselves in university debating – we offered a crucible of free debate, where no idea went unchallenged, no consensus undisturbed.

I’m a few years older now. I live in a different country, I’m in up to my neck in the joys of postgraduate study, and recently I’ve been thinking back to that old me. The guy who was embarrassed but not particularly worried to be part of a society which was overwhelmingly male, who hadn’t learnt that meritocracy can be a dirty word, who thought that sound and fury was what really made a great debate.

This is all coming back today because the Cambridge Union – of which I’m a member – has decided to invite Dominique Strauss-Kahn to speak this term. I think it’s important to look at this for what it is.

The Union’s website mightn’t even give a sniff of this, but the invitation of Strauss-Kahn is a huge deal. Not only has Strauss-Kahn had to step down from the IMF over an accusation of rape in New York, new information keeps coming through. More women have come forward in France with hair-raising stories of their own experience at his hands. And now, having admitted that his actions in the US were at the very least a ‘moral fault’, he’s now under investigation for his involvement in a prostitution ring. But Union President Katie Lam isn’t worried. She told the Telegraph “He hasn’t been found guilty of anything and it’s not up to us to judge him.”

I know he’s not been convicted. I know that the argument I’m making here would have had young debater John frothing at the mouth – am I trying to do away with the presumption of innocence? Don’t I think that this man’s importance in international politics means he’s worth hearing? And, if I really hate what he stands for, shouldn’t I be in favour of his coming to Cambridge to be shown up for what he really is by the finest minds and the best speakers at this university?

Well, that’s the thing. If you’ve had a look at the Union’s termcard, you’ll see that Strauss-Kahn isn’t coming for a debate. He’s coming to give a talk. This is a classic student debating society thing: basically, if you’ve invited someone famous and controversial enough, the ball’s in their court about how they’re treated. Sure, they’ll have to face a few questions at the end. But they’re not going to be subjected to the real cut-and-thrust of a debate. No-one else is getting to stand up after them and tear their talk apart. Instead, any opposition there might be gets crammed into one-minute remarks from the floor, all made under the watchful eye of the chair, who’s been snaffling sandwiches and shaking hands with the speaker beforehand and doesn’t want the afters to be too awkward.

I’ll make a bet with you. Go along to the talk. Listen to what he has to say. If he gives a forty-minute speech about the accusations he’s faced, about his deeply unpleasant attitudes to sex, about his apparently systematic disregard of women throughout his life, I’ll eat an item of headgear of your choice. But if he chooses to speak about the challenges facing France, the IMF, and the European economy in this time of fiscal crisis, then I’m afraid you’ll be chewing bicycle helmet for the next few weeks.

After four years spent doing this sort of thing, I find it really hard to see this as more than a lily-livered attempt to get some more attention in a university and a world which increasingly views student debating societies as overprivileged and irrelevant would-be politicos. The Cambridge Union is acting much like its fellow societies: in recent years we’ve seen Nick Griffin invited to the Oxford Union, and I could name a fair few other examples from my time at university in Ireland. Are we to think that the people in charge of these societies genuinely believe that their guestsare adding something valuable to debate in society? Maybe I’m an old cynic. Maybe things have changed since I was around. But back then – and it’s not very long ago – what seemed to matter more than anything to debating societies was the attention. Interest used to wane as the year went on, with audiences at debates declining as the enthusiasm of Freshers’ Week wore off.

But that’s what it was all about: Freshers’ Week. Every September we’d be sifting through the replies the society had received to its hundreds of invites. Who sounded like they might make the trip? Who was confirmed? Who looked just certain enough to be slapped on a glossy poster to entice in new students and bump up membership figures? There were times when it seemed like our job wasn’t debating ideas, but collecting big names like football stickers.

Of course there was more to it than that: I couldn’t be prouder of some of the debates we ran. I did see big names go down in flames, and I saw some truly great speakers – from Desmond Tutu to Ian Paisley – and I loved introducing new students to debating and watching them go from strength to strength. If I was an undergrad again, I’d still be signing up first thing on arriving at university.

But I’ve also come to question a lot of the things I took for true. And when I watch the (no doubt zealously pro-free speech) debaters of the Cambridge Union rush to defend their choice of invitee, I start to wonder. I wonder whether they’re thinking the same way as did the founders of early debating societies, who had to hold secret meetings and face discipline from their universities for arguing the topical issues of the day. I wonder, in today’s debating chambers, whether oratory and engagement really trump a screaming headline and a few days’ controversy in Varsity, or the Cherwell, or – the holy grail – a national newspaper.

Maybe I am just a cynic. I don’t know. I think I saw too much crowing, too many high-fives over guests that were infamous enough to stick on a poster, while Nobel laureates or others who’d had the gall to make a difference quietly and without becoming the story were never seen as such a coup. I fell victim to that kind of thinking too. It’s not hard, in the pressure-cooker of student societies, where argumets and atmospheres are so bitter, following Sayre’s Law, because the stakes are so small.

It’s sad. I think there’s a space for debating societies. I think they do amazing things day in, day out, that don’t get a splash in the Telegraph or a crowd of protesters outside. But when I see something like this, I wonder if we’ve lost our way. I suppose this is all I want to ask the Cambridge Union: is this big? And is this clever?

Thanks for reading.



Apologies for the less-than-historical theme of this post. Normal service resumes soon, I promise.


7 Responses to “Big and clever? Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the Cambridge Union”

  1. earlymodernjohn February 22, 2012 at 2:51 pm #

    Something I forgot to include in the post – if you’re at Cambridge and hacked off too, you can sign this petition, put together by the CUSU Women’s Campaign.

  2. Patrick February 22, 2012 at 3:31 pm #

    Good post, John.

    I’ve been weighing this up and in the end I think I’ve come to support the Cambridge Union on this – just. He’s a prominent economic figure and what he has to say will almost certainly provide a valuable insight on important matters, and I’m sure that his take on the French presidential race will be an intriguing one to say the least considering his involvement.

    That view above, obviously, excludes the army of white elephants in the room. And I’m afraid that I fall squarely into undergraduate John’s court. He hasn’t been convicted – and yes, I’m aware of the statute of limitations technicalities, the civil action currently going on in the US and the investigation. We have a presumption of innocence within Western democracy and I have a romantic belief that justice will be served.

    To be perfectly honest with you, I’m quite looking forward to his talk. I’m looking forward to the mobilisation of the CUSU Women’s Campaign protest against his appearance. I’m looking forward to the discussions that will occur in the pubs and the coffee shops about his appearance, about the approach we take to the prosecution of sexual offences, our tendency to judge people before we’ve heard all the evidence, the importance of reasonable doubt, the role of free speech within our society and whether – just whether – DSK could have been President. And I think that’s crucial to the role of CUS. It’s not just the debate or the talk that takes place within the chamber. It’s the discussions that we have before the talk and what we learn and discuss after the talk.

    I completely understand your reticence at the idea of debating societies thriving on infamous characters for commercial value, and whether they represent the founders of the society. That’s a valid point. But whatever the motivation behind this invitation is, I think it provokes debate – and that can only be a good thing.

    • earlymodernjohn February 22, 2012 at 3:40 pm #


      Thanks a lot for your comment. I think where I differ is that I’ve gradually moved away from the idea of debate as a good in and of itself. I think that challenging ideas and facing up to issues like this is something that should be done, but I don’t think the coffee-shop conversations and a brief Q&A at the end will be much of a counterweight to the prestige of being invited to speak at this society, in this university, and to having a practically unchallenged platform.

      I think inviting him is a bad idea full stop. I think, too, that it’s intellectually dishonest (as well as actually dishonest) for the Union to pretend that they’ve done so simply out of interest in his experiences and ideas on current affairs. For me, I think this approach to ‘big names’ in debating societies just undercuts the good that they can do, as does their willingness to cave and not have someone controversial take part in a proper debate.

      If it does happen, though – I’ll see you for a row in a coffee shop!


  3. Calum Macdonald February 22, 2012 at 9:25 pm #

    Hi John,

    I think your blog is very interesting – and sadly does contain a grain of truth about modern student debating societies so I hope you don’t mind me commenting.

    . Sometimes, it does feel like you have to be more focussed on big names than putting together the most intellectually challenging debates or term. I say this having been President of the Union last term, and the pressure of Freshers’ Week doesn’t seem that long ago.

    I guess I just wanted to say a couple of things. Firstly, we’ve been inviting DSK since the middle of 2010 – we certainly reinvited him last summer when i was there. There’s been suggestions that it was just a kneejerk reaction to the allegations which isn’t true. At the time he was (and still is) a very significant figure in politics and finance; it was only after the allegations of rape in the US had come out (and the criminal ones dropped) that his people let the Union know that he had been (and was still) interested in coming.

    I would ask – and this isn’t rhetorical, I am genuinely curious – when should you withdraw / disinvite someone in circumstances when there are allegations against them? A lot of our most interesting speakers tend to come after a fall from office or when facing criminal charges. If we disinvited everyone at the Union who was facing criminal or civil charges and offered to come then in the past year or so – members wouldn’t have seen – Julian Assange (still facing rape charges), Pervez Musharraf (arrest warrant from Pakistani judge) or Tony Hayward (after Deepwater when negligence charges were being mooted). Before that, examples such as Colonel Gaddafi also come to mind.

    “Innocent until proven guilty” can seem a trite formula to fall back on – I think it does simplify what’s at work here. It’s that the Cambridge Union (and other student unions like it) are aiming to get the most interesting people to talk on relevant topics – judging them for their political views or their behaviour (and I do honestly think whether charges could be proven or not DSK is reprehensible) doesn’t really come into it. Simply put (and as I’m sure you must know from your experience) – it’s the job of the Union’s officers to secure high profile, interesting speakers – not to judge their political views or in these cases, guilt. It would be a sad situation if having got an acceptance from e.g. Assange, the Union officers got together and said, “we think he’s guilty so will disinvite him” and stop members having any chance to engage.

    As for some of your other comments, I definitely sympathise. At the start of term, well over a thousand people turned up to see some of the “stars’ of Made in Chelsea in a comedy debate while one of the final events of term was the truly inspiring Nobel Peace Prize Winner Shirin Ebadi for which around 100 turned up. The preference of big names to favour talk formats, likewise.

    Every now and again though, something pretty rare outside of these places can happen. Last term I saw Vince Cable get systematically out-argued by the head of the Cambridge Student Marxist group and a Reverend from Tottenham get a standing ovation after telling the Prisons Minister why he just didn’t get the riots. The Union was also the only place that had all the candidates for the University Chancellorship come to speak publicly about their views. God knows, as institutions they’re far from perfect – but sometimes they can get it right.

    Anyway, I quite possibly am an overzealous advocate of free speech who will see the error of my ways in years to come but I just wanted to offer an opinion. I hope it makes some sense, even if, quite fairly, you disagree.

    • earlymodernjohn February 23, 2012 at 3:04 pm #

      Hi Calum,

      Thanks for your comment. It’s interesting (though not massively surprising) to hear that the Union’s been inviting DSK for a while now. That said, I can’t help but think that he wouldn’t be considered the biggest draw of the term if it wasn’t for the fact that he’s spent the last few months embroiled in some pretty hideous stuff. So, things have definitely changed.

      An answer to the question of when you disinvite someone? I’d say when you realise it’s no longer a good idea to have them speak. It’s different from speaker to speaker but when someone’s gone from being an interesting voice on contemporary politics to being arrested for his involvement in a prostitution ring, it’s worth convening the committee to rethink.

      And most importantly, on the presumption of innocence: while the argument you and other defenders of the invite have made sounds good – let’s have him here and engage with him rather than assuming he’s guilty! – it falls because he’s not going to be judged or engaged on the issues that make him controversial within the format of the talk. The Union website doesn’t mention the issue that makes him the big draw he no doubt will be. I’d be very surprised if the President, introducing him, acknowledges the reason the Chamber is packed. And the fact that he’s giving a talk with questions means he’ll be easily able to bat away questions about the burning issue as irrelevant to his topic. If he was going to face a real debate inspired by his current notoriety, I might feel differently. Instead, he gets a chance to chat and charm, all the while drawing on the Union’s and the university’s prestige, and all you get is a name on a poster. I think there’s only one winner here, and it’s not free debate or free speech.

      Thanks, though, for your comments – it’s interesting to get the view of an insider on the whole process.



  4. Niamh McNally February 23, 2012 at 7:11 pm #

    When I was a part of the Literary and Debating Society in NUIG a few years ago, I was left with a bad taste in my mouth after a similar (though much lower-key) event took place. In order to fulfil the “literary” element of the society’s duty, an invitation was issued to Cathal O’Searcaigh to come and speak on the subject of… actually, I’m not sure what he was there to speak on, as in the end I boycotted the event. I didn’t boycott because of the allegations of abuse of under-age Tibetan boys which were being made against O’Searcaigh at the time, or even because it had been recently uncovered that he had plagiarised some of his most recent Irish language poetry from an unknown Lithuanian poet. I railed against his appearance because he was there to give a “talk”. Not a panel discussion (he had turned down the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on Irish poetry held only weeks previous to this), or debate; there were very strict instructions from his people that he was not to be asked about any of the allegations during the event. He was there to promote himself as a poet. I think that he may have had a new book due out.
    Now, many people on campus were fascinated by the idea of hearing him speak on the topic of poetry. NUIG is, after all, Ireland’s bastion of Gaeilge, and the students of language and literature were keen to hear what he had to say about their most beloved of subjects. Who can blame them? The justification for the format of the event coming from committee was that he was being invited as a LITERARY guest, so couldn’t be expected to be held to the same standards as a guest for a debate event. Even as a literary guest, surely his literary credentials were up for discussion? Charges of plagiarism are incredibly serious, after all. But no, the society stuck obstinately to the view that it was more important to get bums on seats, particularly the bums of those who were more often than not detractors of the society, those who would accuse the society of being too focussed on debating, too cliquey and narrow in their interests.
    It was this event that really drove me to the opinion that ‘free speech for all’ is a fine sentiment, as long as it is tempered by reason. If we are too wrapped up in our egos on this matter, too obsessed with the power we have to give a fair and equal voice to all, what do we risk? Do we send the message that if you are “important” and have something to say, however hateful or self-promoting, as long as it will bring people into our house, regardless of how transient their presence may be- it’s worth sacrificing our integrity?
    If somebody has committed reprehensible acts on the one hand, but has fascinating expertise on the other, do we condone or ignore their evil-doing in order to milk that knowledge for ourselves? I simply can’t align myself with this kind of thinking. I’m willing to be convinced otherwise and to admit that I’m wrong, perhaps debating societies are obliged to give platforms to those who disgust us. I’ve simply never heard an argument for that case that convinced me for more than a few minutes.
    I have been on society committees, I understand the sense of obligation to create events with real pull, that will change minds and get people riled up. I understand the desire to be seen as radically in favour of debate- if you don’t believe that all voices should be heard, then what are you spending all of your time doing? The worst criticism that can be levelled at a university debater, as far as I can tell, is that your hobby is perpetuating liberal elitism. I think that the fear of being seen in that light can drive people to do things that they might not otherwise think prudent, and it is my opinion that giving unconditional platforms to unrepentant war criminals, pederasts and alleged rapists falls comfortably into that category.

  5. Irwin Gill February 24, 2012 at 3:55 am #

    Very interesting chat from all concerned. Having convened the Immigration Debate in UCD which sparked much of this debate (at least in Dublin) some years ago, this has always been an issue of particular interest to me. On that night I gave a brief speech in opposition to a motion proposed by a member of the audience that Justin Barrett be uninvited on the basis of his far-right opinions/ racism. It generated plenty of publicity for the L&H, making the Irish Times and several national radio stations. The debate itself was brief, with Justin Barrett being assaulted by a section of the crowd before he could address them. One of the best contributions of the night was given by a member of the crowd from the back of the theatre, after he too was assaulted by the same section of the crowd who alleged he was a member of a far-right organisation, in which he pointed out the irony of a group of people chanting (straight-faced) “no free speech for fascists”.

    Over the next few years, the Immigration Debate became a staple event in UCD. My opinion has always been that if this debate, and others, needed to happen then the order paper had to be balanced. The concern that many people seem to have concerns the motivation of the people who organise events with controversial guests. In our case, the Immigration Debate had been organised many months in advance while Justin Barrett only confirmed his attendance within a fortnight or so of the event. It was a debate worth having on its own merits, but it was a debate not actually had because of the opinion of a minority of the crowd that not all people have the same right to participate in a debate where their views will be challenged.

    In classic ex-debater style, I do fear things were better in my day. It’s easy to say from the outside, but there certainly seem to have been many events in the years that followed whose main motivation may have been to garner publicity for the societies organising them through the invitation of controversial figures, rather than to hold a debate which might change minds or provoke thought. Many of these events never happened due to security concerns. My opinion remains that the place for controversial or objectionable opinions is out in the open where they can be challenged and defeated, and college debating societies are an ideal forum. However, the suspicion remains in many minds that the motivation of convenors are not always entirely as they are stated.

    Where it becomes slightly harder to justify controversial opinions is when the event is not a debate, but rather a lecture. There are few such events in Irish debating societies; in the L&H the only such events occur when Honorary Fellowships are presented, and these are usually to figures entirely uncontroversial and universally well-liked in recognition of their achievements, (and in truth as a carrot to entice high-profile guests). The setup elsewhere seems to different, and I certainly don’t see DSK being invited anywhere to be honoured anytime soon. If he were being invited to a debate, afforded the same seven minutes as everyone else, and subjected to vigorous argument I would argue the same way as always: that he has no less of a right to his opinions than anyone else, and that if there’s something wrong with them he’s there to be exposed. I do wonder, however, why anyone would attend the DSK event as it stands; surely those who were impressed with his work before would now be disgusted (or at least uncomfortable) with his alleged recent actions, and those who’d never heard of him before he became infamous would surely not attend an event where an alleged criminal will talk about something entirely separate from the reason for his infamy. I don’t think the event will be any good, in short.

    With an even such as this, where there will be no direct debate, defence of the principle of free speech is not enough. Strauss-Kahn is not being afforded the same rights as everyone else, he is being afforded the additional right to an unchallenged platform to address an august institution whose motivations should surely lie beyond simple self-promotion in this instance. However, I would hate to see the logic applied to this discussion on John’s page also be applied to this issue when it arises in the context of controversial guests attending debates rather than talks or lectures. It is impossible to know the motivation of the person who writes the letter of invitation to a controversial guest, but no matter how reprehensible the opinions of the person they’ve invited we should always be willing to welcome them if they’re willing to come and take a hiding from an educated college crowd. Would that our government officials were as willing to engage in heated discussions with student bodies as those whose opinions we deride.

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