Falwell, Lange debate nuclear-weapons morality. Their televised Oxford showdown further muddies an already murky issue

A complex question was further complicated by simplistic reasoning during an allegedly enlightening debate at the Oxford University Union recently. Great Confrontations at the Oxford Union (PBS, Monday, June 10, 10-11 p.m., check local listings for day and time, since many PBS stations plan to schedule the program at their own convenience) called upon David Lange, prime minister of New Zealand, and the Rev. Jerry Falwell, leader of the Moral Majority, to debate the motion ``Nuclear Weapons Are Morally Indefensible.''

Late last year Mr. Lange created a furor by denying port access to United States nuclear vessels. Since the US refuses to identify nuclear vessels, the ban, in effect, bars all US vessels from New Zealand waters, even those there to defend New Zealand. The Rev. Mr. Falwell, through his 392-station TV network, preaches peace through military strength, and other conservative and fundamentalist causes.

Though the confrontation is described by moderators Peter Jay (former British ambassador to the US) and ABC Nightline correspondent Jack Laurence as a ``David and Goliath'' debate between a ``Bible-thumping Southerner'' and a ``populist labor leader,'' the fact is that both are ministers -- Falwell a Baptist and Lange a Methodist. And both tend to defend their points of view with a single-mindedness that allows little room for reasonable disagreement . . . or even partial agreement.

Lange, representing a kind of ingenuous idealism, charges that to compel an ally to accept nuclear weapons against its will is totalitarianism. He claims his unilateral action ``stops the march into mutual nuclear madness.'' He does not, however, indicate New Zealand's plan for its own self-defense.

Falwell, stressing nuclear deterrence as not in conflict with religious morality, points out that there has been no war in the Western alliance in 40 years, courtesy of nuclear preparedness. He fools the audience by declaring that ``the Empire has enough nuclear weapons to destroy us, but nobody fears being nuked,'' and then answers catcalls by revealing that he is referring to the British Empire. ``It is not the weapons we distrust,'' he says, ``but the people in control of them.'' A cute ploy that gets a positive audience response, but basically an evasion of the main issue of morality.

A wide range of Oxford's idiosyncratic scholars interrupt the debate now and then to add lots of fun and games but very little substance. But since nobody really confronts the issue of moral indefensibility anyway, the students merely stimulate the atmosphere of intellectual high jinks.

At the close of what turned out to be a rather superficial debate by extreme partisans, the 600 assembled students, ambassadors, and other dignitaries voted by exiting the debating chamber through doors marked ``Ayes'' or ``Noes.'' Lange won 298 to 250.

Now that the flash and filigree are all over at Oxford, how about a solid debate by serious thinkers who truly represent a wider range of responsible points of view? -- 30 --

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