“The only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind.”
If only those words of John Stuart Mill had been taken to heart by members of Congress Tuesday, when Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Congress about President Obama’s ongoing negotiations with Iran. For almost a month, more than 50 Democrats had created controversy by announcing their plans to boycott the speech, blaming Speaker John Boehner for inviting Netanyahu for “partisan” purposes.
Alan Dershowitz, a liberal Democrat and prominent legal expert, tried to convince Democrats to attend the speech in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, but to no avail. “Congress has the right to disagree with the prime minister, but the idea that some members of Congress will not give him the courtesy of listening violates protocol and basic decency to a far greater extent than anything Mr. Netanyahu is accused of doing for having accepted an invitation from Congress,” he said.
Regardless of your opinion on Netanyahu’s perspective of the current negotiations with Iran, you have to admit that it is reprehensible for our elected leaders to skip the speech as a political statement, only to watch in their private offices across the street.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) wrote in the Chicago Tribune that she wouldn’t attend Netanyahu’s speech because Boehner was “using the most prestigious venue in the world for cynical, political purposes.”
If the floor of the House of Representatives is not a proper forum for political discussion, then what is?
Former Senator Joe Lieberman appeared on Meet the Press Sunday to debate Rep. Schakowsky on her decision to skip the speech. A Democrat himself, Lieberman had a strong message to the Democrats planning to skip, claiming that the speech would not have been politicized without their decision to be absent. “In other words, if Jan is right and John Boehner is trying to prove that Republicans are better friends of Israel, then the way to disprove that is for all the Democrats to go,” he said.
Ultimately, the appeals to open-mindedness and respect from other Democrats did not work, as more than 50 Democrats skipped the speech. Some watched on television, but others took to social media to discuss other issues and ignored the speech altogether. Even Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), the House Democratic leader, expressed visibly angry body language throughout the 40-minute speech, saying afterward that she was “near tears.”
The Democrats’ boycotting of a prominent foreign leader’s speech because of a disagreement with his perspective exhibits exactly the kind of closed-mindedness politicians are criticized for. Republicans undoubtedly disagreed with most of President Obama’s State of the Union, but that didn’t stop them from attending.
Netanyahu had a very important voice to offer on the negotiations with Iran, as Israel will be a prime target if Iran develops a nuclear weapon. To deny him a hearing is to condemn his opinions as invalid before hearing them. This sets a dangerous precedent for our elected leaders, who should serve the interests of their constituents by remaining open to all opinions rather than pushing their own agendas.
Perhaps the Democrats who stayed in their offices could take a lesson from Mill: “To call any proposition certain, while there is any one who would deny its certainty if permitted, but who is not permitted, is to assume that we ourselves, and those who agree with us, are the judges of certainty, and judges without hearing the other side.”