Like many Americans, when I heard of Columbia University’s decision to invite Mahmoud Ahmadinejad-the controversial president of Iran-to speak at its campus I felt this was just one more example of liberal elitist snobbery slapping the rest of us in the face. As this episode unfolded, I found myself more inclined to believe that Columbia University may have done something very important and necessary.
As is to be expected, those who defended Columbia’s decision to invite Ahmadinejad immediately deployed the “free speech rights” card to make their point. But is this really a matter of whether or not this man has the right and ability to get his message out? Not at all. He has the ability and, within the context of his nation’s governing structure, the right to say whatever he thinks, or at least whatever he has the political necessity to say.
Wherever one may stand on this argument, there is no denying that Ahmadinejad speaks from the second-largest bully pulpit in Iran (the largest belonging to the Grand Ayatollah), and an international media spotlight guaranteeing his message reaches virtually everywhere in the world, even to places that consider him the communication platform for Hitler’s last thoughts.
So here we have Columbia University, one of the nation’s top institutions of higher learning, extending a speaking invitation to a national leader who heads a government that believes the United States is the “Great Satan,” and who himself has stated that the effects of the Holocaust have been greatly exaggerated. What good could possibly come of that? As the thousands of protestors who gathered outside the gates of Columbia might have responded, not much.
On the surface, anyway.
Admittedly, Ahmadinejad is a whack job. I’ve written more than one article about him in which I compared him to another prominent historical figure who thought that Jewish people were a luxury the human race could ill afford. While Iran’s president has never called for the extermination of the Jews, he has called for Israel to be “wiped off the map.”
Let’s just call that difference a matter of degree.
Under any other circumstance I’d say that anybody who would give a guy like that the time of day-let alone a microphone-was just encouraging aberrant behavior.
Having said that, I’ve got to admit that listening to Columbia’s dean, John Coatsworth, explain why he invited Ahmadinejad, the whole idea of his appearance makes a lot more sense. Is it not a beneficial spectacle to see someone who spews that kind of hate and vitriol confronted by people who publicly counter his take on things? Would we see such an invitation from a university in Iran?
Seeing how it all unfolded, it seems very clear to me-especially given Ahmadinejad’s discomfort with the entire process-that the confrontation of a mentality such as his is what free speech is all about.
It is in the end the epitome of what makes us unique.
Scott Wacholtz is a graduate student in history. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org