Sunday, September 23, 2007

Ahmadinejad Comes to Columbia

Wow, this post turned out to be weirdly prescient. As you've probably heard by now, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will speak at Columbia University on Monday. The Iranian leader will be appearing as part of an event called the World Leaders Forum.

Meanwhile, a plan to reinvite Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist to speak on campus has fallen through. Apparently, he was only allowed to appear in a debate format alongside one of the leaders of the mob that stormed the stage during his previous appearance. Not surprisingly, this person refused to participate, thus prompting the cancellation.

Columbia President Lee Bollinger has issued a statement defending Ahmadinejad's appearance. Here is the key passage:

I would also like to invoke a major theme in the development of freedom of speech as a central value in our society. It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas, or the weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas, or our naiveté about the very real dangers inherent in such ideas. It is a critical premise of freedom of speech that we do not honor the dishonorable when we open the public forum to their voices. To hold otherwise would make vigorous debate impossible.

Stirring words, and I certainly agree with them in principle. However, in practice, Columbia has a long and ignominious history of actions that help "make vigorous debate impossible". The Gilchrist case is just one example.

Another instance concerns Columbia's lack of an ROTC program. Columbia has banned ROTC from campus because of the military's congressionally mandated "don't ask, don't tell" ban on homosexual conduct. However, in Ahmadinejad, Columbia will host the representative of a regime that imposes the death penalty for such behavior. So, an institution that bars open homesexuals is not acceptable on campus, but the president of an autocracy that hangs people for engaging in gay sex is? Glad we've cleared that up.

Columbia student and Marine Corps reservist Matt Sanchez has described the campus atmosphere of hatred and intolerance directed towards him and other members of the military. The same military that is under attack from Iranian supplied weapons in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

In an October 2006 piece, Columbia alumnus Ross Kaminsky noted that there is an ingrained environment of intolerance at the university going back for decades:

Around 1960, Ayn Rand was invited to speak at Columbia. My father went to hear her. She was shouted down and, unable to address the crowd, left the podium after properly scolding the students for their bad manners. The protesters spent much of their time railing against the evils of capitalism and liberty.

In about 1985, there were protests and scuffles as students barricaded Hamilton Hall to demand the University divest itself of investments in companies which did business in South Africa. The protesters spent much of their time railing against the evils of capitalism and liberty, with somewhat more physical violence than had been seen 25 years earlier.

And now, 20 years after those protests, I see Columbia students act aggressively, irresponsibly, and disgustingly, trying to silence another invited speaker.


Throughout all the years that my family and friends have attended Columbia, it has repeatedly represented itself as a truly illiberal institution, in a way that only the most "liberal" institutions can. The students live in a world which would make Orwell shudder: speech can justify violence, economic conservatives are called "fascists," and any talk the students disagree with is labeled "hate speech."

The final absurdity, of course, is that Ahmadinejad is presiding over a systematic campaign to crush academic freedom and turn Iranian universities into ideological indoctrination centers. Just this weekend, three Iranian students went on trial for the crime of, according to RFE/RL, "publishing anti-Islamic images in a student newspaper". In this regard, it is both ironic and frightening that the same campus leftists who physically disrupted Gilchrist's speech last fall also condemned Columbia for withdrawing a speaking invitation to Ahmadinejad at about the same time. Perhaps they recognize a kindred spirit when they see one.

It is not the invitation to Ahmadinejad that bothers me so much, as loathsome and vile a fanatic as he is. Rather, it is the double standard involved, the idea that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is permitted to express his views at Columbia while the American military and many conservatives are not. If Lee Bollinger wants to create a campus where free expression truly exists, he should start by ensuring that all opinions can be voiced without fear of intimidation or disruption. Restoring the campus ROTC program would also be a positive step. President Bollinger should stop focusing on theoretical defenses of free speech and instead work to build a university that actually practices it.


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