Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Making the Best of a Bad Situation

The averting of a total calamity yesterday at Columbia, is owed to the courageous stand by CU president Lee Bollinger, who used the nutcase's presence on campus as a teaching moment. Now, we have been highly critical of Bollinger who did precious little to chastise the Columbia's students who prevented the leader of the Minutemen organization from speaking at CU last year; and we still feel that there was no need for the university to give this low rent dictator a prestigious platform. Bollinger's confrontation, however, managed to salvage the situation.

But was this really all about free speech? Free speech-and the vigorous exchange of ideas in an unfettered marketplace-is a principle of democratic politics, and doesn't extend to the avowed foreign enemies of this country. And a free speech forum is about promoting dialogue and debate; Is there something to debate about the Holocaust? Or about the proposed genocide of a nation?

Now obviously, the clerical fascism that the Iranian avows sees homosexuality as a mortal sin, deserving of a stoning death-which is the kind of punishment that has already been executed in Iran on more than one occasion. Would Columbia's invite a religious leader from America to campus to espouse these kinds of views? We think that all hell would break loose.

So why invite Ahnadinejad, only to excoriate him for his odious opinions, beliefs that Bollinger rightly believes have no place in any democratic system? Last year our good buddy Clyde Haberman chastised conservatives for rebuking Columbia for allowing the Minutemen to be shouted down, while at the same time pressuring the university to not allow Ahmadinejad a platform:
"Particularly upset last week were the city’s more conservative editorial writers, who accused Columbia of not doing enough to protect speech unpopular on the politically liberal campus.
A few weeks earlier, the same editorialists had applauded Columbia for canceling a speaking invitation sent to
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the nuke-seeking, Holocaust-denying president of Iran. Someone like that, the editorials said, had no business being invited. Sound familiar?

This is as false a comparison as you can make. To say that an American wanting to advocate a certain border policy for immigration is equivalent to a foreign dictator whose largess is contributing to the deaths of American soldiers is to reify the concept of free speech into an unrecognizable concept. We need to have the voices of the Jim Gilchrests on campus, if only because they are so rarely espoused. On the contrary, the virulent anti-American and anti-Israeli opinions that we've heard from the Iranian are, well, quotidian on most US campuses.

So one cheer for Bollinger. But we're still skeptical about the reification of free speech at Columbia because we know too well how selective and hypocritical the elite professoriat can be. We know full well that you wouldn't see the kind of polite demonstrations that were seen yesterday on Broadway, if a vicious right wing foreign figure was invited to Columbia, But why fantasize? That's a situation that simply will never happen at any Ivy League institution.