In lumine Tuo videbimus creperum

There was a predictable ruction about whether or not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should have been allowed to speak at Columbia today, and I must say that at the very least it was gratifying to see that he was given a chilly greeting. It was nice to see the academic community turning out to express their disapproval of America’s enemies for a change.

Lots of people thought he shouldn’t have been allowed to speak at all, and indeed I can see both sides of the argument. On the one hand, we know where the man stands, and what he is. He has made it abundantly clear that he is an anti-Semite, a Holocaust denier, and that he is firmly committed to the destruction of both the US and Israel. It required no precognitive abilities to imagine what he would say at Columbia; we’ve all heard his smug and pious lectures to the West many times. He is our mortal enemy, and emblematic of everything we stand against: intolerant religious fundamentalism, political authoritarianism, rejection of Enlightenment values, and repression of freedom. Why should we provide a forum for this man?

On the other hand, our society is strong enough that we had nothing to fear from letting him bray on the Columbia stage, and we made a point about free speech by doing so, I suppose: he spoke, and it did us no harm. I think it speaks better of us that we did so. He also made rather a fool of himself with his silly remark that there are “no homosexuals in Iran.”

But I am very glad that we didn’t let him gloat at Ground Zero. That would have been profoundly, unconscionably offensive to the memory of those who died there. I’m only sorry that the reason given had to do with “security”, and that the city didn’t make it clear that he was personally unwelcome, as Rudy Giuliani would have done (and did do, with that vermin Arafat).

Finally, I think it is important to keep in mind that Ahmadinejad’s position is rather inflated in Western minds. The real power in Iran – the true head of state and commander of the military – is not Ahmadinejad, but Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

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11 Comments

  1. bob koepp says

    Hi Malcolm –
    Yes, it is a good thing for a liberal society to permit the braying of asses like Ahmadinejad. So long as they can restrain the impulse to actually advocate proscribed actions, they should be free to demonstrate to all just how contemptible their thinking is.

    Posted September 25, 2007 at 10:52 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Glad you agree, Bob. And he did a bang-up job of it, too.

    Posted September 25, 2007 at 10:55 am | Permalink
  3. In my view, even those who “advocate proscribed actions” ought to be given a forum to do so. I believe that freedom of speech ought to be absolute (making the usual exceptions for libel, commercial speech, shouting fire in a crowded movie theater, etc.) because it is always better to allow all forms of speech, no matter how offensive, than to suppress it.

    Let’s suppose he advocated nuclear war against Israel. One would think that would be a “proscribed action.” There are plenty of people in the US who advocate nuclear war against Iran. Should they also be stopped from their right to free speech? If not, where is the distinction?

    I think it is shameful for Sheldon Silver to threaten punitive action against Columbia for inviting him to speak. He asked if Hitler should have been given a forum in 1938. My answer would unequivocally be yes. Providing a forum is not tantamount to making an endorsement. Regardless of what you or I may think of him, Ahmadinejad is a head of state, and it is better to hear what he has to say — regardless of how ridiculous or offensive it may be — than to deny him the right to speak. If he makes a fool of himself — as he did — then fine. What is the damage in that?

    And here’s some red meat for you: tens (hundreds?) of thousands of innocents died as a result of George Bush’s invasion of Iraq. This is exponentially greater than anything which Ahmadinejad ever did. Should George Bush be prohibited from speaking in a public forum?

    Posted September 25, 2007 at 6:40 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi, Pete!

    Since I agree with you about having given a forum to Ahmadinejad (although I suppose there may be some incitements to “proscribed actions” that might reasonably fall under the same category as shouting Fire! in a crowded theater), thankfully I don’t have to argue with you about whether George Bush also ought to be given a forum, and I am delighted further to be able to avoid getting into an unproductive argument with you about the merits of our having invaded Iraq in the first place, a topic about which I know we have an utterly intractable disagreement.

    Likewise, because I doubt it would get us anywhere, I shall avoid sparking a dispute about the Iranian government’s chasteness and purity as contrasted with our own – though were I so inclined, I might lay a great deal of the sectarian bloodbath in Iraq at their feet, not to mention the excesses of Hezbollah, etc., and of course responsibility for the many, many dissidents rotting in Iran’s own jails, and in its soil.

    Posted September 25, 2007 at 6:49 pm | Permalink
  5. bob koepp says

    I agree with Peter, I think. In fact, almost as soon as I hit the submit-button, I reconsidered my mention of ‘proscribed actions,’ since a lot of things are proscribed, at least in law, that I think should not be. Still, if someone is pressing listeners to engage in mayhem in a rather immediate manner, and it’s not feasible to try to counter the incitement with measured words, then more repressive measures are probably justifiable. But it’s beyond my capabilities to define the boundary between what should and what should not be tolerated in the way of speech.

    Posted September 25, 2007 at 7:19 pm | Permalink
  6. Mac: no argument as to the evil of the Iranian government — there are a lot of Iranian exiles here in the Bay Area, and I’m very familiar with how despicable the regime is. A friend of mine, who has been here for years, went back to visit his sister, and the Iranian government knew where he worked, where he lives, and tried their damndest to intimidate him.

    Bob: “it’s beyond my capabilities to define the boundary between what should and what should not be tolerated in the way of speech.”

    That is why all speech — or speech as defined as the expression of ideas — ought to be allowed. Some things in life are absolutes. I believe that the freedoms in the First Amendment — speech, religion, assembly, the right to redress of grievances — are among them.

    Posted September 25, 2007 at 7:28 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Hi Peter,

    I agree with you about the freedoms you mention, although when it comes to freedom of religion, while I agree that one ought to be free to believe whatever one likes, I am less inclined to see any sort of unchallengeable privilege to stuff the heads of helpless children full of ignorant fundamentalist rubbish.

    As for absolutes: as I’ve already said, we may agree (and in fact we generally do) on some set of bedrock principles — to the point that we might be willing to make any sacrifice for their protection and promotion — but I don’t think that there are in fact any absolute “oughts” in a truly objective sense. I realize this is a rather unpopular position, and that it would be easy to mistake it for moral relativism. But it isn’t that at all.

    Posted September 25, 2007 at 10:03 pm | Permalink
  8. bob koepp says

    Peter – Do you really mean that people should be allowed to yell ‘FIRE’ in crowded places? I’m a huge fan of “absolutes,” but only in abstract realms. On the ground, where morality has to do its work, I suspect that there are no absolutes, and that the best we can do is minimize the degree to which competing absolutes get “diluted.”

    Posted September 26, 2007 at 11:37 am | Permalink
  9. Let me get this straight… ROTC is not allowed on campus… but he was.

    It just seems counterintuitive.

    Posted October 1, 2007 at 3:06 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Maven, I agree. I don’t mind that he was allowed on campus – no harm done – but that ROTC is forbidden is just awful, I think.

    Posted October 1, 2007 at 4:22 pm | Permalink
  11. Mind you, I tend to have more “Quaker” leanings! The cirumstances were just rife with hypocrisy.

    Posted October 2, 2007 at 2:59 pm | Permalink