The hysteria from certain circles was notable--especially on Commentary's Contentions blog, from Hugh Hewitt, and the ogress Caroline Glick. When Contentions and Glick, in particular, become hysterical, I become suspicious. These are people for whom every adversary is Hitler and it's eternally 1938. I'm also suspicious of anti-Iranian propaganda because it's part of a run-up to a military assault on Iran, to which I'm very much opposed.
On the other hand, A. is no pussycat. In addition to his apparent involvement in the embassy hostage-taking in the early days of the Islamic Revolution, his régime has been highly repressive toward Iranian universities, he has hosted a conference featuring some of the nastiest holocaust-deniers, and (depending on which translation you read) advocated abolishing the state of Israel or wiping out its inhabitants. The régime of which he's a part is allegedly now supplying weapons to those who are attacking our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Apparently A. awaits the arrival of the Mahdi, the Shi'a Messiah, who will complete the conquest of the world for Islam. None of this makes him very attractive as an invited, official guest of an American university. I agree with Daniel Larison that it would have been better for Columbia not to have extended an official invitation to such an unsavory character:
Manifestly, the man’s views are very often ridiculous, and he is a ranting demagogue, an Iranian Huey Long with less common sense. He is, however, a shrewd political operator who knows how play the angles. To give him a forum is to play into his hands and to treat him as the world leader that he would like to pretend to be. It flatters his ego, builds up his reputation around the world and strengthens his hand at home. It makes the task of those who oppose anti-Iranian warmongers at home harder, it helps stoke the fires of Persophobia and it is in itself a colossal blunder on every level. It is quite one thing to argue that Ahmadinejad is a preposterous demagogue whose rantings pose no threat to anyone but his unfortunate listeners and quite another to pretend that Ahmadinejad is just another citizen in the republic of letters and a participant in free-flowing intellectual debate to whom we issue “sharp challenges,” such as: “Dear boy, wouldn’t you reconsider your slightly troubling claims about the Holocaust?”
The problem with inviting Ahmadinejad is revealed by a simple test: would anyone in an academic institution be willing to vouch for a speaker with similar views if he did not come from a country currently being vilified by our government, or if he were a white European? When Columbia and other universities extend invitations to far, far more reasonable and decent foreign politicians–a Joerg Haider or Filip DeWinter, for instance–then I will begin to believe their claims about a desire for open and active debate. Until then, I will hold the view that such “free speech” and “academic freedom” mean speech and views of which some established consensus already approves.
That said, the follies of the critics are worthy of note.
- Free speech. This is not a free speech issue. The point is not whether the many is allowed to speak at Columbia, but whether the University should have extended him an official invitation. I doubt Columbia suppresses speakers who advocate Shi'ite Islamism, reserving that honor for opponents of illegal immigration. (The Columbia administration did not suppress Gilchrist's talk, just winked at unofficial suppression). Even if Columbia banned pro-Iranian Islamist speakers, that might be a campus freedom issue, but not a First Amendment matter--that amendment prohibits only government repression of speech.
- Hitler analogies. Unsavory as A. is, the Hitler analogy is over the top. Iran has funded some unsavory activities, supplied weapons to people we dislike and dabbled in terrorism, to be sure, but it has not made war on anyone, other than Saddam before we did, and not by their own choice. Nor does Iran appear likely to make war on anyone, not even Israel, from whom, under the present régime, it in fact purchased weapons not so long ago. Iran is a second-rate power and will remain so even if it acquires nukes.
- War drums. The agitation against Columbia's decision to invite A. was in large part powered by people who want the U.S. to bomb Iran. I suspect that these folks created the controversy as a way of inflaming opinion against Iran and those who favor diplomacy over bombs as a way of dealing with the issues raised by Iranian policy. They could play into popular prejudices (partly justified) against namby-pamby academics who would forgive anything in the name of tolerance and multiculturalism.
The opponents changed their tune when Columbia President Lee Bollinger introduced A. with a denunciatory speech. This diatribe won Bollinger points with the bomb Iran crowd, and presumably with potential donors who are pro-Israel and might have been put off by the invitation.
In the Middle East, however, where hospitality is a cardinal virtue, this diatribe played into Ahmadinejad's hands, making Bollinger seem crude, rude and petty.
The Iranians also have questions to ask Bollinger. Lefty blogger Louis Proyect, who has some sort of staff job at Columbia, points out that Columbia has had issues with invitations and honors to unsavory characters in the past, including its award of an honorary degree to the Shah, who was unsavory in his own pro-US way.
Lee Bollinger himself seems to be what is called an infeliz in Spanish, appointed President of Columbia because of his association with the affirmative action program at the University of Michigan.
Like everything else, this overplayed flap will blow over. The issue of relations with Iran will not. The danger of war remains.