As I said on Sunday, I concur with Lee Bollinger’s decision to invite the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to speak before students and faculty of Columbia University because I believe that a free flow of ideas is a central tenet of American culture, and for good reason.
We are a democracy, where voters are responsible for choosing representatives that they feel suit their interests. The best voter decisions are, in my opinion, those made by informed voters. Inviting Ahmadinejad to speak allowed a less filtered view of his positions for Columbia University’s students. But the event benefited more than just those in the auditorium.
Because of the very controversial nature of Ahmadinejad’s statements, there were also many protests of his appearance on campus. The irony of their opposition to it was that because of the event, they have had an even larger forum with which to express their ideas.
Furthermore, Ahmadinejad’s ideas probably didn’t find much sympathy from Columbia University students, who like many student bodies at similar institutions, are probably pretty liberal. So when in response to a question about executions of homosexuals in Iran, Ahmadinejad states, “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country,” in order to deny culpability, he got laughed at and rightly so.
Of course, there were mistakes on Lee Bollinger’s part that I would like to point out too. In his introduction, perhaps to soften criticism of his decision to invite Ahmadinejad to speak, he decided to directly insult the leader by saying things like “Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.”
On one hand, this sets a tone that Columbia University is not “honoring” Ahmadinejad by allowing him to speak, as Dani Klein, Campus Director of StandWithUs, stated in a comment to Google News on this story. But on the other, the rather insulting nature of Bollinger’s introduction perhaps lent Ahmadinejad some undeserved sympathy from the audiance. Hopefully, this was gone by the time he tried to deny the existence of homosexuals in Iran, but it was somewhat foolish of Bollinger nonetheless.
What I think he should have done was to emphasize that many have questioned the statements made by Ahmadinejad in the past, which have run counter to many years of historical scholarship. By making insults that were not heavy on substantiation themselves, Bollinger put himself as a critic in a weak position.
Of course, most critics of Bollinger’s decisions are more inline with the concerns of Dani Klein: that by giving Ahmadinejad an extra forum to speak, Bollinger was “honoring” Ahmadinejad. This attitude bothers me because it speaks to a notion that even allowing someone a forum is confirming their views. It’s an understandable notion. After all, why doesn’t Columbia open its doors to a whole host of unsubstantiated controversial views like those circle-squarers, flat earthers, and water dowsers?
But that question misses the point of the talk. Ahmadinejad is was not invited simply because he has controversial views. He was invited because he was a head of state and one that wasn’t heard much in the United States as a result of our countries’ diplomatic relations or lack thereof.
Furthermore, this talk wasn’t meant to benefit Ahmadinejad, and I would be surprised if it did much in his favor in the mind of Columbia University students. What it did do was give those students a clearer view of the views and and, more importantly, the posturing of this particular head of state. This speech benefited the students, not Ahmadinejad, by giving them open access to him and perhaps clearing the doubts that he is not a man that should be trusted.