Snarky Behavior

Choose Your Next Words Wisely, Persian

September 24, 2007 · 1 Comment

It’s been an interesting week at SIPA since it was announced that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be speaking today as part of Columbia’s World Leader’s Forum. I’ve been contacted by various members of the media (including CNN) to give a perspective of the students’ reactions to the visit, but have declined because I don’t take myself seriously enough to represent the perspectives of others.

That said, I’ll be sure to write my eses after the talk to give a sufficiently snarky perspective.

One thing I’d like to discuss beforehand is the strong reaction from the student body against Columbia’s decision to invite Ahmadinejad in the first place. The refrain is that Ahmadinejad is “repugnant” and by offering him a platform Columbia “legitimizes” his agenda.

A law student I was chatting with put it to me this way: Ahmadinejad’s beliefs are so beyond the realm of acceptable discourse (denying the Holocaust and questioning whether Jews should be considered human beings) that his world view is not worthy of consideration. It’s analogous to inviting a member of the Flat Earth society to come speak on globalization.

But are the beliefs of the Flat Earther legitimized because he lives in America, which provides a platform for him to publicly espouse his viewpoints? Does he “leverage” the institutional legitimacy of the marketplace of ideas by introducing a theory that was denounced centuries ago?

I suspect not. I trust in my facilities of reason to separate good ideas from bad ones. As my roommate likes to say: “You can’t bullshit a bullshitter.”

So when the Flat Earther finishes his argument on the flatness of the earth, I don’t say to myself, “Huh! I never thought of it that way!” I instead will introduce him to Ms. Teen South Carolina so she can show him on a map where The Iraq is, and such as.

The irony here is that John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney and Rudy Giulliani are condemning Ahmadinejad’s visit as a public relations ploy. They make the argument that his opinions aren’t valid because he supports transnational terrorism by funding Hezbollah. It is critically important to AIPAC (which funds all of their presidential campaigns) that terrorism within the United States continue to be framed as apolitical, and a reflection of irrational cultural hatred against Jews and the Israeli state.

Ahmadinejad is obviously not going to bring his “Death to America” A-game to Columbia. He’s going to talk about issues of sovereignty, of America’s aggressive middle-east policy, of the asymetric power politics in Israeli-Palestianian relations. He’s going to defend himself and his positions as a leader of a threatened nation under tremendous political pressure both internally and externally. He’s going to criticize the United States for introducing instability in his region by failing in Afghanistan and Iraq.

If we as Americans don’t have prepared and justified responses to these accusations, if we are so insecure as to the salacious or pernicious potential of the words of a hate-mongerer, then maybe we’ve taken for granted our rights to free speech and free media. Censuring Ahmadinejad isn’t going to stop him from being the president of Iran, or stop him from acquiring nuclear arms, or stop him from interfering in Iraq. And allowing him to speak certainly isn’t going to make his positions any more or less “legitimate.”

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1 response so far ↓

  • Jon // September 24, 2007 at 11:55 am | Reply

    From the President Bollinger, of Columbia University:

    Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:

    I would like to share a few thoughts about today’s appearance of President Ahmadinejad at our World Leaders Forum. I know this is a matter of deep concern for many in our University community and beyond. I want to say first and foremost how proud I am of
    Columbia, especially our students, as we discuss, debate and plan
    for this highly visible event.

    I ask that each of us make special efforts to respect the different
    views people have about the event and to recognize the different
    ways it affects members of our community. For many reasons, this
    will demand the best of each of us to live up to the best of
    Columbia’s traditions.

    For the School of International and Public Affairs, which developed
    the idea for this forum as the commencement to a year-long
    examination of 30 years of the Islamic Republic in Iran, this is an important educational experience for training future leaders to confront the world as it is — a world that includes far too many brutal, anti-democratic and repressive regimes. For the rest of us, this occasion is not only about the speaker but quite centrally about us — about who we are as a nation and what universities can be in our society.

    I would like just to repeat what I have said earlier: It is vitally
    important for a university to protect the right of our schools, our deans and our faculty to create programming for academic purposes. Necessarily, on occasion this will bring us into contact with beliefs many, most, or even all of us will find offensive and even odious.

    But 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.

    The great majority of student leaders with whom I met last week
    affirmed their belief that this event, however controversial, is
    consistent with the values of academic freedom we share at the
    center of university life. I fully support, indeed I celebrate, the
    right to peacefully demonstrate and engage in a dialogue about this
    event and this speaker, as I understand a wide coalition of our
    student groups are planning for today. That such a forum and such
    public criticism of President Ahmadinejad’s statements and policies could not safely take place on a university campus in Iran today sharpens the point of what we do here. The kind of freedom that will be on display at Columbia has always been and remains today our nation’s most potent weapon against repressive regimes everywhere in the world. This is the power and example of America at its best.


    Lee C. Bollinger

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