Saturday, September 22, 2007

Ahmadinejad at Columbia

One of my readers recently expressed dissatisfaction that I and my colleagues appear to be taking "a back seat on" the issue of Ahmadinejad speaking at Columbia, adding that "the voice of members of the faculty of CLS should be heard on this." To which I respond:

1) The issues on which members of Columbia LAW School (not the sponsor of this event) have expertise are the ones on which we have been speaking up: free speech, academic freedom and the like. In case anyone was left wondering about this, let me say unequivocally that I strongly disagree with Ahmadinejad's offensive views (e.g., Holocaust denial) and conduct (e.g., support for terrorist groups, pursuit of nuclear weapons).

2) I'm not sure that it's so important to tell Americans that Columbia faculty do not share the views of Ahmadinejad---except to mitigate the PR damage done to the university by the contrary impression they might receive from those who like to bash Columbia. But I'm happy to do my bit to correct that grotesque misimpression. (See number 1, above.)

3) In any event, more important than reaching an American audience is reaching an Iranian one. Thus, I'm happy to announce that on Monday I'll be commenting on free speech and academic freedom issues arising out of this whole episode for Voice of America. The program will be translated into Farsi and will be widely available in Iran. (My commentary will occur before Ahmadinejad's speech, which I could not attend even if I wanted to, due to a conflict with my teaching schedule and the fact that registration for it is full.)

Posted by Mike Dorf


Yonatan said...

As the reader in question, I agree that the issue on which CLS members should have been heard is mostly the academic freedom/freedom of speech aspect of this whole ordeal. Unfortunately, I cannot say that I agree with your suggestion that CLS members have been speaking up about these issues in this particular context. It may be that this is because you believe this issue to be clearly within the core of these freedoms, rather then a stretch thereof (because you believe this visit does not raise raise any concerns, or for whatever other reason); it may be that as a result, you and others believe that this invitation is no different than any other (in terms of those rights). Without a clear statement to that effect, however, we're left guessing whether this is your view or not.
To the extent that this is your view, I think that others (and the comments suggest I'm not alone in thinking this) do not share that view, for many different reasons; for example, because this is a leader of over 70m people who does openly supports terrorism, who does pursue nuclear weapons, who does openly call for the wiping out of other states and who is garnering massive support outside his country through public appearances -- in other words, because this is not some Illinois Nazi whose usage of memorabilia is merely offensive. Thus, one would think that the limits of academic freedom are well worth discussing in this instance - a debate that CLS should spark, or in which it should at least take an active part.

Adam P. said...

As another CLS community member, albeit one who has been distracted by travel, I personally have been ticked off by the emails about Ahmadinejad that people have sent to the student body.
Most speakers at the University do not share the view of the ."University". Heck, I find the views of many speakers say, for the Federalist Society to be repugnant. Further, I personally find it just as bad that the University is hosting Secretary of HHS Mike Leavitt to speak on "Health Insurance for All" the same week- when the President is discussing vetoing SCHIP.

As an American Jew, I know that the nazi parallel is strong here, and is what is driving many people and emails: "He's an anti-semite!" Yet plenty of speakers who are anti-_____ would be welcome on our campus without a peep. (Mearshiemer /Walt have a point, after all.)
Not having Ahmadinejad on campus would have no effect on world affairs; my suspicions is that having him here will have none either. It certainly won't make our nation less safe, it will not lead to U.S.-Iran war (though people believing the rhetoric of opponents en masse might), and it will not lead to more oppression of Jews/women/gays/your minority of choice.
This has been a great lesson in irrational behavior for the point of expressing outrage. Perhaps outrage could be expressed in a more productive way.

Sally said...

Great to hear it on that last point, your VOA broadcast.

I do not think it is wrong to have Ahmadinejad speak at Columbia, he's a curiosity if nothing else (since if one wanted someone truly important to speak a better choice would be the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, not that this would be likely to happen).

It would help, though, if it appeared that Columbia truly did encourage diverse points of view. Perhaps the University could offer a speaking engagement to political activists Abdollah Momeni or Amir Yaghoub Ali. This, of course, might be difficult to do as they are both imprisoned in Iran right now.

It is interesting that the University wishes to hear from someone who represses so brutally the very thing it claims justifies why he is allowed to speak in the first place. He may speak in America but no one who opposes him is allowed to do so in Iran. What an encouraging message for those jailed dissidents, assuming they haven't been put to the lash yet and beaten to death.

Sally said...

"I find the views of many speakers say, for the Federalist Society to be repugnant. Further, I personally find it just as bad that the University is hosting Secretary of HHS Mike Leavitt to speak on "Health Insurance for All" the same week- when the President is discussing vetoing SCHIP."

The difference, of course, is that you are free to have that point of view and will not be imprisoned for it. This is not true in Iran where opposition in any form is suppressed.

By enabling the oppressor to speak freely when his fellow citizens are deprived of that right, the University is legitimizing his voice above all other Iranian voices.

It's not as if Ahmadinejad lacks opportunities to speak, that his only safe haven is Columbia University.

On a somewhat unrelated note, I would think law professors, if no one else, would know that allowing this man to speak at Columbia has nothing to do with free speech, at least in a 1st Amendment context.

Anonymous said...

Muslims Against Sharia condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the decision of Columbia University to provide a speaking venue for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Apparently letting Akbar Rafsanjani speak at the National Cathedral was not the height of American Dhimmitude, because providing a venue for the world's foremost anti-Semite, whose proclaimed goal is the destruction of the USA and Israel, definitely takes the cake. What is surprising is that we don't hear any complaints from Columbia alumni who should be ashamed of their silence.

More on the subject: Why Does Columbia host Ahmadinejad?

Ori H. said...

Dear Sally and Adam,

Sally, I think your point is well taken. To add to it, as I already expressed in another comment to another post here, not only is this not a free speech issue, it is also not an academic freedom issue, not in any real or in interesting way. This is a political event, of national and international proportions – a stage for the legitimization of the president of Iran, for the creation of a defused and odd alliance between the American far-left-Bush-haters (in contrast to those rationally opposed to him – the clear majority) and anyone who is perceived as the enemy of President Bush, as well as another move in Iran’s global PR game.

If the rules of academic discourse are maintained during Mondays’ “debate”, they will be manipulated and used to serve the PR ends of this man. He is not here to engage intellectually or academically. The thoughts that there will be any real “exchange” or that the “tough questions” that will be put before this man will make a difference border on the pathetic (today one does not hold up in his “hand a piece of paper” but posts it on the university home page).

To push the academic freedom point further, if one wishes to study him as a phenomenon, I hardly think one needs to invite him to speak. Finally, the last stand of the academic freedom argument is that of autonomy – it is up to the professors to decide what is worth studying, not the university. This is true, but this autonomy cannot be absolute. When so clearly deluded, we should ask whether sullying the name of Columbia and implicating all those affiliated with it, becoming a pawn in Iran's PR game and the cost to the university not trump the academic freedom-autonomy argument? I think it clearly does. The academic freedom point is a red herring. It is a sterile and sterile and sterilizing argument.

Sally, I think that calling the president of Iran a curiosity is perilous. He is not to be domesticated in this way; he is truly dangerous.

Adam, very few things in politics cause wars, hate-crimes, bigotry and death or anything else for that matter in and of themselves. Therefore, I do not understand your argument. In any case, and since you brought up the Nazi analogy, I ask you this: assuming that inviting Hitler to Columbia would have not changed a thing in history, would it still have been right? Or, would it not have been an indelible blemish?

As of this time tomorrow, the stain attached permanently.

Adam P. said...

Oh come on, indelible stains? Hyperbole much?

My point is that I am fairly confident that if this was an oppressive anti-gay leader, or anti-woman leader, the coverage on Fox News or uproar on blogs would be much smaller. There is some magic of anti-semitism in America- the Jewish exceptionalism.

If Kim Jong Il were here, the protest would be much smaller. If it were the Sultan of Saudi Arabia, we wouldn't hear a peep.

How often do universities get to engage with people who matter? Bollinger promises to ask real questions. Already, this event may have led to the release of someone from prison in Iran.

As a foreign policy matter, the Bush approach of isolate and demonize may be your preferred one; I don't think a University has an obligation to follow it because the speaker may be offensive. Any time we get into these value judgments, its dangerous turf. "He shouldn't have been invited to speak because he espouses _____________." You may argue this ____ (anti-semitism or pro-oppressionism) is different than some other ____ (anti-health care for American children), but such an amorphous rule is clearly open to manipulation and abuse.

Ori H. said...


I did not find a single answer in your comment to my arguments or any real attempt to engage with them. You offer a new argument based not on the merits of the issue at hand but more on speculative analogies. Even if the analogies are material, accurate or informed, and they are not, then I do not see how your argument works: give monster x a stage because people would not oppose, with the same energy, giving monster z a stage. You like to use visual gaps in your comment (such as: “__________”), perhaps you should work on the logical gaps a little more. In any case, your point about the “jewish exceptionalism”, as you put it, makes me not want to engage with any further. Enjoy the show on Monday.

Sally said...

"Sally, I think that calling the president of Iran a curiosity is perilous. He is not to be domesticated in this way; he is truly dangerous."

He is a curiosity because I don't think anyone in the audience at Columbia is going to consider his positions cogent or even sane. I know students like to put on the radical face and sometimes spout revolutionary positions -it's all part of the maturing process- but I don't really think too many in the crowd will be encouraged to see this man as a leader they might wish to follow or find his point of view especially attractive.

And he's a curiosity because he doesn't have the power in Iran. He's a stalking horse. The Supreme Leader, the Council of Guardians and the Assembly of Experts run the show.

Columbia is being used. This man wants to speak there because the University is highly regarded, well respected and widely known. His appearance enchances his credibility at the expense of dissident voices back home.

What Columbia gets out of it I really couldn't say. The University has no meaningful way to influence official government policy on Iran --and frankly shouldn't be trying to do that in any event. It is an academic institution after all, not a partisan political organization.

Adam P. said...

Ori, the fact that my comment about Jewish exceptionalism causes you to disengage merely emphasizes my point. There is a valid argument to be made that anti-semitism or anti-Israel attitudes are dealt with differently in this country than other isms. I don't suggest that either are good things, but if you simply look at the political coalitions, it is clear that there are people who react strongly to anti-Jewish hate or anti-Israel hate, but not so much to other forms. To dismiss this argument as offensive is absurd.
My point, which you misconstrued, was that there is a lot of speech that people find offensive. The gaps were there to show the danger of the theory for not hosting a speaker. If the only reason you think a university should exclude a speaker who is anti-semitic/anti-Israel/etc., and not one who is anti-immigrant/anti-gay/anti- is because you think his "anti"s are worse, you have established a very slippery slope. You confer in the majority the right to approve ideas as more or less offensive, and then prevent them from being aired. While there may be more consensus on Ahmadinejad, you cannot let the fact that more people think he's bad be the reason to exclude.

Ori H. said...

Dear sally,

I agree with everything you say accept for the stuff about him being a curiosity.

1. Iran has a complicated system of government, in which the president has considerable powers and discretion. He is not the most powerful person in the country, but this does not mean that he is a puppet. The reality is much more complicated. The fact that there are power struggles between segments of the Iranian rulers is proof that there is no one complete position of power there. In addition, he was elected and cannot so easily be removed. The man also has considerable symbolic power in the Islamic world, I am sorry to say. Iran is not Iraq under Hussein, where one person “ran the show”. And even if it were, would you invite Hussein’s second in command? I think not.

2. The crowed in Columbia are immaterial. As your arguments show, this is a matter of credibility in the eyes of the world and has to do with internal Iranian politics as well as with speackig to the Islamic world.

3. Finally, I fear that there will be those in the crowd or watching the speech on TV, even if few, that will, blinded by their hate of the Bush administration, will fall prey to his rhetoric; he will not be handing out copies of Mien Kamp, he is smarter than that. I hope I am wrong, but we will see.

Do no underestimate this man.

Sally said...

Well, Ori H., I think I'm going to have to stick by my comment that he's a curiosity. Adhmadinejad has been heard from quite a lot since he became President of Iran. His views are or should be well known to even the most casual news consumer.

The University didn't invite him because it thinks he will say something new or different. And it can hardly believe that a meeting between him and a select group of university students is going to result in some transformation of who and what he is.

Nothing new or interesting will come out of this. It is a sideshow, a carnival-like attraction if you will. To imbue it with any special meaning--other than its propaganda value which as I said earlier inures only to Iran's benefit-- is to give the event far more credit than it deserves.

US government policy towards Iran is not made in the meeting rooms at Columbia University. Those in attendance will be there to stare, to be able to say I was in the room when President Ahmadinejad spoke! The equivalent of rubber-necking at a freeway accident.

In Iran these same students would be hanging out in a coffeehouse somewhere, sucking on a hoookah, downing multiple cups of java or black tea and railing about how bad their government is. Doing that latter surreptitiously of course and therein lies the rub.

Yonatan said...

Adam P.

I know I'm probably wrong to even attempt this, but nonetheless - here it goes (Ori H. - I do apologize for doing this).

There is a clear difference between anti-Semites and anti-Gays, anti-abortion, anti-women (who are usually also anti-abortion), anti-evolution etc. The difference is simple yet striking, and quite frankly - I can't believe that you don't know it yourself, and are just playing naive, but here it goes. Anti gays (to pick one minority), at least in this country, try to deny gays the right to marry, the right to maintain a household, etc. While I find these views reprehensible, they are not quite on the same level as calling for the annihilation of the Jewish people and/or the Jewish state. Let it be absolutely clear: had an anti-gay leader stated that gays should all be killed, had openly funded ongoing anti-gay hate crimes, and had openly gathered armies for the stated purpose of nuking San Francisco and Fire Island, neither SIPA nor anyone else (at Columbia or any other university) would have dreamt of inviting such a person or of "engaging" with him in a debate. After all - we can find plenty of psychos calling for the bombing of abortion clinics and the bashing of gays; I don't see any of them being invited to Columbia (and rightly so).

In short, a double standard does exist, but it is exactly contrary to the one you suggest. Anti-Semitism is the only form of genocide-mongering (a charged term, I admit, but I don't see a different way to characterize a call by a mini-superpower for a whole state to be "wiped out") that is viewed as an acceptable issue for academic debate and for "pointed questions". In that sense, Ahmadinejad's invitation may indeed be the beginning of a slippery slope.

Adam P. said...

Yonatan, perhaps you would be more sensitive to the calls for annihilation of other groups if you were a part of them. But to say that no one calls for the annihilation of gays is simply false and ignorant. There is a massive "conversion movement". (The fact that you imply San Francisco is a gay city is also offensive in and of itself.) American politicians- AMERICAN- have made comments about the need for gay leper colonies. But perhaps the most blatant irony is that there are plenty of global political leaders who would love a homosexual genocide, and have homosexuality as a crime supporting execution (including, but certainly not limited to Iran). So if youre argument is that "no one wants to kill the gays", you are sadly mistaken. There are also places where women who would try to wear slacks are executed.

Yonatan said...

I assumed something like this would come, but still - these responses never cease to amaze me. Quite frankly, I find this one particularly lacking in intellectual integrity.

Had I said everything Adam attributes to me, I would have been insensitive; however, I did not. All I said was that there is no world leader that publicly supports ongoing gay bashing (and I don't mean support in words - I mean actively supply gay bashers with weapons), calls for annihilation of gay centers and actively pursues politics that could reasonably be expected to lead to those ends. To the extent that there was - such a leader should never have been invited to Columbia to discuss his views of gays; nor, I believe, would he have been invited.

As for me being offensive - I could apologize, but I'm not sure to whom: to gays? to the people of San Francisco? and for what?

Carl said...

there is no world leader that publicly supports ongoing gay bashing (and I don't mean support in words - I mean actively supply gay bashers with weapons)

I'm pretty sure being openly gay is a capital offense many Islamist countries.

Sobek said...

Carl, I bet you're embarrassed. Apparently there are no homosexuals in Iran.

Carl said...

Carl, I bet you're embarrassed. Apparently there are no homosexuals in Iran.

Yeah, I really missed the boat on that one, didn't I.

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