Columbia University President Lee Bollinger raised an interesting question last week: Is it OK to invite an odious foreign leader to speak at your campus as long as you make it clear to the audience how despicable he is before you hand him the mike?
In a season when controversies over intellectual freedom have been cropping up all over academe, the appearance of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the venerable New York institution might have been the strangest and most dramatic.
To be sure, it's hard to rank challenges to free expression in a month that included the decision of the University of California Board of Regents to cancel a speech by former Harvard president Lawrence Summers because he had "come to symbolize gender and racial prejudice." And Erwin Chemerinsky, a leading constitutional law scholar, had his offer of the deanship of the University of California-Irvine law school withdrawn because of a column he had written for the Los Angeles Times. (The decision was ultimately reversed.) But l'affaire Ahmadinejad was a controversy in which academic politics, with its competing visions of political correctness, merged almost seamlessly with international politics in its most ominously volatile form.
Reckless. At the core of this contretemps was the question of whether inviting a reckless politician who has all but denied the Holocaust, called for the destruction of Israel, and persistently rejected United Nations demands for Iran to halt its uranium-enrichment program was a justifiable exercise of intellectual freedom or a deplorable lapse of judgment on the part of the Columbia administration.
Opposing camps had their ample say. Giving Ahmadinejad a respectable podium was "legitimizing" him, detractors said. It allowed him to advance his agenda in front of an American—indeed, global—audience, further elevating the standing of a man who is not even Iran's paramount leader (a distinction reserved for cleric Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) but who, nonetheless, plays a key role in Iran's proxy war against American interests.
And from the other side came the equally predictable justifications. You can't do any more to legitimize the already legitimate president of a nation. Putting him in front of an intelligent audience with open give-and-take is the best way of exposing both his limitations and his capacity for mischief. If you really believe in the marketplace of ideas, you must expose the consumers to the bad as well as the good—and if not in universities, where else?
Through it all, the orchestrators of the event stood firm. John Coatsworth, dean of the School of International and Public Affairs, who formally invited Ahmadinejad, insisted he would invite the leader of any nation to speak as long as the nation wasn't at war with America—and that included Adolf Hitler in the pre-war years.
Bollinger might have been in the more delicate position. A noted First Amendment scholar, he had taken flak for rescinding a similar invitation to Ahmadinejad last year. And he was conspicuously silent when a student and faculty organization retracted an invitation to Jim Gilchrist, leader of the Minuteman Project, which favors extreme measures to block illegal immigration. To support the most recent invitation to Ahmadinejad while attempting to mollify those who denounced it, Bollinger promised that the Iranian president would get no free ride and even issued a list of topics on which he promised to challenge him.
He made good on his promise. In addition to hitting on specific points from Holocaust denial to the imprisonment of journalists and scholars, Bollinger denounced the speaker as exhibiting "all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator."
But if Bollinger's gambit was successful in some ways—notably in partially placating some of the critics, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee—it also hinted at deeper uncertainties about where free expression and intellectual freedom really are in this country. While allowing that Bollinger's remarks "mitigated some of the harm," Walter Reich, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University, says that the event was still "a case of foolish free expression." In a world of global communication, Reich argues, there is no dearth of information about what people like Ahmadinejad think. So giving a respectable forum to such figures is less about providing occasions for exchanging ideas than about conferring status and credibility. "My take," says Reich, "is that we almost never make a distinction between freedom of speech and the wisdom of inviting someone to speak."
Demystifying. But others argue that context inevitably shapes ideas to suit those who shape the context. "There is something a little disingenuous about the media criticizing a university doing this [offering a forum to a controversial figure] when the media do it all of the time," says Rutgers University historian Jackson Lears. He applauds Columbia for demystifying some of the aura that has developed around Ahmadinejad, in part through the media's depiction of the man.
Going even further, Richard Bulliet, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Columbia and the first person approached by Iran's U.N. ambassador about renewing the invitation to Ahmadinejad, describes the event as having become "more of a circus than I anticipated" but also "more educational, raising so many issues that went beyond the words of a controversial world leader."
One such issue was Bollinger's introduction, which has become the focus, Bulliet says, of lively campus debate. More important, he says, the event allowed many people to gauge for themselves the character and intellect of a man whom the American media have depicted as being almost as diabolical and capable as Hitler. "I think it was good for the world to see how underwhelming he is," Bulliet says, not least, he adds, because it undercuts some arguments favoring immediate military action against Iran.
Perhaps what the world is really seeing in the Columbia episode is that even matters of intellectual freedom are subject to the tools of the political consultants: framing, shaping, and spinning. If so, more such setups may be expected. As for the post-event spinning, John Bolton, former American ambassador to the United Nations, declared that Ahmadinejad was the "big winner" in his Columbia appearance. And who played that line straight up as proof that their man had bested his "Zionist Jew" hosts? According to the New York Times, a commentator for Iran's state television.