Petty and Cruel Dictator: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Harry Kalven, the all but very important First Amendment scholar and one who I address frequently in my classes, stated that “as a thumbnail summary of the last two or three decades of speech issues in the Supreme Court, we may come to see the Negro as winning back for us the freedoms the Communists seemed to have lost for us.” Still, as noted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., my third favorite black studies scholar, “Kalven would be shocked to see the stance that some blacks now take toward the First Amendment, which once protected protests, rallies in the 1960s: The byword among many black activists and black intellectuals is no longer the political imperative to protect free speech; it is the moral imperative to suppress ‘hate speech.’ ” Of all people, I believe oppressed minorities should welcome free speech; I realize this seems a bit controversial, but it is the instrument of voice that allows intellectualism and liberalism to grow; it is that of conservatives who look to oppress the voice and freedoms of the oppressed. Iran’s conservative leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad represents the same threat that American Communists faced in the 1950s, blacks until the last 35 years, and other oppressed sub groups. Thus, I was pleased to see that Columbia University did not talk about liberalism and discourse, they allowed it to happen.

Two-thirds of colleges and universities have banned a variety of forms of speech or conduct that creates or fosters an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment on campus, such as racial slurs directed at minority groups: Jews, gays, lesbians, blacks, Mexicans, etc. As a black socialist in a conservative nation, I struggled with Columbia University inviting Ahmadinejad to speak. I questioned the choice because I would object to providing such a forum to the head of the KKK; however, after careful consideration, I applaud Lee Bollinger’s decision to create a forum about oppression and freedom. I am not the most patriotic person in America, but I value this country for its progress. I am allowed to have and advocate my beliefs and ideological constructions. If we are to be the model of freedom and intellectual integrity, we must show the world that Americans are willing to engage in discourse over unpopular views. If that means allowing a dictator to voice his fundamentalist’s views…so be it


19 thoughts on “Petty and Cruel Dictator: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

  1. Hey, what do you think of his anti-gay comment. He would be a Republican here in America. And he really thinks Iran has no gays. He is a fool. I am not sure if I can with ease say I agree withh you, Carson. Allowing people to voice their hate for Jews and gays is immoral. Civil Rights and the voice of blacks was very different.

  2. Carson

    “it is the moral imperative to suppress ‘hate speech.’ ” Of all people, I believe oppressed minorities should welcome free speech;”

    So you disagree with Gates here. You two are moving in different directions.

  3. I initially had mixed thoughts about having Ahmadinejad speak at Columbia. As an alum, I’m aware that the campus is very liberal and ordinarily supportive of free speech. However, I’m also aware of Ahmadinejad’s views of the Jewish community/Israel, and how his presence would be offensive to Jews everywhere, in particular those who’ve spent (or are spending) a lot of money at Columbia. Michael, I respectful disagree with your perspective that the speech issues are involved in the civil rights movement are different that than the hate speech spewed by Ahmadinejad–it’s the same. At it’s core, the theme of the speech promulgated both jim crowists and Ahmadinejad is the same–a group of people, different from me, are less than me, unworthy of protection and should be minimized or eliminated simply because of a factor beyond their control, their race/heritage.

    But, if you really think about the principles of this country, in my opinion, Ahmadinejad should be allowed to speak just like any klansman. Free speech means everyone has the right to say what they want, even if we don’t like it. Is there a line in the sand, yes. To me, the line is drawn when such speech results in a criminal violation (someone directing threats or assaultive words at me), causes a public hazard (inciting a riot), or infringes on my civil rights (stands in the way of my ability to have a decent life, liberty and pursuit of happiness). I can turn off Don Imus if I don’t want to hear him, I can blog or hold an opposing rally in response to hate speech.

    I thought that Columbia’s invitation to Ahmadinejad took a lot of courage actually. However. I question Columbia’s motivation for inviting him. If it was solely for academic reasons, I’d probably say kudos, but it was obvious that it was more than that, and frankly I was embarrassed by Lee Bollinger’s conduct. He invited Ahmadinejad to the campus and then proceeded humiliate him during his “introduction” of the speaker. In essence, Bollinger invited Ahmadinejad to his house just to make a spectacle of him–that’s low and classless. If the invitation was for academic purposes, let the students and faculty respond to his speech (which happened) and/or make your remarks AFTER Ahmadinejad’s speech. What Bollinger did was make Ahmadinejad look like the victim, appear he was taking the high road after being ambushed by Bollinger. It was embarrassing. I suspect that Bollinger crafted that speech after catching a lot of flack for inviting him in the first place. My position is if you have the gumption to invite such a controversial figure to your home, at least show basic hospitality–don’t insult him until he says, what everyone expects, to be some insulting. Again, I have no problem with what Bollinger said, he has every right to speak his mind against hate. I am opposed to the fact that he invited him, and then distracted attention from the students by insulting him b4 he uttered a word.

    Let us not forget the fact that he was addressing the Head of State of a sovereign nation in that manner. Bollinger’s actions potentially disrespected an entire nation, some of whom may not be anti-American. I’m not a republican, but if George W was invited to a foreign university to engage in intellectual discourse/debate and was immediately personally insulted before the debate began, I would wonder if Bollinger’s initial reason for inviting Ahmadinejad (to hear what the man has to say w/o cnn editing and then debate him toe-to-toe) got a little cloudy at the end.

  4. I’m pretty absolutist on free speech, so I’m inclined to allow this racist, illiberal cretin speak. No doubt he’ll tailor his message to a certain extent for a western audience (frame it if you will!), but if Columbia wants him to speak then they should be allowed.

    What I do find particularly contemptible, is the attitude of the Columbia Coalition Against the War. This group don’t want people to protest against Ahmadinejad because supposedly this provides tacit support for an attack on Iran. Pathetic:

    There are other means for engagement with Iran than war, and other means for disagreement with Ahmadinejad than the planned protest. We call on those who do not support a war with Iran to be wary of the vilification of Ahmadinejad, to avoid Monday’s rally, and to express vocally their opposition to military intervention.

    Personally, speaking as a liberal, I’d quite like to protest against the leader of a regime that pours acid over homosexuals. They are setting up a spineless false dichotomy and contributing to the argument that certain leftist/liberals side with Islamists, simply because they are anti-American.

    Carson, I really like your perspective on free speech. You and K are thinking along my lines, As for Bollinger, he gave into the pressure of conservatives. That was not a forum or setting for discourse, it was an act to look macho by a teacher playing president at an Ivy.

  5. Obviously Bollinger has a forthright attitude towards the institution of free speech, which those who “condemn” his university do not care to read or discuss.

    While I like Bollinger’s attitude I’m not so sure that not closing down an avenue for free speech in some manner implies endorsement since other avenues takes such unwarranted action. And of course we have the kneejerk reactions from those who do not get the “free” in free speech.

    Hmm. From this I can conclude that I should take these problems as a reason to support Bollingers stance, and that it is the only reasonable one for keeping the institution. It is an important institution internally, and probably externally as well. For example of the latter I’m reminded of Nelson Mandela’s world wide travels and speeches 1992-1994 before the first free (universal suffrage) elections which put a pressure on the regime and probably forcefully communicated his agenda to the electorate. Not a decisive example unfortunately, but I doubt such exist.

  6. You know what’s cool about free speech? This guy can talk, and then I can call him a rat faced moronic bastard. And it’s all allowed. If I want to be able to say whatever I want, then other people have to be allowed to say what they want.

  7. Kristi – Freedom of speech is a responsability that many do not take seriously. That is what Gates I believe is trying to say about thye morality of voice.

    K & Edward – Good aruguments. But keep in mind that it has been many civil rights activists, blacks, and jews that have most protested the conservative speakers as well as unpopular views, especially at Columbia University.

    My thoughts: Here is an inescapably important part of the “set up” by trained lawyer Bollinger.

    I also wanted to be sure the Iranians understood that I would myself introduce the event with a series of sharp challenges to the president on issues including:

    * the Iranian president’s denial of the Holocaust;
    * his public call for the destruction of the State of Israel;
    * his reported support for international terrorism that targets innocent civilians and American troops;
    * Iran’s pursuit of nuclear ambitions in opposition to international sanction;
    * his government’s widely documented suppression of civil society and particularly of women’s rights; and
    * his government’s imprisoning of journalists and scholars, including one of Columbia’s own alumni, Dr. Kian Tajbakhsh.

  8. Freedom of lots of things are things that most people do not take responsibly. However, in order to protect my free speech, you have to have free speech. I’m not saying he’s right. I’m not saying white supremacists are right or anti-semitics are right, but they have to be allowed to say what they think or I won’t be allowed to say what I think. The govermnent cannot be in the business of legislating morality.

  9. K, Shawn got to my point first. Bollinger and Columbia did not spring a trap on MA but, as I describe at my blog, called on him to answer charges. They invited and did not hide their agenda but gave him full notice of the dynamic of the event, including the itinerary and talking points. To his moonbatcrazy credit, MA accepted and walked into it.

    To Columbia’s credit, they drew a tyrant into an immersion of civil liberties.

  10. I agree completely with Kristi. It’s called free speech, not “politically correct let’s make everyone feel good” speech.

  11. I think we should be discerning about what we qualify as hate speech. It’s one thing to disagree over moral and political choices, and quite another to state that one human being is of less value than another. Limiting free speech is a slippery slope.

    The case of Columbia University inviting AquaVelva-jad to speak on campus is an interesting one:

    1) AquaVelva-jad is not a citizen…should he be afforded the same rights as a citizen?

    2) AquaVelva-jad is the leader of a country that is supplying arms and training to our enemies in Iraq, resulting in U.S. casualties. AquaVelva-jad has directly threatened the existence of both the United States and Israel. Many prisoners from the Iran-hostage crisis claim AquaVelva-jad was one of the leaders of the mob that took them captive. Even if our country believes in free speech, is it wise for the sheep to invite the wolf inside the fold for a lecture? Another way of putting this would be is it wise to give a potential mortal enemy a forum for propaganda? To an audience of students?

    While I generally feel people should be allowed to speak their mind even if it is foolish or offensive, inviting this particular man to speak on our soil bothers me. Columbia University Dean John Coatsworth tried to defend the invitation by pointing out they would be willing to extend a similar invite to Hilter. That is an interesting gambit by Coatsworth for its sheer audacity, but associating AquaVelva-jad with Hitler does little to ease my worries (“If Hitler would be okay, then Hitler-lite should be okay too, right?”)

  12. Matt S, the answer to your first question is found in this: is he required to obey the same laws as our citizens when here? If yes, then he should be afforded the same freedoms, regardless of how abominable I find them.

  13. Matt S,

    There is no evidence that Iran is providing weapons to insurgents in Iraq. As Iran’s leader claimed, he believes we are blaming Iran for our failure in Iraq. Although I do not agree with him, he has a good point.

  14. The receipt must have fallen out of the bag. Still, when brand new Iranian-made weapons end up in Iraqi insurgent hands it’s a little suspicious.

  15. I must say, I’m very pleased to have stumbled across this blog on Google. I just found it today and have been pouring over past articles to put myself up to date on this sites opinions. So, even though I’m a few weeks late, here is what I have to say:
    As a person of primarily Scots-Irish heritage, students often make jokes around me not realizing that a small percent of my ancestry is Jewish. I tolerate these jokes and have learned to laugh at a few. While my Jewish ancestors were well established in America by the time of WWII, I am still appalled that anyone could take lightly or even deny the events of the Holocaust. However, bigotry and intolerance has never lead to a greater understanding anywhere. I now understand, through talking to these peers, that it is hard for them to wrap their minds around a genocide of that nature. Some students joke out of fear, to desensitize themselves to that reality. With understanding, tolerance, and a little love I can work out these differences with most students. Sometimes though my temper does get the best of me, and Mahmoud seems to be good at provoking me. For instance, after watching Mahmoud be flashed across every TV on Harding University’s campus (all tuned to Fox News) I wished everyone would stop giving him press for his bigotry. This led to a “situation” in my art appreciation class. My art teacher asked everyone to name one thing they felt passionately about lately. I told him of my anger toward President Ahmadinejad and other Holocaust deniers. I was then informed that we were to make a watercolor painting on whatever we had just told the class we were passionate about. Now I’m wondering what I should paint on this subject, especially now that my head has cooled. So had, I not taken such a strong reaction in anger I might have saved myself grief on my art assignment. This, to me, is just a microcosm of larger mistakes that can be made when we don’t approach debates with open minds and level heads. With this in mind, I now feel that Columbia was doing the country a favor by inviting President Ahmadinejad to speak, because they have opened up many forums on free-speech, racism, and social intolerance to people with open minds and a hunger for knowledge.

  16. Patrick,

    This is a great comment. I am glad that you found my blog. I and those who read it make every atempt to be open minded yet challenging to all venues of this forum. I hope to hear from you again. Your point is great in that we should not focus on his bigotry, but the forum Columbia provided for us to address free speech and hate.

    I think you will enjoy this piece, too. Link

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