Bagehot would not have been at home in early 21st-century America. Today we prefer our writers soft, exculpatory, self-righteous but nevertheless wrapped in the rhetoric of non-judgmentalism. ~Roger Kimball
With all respect to Mr. Kimball, whose larger point about Columbia is well taken, it seems to me that the medium of blogging in particular often involves nothing but extremely judgemental, polemical writing. Whether or not this counts as properly “manly” is for others to judge, but soft, simpering nebbishes are not exactly the first things that would come to mind when I think of 21st century political discourse. There are certainly advocates for ever-greater bipartisanship and more simpering appeals to unity, but they tend to be met with the scorn of political bloggers.
On the matter of Ahmadinejad’s invitation to speak at Columbia, I find myself agreeing with Mr. Kimball and others. I suppose I can understand to some extent why someone might have thought this might be a good idea. Strangely, whoever this someone was, he did not think about all the other reasons why it would be an extremely bad idea.
There was probably a strong sense that this would be an opportunity to poke various Persophobic loonies in the eye, as if to say, “Not all Americans want to drop tactical nukes on Iran. Norman Podhoretz and his ilk do not speak for all of us. Some of us favour ‘dialogue’.” Be that as it may, the invitation was dreadful, but above all it was a very stupid thing to do. If you wanted to reconfirm every anti-academic prejudice on the American right, it is hard to think of how you might better accomplish it than bringing in Ahmadinejad under the banner of free speech and academic freedom. (If MoveOn.org could have found some way to co-sponsor the event, it might have been even more obnoxious and offensive.) For more than a few on the right, it’s a three-for-one deal: a chance to bash academia for being “anti-American” (which they take as a given anyway), while also bashing defenders of free speech and academic freedom for also being complicit in subversive and all-around idiotic ideas (which they also take as more or less a given). At this rate, why not invite Hugo Chavez to give a commencement address or give Castro an honourary degree for his “humanitarian” contributions to the people of Angola? Just because they and their governments are not threats to us does not make them and their views acceptable. Ahmadinejad may talk whatever rubbish he likes in his country, but no one is obliged to “engage” it and no one should be interested in associating with him when he comes here. Like MoveOn’s self-defeating antics, Columbia’s invitation reminds the dissenting conservative of the crucial lack of discernment that seems built-in with all too many people on the left.
There is probably an instinct among quite a few academics to rally against these criticisms of Columbia. After all, supine conformity to the foreign policy priorities of the government is only too common these days (see Congress, the media), and the academy is not properly an extension of the government that it should be required to toe some line on policy. The thing worth noting, of course, is that “engaging” Ahmadinejad by inviting him to Columbia misses the essence of the policy debate surrounding Iran. Focusing on Ahmadinejad, either as an invited guest or a target of hatred, personalises U.S.-Iranian relations in the same misguided way that Washington routinely does with foreign governments. Ahmadinejad does not represent most Iranians, and he does not represent much of the Iranian political elite. It is precisely because he really is marginal that his obsessions are irrelevant to the policy debate. Treating him as a serious figure, either as someone to be “sharply challenged” or targeted for harsh criticism, is to play the game on his terms and give him a level of credibility that he could never obtain on his own.
Manifestly, the man’s views are very often ridiculous, and he is a ranting demagogue, an Iranian Huey Long with less common sense. He is, however, a shrewd political operator who knows how play the angles. To give him a forum is to play into his hands and to treat him as the world leader that he would like to pretend to be. It flatters his ego, builds up his reputation around the world and strengthens his hand at home. It makes the task of those who oppose anti-Iranian warmongers at home harder, it helps stoke the fires of Persophobia and it is in itself a colossal blunder on every level. It is quite one thing to argue that Ahmadinejad is a preposterous demagogue whose rantings pose no threat to anyone but his unfortunate listeners and quite another to pretend that Ahmadinejad is just another citizen in the republic of letters and a participant in free-flowing intellectual debate to whom we issue “sharp challenges,” such as: “Dear boy, wouldn’t you reconsider your slightly troubling claims about the Holocaust?”
The problem with inviting Ahmadinejad is revealed by a simple test: would anyone in an academic institution be willing to vouch for a speaker with similar views if he did not come from a country currently being vilified by our government, or if he were a white European? When Columbia and other universities extend invitations to far, far more reasonable and decent foreign politicians–a Joerg Haider or Filip DeWinter, for instance–then I will begin to believe their claims about a desire for open and active debate. Until then, I will hold the view that such “free speech” and “academic freedom” mean speech and views of which some established consensus already approves.