All politics are local, so said the late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. By keeping this piece of folk wisdom in mind, people trying to figure out what the recent appearance by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia University was all about have at least a fighting chance of making some sense of that circus.
Because Iran is a dictatorship of fundamentalist Muslim clerics, it is easy to forget that its president is elected by popular vote (not that the will of the Iranian people counts for much with the Koran thumpers who rule that nation).
And despite Ahmadinejad’s ability to generate international controversy with his noxious and foolish statements (the Holocaust is “a myth,” Israel should be “wiped off the map,” Iranian women are free, there are no gays in Iran, and the country is not building nuclear weapons), his political standing within his nation is shaky.
Thanks to Ahmadinejad’s incendiary talk and Iran’s reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons, the nation’s economy is a mess. And for a politician who was elected to put Iran back on a path to prosperity, as he was, that is bad news. Experts who follow local politics in Iran say that Ahmadinejad’s political party will likely lose ground in the March 2008 round of parliamentary elections that precede Iran’s 2009 presidential election.
Since the Iranian parliament and president have very little power, it is easy to shrug this off. Harder to discount is the fact the clerics allied to Ahmadinejad recently were denied seats on the 86-member Assembly of Experts, which will choose the mullah who will become Iran’s next supreme ruler. As politicians everywhere do, Ahmadinejad was hoping that a good performance abroad would bolster his fortunes at home. The bottom line: Ahmadinejad needed Columbia more than Columbia needed him.
So why did Columbia subject itself to the public drubbing it endured? The dean of Columbia Law School, David Schizer, in a carefully worded statement, made an undeniable point when he said: “Although we believe in free and open debate at Columbia and should never suppress points of view, we are also committed to academic standards. A high-quality academic discussion depends on intellectual honesty but, unfortunately, Mr. Ahmadinejad has proven himself, time and again, to be uninterested in whether his words are true.”
It is difficult to argue that Columbia, New York City, the United States, or the world would have been less enlightened if Ahmadinejad had never been invited. It is equally difficult to argue that Columbia president Lee Bollinger covered himself in glory. Bollinger’s bracing denunciation of Ahmadinejad was certainly welcome. But it would have been more convincing if he had not flip-flopped and waffled and dithered in the months before the Iranian president arrived for his gig.
This newspaper can understand those, such as Dean Schizer, who wonder why Ahmadinejad was invited in the first place. But subscribing to the theory “if you have lemons, make lemonade,” it makes sense to have allowed Ahmadinejad to speak, for the very sound and simple reason that it reminds us there are dangerous people in this world whom we ignore at our peril. The best antidote to vile and destructive speech is more speech. Democracies are certainly untidy constructs, but as such they thrive — and crave — this sort of freedom.