Dictating Rationality

by Nathan Bruschi | 10/4/07 11:47pm

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems to cause controversy

wherever he goes. Max Bryer '08

already gave us an analysis of the Iranian leader's

visit to the United Nations ("An Impotent U.N. and

a Big Dictator," Oct. 4), but even more controversial

was the decision by Columbia to invite him

to their ivory tower for a less than amiable chat.

Thousands of protestors and counter-protestors

descended upon the campus, New York State

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver threatened

to limit Columbia's financial aid, and hopeless

presidential candidate Rep. Duncan Hunter, RCalif.,

proposed cutting off federal funding to the

school altogether. These sentiments are shared

by many Columbia students and alumni (some of

whom have pledged to withhold future donations

from the school). But are they well founded? By

inviting Ahmadinejad, did Columbia really give

him intellectual legitimacy and a platform from

which he could spew his hate as some have

claimed? Of course not.

First, as a university, Columbia is in the business

of idea exchange. At its root, university

education is about exposing students to diverse

opinions, even those deemed objectively wrong,

for the purpose of learning. The truth should be

such a powerful reality that in the free marketplace

of ideas, it will triumph. Dictating what is

acceptable to think or say under the bounds of

free speech only serves to hinder this process.

Second, there is no additional legitimacy that

a speaking engagement at Columbia can bestow

upon Ahmadinejad that he has not already earned

by virtue of his power as the democratically

elected president of Iran. He is a world leader,

and, like it or not, he is an increasingly powerful

force in a vital and unstable part of the world.

Ignoring him will not cause him to go away, and

hearing him speak does not compel listeners to

believe what he says.

Third, any opportunity for a college to host a

sitting head of state is important and rare, but this

one was especially so. The cable news media has

toed the Bush administration's line against Iran,

and Fox News even went so far on a recent "Hannity

and Colmes" to discuss the viability of various

military scenarios against the Islamic Republic.

Increasingly high-ranking politicians have been

calling for military action on news shows largely

without counterpoint. Ahmadinejad's speech,

broadcast live from Columbia, essentially gave

him the first opportunity to speak directly to the

American public. In providing a venue for this

exchange, Columbia not only raised the level of

discourse,but became part of a historic event.

If there was anything I took away from

what Ahmadinejad actually said, it was that

the news media's perception of him is largely

sensationalized. Nowhere did I see the crazed,

foaming-at-the-mouth lunatic I was promised. In

fact if anyone seemed sensible during the whole

production it was Ahmadinejad. Lee Bollinger,

Columbia president and the man responsible for

inviting the Iranian leader, spent his 15-minute

attack of an introduction wishing defeat to the Ahmadinejad's

political party, labeling him a "cruel

and brutal dictator" and demanding answers to

nine separate questions, accusing him that he

would lack the courage to do so. Ahmadinejad

simply brushed Bollinger aside and made him

look foolish by saying, "In Iran... we actually

respect our students enough to allow them to

make their own judgment, and don't think it's

necessary before the speech is even given to

come in with a series of complaints to provide

vaccination to the students and faculty." Clearly,

Mahmoud is not stupid.

Even when pressed on his reasons for stating

that the Holocaust -- the most documented event

in human history -- required more research

(presumably in order to deny it), Ahmadinejad

showed his mental prowess. He coolly responded

that no subject should be closed to changing views

or further investigation, citing adaptations in long

held theories in mathematics as an example. It

is a brilliant point, even if made with dubious

intentions, because Newtonian physics was considered

for a long time to completely explain the

universe, but if all research was stopped at that

level we would have never discovered Quantum

physics and all the branches of science that stem

from it. To deny that Ahmadinejad has his wits

about him may make for interesting television,

but rather ineffective foreign policy.

I thank the university administrators who had

the conviction to withstand public pressure and

not only afford their own students, but all students,

the chance to hear and see different sides

in the web of international relations. Columbia,

you have done the Ivy League proud.

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