I'm not sure whether Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the President of Iran, completely understood what he was doing when he accepted the invitation to speak and take questions at Columbia University of New York yesterday. He had to know that he wouldn't be particularly popular in a liberal American university, but he came anyhow...I don't know whether that represents a fundamental misreading of the American character or overwhelming hubris or (most likely) both.
I have to say, though, that I was very disappointed in the reception Mr Ahmedinejad received, especially the boorish and uncalled-for ad hominem introduction by Columbia's president Lee Bollinger.
Make no mistake: I think Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is a loathsome human being. His denial of the Holocaust and call for Israel to be "wiped off the map" are hardly comments worthy of the president of a great nation. He ranks "up" there in my estimation with ludicrous blowhard Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. I was appalled at Mr Chavez's comments at the United Nations earlier this year, when he used his speech to belittle President Bush, calling him "the devil" and commenting on the lingering smell of sulfur following Mr Bush's appearance at the same podium. I don't like Mr Bush, but such a childish display of disrespect was uncalled for and worthy of condemnation.
Compare it to Mr Bollinger's introduction of Mr Ahmedinejad yesterday: "you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator." While I happen to agree with Mr Bollinger, all comments like these do are generate sympathy for an otherwise hateful figure, and diminish his own authority as the president of the university. His comments played well with the hometown crowd, but were inappropriate.
And then there was the classic "have you stopped beating your wife yet" moment when Mr Bollinger asked, "Why is your government providing aid to terrorists? Will you stop doing so and permit international monitoring to certify that you have stopped?" How did he expect Mr Ahmedinejad to react?
Freedom of speech is a cherished tradition in this country, although at many universities it seems to be granted only to those whose speech conforms to whichever direction the prevailing winds of political correctness blow. I believe that it's important to let everyone have his say, no matter how hateful or stupid it may be...because it gives other people the chance to hear, evaluate, and argue against those positions. There was some discussion at Columbia as to whether to grant Mr Ahmedinejad a platform from which to express his crackpot ideas, but by exposing those ideas to a skeptical audience we have the opportunity to rebut them and expose them for the intellectual sham they are. This can be done in a respectful fashion without reduction to the sort of ad hominem attacks shown by Mr Bollinger and Mr Chavez.
Mahmoud Ahmedinejad didn't win any friends with his dodging, weaving comments and his tendency to answer questions with other questions. Whatever credibility he might have had vanished in the moment that he denied that there were any homosexuals in Iran (a comment which drew laughter from the audience). He showed himself to be a simplistic intellectual lightweight.
Whatever else one might say about Mr Ahmedinejad, it took guts to face a hostile audience at an American university. Unfortunately, that university didn't cover itself with glory during the visit. One wonders how an American leader addressing a similar gathering in Iran would be received.
Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.