EDITORIAL: Ahmadinejad’s free speech

Ahmadinejad’s free speech

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did something yesterday that neither President Bush nor Vice-President Cheney have the courage to do: stand up and speak in front of an unfriendly college audience. How can America’s leaders claim that they are defending freedom when they are so clearly afraid of it?

In the Bush-Cheney lexicon, “free speech” is something that can be confined to a zone out of earshot and out of sight; it is something whose value is cathartic rather than political. They regard free speech as a form of free expression that serves the psychological needs of the individual rather than the political needs of a healthy democracy.

America has over the last six years become infected by this impoverished view of free speech. It is a right that seemingly only benefits those who exercise it, while society merely tolerates its performance. Thus, as he introduced President Ahmadinejad, Columbia president Lee Bollinger wanted to assure the nation that no one in his illustrious university was in jeopardy of being influenced by anything that Iran’s president might say.

It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas, or the weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas or our naiveté about the very real dangers inherent in such ideas.

If the speech that Bollinger and Columbia’s students and faculty were about to hear could so easily and absolutely be prejudged, what was there to listen to? Bollinger’s notion of free speech appeared to extend no further than the mere fact that Ahmadinejad had been allowed to step onto the stage and open his mouth. Indeed, Bollinger’s denunciation of a speech that had yet to be delivered, looked more like a crude and ill-conceived exercise in damage control — an effort to protect Columbia’s brand value and placate a few disgruntled wealthy donors — than a genuine enunciation of academic and democratic values.

While Ahmadinjed’s address can be understood in terms of its domestic political focus and likewise his masterful use of the media, as an exercise in free speech it deserves consideration in terms of its substance.

One issue stands out above all others and the reason it stands out is that in America, a campaign aimed at stifling free speech wants to keep this subject sealed outside the domain of acceptable political discourse. The subject is the political legitimacy of the Zionist state of Israel.

Ahmadinejad himself has muddied this issue by calling into question the reality of The Holocaust. In doing so, he exposes a vein of anti-Semitism that pollutes much of Middle Eastern discourse on the subject of Israel. Indeed, by questioning the reality of the Holocaust he turns attention away from a second question — one which is perfectly legitimate to ask and to discuss.

This is how he presented that question at Columbia:

…we need to still question whether the Palestinian people should be paying for [the Holocaust] or not. After all, it happened in Europe. The Palestinian people had no role to play in it. So why is it that the Palestinian people are paying the price of an event they had nothing to do with?

The Palestinian people didn’t commit any crime. They had no role to play in World War II. They were living with the Jewish communities and the Christian communities in peace at the time. They didn’t have any problems.

And today, too, Jews, Christians and Muslims live in brotherhood all over the world in many parts of the world. They don’t have any serious problems.

But why is it that the Palestinians should pay a price, innocent Palestinians, for 5 million people to remain displaced or refugees abroad for 60 years. Is this not a crime? Is asking about these crimes a crime by itself?

Why should an academic myself face insults when asking questions like this? Is this what you call freedom and upholding the freedom of thought?

Ahmadinejad is far from alone in questioning an idea — implicit but never clearly articulated — that the Holocaust provided a moral justification for whatever it would take to create a Zionist state. Just as 800,000 Palestinians could be swept aside in the process of creating the modern state of Israel, likewise any questions about the means being used to create that state could also be suspended.

As the Israeli historian, Avi Shlaim, writes:

…the tragedy of European Jewry became a source of strength for Zionism. The moral case for a home for the Jewish people in Palestine was widely accepted from the beginning; after the Holocaust it became unassailable. The poet Robert Frost defined a home as the place where, if you have to go there, they have to let you in. Few people disputed the right of the Jews to a home after the trauma to which they had been subjected in Central Europe. (The Iron Wall, pp.23-24)

But even while its easy to understand that the trauma of the Holocaust would lead many Jews to seek a safe haven outside Europe, the creation of Israel did not absolve Europe and the United States of the need to examine why so many Jews could not regard as home, countries in which their ancestral roots went back centuries. In as much as few gentiles disputed the right of Jews to a home, the implication was that they could find no such home outside Israel. By the end of World War II, Nazism had been defeated but the swamp of anti-Semitism out of which it had arisen had not been drained. And in as much as an effort to accomplish that goal was not regarded as an integral element in the reconstruction of Europe, a new state of Israel became a convenient necessity. While the Holocaust provided Jews with an unassailable right to a homeland, it simultaneously provided a rhetorical shield for obscuring the fact that this right had been secured by denying the Palestinians’ own right to remain in their own homes.

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4 thoughts on “EDITORIAL: Ahmadinejad’s free speech

  1. Ian Arbuckle

    Thank you Paul for your comment and I agree. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia was an excellent example of the weak underbelly of American thinking. A potpourri of prejudice, ignorance, with a large dose propaganda apparently similar to if not reflecting the US administration’s and or Zionist lobby’s stance. If anything one would hope that such an august intellectual institution would be able, through free speech and the use of “intelligent” dialogue, cut through the purely peripheral and get to the meat. But the willingness to present and face the music on one side and the dogma and pre-conceptions on the other, if anything, won the debate for the visitor, although there is no competition in reaching understanding.

    The Bedouin have a tradition that is adopted by the Arab and I guess the Persian cultures too, and that might well be learned by some Americans, and that is that one cannot aggress, disgrace, or disrespect a guest while he is under your roof. Even if he is your enemy it is an abuse and an offence and your own home to treat him with disrespect in your house.

    It is more than unfortunate that as an academic and administrator Bollinger as you say can do little more than “a crude and ill-conceived exercise in damage control — an effort to protect Columbia’s brand value and placate a few disgruntled wealthy donors”, while like the US administration in particular, as well as the media and an important part of the masses in general, it seems is trying to purvey a contrived judgment on another by purely ingenious and domestic criteria, while not even understanding the effect of their own dangerous, destructive and shortsighted actions. This is a great mistake in even the most basic understanding of foreign affairs and the essence of the problem of American domestic schizophrenia and foreign imperialism.

    In fact Mahmud Ahmadinejad did a far better job than his hosts to get to the root of the matter in his speech by among other things answering the question of the Zionist ploy of “marketing” the holocaust discussion as the catch-all for “anti-Semitism”. Without an open mind, and in the Orwellian Columbia of Bollinger terms, it seems that to question is to deny and even to apply perspective is to dishonor. It is not Ahmadinejad who put forward the Holocaust as a cause for the threatened and existential mind set that reportedly justifies the legitimacy or even the crimes of the present day Zionist state of Israel.

    To call Ahmadinejad a “petty dictator” more than anything expressed simply the ignorance of Bollinger, someone who by his position should know better and must now be seen as an embarrassment to Columbia U., in view of the fact that, unlike the US president, the Iranian head of state has little direct executive power, either in terms of foreign affairs, military or even domestic matters. But, as punching bags go I suppose he suits the bill, if war is where you have decided to go anyway. Also questions on treatment of women’s rights, homosexuals, and human rights from the floor, showed if anything, a kind of “mote in your own eye” idealist blindness that precludes real understanding and development of meaningful dialogue. It is important to remember that other groups and societies are different, and apply different rules. That is even true within a country. Iran can not be judged by US norms. Even questions of capital punishment, sexual discrimination, laws related to homosexuality, and human rights are very much under discussion and not settled in many states and communities inside the US itself. So by what measure can anyone at Columbia U. deride a leader of a state in the Middle East, Asia, or Africa on their different self asserted position nationally? Self determination and sovereignty is all about what they want to do not what America wants them to do and they have to find their own way to do it their way.

  2. Alma Jurgensen

    Paul: Kudos to you for an intelligent and cogent response to Ahmadinejad’s visit and speech.

    Would that our president and vice president had the gumption to go before ‘unfriendly’ audiences like this man did. They speak only at military confabs and veterans’ groups.

    I think that by and large we were very, very rude to the visitor. Ahmadinejad looks 100% better to me at this moment that does this administration OR Lee Bollinger.

  3. Barrington

    I can hardly think of a more pathetic sight for freedom of thought and speech than the President of Columbia being forced out of fear for his job and perhaps for his life giving a 15 minute rant to appease the Zionists before the President of Iran has a chance to even speak. Why should it be so in America this poor pathetic man had to act like Colin Powell and play like a fool before the world rather than let Ahmadinejad sink or swim on his own. Why was he so afraid?
    At least Ahmadinejad had the courage to try and tell his truth to the American public who foolishly believe everything they see from Hollywood, TV  or read in their so called news media.  This is no easy task.  One Stephen Spielberg movie, for example, can set back their beliefs in evolution 70 years and it can promote a mythical holocaust that is so fearful of any real investigation that its creators have forced many countries to make any investigation of the real holocaust a crime.
    Americans, as we have just learned from the American treatment Mr. Finklestein and the actions of Lee Bollinger must be prevented from questioning even the most important claims in history. What chance to do Americans have to ever find the truth about the world when the very people we should be investigating control the media, their universities , their government and Hollywood?
    Americas greatest sin will not be its brutal treatment of Haiti and South America, its wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam, its support of Stalin, its destruction of its native people, its hundreds of years of slavery, both white and black, its support of dozens of dictatorships including Marcos, Chiang Kai-Shek, Batista, Duvalier, Suharto, Salassie, The Shah, Mobutu, Pinochet, Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein and , of course, the Saudis. It will be its ultimate failure to follow the of the principles of democracy.

  4. Laurie Ray

    It does not do justice to the issue at hand, nor to the case for Norman Finkelstein that Barrington should write “One Stephen Spielberg movie, …can promote a mythical holocaust that is so fearful of any real investigation that its creators have forced many countries to make any investigation of the real holocaust a crime.” What is mythical about Spielberg’s holocaust? As far as I was aware the only major disagreement Finkelstein has is with the total number of Jews murdered, which, when you’re talking about the different between 5 and 6 million, does not seem all that important.

    Everyone else’s comments were spot on the mark however.

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