Editorial Insight: 'Macalester should be so lucky'

By Alex Park

Editor’s Note: This article is one in a series of community-oriented columns written by Mac Weekly editors.At a university that takes pride in being the only Ivy League institution with its own rabbinical school, the most visible Holocaust denier living today was received as a guest of honor. In a city where the scars of September 11 still run deep, this man – by far a greater supporter of Islamist terror than Saddam ever was – used his diplomatic freedom of movement to travel the length of Manhattan to Morning Side Heights to make the visit. He even asked to visit Ground Zero to pay his respects (the request was denied).

And amid a population of students and faculty who stand as the latest heirs to an institutional tradition more than two centuries old of democracy, free thought and the rights of man, this dictator, who widely suppresses free speech in his own country, was allowed to come and say whatever he wanted to whomever would listen for 90 minutes straight.

As it turned out, that crowd numbered in the hundreds in the auditorium alone, most of whom had waited outside for four hours just to come and see for themselves. Thousands more sat on the lawn outside to watch a live feed projected on a screen two stories tall.

Macalester should be so lucky.

Granted, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of the Islamic Republic of Iran probably doesn’t have any reason to come to the Midwest (his visit to Columbia coincided with a previously scheduled visit to the UN General Assembly). Even more problematic is that between Kagin Commons and JBD, the space necessary to accommodate all the students, faculty, alumni and members of the press who would be interested in coming probably doesn’t exist. Moreover, the Saint Paul Police are far less equipped to deal with protestors blocking neighborhood streets than their New York counterparts. But aside from these practical matters, what would we have to lose? Beyond that, what would we have to gain?

Let’s get one thing straight: Ahmadinejad is the radical leader of one of the most unpredictable, dangerous, and oppressive nations in the world today. On core values considered mainstays at most any college or university, from government transparency to freedom of religion to gay rights, he proudly takes the opposite tack. Some say if he had his way, he would be instigating attacks against Americans right now. A great deal of evidence suggests that in Iraq at least, this is already the case. Needless to say, the man would never find an audience in the U.S. government.

So praise be to Columbia’s president Lee C. Bollinger and the university faculty for rising above the limits of politics to show the world that educated discourse, freedom of speech and the pursuit of knowledge still matter when faced with a challenger as bold-and powerful-as that one.

Whether or not Bollinger’s pointed introduction, in which he told the speaker ten feet from his face that he “exhibited all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator,” was right at the time will continue to be debated. But that aside, letting a public figure with questionable morals speak is sometimes enough to reveal his hypocrisy, and for an institution to remind members of its core values. Macalester could benefit from a similar treatment. After all, just because a speaker gives his stump speech at the only place he can doesn’t mean his hosts endorse anything he says then, or ever. The reverse is true as well, as a speaker who is free to say what he will is not the instrument of his platform. At Macalester, like at Columbia, students are smart enough to know the difference.

Well into his speech, Ahmadinejad stood as a shrewd dictator and a hypocrite in a room full of educated young individuals. He took aim at American leaders for “creating unreal enemies” and failing to “respect privacy of their own people [sic].” This, from the head of a paranoid government which has said from its inception through official statements that America is the root of all evil, and where quiet dissenters as young as twelve are routinely rounded up and executed for their “counter-revolutionary” statements.

In his defense-or perhaps in spite of it-Ahmadinejad made long-winded and obscure references to the Koran and praised the role of educated people in society. He slipped from talking science to religion to international relations, all while glossing over the most plainspoken and important questions directed to him. In short, Columbia gave its guest more than enough room to look like a fool, and he did.

And at the end of it all, did anyone except the most hardened and uncompromising supporters of Israel accuse Columbia of using the speaker to forward its own political agenda? Did any credible public commentator even passively suggest that an egoist such as Ahmadinejad was playing pundit to the university’s “new burden” of international Islamic revolution? The answers are obvious.

That much may not be this publication’s “official” opinion, but I stand by it anyway.