Sunday, September 23, 2007

Columbia University to Host Ahmadinejad

It looks like Columbia University will indeed play host to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the occasion of his visit to the UN General Assembly. From what I have heard, competition for tickets to the event is fierce. Everyone seems to want to hear this man speak. I think those responsible for this event are making a mistake.

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger believes that he will be able to use the occasion to put "pointed and challenging questions" to Ahmadinejad. In particular, Bollinger seemed to have in mind the Iranian president's record of Holocaust denial. While I applaud the intentions of Bollinger and others, who want to use Ahmadinejad's lecture as a forum to critique the Iranian president's past remarks and the regime's policies, I fear that they are miscalculating.

All of us in the academy are interested in the free exchange of ideas and the pursuit of truth in which it is supposed to result. But we also accept restrictions on the search for knowledge. For example, ethical scholars will not use data acquired from medical experiments that were conducted on human subjects without their permission. The ethical test with respect to having Ahadinejad speak at Columbia University should not be based on his stance toward U.S. policy in the Middle East. Russian President Vladimir Putin or China's Hu Jintao oppose many key aspects of American foreign policy. They also head regimes with less than stellar democratic credentials. But this is not the issue.

What matters most, in the context of an invitation extended by a university, is Ahmadinejad's public denial of the Holocaust in the past. This is not because the Holocaust is inherently "sacred." The same would apply if Ahmadinejad denied that the French Revolution never happened. Rather, his pseudo-academic initiatives to question a supposed "taboo" on free inquiry into the genocide of European Jewry (read: his effort to engage in willful distortion and negation of a subject whose historicity has been confirmed by thousands of scholarly publications) challenge the core of the university's guiding principles. The public sphere that the university presents is not a free-for-all open to every crackpot and conspiracy theorist with a fondness for spinning yarns. Such a model of the university would drive the pursuit of truth into intellectual bankruptcy. Professors and students would be occupied permanently with fending off unlimited attacks from those unbound by the chains of logic, procedure, respect, and the standards of academic disciplines. Unfortunately, the very admission of such individuals into the world of scholarship bestows credibility on them.

While I would not equate Wolf Blitzer of "The Situation Room" with the academy, I think it is worth watching his interview (see YouTube box above) with Holocaust denier David Duke to see how damaging it can be to give people like these even a modicum of respectability. They do not deserve to enter our classrooms and lecture halls.

Unfortunately, Proverbs gives conflicting advice. In 26:4 we read, "Don't answer a fool according to his foolishness, lest you too will be like him," while 26:5 tell us "Answer a fool according to his foolishness, lest he will appear clever in his own eyes."
משלי כו:ד-ה
אַל-תַּעַן כְּסִיל, כְּאִוַּלְתּוֹ: פֶּן-תִּשְׁוֶה-לּוֹ גַם-אָתָּה.
עֲנֵה כְסִיל, כְּאִוַּלְתּוֹ: פֶּן-יִהְיֶה חָכָם בְּעֵינָיו


Jared said...

Yes, it seems like Columbia has been revelling in controversy lately.

I agree that the Iranian president's presence is highly problematic, and, of course, being Columbia, there will be plenty of protests going on all day on Monday. In fact, they have already begun. And it is not just his stance on the holocaust that is ridiculous and problematic, but his imprisonment of academics within Iran and a huge host of other issues (child imprisonment, development of the nuclear program, etc).

While I agree that, "The public sphere that the university presents is not a free-for-all open to every crackpot and conspiracy theorist with a fondness for spinning yarns," when that crackpot conspiracy theorist has power like Ahmadinejad, he is not your average-joe holocaust-denier. HIs presence is not just about his ideas, and so it is not an issue of giving a stage to just any crackpot conspiracy theorist (as with the Wolf Blitzer example), but it is about someone in his position who has these theories. Such a person needs to be confronted by serious thinkers, while others with similar ideas but without power can be more easily dismissed. Now whether or not a serious intellectual confrontation actually occurs (and Ahmadinejad is no fool, and so he knows what he is getting himself into), we will find out tomorrow night.

The issue comes down to what good can possibly come from this? what harm? And which outweighs which? (I highly doubt this will give him any credibility, but I also do not see what potential benefit it has, unless this engagement in dialogue engenders some increased willingness on his part to compromise down the road--again, highly doubtful)

Aryeh Amihay said...

Considering leaders to be stupid is a dangerous act when analyizing politics.
Ahmedinejad is dangerous to the peace of the Middle East, and would not reach this point if he were stupid.
His arguments may not be rational, but Columbia students can certainly benefit from carefully listening to him. I doubt how many of them will be able to do exactly that.

More on this in my blog:

Jared said...

Did anyone refer to Ahmadinejad as stupid? He is definitely a very sharp and cunning political operative. And, if the interview I saw with him this evening on TV is any indication, he really knows how to dodge a question like any politician or world leader worth their salt.

Amos said...

I don't care how malicious or clever he may be, Ahmadinejad is a fool. I can hear the kinds of arguments that he makes every day in Berkeley - from mentally ill homeless people and t-shirt vendors. From the transcripts that Jennie and Noah have put up here, this Columbia lecture looks like another diplomatic disaster for the Iranian regime. These kinds of appearances may win him approval from LaRouche drones, but they certainly do nothing to advance Iran's standing among the statesmen deciding whether to support America's push for harsher sanctions.

Nobody said...

Amos said...

I don't care how malicious or clever he may be, Ahmadinejad is a fool.

i would say he is a clown :D :D