I wish I were surprised by all of the fuss over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's request to lay a wreath at "Ground Zero" and his appearance at Columbia University. It's all too predictable. (When I heard some of the reaction to the "Ground Zero" proposal, I was reminded of the narrow distance between "things that could never happen here" and things that could.
I also can't say that I am suprised that Anne Appelbaum among those who would have preferred that Ahmadinejad be denied the opportunity to speak.
Ahmadinejad's agenda, though, differs from that of the traditional autocrat.Wait... Ahmadinejad is an autocrat? He's the (sort of) popularly elected front man for the government, and his position carries real power, but he doesn't call the shots. Perhaps Applebaum hears the word "President" and assumes that nobody could possibly hold a higher office, but actually there's a guy called Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who is the "Supreme Leader" of Iran, and who has ultimate control over the armed forces, foreign policy and domestic policy.
His goal is not merely to hold power in Iran through sheer force, or even through a standard 20th-century personality cult: His goal is to undermine the American and Western democracy rhetoric that poses an ideological threat to the Iranian regime.Well, if that's true, then denying him a platform would do what? Give him the opportunity to state, "They say they believe in free speech. They say they believe in open debate and a 'marketplace of ideas'. They say 'sunlight is the best disinfectant' for bad ideas. Yet when I challenged their ideas, they hid in the shadows." And Anne Applebaum could declare victory.
This week, he declared that his visit to New York would help the American people, who have "suffered in diverse ways and have been deprived of access to accurate information."That should have telegraphed to Applebaum that he would not see denial of a platform as a loss, but as a basis for the type of criticism I just described. She would be playing into his hands.
Thus the speech at Columbia: Here he is, the allegedly undemocratic Ahmadinejad, taking questions from students! At an American university! Look who's the real democrat now!Well, darned if you do, darned if you don't. But if you don't, nobody gets to jeer or laugh at him. (Or grandstand and berate him in introductory comments.)
But the most peculiar thing about columns like Applebaum's is her presumption that it is somehow horrible, and somehow undermine's free speech, that we periodically debate the scope and limits of free speech:
Instead of debating freedom of speech in Iran, here we are once again talking about freedom of speech in America, a subject we know a lot more about. Which is exactly what Ahmadinejad wanted.You will note that it is not the proponents of free speech, or those who say, "I wouldn't personally invite him to speak, but it's Columbia University's right to do so", who are behind this "talk" Applebaum finds so troubling. It's people like Applebaum.
And what an idea....
Perhaps Columbia could even have insisted on an appropriate exchange: Ahmadinejad speaks in New York; Columbia sends a leading Western atheist - Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens or, better still, Ayaan Hirsi Ali - to Qom, the Shiite holy city, to debate the mullahs on their own ground.This would accomplish all of... what? Does she fancy that Christopher Hitchens would win over the crowds by insulting the Mullahs, opining that God doesn't exist, blaming most of history's bloodshed on organized religion, and revealing that he understands little of Christian theology (let alone Islamic theology). Surprise - you don't have to have a deep grasp of theology to be an atheist. And guess what - a debate between a devout theologian and an atheist on the subject of religion is a nonstarter, because the two sides are arguing from different premises. Save Hitchens for Ahmadinejad - I'm sure they can both come up with witty ways to insult the other - but send a scholar to debate the Mullahs.