Monday, September 24, 2007

Ahmadinejad in NYC

Hey, so Ahmadinejad hit NYC today, and I know you're thinking "Hey, League... You're somewhat literate and watch TV sometimes. I don't know what to think of this Iranian President coming to town and chatting up co-eds. Lambast me with your poorly constructed worldview and mediocre analysis."

I love me some America, Leaguers. Iran, I can give or take, and, let's face it, we've got a rocky history with those folks.

Did you know, according to Batman comics, the Ayatollah Khomeini once made The Joker a UN Ambassador? Amazing and TRUE.

Leading up to Ahmadinejad's appearance today at Columbia University, there was a lot of debate regarding whether or not he should be given such an opportunity, or, with his tendency to make claims many Americans find outrageous (and which the rest find mostly offensively preposterous), Iran's President should be allowed to speak. This is after someone wouldn't let the guy make an appearance at the site of the World Trade Center.

Ahmadinejad isn't crazy. He's a head of state, responsible for millions of lives. And whether he espouses beliefs Americans believe to be bizarre or profane, he's also not the mad dog lunatic that our own resident propaganda artists have tried to spin him. Instead, he's a thinking person, and a seemingly intelligent person, and a caricature of evil doesn't reflect what Americans are getting from this guy. He's not a ludicrous figure in the mode of King Jung Il, or the bizarre Papa of Death that Saddam Hussein appeared to be with his bushy mustache and tendency to fire off rifles during parades.

My fundamental belief, and you can quote me on this, is that if we aren't willing to let everyone speak, no matter how crooked or vile they are, then our belief in freedom of speech isn't worth the hemp the Constitution is written on. We live in a groovy country where we don't need to worry about being jailed or fined for making fun of our leaders or criticizing them, and that's something you can't even really say about most of the rest of the world (there was even a recent case in Spain of a cartoonist getting in legal trouble for making fun of some lazy Prince. A Prince, for love of Mike!).

Iran has a, shall we say, slightly stricter idea of what it means to talk smack to those in charge, from Mullah to President.

As Jim D once wisely pointed out to me, one of the interesting things about freedom of speech isn't just that you get to say whatever you want, it's that people get to say whatever they want right back at you. And here's where things come together about why I think bringing a dictator with a, shall we say, spotty reputation into an Ivy league institution is a groovy idea. Did Ahmadinejad think he was going to walk onto a stage in a room full of America's elite, students and professional intellectuals, and not get a few tough questions?

Honestly, the Newt Gingrich's of the world who were so horrified at bringing this guy to the US to speak were missing the big picture. I don't know if they thought Ahmadinejad was going to be able to persuade a roomful of Columbia's best and brightest that he was a great guy or what, but what I think they were missing was the opportunity which New York and Columbia seemed to take advantage of in pretty good force.

The President of Iran is going to be able to build his cult of personality at home whether he's at Columbia or not. Bring him to Columbia University, and for one day, he was out of his element and speaking to an audience that had no reason to be polite, was not going to worry about having their jobs and homes taken from them (or worse), and who have not had government controlled media managing the message since the 70's (I'm speaking in broad terms here, so let's not go crazy talking about corporate owned media franchises, shall we?).

Ahmadinejad got to see his route lined with protesters he can dismiss, but perhaps he can also note not just that we're a country where you can assemble and go home without fear of arrest, but that our streets can fill with people willing to voice their opposition to the government he's assembled. People who drew attention to some of his quirkier antics.

Whatever moment of personal triumph Ahmadinejad may have thought he was building by walking into Columbia, from what I've read, things worked out pretty well in the way of American republic-style democracy versus Holocaust-denying dickery. For folks who questioned the President of Columbia of University for bringing in Ahmadinejad, check this out:

"When you come to a place like this it makes you simply ridiculous," Bollinger said. "The truth is that the Holocaust is the most documented event in human history."

Bollinger made this comment in his opening remarks, and reminded us that we live in a place where the President, any President, can be called into question when they face the public, and that person should require only the courage takes to look another person in the eye to call that President out.

And that's not all bad.

Lastly, the role of the University is a place for learning, and part of that concept is the open and free exchange of ideas. That's why I blanch when I hear someone trying to get a professor fired for espousing kooky beliefs. Universities, state funded or not, aren't just there to be job training facilities for high schoolers who are too chicken to try a stint in the armed services. There was a reason the university you went to kept inviting all these people to talk on campus, even when you were skipping them to watch "Friends". Part and parcel of that is that they advertise all of these people, so you get to go and tell them they're a big jerk.

No, its true! If, say, Captain Kangaroo showed up and you wanted to give the Captain a piece of your mind, you get to do so. Unless you're that one guy, and you get tased for being a jack-ass. But you have to really push it before they tase you, bro.

Anyhow, I was glad to see most commentators understand the situation, and was glad to see it shook out pretty well.

UPDATE: Or, as pictures always speak better than words: Click here

Thanks, anonymous


Anonymous said...

here's an image to illustrate your post

Anonymous said...

We don't need to worry about being jailed or fined for free speech (I guess), but we do need to worry about getting tasered.

Didn't a Florida student get tasered a couple of weeks ago for asking an elected official (Sen. Kerry) a question?

I agree. Our belief in freedom of speech isn't worth the hemp that the Constitution was printed on.

The League said...

Reed, the student was being a nuisance and a jack-ass and was tasered for resisting arrest. I agree that tasering was probably a bit much, but it was a crowded room, so pepper spray wasn't an option. But, you know, you start messing with cops...

I DO believe our freedom of speech is mostly upheld, but its also something we have to practice and allow others to practice. I don't think it's worth the hemp its written on when we start dictating who can and can't speak.

The voices we'd prefer to hear may be drowned out by those we don't agree with in number and volume, but compared to most other places on Earth (see current events in Myanmar) we have it pretty good and need to ensure that we respect other's right to be a jerk in public as well as ourselves.

J.S. said...

To be honest, I think that most of the problems that we currently face with free speech come more from private institutions than from government. The federal government has restrictions, but those restrictions usually deal more with manner and means than with content. Private organizations are more insidious because, to a certain extent, they make their own rules about content restriction, maintaining the right to limit their content as they see fit, but ignoring the fact that, in practice, it's difficult to get the content of one's "free speech" out there without a privately held platform. Of course, the internet is helping to change all that...

Carla said...

I totally agree with you League about Ahmadinejad speaking at Columbia.

And Steanso, to back up what you're talking about, Verizon is censoring texting from a pro-choice group. Texting doesn't fall under the freedom of speech laws yet, like phone conversations (as long as you've not been bugged by our government) and Verizon being a private company, they have the right to do it.

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