This was heady stuff to young American New Lefties, and even a lot of middle-aged liberal professors were seduced by the pseudo-heroism of shouting down speakers—if it was a matter, say, of preventing the South Vietnamese ambassador from addressing Harvard students.
Although it was the left that transplanted the earnest and awful Marxist-Leninist notion of “political incorrectness” to this country, once the idea was in the American air, everybody breathed it. And today, with “clear and present danger” now a neocon term of art, the right also insists on practicing intolerance toward the “radically evil.” When it came to Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia, the New York tabloids and the fist-shaking throng were downright Marcusian. “What possible good might come from giving Ahmadinejad an honored forum for speaking?” a Daily News editorial screamed. “Some things are beyond discussion.”
Sure, Ahmadinejad is a Fascistic provocateur, and his line on Holocaust scholarship—that he’s only out to encourage intellectual freedom—is monstrously disingenuous. But celebrated bad guys visit New York and speak at American universities all the time. Iran is supplying weapons to men killing American troops in Iraq? In the seventies, when China and the Soviet Union were supplying North Vietnam with arms, Nixon toasted Mao in Peking, and Brezhnev visited the White House to work on détente.
Columbia and its president, Lee Bollinger, seem chronically unable to get the free-speech thing right. Last fall, the men’s hockey team had its season canceled simply for handing out a team recruitment flier with the (funny) tagline “Don’t be a pussy.” (Overreaction alert: Days later, the punishment was drastically reduced.) That same day, Columbia students rushed the stage to prevent a campus speech by a right-wing anti-illegal-immigration militant. (A nonpartisan group planned to invite the guy back to speak this fall, but a few weeks ago, “after several productive conversations with other student leaders and our advisers,” decided, uh, well, maybe not.) And Bollinger’s absurdly inhospitable, gauntlet-throwing introduction of Ahmadinejad mainly served the political interests of two people: Lee Bollinger (Look, I’m tough on the Israel-hater!) and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Look, I’m persecuted by the Americans!).
But at least the horrid little loon was allowed to talk. Alarmingly, it’s the legitimate scholarly speakers who are being denied venues because of what they have to say about Israel. Last fall, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee pressured the Polish consulate in New York to cancel a talk by NYU professor Tony Judt, who’s in favor of Israel and the Palestinian territories’ merging into a single country. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, professors at the University of Chicago and Harvard, respectively, were to appear last month at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs to discuss their new book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy; people objected—“This one is hot,” the council’s president told Mearsheimer—and the talk was canceled.
Here and there, after an initial, instinctive display of spinelessness, calm and common sense reasserted themselves. Verizon saw the error of its ways as soon as the Times reported on the company’s refusal to take NARAL’s business. Even President Bush, after a bit of weaseling (“I’m not sure I’d have offered the same invitation”), concluded that Ahmadinejad’s speaking at Columbia was “okay”: “An institution in our country gives him a chance to express his point of view, which really speaks to the freedoms of the country.” Not quite Voltairean courage, but not bad in the present climate.
Is it really so hard to let pretty much anyone say pretty much whatever he wants? We would all do well in these instances to ask if we’re indulging in a double standard. What if NYU were staging a talk by Avigdor Lieberman, the ferociously anti-Arab deputy prime minister of Israel—how would the folks who attacked Columbia respond to people loudly insisting that no possible good could come from giving an honored forum to such a thuggish enemy of peace?
And consider the commandments of a typical college speech code, such as Ohio State’s: “Do not joke about differences related to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, ability, socioeconomic background, etc.” Does it really make sense to try to outlaw in a dorm what half the residents are watching Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert do every night on TV?
When it comes to free speech, we need to let a hundred flowers bloom. We need to chill. We need to stop being pussies.