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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

self-hating academics

[I have had second thoughts about the position I expressed in this item. Although the American politicians like to call such reflection 'flip-flopping', I find it is the sign of a thoughtful person.]

A lot of obvious arguments have been rolled out against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's speech at Columbia University yesterday: that he's a hatemonger, a Holocaust denier, a homophobe, and so on. These are all valid criticisms of the man, for he is all those things. He certainly did his credibility no help yesterday with these remarks, reported by the BBC:
'Asked about executions of homosexuals in Iran, Mr Ahmadinejad replied: "In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country."

Reacting to laughter and jeers from the audience he added: "In Iran we don't have this phenomenon, I don't know who you told this."'

Universities have a special place in public life. They are the one place where intellectual freedom is taken most seriously. That is not to say that universities ought to invite rude individuals with bad ideas to speak, but it is understandable that they sometimes do.

Despite all of that, Columbia was wrong to allow Ahmadinejad on its campus, and it's not because he hates Jews, gays, and men with stylish haircuts. There are surely members of the Columbia community—faculty and students alike—who hold these and other prejudices. And it's not because he has blood on his hands. If that were the rule, it would be hard to find an important figure in world politics who qualified. Besides that, we might not agree on which international bloodletters were terrorists and which were freedom fighters. No, there is an even more fundamental reason than that: Ahmadinejad is the enemy of universities.

Since taking office in 2005, Ahmadinejad has purged Iranian universities of dissidents and tried to de-secularize them as institutions. The BBC reported on December 20, 2006 that
'According to student activists 181 students have received letters warning them not to get involved in politics, while 47 student publications and 28 student organisations have been closed in the last year.
"It seems this is the start of a project to clean the slate—to get rid of those intellectuals who are secular opponents of the government," says student activist Abdullah Momeni.
He believes the purge started after President Ahmadinejad spoke about the need to remove secular and liberal thought from the universities.'

There are other widely reported news items of purges of faculty, arrests of students, and so on. Some readers may object that firing some professors and jailing some students is small potatoes compared to other nefarious activities committed by the Iranian government under President Ahmadinejad. But Columbia is a university. Everyone there ought to feel a special commitment to stand in solidarity with their colleagues at Iranian universities.

Martin Luther King famously wrote in 1963 in his Letter from Birmingham Jail that 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.' I don't know if King would agree with my extension of his idea—probably not—but I would like to offer Columbia and all the universities of the world a rule to follow: if a tyrant closes universities anywhere, then universities should be closed to him everywhere. No one who purges universities at home ought to be welcomed at any university abroad, particularly not at a great university with a strong commitment to academic freedom like Columbia.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is quite Stanley Fishian of you - you know, a policy of "free speech" can accommodate anything except someone who wishes to dismantle "free speech", against whom it must close ranks.

10:33 AM, September 25, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Columbia did the right thing. Universities are literally (I use the word advisedly) the last forums where speakers can be confronted by an intelligent audience with meaningful questions. We certainly can not depend on the media to do its' job properly and ask those questions.
Besides, virtually all the media outlets picked up the Columbia confrontation. That enabled the casual news follower to hear his words and see what an ass he really is.

7:48 PM, September 25, 2007

Blogger Asad said...

Good point, though I think the major damage that was done in all this was to Lee Bollinger's reputation. I like how you don't exempt universities from backwards prejudices. And would that your final rule might be followed by all universities, citadels of moral self-congratulation that they are.

11:04 AM, September 26, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can't say I agree with you in the slightest. The whole debacle was disgusting. And that includes Bollinger's stupid name-calling, foreclosing the possibility either of debate or Columbia students' questions on many of the matters. Bollinger is a tool. But, because this is Iran we're talking about, I'd better make sure everybody's clear where I stand: I also think Ahmadinejad is a tool.

And you buy into the rhetoric of absolutisms, of hatreds and labels; Ahmadinejad's a great bogey-man, making everybody feel a little bit better about themselves.

It was a wasted opportunity.

2:23 PM, September 26, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Columbia's invitation to Ahmadinejad is, properly speaking, not a free speech issue. They invited him to speak, which they did not need to do. The original question I had in mind was whether a university should invite someone to speak who is actively purging universities.

There is no 'free speech' issue at stake here. Had the mob or the state tried to shut down the event or had Columbia withdrawn its invitation under pressure, then this would be a 'free speech' matter.

I concede that it is fitting and proper for Columbia to invite the president of Iran, whoever he or she may be, to speak. Columbia is a great university with a public role to play. And 42 is correct that a university campus is the one place where we are likeliest to hear miscreants properly grilled by knowledgeable, independent critics. I fondly recall more than one occasion in college when I tried to demolish the credibility of certain visiting speakers. (I'd like to think I'm not done doing that.)

A university is a community of weird people who believe in crazy things like curiosity and civil disagreement. (Courageous, steadfast indiviudals like Asad know only too well how a university administration can undermine the very notion of community.) The position I have taken is not entirely satisfactory, and I recognize that. There are many countries without a shred of academic freedom anywhere. The test I proposed is probably untenable, for there would be few heads of state who could ever be invited to college campuses.

Even so, I teach at the other great New York university, and I would not have invited Ahmadinejad to speak. I wish that universities—and liberals, too—were more militant in their own self-defense. Our colleagues in Iran are catching hell just for clinging to their own independence. Let's stand up for them somehow. They are us, just half a world away.

At the very least, Columbia should not have let Ahmadinejad off campus without a public rebuke for his actions against academic freedom. A written letter, formally delivered to Ahmadinejad and released to the public, calling for respect for academic freedom might have gone a long way towards shining a light where it's needed. Who will stand up for Iranian academics if we do not?

12:50 AM, September 27, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Fishian diagnosis stands: "intellectual freedom" or "academic freedom" can accommodate anything except someone who assaults "intellectual freedom" or "academic freedom", against whom it must close ranks.

4:23 AM, September 27, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

I like the idea of Fish's position, but it would be too blunt a rule to follow across the board. My objection to Columbia's invitation had more to do with Iranian academics being purged than any concern with whether or not Ahmadinejad is heard. If the Council on Foreign Relations or the National Press Club had invited him, I would have had nothing to say. I am an academic and perhaps an old-fashioned one for still believing in things like solidarity, a word we don't hear a lot these days. That was my concern in this case.

11:20 PM, September 27, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not really Fish's own (normative) position, but the kind of analysis he gleefully makes of the hard limits in practice observed by people who claim to be defending "free speech" or "intellectual freedom" etc. Your initial argument is subject to this kind of annoying point only because it was predicated in part on an idea of defending "intellectual freedom", but I don't think it really needs to be. Your rule, "if a tyrant closes universities anywhere, then universities should be closed to him everywhere", is perfectly good as it stands.

5:33 AM, September 28, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...

According to the New Yorker, Bollinger addressed this issue.

9:31 PM, October 01, 2007


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