Freedom to Speak, Freedom to Learn


Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flew into New York City Saturday. He had come to the United States to speak before the UN General Assembly’s opening session this week. Under agreement with the UN, the United States as the host country for the UN headquarters cannot refuse to issue a visa to heads of state or other officials who come to the UN to speak. However, the State Department can and does impose a maximum travel radius on representatives of countries deemed unfriendly. Moreover, within the allowed radius, police departments may refuse requests, on the basis of security concerns, to go to specific destinations.

On Monday morning–September 24–The New York Daily News front page was taken up with a picture of President Ahmadinejad and four words, all in capital letters: The EVIL HAS LANDED. The objection so voiced in print was part of the wide-spread protest against a speaking engagement at Columbia University by the Iranian president.

The invitation tendered by Columbia was freely extended and freely accepted, with no preconditions or restrictions. Despite some vociferous objections to allowing an individual who denies that the Holocaust happened and has said that Israel should disappear from the map, the venue was most appropriate. To quote the great 19th century Roman Catholic prelate-scholar, John Henry Cardinal Newman, a university is a "School of Universal Learning [implying] the assemblage of strangers from all parts in one spot.Accordingly, in its simple and rudimental form, it is a school of knowledge of every kind, consisting of teachers and learners from every quarter. [A] University seems to be in its essence, a place for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personal intercourse, through a wide extent of country" (The Idea of a University).

Of course, if "communication and circulation of thought" justifies giving Ahmadinejad a forum, the question comes as to whether there is any limitations on free speech in a university setting. Constitutionally, the Supreme Court has carved out some limits on general First Amendment rights, but the Court, as far as I am aware, has not directed such limits to universities.

Nonetheless, I suggest that there is at least one limit: courtesy to a guest, especially when the guest has been invited, in part, because his views are known to be contrary to those of the institutions. It is this limit that Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, violated in his rather extended remarks delivered before President Ahmadinejad said a word.

Protesting that he was but a university professor who happened also to be a university president, Bollinger started by reminding the audience that to listen to someone in no way implies acceptance or an endorsement of what is said–which includes both Columbia’s guest and those demonstrating against his presence on the university campus. Bollinger also urged his listeners to never retreat when confronted with ideas that one detests but to take them on.

All that was fair game and needed to be said. Bollinger then presented a list of grievances and accusations against internal policies and practices of the Iranian state as well as the foreign policies of the Islamic Republic. This too, was within bounds, particularly since Bollinger started by reminding Ahmadinejad that his country had arrested, imprisoned, and only recently released some Iranian-American academics visiting Iran, including members of Columbia’s faculty. (At least one academic is still under house arrest in Iran.) But then President Bollinger veered into a personal attack, calling Ahmadinejad "a petty and cruel dictator."

President Bollinger is perfectly free to hold that opinion and to express it–which he did directly to the Iranian president. Yet, the verbal assault on the visitor seemed extremely crude and, arguably, not factual. Granted that all candidates for political office in Iran are subject to a vetting process, Iranians seem to feel that they have (few?) real choices when they participate in general elections for president, parliament, and "local" government.

Ahmadinejad’s reaction was to chide Bollinger for, in effect, being rude. Bollinger, in my view, accomplished nothing by delivering his verbal assault before Ahmadinejad spoke other than confirm for Iranians that, even in its universities, America is an intolerant society.

For those who decided to skip the broadcast of the speech (carried partially on CNN and completely by Fox News), the general themes that are Ahmadinejad’s stock in trade were present: Palestine-Israel, U.S. dominance, nuclear energy/weapons, sanction regimes (e.g., spare parts for commercial airliners), and Iran as a victim of terror. He also, without naming the United States, rejected the authenticity of "freedom" in what he termed "bullying powers" whose governments spy on citizens’ telephone conversations, r try to undermine ancient cultures, or try to prevent other countries from making scientific advances (obviously referring to nuclear energy development). In fact, running throughout the speech was a noticeable emphasis on science and the scientific method as an instrument for improving people’s lives

Those were most of the main points in Ahmadinejad’s prepared remarks. But one issue deserves additional comment: Ahmadinejad’s position on the Holocaust.

Columbia the Iranian president did not claim that the Holocaust never happened. He expressed concern that the prevalent attitude that further research on the Holocaust is not needed violates the principles of intellectual and academic enquiry. Nothing is so extensively investigated, he said, that we can be sure that no further knowledge or fresh perspectives will be forthcoming.

Listening carefully to the speech and the answers to questions that the audience posed, it is possible to unravel Ahmadinejad’s line of thought. He seems to assume that the methodology of learning is the same regardless of the subject–and that is the scientific mode of enquiry that is never conclusive, never final, always open to revision and correction. The other distinguishing feature of scientific enquiry is the ability of other scientists to replicate experiments and confirm the results.

But there is another methodology, one that Ahmadinejad ignores even though it pertains to non-scientific enquiries. This "humanistic" methodology is an inductive process that assimilates reports of events and perspectives of individuals to build a holistic description (or as nearly holistic as possible) of an event. Unlike a scientific experiment in which variables can be frozen and unfrozen as the experiment runs, life cannot be frozen or exactly replicated because the context of the original event can never be recovered

In terms of the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad tries to apply to a historical event that cannot be replicated the same standard that scientific enquiry yields–contingent consensus on what is "reality" based on the present state of knowledge. But in humanistic events, once they happen, they cannot be altered. At best, they can be thoroughly investigated and recorded to serve as a warning for future generations.

And although I do not believe President Ahmadinejad’s comments were directed to this point, there is one aspect of the Holocaust that must not be closed off. That is the questioning of the conditions that should have served as warning signs–in history, sociology, and politics–and tracking these back as far as possible.

Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur are recent reminders that we have not yet escaped the possibility of another Holocaust. More study on how to sustain the veneer of "civilized" behavior is needed–and soon.

Col. DAN SMITH is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus , a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Email at dan@fcnl.org.

October 06, 2015
Vijay Prashad
Afghanistan, the Terrible War: Money for Nothing
Mike Whitney
How Putin will Win in Syria
Paul Street
Yes, There is an Imperialist Ruling Class
Paul Craig Roberts
American Vice
Kathy Kelly
Bombing Hospitals: 22 People Killed by US Airstrike on Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan
Ron Jacobs
Patti Smith and the Beauty of Memory
David Macaray
Coal Executive Finally Brought Up on Criminal Charges
Norman Pollack
Cold War Rhetoric: The Kept Intelligentsia
Cecil Brown
The Firing This Time: School Shootings and James Baldwin’s Final Message
Roger Annis
The Canadian Election and the Global Climate Crisis
W. T. Whitney
Why is the US Government Persecuting IFCO/Pastors for Peace Humanitarian Organization?
Jesse Jackson
Alabama’s New Jim Crow Far From Subtle
Joe Ramsey
After Umpqua: Does America Have a Gun Problem….or a Dying Capitalist Empire Problem?
Murray Dobbin
Rise Up, Precariat! Cheap Labour is Over
October 05, 2015
Michael Hudson
Parasites in the Body Economic: the Disasters of Neoliberalism
Patrick Cockburn
Why We Should Welcome Russia’s Entry Into Syrian War
Kristine Mattis
GMO Propaganda and the Sociology of Science
Heidi Morrison
Well-Intentioned Islamophobia
Ralph Nader
Monsanto and Its Promoters vs. Freedom of Information
Arturo Desimone
Retro-Colonialism: the Exportation of Austerity as War By Other Means
Robert M. Nelson
Noted Argentine Chemist Warns of Climate Disaster
Matt Peppe
Misrepresentation of the Colombian Conflict
Barbara Dorris
Pope Sympathizes More with Bishops, Less with Victims
Clancy Sigal
I’m Not a Scientologist, But I Wish TV Shrinks Would Just Shut Up
Chris Zinda
Get Outta’ Dodge: the State of the Constitution Down in Dixie
Eileen Applebaum
Family and Medical Leave Insurance, Not Tax Credits, Will Help Families
Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure
“Boxing on Paper” for the Nation of Islam, Black Nationalism, and the Black Athlete: a Review of “The Complete Muhammad Ali” by Ishmael Reed
Lawrence Ware
Michael Vick and the Hypocrisy of NFL Fans
Gary Corseri - Charles Orloski
Poets’ Talk: Pope Francis, Masilo, Marc Beaudin, et. al.
Weekend Edition
October 2-4, 2015
Henry Giroux
Murder, USA: Why Politicians Have Blood on Their Hands
Mike Whitney
Putin’s Lightning War in Syria
Jennifer Loewenstein
Heading Toward a Collision: Syria, Saudi Arabia and Regional Proxy Wars
John Pilger
Wikileaks vs. the Empire: the Revolutionary Act of Telling the Truth
Gary Leupp
A Useful Prep-Sheet on Syria for Media Propagandists
Jeffrey St. Clair
Pesticides, Neoliberalism and the Politics of Acceptable Death
Joshua Frank
The Need to Oppose All Foreign Intervention in Syria
Lawrence Ware – Paul Buhle
Insurrectional Black Power: CLR James on Race and Class
Oliver Tickell
Jeremy Corbyn’s Heroic Refusal to be a Nuclear Mass Murderer
Helen Yaffe
Che’s Economist: Remembering Jorge Risquet
Mark Hand
‘Rape Rooms’: How West Virginia Women Paid Off Coal Company Debts
Michael Welton
Junior Partner of Empire: Why Canada’s Foreign Policy Isn’t What You Think
Yves Engler
War Crimes in the Dark: Inside Canada’s Special Forces
Arno J. Mayer
Israel: the Wages of Hubris and Violence
W. T. Whitney
Cuban Government Describes Devastating Effects of U. S. Economic Blockade
Brian Cloughley
The US-NATO Alliance Destroyed Libya, Where Next?