There was a lot of hand-wringing leading up to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s appearance at Columbia University on Monday. But, as it turns out, freedom of speech seemingly worked as it was intended. Ahmadinejad entered the marketplace of ideas and quickly came out the wrong side of the exchange. (You can watch the full video of his appearance here or read the transcript here.) The deciding factor wasn’t so much the unbecoming introduction offered by Lee Bollinger, Columbia’s president. It was more just a matter of giving Ahmadinejad enough rope to hang himself (i.e., letting him doubt the existence of the Holocaust and also gays in Iran) and then sitting back and watching it happen.
Of course, the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor only goes so far when you’re dealing with international politics. Ahmadinejad’s speech wasn’t about winning a competition at Columbia. It was mostly about playing to an audience at home, one for whom his rhetorical strategies score points. But then there are the unintended consequences to consider. Far better than a discredited Bush administration ever could, Ahmadinejad realistically softened up the American public to any military plans that the US government has on the table. At the very least, this has to qualify for a Darwin Award. I’ll save further analysis for the pundits and talking heads since I know that politics and political opinions only go so far on this blog.
Last week, KQED’s Forum here in San Francisco had a good conversation about free speech in the university. It touched on Ahmadinejad’s appearance at Columbia, but also Don Rumsfeld’s invitation to Stanford’s Hoover’s Institution and Larry Summers canceled invitation to speak before the UC Board of Regents. Listen here: iTunes – Feed – Mp3 – Web site.