If you were at Columbia University this past weekend, you might have had the opportunity to attend one of the lectures hosted on campus, all interesting and thought-provoking, no doubt. But the one you’d probably find yourself going to on Monday, regardless of your academic interests, was an a question-and-answer period with the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.
I don’t know if you’d actually learn anything new or be particularly enlightened as you would at any other lecture. But perhaps, like so many who went, curiosity was enough. After all, here was a man who has been taking a no-compromise situation with the world, and all of a sudden is now fielding questions from university students? Here was a man who has defied years of historical allegory (i.e. the Holocaust) and now is standing up on a platform feigning an academic?
At first, I too was shocked with the idea that one of the nation’s most preeminent universities could allow for the Iranian dictator to become a guest of honor, and welcome him as part of its annual “World Leaders” forum. And while I can’t deny that he is in fact a world leader, I have to wonder where he intends to lead the world.
But with all the protests and attempts to get Columbia to revoke its invitation aside, the real issue at hand here wasn’t over Iran’s nuclear weapons, or its alleged support of insurgencies in Iraq, or its denial of the Holocaust, although those issues naturally came up. Regardless of the value of the discussion, there isn’t a whole lot that the Iranian dictator is going to change in regards to his domestic and foreign policies, or at least because of this conversation. Just look back to a year ago when Ahmedinejad spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. We received the same fiery unreason from his end that only seemed to confirm his intentions for Iran.
But the real result of that meeting a year ago was that dialogue, no matter how useless it seemed, did take place. And in retrospect, it wasn’t useless. It reaffirmed one of the values most important between nations: the value of direct communication. The idea that revealing one’s ideas, no matter how preposterous they may be, is better than revealing nothing at all. And after all the pathetic propaganda you heard from him, like, “Women in Iran enjoy the highest levels of freedom” or the absurd-but-slightly-amusing, “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals, like in your country”, you were, I hope, ever more convinced that the man showed all the signs of a cruel dictator. And we are only as strong as our convictions.
Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia, is quoted as saying that, if given a chance, Hitler would have been given the same platform as Ahmedinejad. And this platform is not a reward. It is only another opportunity for us to see them for who and what they really are. And given that perspective, there is hardly a rational human who could not be turned away from what they saw and heard on Monday. Hitler was able to spread his propaganda in Germany because he found people to whom it stuck. The fact that Ahmedinejad’s speech didn’t stick with his audience at Colombia, or all of us listening, really clarifies what we value, and what we repudiate. And it’s refreshing to be reminded of that every once in a while.