Monday, September 24, 2007

Ahmadinejad on Campus

Entering the Columbia campus today was no small feat, as the subway entrance outside the gates ejects you into a security cordon. The Columbia campus, a 6-square-block quad, is sealed off except for the two main gates. After presenting my Columbia ID card, I made my way to the law school, passing through a locked-down campus littered with the indicia of a protest-to-come.

New York civic leaders of all stripes are up in arms at Columbia welcoming Ahmadinejad to campus, some threatening to find economic ways of harming Columbia. Yet New Yorkers have had to do their cosmopolitan duty and entertain ghoulish figures since the dawn of the U.N., and my words to those who oppose his presence at Columbia – not to those who oppose him through their questions and remarks at the event or to his ideas through their protest signs – is the same as Josh Marshall's reaction to the Ground-Zero-visit opposition: Grow Up.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has been around for almost 30 years — whether its 2nd in command is invited to face U.S. students or not doesn't really matter when questions of legitimacy come up. It's not a question of legitimizing a less-than-democratically-elected leader. It's a question of dialoging with a presence on the world stage that won't go away, however much we choose to avoid diplomacy and dialogue.

Lost in the furor over the Ahmadinejad visit are two interpretational lenses that I find instructive.

First, it was almost a year ago that supporters of the Iranian progressive movement were heartened by the vocal opposition that met Ahmadinejad when he spoke to students at Tehran's Amir Kabir University. I was elated that Ahmadinejad met vocal opposition then, and I hope he meets vocal opposition today. If I could engineer society so that he met vocal and informed opposition every day, I would.

(In this sense,
Ahmadinejad's interlocutors inside the auditorium serve roughly the same purpose as the protesters outside the auditorium. But for Ahmadinejad coming up to Columbia, how would he ever encounter those strenuously opposed to his message?)

Second, our country needs many things, but it especially needs to reacquaint itself with civil debate, even if it looks like civil debate with monsters. For 7 years, we have suffered under a President who appears afraid to face his opposition. This is a problem. Just as the UK's Prime Minister must face bombardment every week during Prime Minister's Questions, we should demand a society where political views of all stripes engage opposing ideas, even if those opposing ideas sound odious in the extreme.

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