Earlier this month, former president of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, went on a five-city speaking tour of the NE United States. He was invited to speak at the Washington National Cathedral, at Harvard’s Kennedy Law School, at the University of Virginia, and in other rather prestigious venues. Some lauded his coming as a shining example of the openness of US society — a gem in the crown of democracy. Others, like MA Governor Mitt Romney were less excited, claiming that (especially so close to the anniversary of 9/11) someone like Khatami should not be welcomed with open arms the way he was. And (in Romney’s mind) he certainly shouldn’t be afforded police escorts and other status symbols on tax payers’ dollars.
Just a few days ago, the current president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, visited the US as well, speaking at the United Nations, as well as at Columbia and Georgetown Universities and others. As is typical, many liberals were all for it, and many conservatives weren’t.
Bill O’Reilly has weighed in on this topic several times over the last few weeks on both radio and television. I bring him up because, as usual, I mostly agree with his views. His basic point is that this is a tough call. We’re a free and open society, and we all want it to remain that way. As such, we’re obligated to let people express themselves, even when we aren’t going to like what they have to say. However, there is a certain level of respect accorded someone when they are invited to speak at Harvard University, for example. I’m not sure that every psychopath in the world should be granted that level of respect, even if he was once the president of a country. Even still, both O’Reilly and I agree that you have to let him come.
But here are a few things that I believe Mr. O’Reilly (and others) are overlooking, which I feel are pretty important…
1) Harvard and other universities have a double standard. The same people screaming that Khatami and Ahmadinejad absolutely must be given any forum they want to say any thing they want, are the same people who would say that Christians should never be given a forum in public schools or in government. They’re the same people who would claim that President Bush’s faith disqualifies him from serious debate on many things, because he’s in a sense tainted by it. They would denegrate all day long the Jerry Falwell’s and Pat Buchanan’s and Jim Dobson’s of the world (not that I necessarily agree with them either, but that’s not the point) as being reactionary. The same group that would insist everyone give the presidents of Iran a fair hearing would call these other guys names all day long, belittle them at every turn, and try to make them appear incapable of a rational contribution to the debate. Or leave religion out of it and focus on politics, places like Harvard or Georgetown (in my view) feel far less likely to invite George Bush or Condoleeza Rice or Bill Bennett to speak than Hugo Chavez or Fidel Castro. This is wrong and hypocritical, and it needs to be said. It means that it isn’t really the “free and open marketplace of ideas” that some claim so venhemently that it is.
2) The press routinely does not cover presentations by the likes of Khatami and Ahmadinejad fairly. Over and over again, guys like this are afforded every benefit of the doubt in the national media, where someone like Bill O’Reilly or President Bush are always assumed to be radical reactionaries, war mongers, homophobes, etc. It’s not balanced. And because it isn’t, it makes the question of whether or not to invite Khatami and Ahmadinejad on five-city speaking tours a hard one.
So, what’s my point? It’s not that we don’t invite them. Even after all this, I think we have to. What I want to change is how easy it is / how accepting we are. They should be invited, they should be escorted and protected (on Harvard’s nickel, not the taxpayer’s), and then they should be grilled within an inch of their lives about the horrible things they’ve done and are continuing to do. They should be exposed as liars and sociopaths. When they get to Harvard (or wherever else), they should be given a chance to say their piece, and then face a whole panel of people who call them out on all manner of fascist extremism that has gone on in Iran.
Why is their society not free and open? Why are people persecuted if they aren’t Muslims? Why are women considered less than men? Why are they funding and training terrorists? Why won’t them play ball with the UN over nuclear weapons? Why are they so viciously anti-American and anti-Israel? On and on.
The university is not just about the open and free exchange of ideas, it’s about truth and knowledge and learning and wisdom. Not everyone who would come and speak has these in equal measure. In other words, not every idea has the same value as every other. And if we don’t recognize that as a nation (and soon), then the danger we face in this war could overwhelm us.