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Ahmadinejad v. Bollinger: Words Were Spoken, But What Was Said?

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, began his two hours at Columbia University with these words. "In Iran, tradition requires when you invite a person to be a speaker, we actually respect our students enough to allow them to make their own judgment, and don't think it's necessary before the speech is even given to come in with a series of complaints to provide vaccination to the students and faculty."

Nobody can argue that the Iranian President is controversial. Nobody can argue that there are large numbers of Americans who harbor a feeling of intense hatred for the man although, given the fact that a large number of American harbor hatreds for all manner of species with no apparent reason, it is a little difficult to imagine that their animosity towards this particular human being is based on any well-researched facts.

Nonetheless, we can, I think, agree that Mr. Ahmadinejad is not particularly loved, certainly not as much as America's favorite blue-collar champion, Bruce Springsteen whose concert tickets only sold out, according to the New York Times, marginally faster than those for the Columbia event.

In other words, people turned out in droves to execute the verbal equivalent of the kind of hideous injustices we are all told are practiced in "backward" places, stoning to death, for example, at Columbia University. In Iran, as in most other nations and even, I've heard, in some of the more civilized parts of the United States, it is customary to honor a guest with common courtesy if that is all one can muster.

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A guest comes in the guise of a speaker, a performer, a diner, or numerous other permutations that embody him or her with special status, but one thing is always true: a guest is invited. An invitation is a communication, expressed both formally and politely, to an individual, asking that they attend a festivity or event of ones own creation. In this case, Columbia University's president, Lee C. Bollinger, chose to ask a visiting foreign dignitary to grace his campus with his presence. A guest who accepts such an invitation does not envision that they will be publicly humiliated and attacked by their host for the amusement of other attendees.

How embarrassing then that such a thing could occur, at so prestigious a venue as Columbia University, so publicly and at the center of such media attention. How much worse, however, is that not one newspaper in this country chose to point out that Lee C. Bollinger acted appallingly and disgracefully? It is admirable that he chose to invite President Ahmadinejad to speak at his campus, to give a man excoriated by the American government and its oddly un-free press, a chance to state his case. But it is unforgivable that he would choose to backtrack on his initial gesture at the sad expense of his guest, and to the everlasting shame of his country.

I, for one, looked on with disgust. I also took away from the fiasco one new and not surprising bit of information: the President of Iran possesses a grace that neither his host nor the hecklers at Columbia University nor the press in this country nor, I might as well state the obvious, the president of this country can claim. Chalk one up, once again, for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

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Ru Freeman

Ru Freeman

Ru Freeman's creative and political writing has appeared internationally. She is the author of the novels A Disobedient Girl (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2009) and On Sal Mal Lane (Graywolf, 2013), a New York Times Editor's Choice. Both novels have been translated into several languages including Italian, French, Hebrew, and Chinese. She blogs on literature and politics, is a contributing editorial board member of the Asian American Literary Review, and has been a fellow of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She is the 2014 winner of the Janet Heidinger Kafka Award for Fiction by an American Woman.

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