Imagine the scene: As angry protesters march outside, a nation's unpopular president prepares to address students and faculty at a prestigious university. Introducing the president, the head of the university is bluntly critical of his guest speaker: "You, quite simply, [are] ridiculous. You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated. . . . I doubt you will have the intellectual courage to answer [our] questions . . . I do expect you to exhibit the fanatical mind-set that characterizes so much of what you say and do. . . . Your preposterous and belligerent statements . . . led to your party's defeat in the [last] elections."
Unfazed, the president rises to begin his speech. His sometimes bizarre remarks generate hoots of derision. But he plows on civilly, though he ducks and weaves when faced with critical questions from the audience.
When the clock runs out, many are dissatisfied with his answers. But everyone applauds the courageous head of the university, who wasn't afraid to speak truth to power, and everyone praises the student protesters, who exemplified the democratic values of dissent and free expression.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if something like that could happen in our country?
No, no, I mean really happen in our country. Tuesday's farce in New York at Columbia University, starring Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the Unpopular Presidential Guest and Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger as The Man Who Spoke Truth to Power, doesn't count because it was just that: a farce.
Ahmadinejad was playing to global public opinion, and though he lost some PR points for incoherence and general bizarreness of message ("In Iran, we don't have homosexuals"), he gained some for coming off as a bit more mature than his prissy, infantile host. ("In Iran, when you invite a guest, you respect them," Ahmadinejad observed dryly.)
Bollinger, meanwhile, was playing to a different audience. After taking a beating for giving Ahmadinejad a forum, he was eager to show the media, alumni, concerned Jewish organizations and a raft of bellicose neoconservative pundits that he was no terrorist-loving appeaser of Holocaust deniers.
In a narrow sense, both Ahmadinejad and Bollinger achieved their goals. Ahmadinejad showed that he could be dignified in the face of crass American bullies, which will play well abroad -- and may even buttress his dwindling prestige in Iran. And Bollinger showed that he can be a crass American bully, which, in our current political climate, is what passes for "courage."
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Bollinger's tactics went down well with the New York media, anyway: The New York Sun rhapsodized about a "Teaching Moment," while the New York Times expressed the pious hope that "what Americans and Iranians will remember is that image of professors and students, in a true democratic forum." And Bollinger seemed quite pleased with his own performance. The Bollinger-Ahmadinejad Show was "free speech at its best," Bollinger modestly explained to reporters.
Sorry, no. "Free speech at its best" is when someone really does speak truth to power, and power stops blathering long enough to engage with inconvenient ideas. If an Iranian professor, inside Iran, had said what Bollinger said to Ahmadinejad, that would have been brave.
Or -- stay with me here -- if Bollinger had invited President Bush to Columbia and made those same unvarnished remarks to him, and Bush had toughed it out and struggled to answer half a dozen unfiltered, critical questions from an audience not made up of his handpicked supporters . . . . Well, that too would have been free speech at its best.
Unfortunately, that's not the kind of thing you're likely to see in America.
It's odd, because Bush -- like Ahmadinejad -- makes plenty of statements that, to paraphrase the eloquent Mr. Bollinger, could be characterized as ridiculous, provocative, uneducated and fanatical. (Take Bush's repeated suggestion of a link between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks, for instance.) And as in the case of Ahmadinejad, some of Bush's preposterous and belligerent statements contributed to the GOP's defeat in the last elections.
But so what? Here in the land of free speech, elites -- including those at universities -- too often collude to keep our own president in his safe little bubble. (Those who forget to pretend that the emperor is fully dressed, such as Stephen Colbert at the 2006 White House Correspondents Assn. dinner or Jimmy Carter at Coretta Scott King's funeral, are instantly chastised for being "inappropriate.")
This week, a global audience saw Iran's "petty and cruel dictator," as Bollinger called him, courteously parrying questions from hostile students -- something viewers won't see our democratically elected president doing.
So fine, let's congratulate ourselves for showing Iran just how many freedoms we have in America. But when we get done congratulating ourselves on our fancy freedoms, let's figure out why we can't be bothered to put them to use.
© 2007 The Los Angeles Times