Mark Steyn has an excellent piece on the issue of “free speech/academic freedom” and the Ahmadinejad visit to Columbia. In it he raises the issue of “risk-free dissent” which points out the critical inconsistencies of leftist indignation: on the one hand there is no limit to the verbal violence, and far too few limits to the physical violence that “progressives” will indulge in when the target won’t strike back. On the other hand, when we look at the targets that these same progressives take great pains not to offend and refuse to attack, we find that often enough they represent groups who might well make any criticism a costly endeavor.
Risk-free dissent the default mode of our culture
By Mark Steyn
“I’m proud of my university today,” Stina Reksten, a 28-year-old Columbia graduate student from Norway, told the New York Times. “I don’t want to confuse the very dire human rights situation in Iran with the issue here, which is freedom of speech. This is about academic freedom.”
Isn’t it always? But enough about Iran, let’s talk about me! The same university that shouted down an American anti-illegal-immigration activist and the same university culture that just deemed former Harvard honcho Larry Summers too misogynist to be permitted on campus is now congratulating itself over its commitment to “academic freedom.” True, renowned Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo is not happy. “They can have any fascist they want there,” said professor Zimbardo, “but this seems egregious.” But, hey, don’t worry: He was protesting not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presence at Columbia but Donald Rumsfeld’s presence at the Hoover Institution.
The use of “fascist” as an epithet here is a key sign of the terminological disorder of the left. When Bush used the expression Islamofascism, progressives — the very people who called anyone fascist in the 60s who so much as looked at them cross-eyed — all of a sudden discovered the historically specific meaning of fascism. One must not call Islamists fascists.
At some point during this past week, it was decided that the relevant Ahmadinejad comparison was to Nikita Krushchev. The Soviet leader toured America in 1960, was taken to a turkey farm, paid a visit to Frank Sinatra and Co. on the set of “Can-Can” and pronounced the movie “decadent.” And yet the republic survived. As one of my most distinguished fellow columnists, Peggy Noonan, put it in the Wall Street Journal, Krushchev’s visit reminded the world that “we are the confident nation.” And, as several e-mailers observed, warming to Noonan’s theme, back then hysterical right-wing ninnies didn’t get their panties in a twist just because a man dedicated to the destruction of our way of life was in town for a couple of days.
Whether or not this was a more “confident” nation in 1960, it’s certainly a more post-modern nation now. I don’t know whether Stina Reksten, as a 28-year old Norwegian, can be held up as an exemplar of American youth, but she certainly seems to have mastered the lingo: We’ve invited the president of Iran to speak but let’s not confuse “the very dire human-rights situation” – or his nuclear program, or his Holocaust denial, or his role in the seizing of the U.S. Embassy hostages, or his government’s role in the deaths of American troops and Iraqi civilians – with the more important business of applauding ourselves for our celebration of “academic freedom.”
Although Steyn doesn’t directly attack this point, I think it important to distinguish. Freedom of speech demands that Ahmadinejad be allowed to say what he wants. He did that at the UN. Academic freedom demands that professors and students be able to discuss important issues without being censored. Inviting Ahamadinejad to Columbia is not about freedom of speech; it’s about giving someone honor and a platform. Nothing in the principle of freedom of speech demand that everyone be given that honor.
So much of contemporary life is about opportunities for self-congratulation. Risk-free dissent is the default mode of our culture, and extremely seductive. If dissent means refusing to let the Bush administration bully you into wearing a flag lapel pin, why, then Katie Couric (bravely speaking out on this issue just last week) is the new Mandela! If Rumsfeld is a “fascist.” then anyone can fight fascism. It’s no longer about the secret police kicking your door down and clubbing you to a pulp. Well, OK, it is if you’re a Buddhist monk in Burma. But they’re a long way away, and it’s all a bit complicated and foreign, and let’s not “confuse the very dire human rights situation” in Hoogivsastan with an opportunity to celebrate our courage in defending “academic freedom” in America. Ahmadinejad must occasionally have felt he was appearing in a matinee of “A Chance To Hear [Insert Name Of Enemy Head Of State Here].” Could have been Chavez, could have been Mullah Omar, could have been Herr Reichsfuhrer Hitler himself, as Columbia’s Dean John Coatsworth proudly boasted on television.
Lots of prime ministers and diplomats accepted invitations to meet with Hitler, and generally the meetings went very well – except for one occasion when Lord Halifax, the British foreign secretary, was greeted by the little chap with the mustache, mistook him for the butler, and handed him his coat. But even that faux pas is a testament to how normal thugs can appear in social situations. Civilized nations like chit-chatting, having tea, holding debates, talking talking talking. Tyrannies like terrorizing people, torturing people, murdering people, doing doing doing. It’s easier for the doers to pass themselves off as talkers than for the talkers to rouse themselves to do anything.
The notion of cost-free criticism is crucial in understanding the left’s behavior towards Israel and the Palestinians. It costs nothing (at least in the short run) to compare Israelis to the Nazis, no matter how dishonest and inappropriate the comparison. Israelis will complain a lot, feel and show great pain. For moral sadists, it’s quite a thrill. But try associating the Palestinians to Nazis — a comparison with both historical and comparative weight — and a) the “left” will assault you for your lack of sensitivy, and b) the Palestinians (and other Arabs and Muslims) just might make your life difficult. For moral cowards, the choice is straightforward: indeed it defines politically correct. As any student of the phenomenon will tell you, that makes politically correct as currently practiced a form of dhimmi behavior.
As witness this last week. Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, was evidently taken aback by the criticism he got for inviting Ahmadinejad and so found himself backed into what, for a conventional soft-leftie of academe, was a ferocious denunciation of his star guest, dwelling at length on Iran’s persecution of minorities, murder of dissidents, sponsorship of terrorism, nuclear ambitions, genocidal threats toward Israel, etc. For a warmup act, Bollinger pretty much frosted up the joint. The Iranian leader sat through the intro with a plastic smile, and then said: “I shall not begin by being affected by this unfriendly treatment.” He offered many illuminating insights: There are, he declared, no homosexuals in Iran. Not one. Where are they? On a weekend visit to Kandahar to see the new production of “Mame”? Alas, there was no time for follow-up questions.
And afterwards Bollinger got raves even from the right for “speaking truth to power.” But so what? It’s like Noel Coward delivering a series of devastating put-downs to Hitler. The Fuhrer’s mad as hell but at the end of the afternoon he goes back to killing, and dear Noel goes back to singing “The Stately Homes Of England.” Ahmadinejad goes back to doing – to persecuting, to murdering, to terrorizing, to nuclearizing – and Bollinger cuts out his press clippings and puts them on the fridge.
The other day, National Review’s Jay Nordlinger was musing about our habit of referring to some benighted part of the world’s “humanitarian needs” and wondered when we’d stopped using the term “human needs,” which is, after all, what food, water and shelter are. And his readers wrote in to state the obvious: That “humanitarian” label gives top billing not to the distant, Third World victim but the generous Western donor – the “humanitarian” relief effort, the “humanitarian” organizations, the NGOs, the Western charities: It’s about us, not them. Bill Clinton’s new bestseller on charity is called “Giving” – because it’s better to give than to receive, and that’s certainly true if the giver is busying himself with some ineffectual feel-good “Save Darfur” fundraiser while the recipient is on the receiving end of the Janjaweed’s machetes. The Sudanese government appreciates that, as long as we’re allowed to feel good about ourselves and to participate in “humanitarian relief,” the killing can go on until there’s no one left to kill. Likewise, Ahmadinejad knows that, as along as we’re allowed to do what we do best – talk and talk and talk, whether at Columbia or in EU negotiations – his regime can quietly get on with its nuclear program.
This is a critical point and goes to the heart of the West’s moral narcissism — “not one hair on a Iraqi child’s head harmed by weapons paid for with my tax money” — was the cry of students opposing the war in 2003, as if what Saddam Hussein did to his own people had no significance as long as “we” were not implicated.
At the same time it illuninates the dynamics behind what Charles Jacobs calls the “human rights complex”: don’t look to the identity or suffering of the victim to gauge how indignant the human rights community will get about an issue, look to the identity of the perpetrator. If it’s white, then you can count on hysteria. Ultimately, it’s about atoning for sins, not alleviating pain.
This connects to a telling remark made by one student of that pervasive human emotion, envy. Envious people like to condescend to people, help the poor and wretched, because it makes them feel good about themselves while maintaining their sense of superiority. Equals, competitors, they dislike. Explains a fair amount of the tendency of the “left” to side with the victim, no matter how abominably the victim behaves.
These men understand the self-absorption of advanced democracies. The difference between Winston Churchill and Ward Churchill, another famous beneficiary of “academic freedom” who called the 9/11 dead “little Eichmanns,” is that for Sir Winston talking was a call to action while for poseurs like professor Churchill it’s a substitute for it.
The pen is not mightier than the sword if your enemy is confident you will never use anything other than your pen. Sometimes it’s not about “freedom of speech,” but about freedom. Ask an Iranian homosexual. If you can find one.
Look in the closet. You’ll find huddled masses.