Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Cal on the loose

I don't suppose it will surprise anyone to hear that I was perfectly OK with letting the president of Iran speak to students at Columbia, before the United Nations or on the corner stool at the Empire Bar. Letting unpopular ideas air freely is in my DNA.

The usual arguments against letting him speak -- that he denies the Holocaust, that we are on the brink of war with Iran, that he has American blood on his hands -- all make me more rather than less eager to give him a forum. If we are going to spend billions of dollars and possibly thousands of lives to remove the guy from power, we ought to at least listen to what he has to say first.

After all, we have a fair amount of Iranian blood on our hands, too, mostly shed on behalf of our staunch ally -- scratch that -- arch enemy, Saddam Hussein. If talking things over has even a tiny chance of preventing further bloodying of hands, then I'm all for it.

I had hoped that Ahmadinejad might come across as a more reasonable and flexible person than we had been led to believe. I didn't expect it, but I hoped for it. Unfortunately, it didn't happen. He came across as a lying loon. I'm not happy about that, but that's the chance you take when you let people speak openly. I favor free speech even when it produces results I don't like.

Besides, he gave us the best weapon we might have against him. Despite the efforts of "60 Minutes," Ahmadinejad couldn't be embarrassed or cajoled into answering questions honestly. But he could be ridiculed, and that's what students at Columbia did best in response to his stupid comments about homosexuals in Iran. He won't listen to people who attack him, but he might listen to people who laugh at him.

This all seems pretty simple to me. But no position is so simple that Cal Thomas can't find a way to muddle it. In a column that appeared this week in the Gazette, Thomas compares the trials of being a conservative who speaks on a college campus to those of blacks who integrated lunch counters in the South in the 1960s. He makes me wonder why those blacks didn't just collect their honorary diplomas and go air their grievances on talk radio.

Thomas makes a perfectly sound argument except for one detail. He has no actual evidence. Indeed, every single example he gives of repression of conservative speech on college campuses involves people who actually were speaking on college campuses at the time.

Two of his examples even seem to provide counter evidence against his thesis. One is Ahmadinejad himself, who serves as a beacon of liberalism to no one this side of the Ayatollah Khomeini. The Iranian president is a testament to the ability of conservatives to be heard on college campuses.

Another example is a former PLO terrorist turned anti-jihadist -- a step toward liberalism, not away from it. As in the other cases, the speaker did find an audience, but Thomas says that access to the talk was limited because of security concerns. As Thomas rightly points out, security concerns are an easy excuse to restrict speech, but fears that a former terrorist publicly denouncing his old beliefs might be at a bit of public risk hardly seem misplaced.

Thomas' other examples didn't involve conservatives who weren't allowed to speak on college campuses but conservatives whose speeches were disrupted by hecklers and protesters. This is a legitimate concern, but accusing colleges of poor crowd management isn't quite the same thing as accusing them of denying conservatives a chance to speak.

Besides, it isn't clear to me that the hecklers were liberals. Perhaps they were hard leftists; I don't know. But liberalism strikes me as less a political platform than as an attitude. Part of that attitude is a willingness to listen to other points of view because you never know when somebody you disagree with might turn out to be right. So it isn't clear to me how liberalism can be blamed for the deeds of students whose actions are profoundly anti-liberal.

My favorite line from Thomas' column: "Ahmadinejad is probably using his visit to case our country, like a bank robber does before a big heist." So what's he doing, counting security guards at the airport? Timing shift changes at the Empire State Building? He is capable of anything -- and so is Thomas.

UPDATE: I would have thought it impossible to write a dumber column on this topic than Cal Thomas did, but Ann Coulter was up to the challenge. Favorite quote: "Liberals are never called upon to tolerate anything they don't already adore, such as treason, pornography and heresy."

Is there a brain cell functioning anywhere in that head?

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