Free Speech for Terrorists · 07 November 2007

By Christopher Lacaria - Harvard Crimson
Filed under: Press Coverage

The postmodern Academy these days has become so dull that it no longer appreciates its own ironies.

Any casual observer of President Drew G. Faust’s installation ceremony could not help but chuckle at the aesthetic incoherence of the Brahmin formalities interspersed with multicultural drum and jazz numbers. The attempt to merge harmoniously Harvard tradition and international diversity into a single program, with its discordant rhythms and awkward transitions, certainly fell short of the mark.

Meanwhile, the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (OSAPR), ostensibly a counseling and support group, this month prepares for a production of Eve Ensler’s impolite and immodest play, “The V——- Monologues.” One would suppose no logical connection exists between reducing sexual violence and artistic interpretations of sexual empowerment—but the paper-pushers at OSAPR evidently do not care much for logic. Only those debilitated by the postmodern disciplines could interpret the mandate of a rape-counseling resource to include staging dramatic performances filled with lurid language and graphic obscenity.

Perhaps the most sadly ironic of recent events, however, was the inexplicable divide between campus opinions on matters of free speech and Islamic extremism.

Avowed Holocaust-denier and President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, feted last month by Columbia University’s tough-talking but effectively spineless administrators, received glowing praise from campus commentators and editorialists the country over. Welcoming a vociferous enemy of the United States and, in the words of Columbia president Lee Bollinger, a “petty tyrant,” was a courageous and laudable reaffirmation of free speech and academic freedom.

This very newspaper waxed poetical about Ahmadinejad’s visit, applauding it as a “proud” moment for academia and celebrating Bollinger’s “bravery” and “gusto.” The Columbia Spectator, that campus’s paper of record, congratulated the University for displaying the “courage and philosophical integrity befitting a prestigious institution.” The New York Times, no doubt comprised of many graduates from both amateur periodicals, similarly gushed: They “could imagine no better way to give hope to opponents of Iran’s repressive state” than to honor the country’s leader with a forum at an Ivy League university—albeit a second-rate one.

With such fervent ideological partisans of free speech as higher education’s mouthpieces, one could expect similarly impassioned rhetoric to accompany the advent of “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week” today. An initiative led by the neoconservative critic of academia David Horowitz and others, Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week intends to highlight the silence about atrocities committed in the name of Islam on college campuses, where blaming America is all in vogue.

Surely Ahmadinejad’s convictions about Jews, gays, and women cannot even compare to the relatively modest assertion that some Muslims advocate terrorism. But judging by these newspapers’ responses, one could presume that David Horowitz makes Ahmadinejad seem like Mickey Mouse.

The Spectator soured at the prospect of Horowitz’s visit to campus for Islamo-Fascism Week, ominously warning that the event’s organizers “dangerously (if unsurprisingly) conflate extremists who practice Islam with the faith itself.” As if the presence on campus of the world’s most prominent dictator did not bear similar worries about the types of values implicitly endorsed by the University. One can expect The Crimson to tow a similar line someday soon.

But if free speech is such an objective and unqualified good, and its frequent exercise a sacramental rite, why do campus progressives praise Ahmadinejad’s visit but anathematize Islamo-Fascism Week?

Both The Crimson and the Spectator, in their panegyrics to Bollinger’s heroism, cite Ahmadinejad’s status as a “world leader” as the reason why hearing his opinions would be valuable. But, as it turned out, his speech was replete with neither detailed policy discussions nor insights available only to those on high. The Crimson, though, at least also saw value in embarrassing him—“a clown cowering behind the podium”—for his outlandish views. If exposing bigots is a worthy goal of free speech, it is surprising that the David Dukes of the world are not already on the Ivy League speaking circuit.

Perhaps the real reason behind campuses’ discomfort with Islamo-Fascism Week lies less in Horowitz or other pundits’ undistinguished leadership credentials than in academia’s only tepid support for free speech itself.

Campus progressives chafe at the idea of rabble-rousing, controversial, and inflammatory events staged to criticize politically-correct excesses. Bigots like Ahmadinejad do little harm—few American college students share his opinions, and he already lacks credibility in most people’s eyes. But firebrands like Horowitz who bring legitimate—if often overblown and rhetorically inappropriate—criticisms to bear against the academic left pose a much greater threat: to expose to more observers the shaky foundations upon which most postmodern prejudices are bulwarked.

Ahmadinejad did not himself bring much constructive debate to Columbia—and David Horowitz might not either. But the anti-establishment pundit brings a more credible voice against the misguided values held by much of the university crowd.

With critics who raise pointed concerns that the Academy would rather ignore, free speech becomes not as honorable and courageous a principle as it had previously appeared. The progressives prefer their opponents be straw men—bearded, tie-less clowns from Iran.

Christopher B. Lacaria ’09 is a history concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears regularly.