Was The Iranian President Speaking At Columbia A Good Thing? (Or: Against Free Speech Absolutism)

“Sure, Ahmadinejad is a Fascistic provocateur, and his line on Holocaust scholarship “that he’s only out to encourage intellectual freedom” is monstrously disingenuous. But celebrated bad guys visit New York and speak at American universities all the time. Iran is supplying weapons to men killing American troops in Iraq? In the seventies, when China and the Soviet Union were supplying North Vietnam with arms, Nixon toasted Mao in Peking, and Brezhnev visited the White House to work on dètente.”

– from “The Age of Apoplexy,” by Kurt Andersen

To Kurt Andersen:

While you raise many examples of a disturbing trend in your article, that trend being the increasing refusal of Americans to hear one another out, I do fear that you make a critical mistake in considering the President of Iran to be like any other American and the right of free speech to be absolute.

You say the President of Iran is a “provocateur,” with no regard for his actual holding of power. That’s very curious, as if free speech has nothing to do with power or the exercise of power.

There’s a big difference between the President of the United States dealing with dictators and the President of Columbia University. You do argue that if the US President allows a dictator to speak on this soil, why can’t a citizen allow the same thing?

The answer is obvious: the US President’s actual holding of power – if the Soviet premier said something far too compromising, he’d be attacked on the battlefield or through espionage – means that “free speech” isn’t the issue. The language of diplomacy is part of a power game, where only certain things can be said at certain times. Guns do the actual talking when speech is purely political.

To that end, the President of Iran’s speech is not being treated by you as political speech. You extend to him the rights that citizens of this country have in spite of people like him. But his speech – as you point out – isn’t merely an exercise of those rights. It’s meant purposely to stir up trouble in the Middle East: to harden our enemies against us and make us look more arrogant, and result ultimately in more American fatalities across the globe.

“Free speech” is a misnomer. The only time free speech is an issue is when speech offends and does harm. In other words, the abstract “right” comes always at the expense of another’s “right:” one’s right to happiness is compromised by another’s offensive speech, always.

You might argue, as J.S. Mill did, that free speech is indispensable for progress. But that only holds if you believe in progress. And progress threatens not only certain types of speech (hint: where did political correctness come from?) but also the very importance of speech. As we get more and more technology, carefully considering another’s opinion and musing on it is unnecessary. Politics is reduced to positions one holds on a checklist of issues: that’s being informed and having an opinion. Technology solves all issues, working together depends on not “deliberation” but on “motivation” (note what modern “leadership” training attempts to do).

To move away from the domestic realm – if free speech is an exercise of power by one over another in a country that guarantees it, then how much more is the right to speak an exercise of power in a realm where it doesn’t exist? Consider: Iranians don’t get to question their leader. How much more arrogant are we for thinking that cursing him out publicly before he spoke is a just deed? People get killed in Iran for doing that sort of thing. We, on the other hand, make light of it: we are nowhere near as bold as those sacrificing blood for what we take for granted.

There are times when silence is golden, and free speech is an imposition. Allowing the President of Iran a platform imposed on everyone who fights and dies for speech; the only people it liberated were self-righteous liberals who think that principle is inviting someone as a guest and then cursing them out before they talk.

Let’s be clear: ignoring the relation between speech and power is irresponsible speech. It ignores the conditions that make free speech possible. The conditions that make free speech possible, of course, involve loss of liberty.

If a libertarian society were possible and not merely an excuse for anarchy, we’d be living in one.

Sincerely wishing that my voice would be heard as yours is,



  1. Interesting argument. I was wondering whether the one reason though that Ahmenidijad should be allowed to speak is that people learn how much of a fool he is. I wonder if more has been done to undermine advocates of the Iranian regime than the declaration from the Presidnet that there were no homosexuals there- such a ludicrous statement might make people reconsider their support for the existance of his regime. It brings his reactionary nature closer to one of the few audiences in teh US- the liberal Middle Eastern Studies guys at Columbia. It strikes me that free speech in Ahmenijidad’s case was a real political own goal for him and a political boon for anyone who is anti-Iranian.

  2. Yeah, good point. This post definitely operates under the assumption that it isn’t hard to see how stupid the Iranian President is: does one really need to hear him speak in person?

    I guess my argument, if I really wanted to argue my post on this, is that one really doesn’t want to cater to tyranny just to show how foolish it is. If there is someone who changes his mind – some one who liked Iran before – and that change of mind results in actual good for the Iranian people, then this President speaking is a good thing.

    If the utility is provable, then I’m more than willing to compromise the “principle” argument, because finishing off the tyranny is worth it. And there are indications that some people are more disgusted with Iran’s leadership than before.

    Still. One has to wonder what kind of people we are that we can’t see Iran’s leadership as bad, that we need it to actually visit and say hi and tell us its ideas. I really think the Columbia meeting, if it did anything, did stuff for spoiled brats who could be doing a lot more if they were more open minded, as opposed to expecting the world to open to them.

  3. hm, interesting thoughts, as always. it reminds me of a very private difficulty: many years ago, i was bent on showing my abusive then-husband just how much i believed in equal rights, by offering him rights that typically were a woman’s. maybe i was trying to deal with his abusiveness by being holier-than-thou. surprise: my (desperate) ruse didn’t work. are we dealing with a similar situation here?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.