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Ahmadinejad at Columbia

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On the floor of the Senate last Monday, Mitch McConnell spoke about the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Columbia University in this way: "Just think. A university that prides itself with its core curriculum on a free exchange of ideas, brings in this man to speak who is a champion of state-sponsored terror."

Hearing one of my elected representatives make a statement as dangerously illogical as Mr. McConnell's was not only infuriating, but heartbreaking. It is times like this -- times when we are confronted with people and ideas that we don't like -- that the polity really gets a good examination. Public controversies are like EKGs for the body politic -- our values are stressed and we get to see how healthy the democracy is.

And like it was during the McCarthy era, the prognosis is not so good. Like during the years after World War II, lately we've been overindulging in the meat and potatoes diet of fear and patriotism. No wonder it's getting harder and harder to exercise our rights.

But my public outrage at turning the word "freedom" into a misnomer is tendered with personal sadness. My uncle, Adrian Scott, was one of the so-called "Hollywood 10" -- the 10 writers, producers and directors who were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1940s and 5'0s to answer questions about their allegiance to the Communist party. Whereas most people brought before HUAC pleaded the Fifth Amendment protecting them from self-incrimination, the Hollywood 10 all used the First Amendment, arguing that the committee had no right to question their political or religious affiliations. My uncle was sent to jail for that. In America. In the 20th century.

In my family, freedom isn't something whined about insipidly in the lines of a Lee Greenwood song. Freedom is something important enough to fight and die for. I learned about American freedom at Columbia University, where my father and mother also graduated. So this namby-pamby "core curriculum" that the distinguished gentleman from Kentucky likes to talk about as if it's a dirty word is one of the most important educational experiences of my life. And second, I grew up with stories of very specific speech acts met with very specific punishments -- and all in the name of some very non-specific ideas about what "Freedom" means.

There is the rhetorical rub: the capital-F-Freedom that President Bush and Lee Greenwood and Mitch McConnell drone on about when whipping us up to fight and die in Iraq. But it's the small-F freedoms, those places where the rubber hits the road, where Americans show themselves to be real freedom-lovers or just bumper-sticker owners.

As much as I'd like to pretend it isn't true, America was founded as a haven for, among other things, religious extremists. Georgian England wasn't having much of the Christian extremism being practiced, and so the New World provided both a religious and an economic freedom not found in Europe. (Rhode Island, I'm looking at you.) My favorite professor of my favorite core curriculum class at Columbia phrased it like this: the Bill of Rights was written negatively -- that is, its clauses were phrased in such a way to express that the government shall not infringe upon our rights to do this or that -- in order to define the limits of governmental power over the rights of individuals in the most concrete of terms.

And my professor continued, "It's easy to imagine fighting for the freedom to worship a Christian God, but that is not really where Jeffersonian democracy gets good." Where you really get into the meat of things is at Ku Klux Klan rallies, and hard core porn, and champions of state-sponsored terrorism.

What is scary about the visit of Ahmadinejad to Columbia is not that Jewish student groups are protesting his visit, or that some activists are making the horrifyingly simplistic assertion that Ahmadinejad is the "New Hitler." These activists are slow to learn that the market value of "New Hitler" goes down every time it is used on someone who says that they are against Israel.

But what is truly scary about Ahmadinejad at Columbia is the reaction of the public at large to his visit. One of my coworkers publicly argued that America shouldn't let the president of Iran speak because America is free, and free countries don't let terrorists speak. This is a horrifyingly common position among those lucky enough to have lived so far without having had their rights infringed.

Why does this never change? Why, after having made this very mistake after World War II, can Americans make the leap from capital-f-Freedom of bumper stickers and press conferences to the real, actual freedoms enjoyed in the present? Why don't we understand that our personal speech is protected only insofar as everyone's speech is protected?

To answer your implicit question, Mitch McConnell: Yes. A university such as Columbia whose core curriculum is based on the free and equal exchange of ideas usually does produce students who support the free and equal exchange of ideas. The unfortunate outcome of being educated by academics is that the one often comes out of academia with the idea that the public is best served with more information, and not less. Truth does not grow in isolation, but instead needs to be forged in the heat of debate.

This is what I learned from my uncle, and this is what I learned at Columbia. I am proud of both of them for putting into practice what others only preach.