Isn't it ironic? Some of the same people who opposed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Columbia University usually criticize political correctness that suppresses free speech. Everybody wants to censor something sometime.
Ahmadinejad knows. His regime censors people much of the time.
Like the protesters, I disagree with Ahmadinejad, but that's precisely why I want him to be heard. Nothing undercuts his credibility more than the sound of his own baloney.
The big headlines from his first big day in New York touted the "scorn" and "laughter" his remarks received. It is ironic that the promoters of liberal tolerance and political correctness who would be most likely to give Ahmadinejad a break probably were instead the most put off by his politically incorrect hypocrisy if they weren't too preoccupied with laughing at him.
At Columbia University he declared, among other whoppers, "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals, like in your country." Right. Never mind human rights groups' reports of executions in Iran of juveniles and others for having an "illegal sexual relationship." Perhaps Ahmadinejad means Iran is doing its best to exterminate its homosexuals, if they can't drive them all underground.
He sparked even more "Say what?" moments at the National Press Club, where he took questions by videoconference before his Columbia University speech. I sat at the head table. Before Ahmadinejad spoke, Press Club President Jerry Zremski, Washington bureau chief of the Buffalo Evening News, already had a two-inch high stack of questions. Reporters and others didn't need a speech to help them think of questions for this newsmaker.
"We're not endorsing anything President Ahmadinejad has said or will say," Zremski said, "just as we didn't endorse what Fidel Castro and Nikita Kruschchev said when they spoke at the press club." Still, he told me the press club received some predictable hate mail referring to "liberals in the media" as "traitors of the worst kind." (Hey, people, he's the leader of Iran! He's news!)
"The freest women in the world are the women in Iran," he said through his persistent grin. Sure. Never mind the arrests and fines for women who fail to cover their hair or cover their bodies with non-clingy clothes.
And never mind those reports by human rights organizations of beatings and tortures of women who organize in Iran against unequal justice. "Well, human rights groups say what they want," Iran's president said. "They say and we tell them that they're wrong."
He similarly scoffed at a 2007 Amnesty International report that finds journalists and bloggers detained and sentenced to prison or flogging, and that at least 11 newspapers were closed by Iran's government. When two imprisoned journalists were named, he dismissed the information, saying that he had never heard of them. "In our country law prevails," he said. "Freedom is flowing at its highest level." Maybe Iranians at the highest level are free, but not everyone else is as lucky.
"Today, I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for," Columbia University president Lee Bollinger said and that was in his introduction!
Yet I think Ahmadinejad's casual lying through his grins demonstrated a contempt for the intelligence of his audience that surely delights every despot on the planet.
And that, I believe, reveals his true agenda. In the wake of Saddam Hussein, Iran is jockeying to fill a big power vacuum in the Middle East. It is funding terrorist groups against Israel, training insurgents against American troops in Iraq, and sewing up new alliances in Iraq's Shiite majority to build a new version of the old Persian Empire for the Internet age.
As much as Ahmadinejad has us talking about free speech in the U.S., the more important story is in Iran. Iran's nuclear ambitions and its deadly mischief in international terrorist circles are urgent cause for our concern. But our quagmire in Iraq offers a warning as to why war should only be our final option in dealing with that part of the world when all alternatives have failed. Speech is a valuable tool against tyrants. We need to take full advantage of it, especially when tyrants can use it to discredit themselves.