Campus Circus Maximus: Ahmadinejad Visits Columbia

 
Even on its best days, Columbia University exhibits something of fortress-like mentality. Its statuesque stone walls add a touch of Romanesque grandeur, but they mostly just serve to remind visitors and the occasional perceptive student of the institutions' historic isolation from its surrounding community. September 24 2007 was not one of Columbia's best days. The visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad segmented the campus and the streets outside into varying playpens for the exercise of free speech.

Even on its best days, Columbia University exhibits something of fortress-like mentality. Its statuesque stone walls add a touch of Romanesque grandeur, but they mostly just serve to remind visitors and the occasional perceptive student of the institutions' historic isolation from its surrounding community. September 24 2007 was not one of Columbia's best days. The visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad segmented the campus and the streets outside into varying playpens for the exercise of free speech.

After last years controversial "Minuteman" incident, during which various "outside agitators" were blamed for at least part of the disruption, the University administration was taking no chances on a similar disruption-- or worse. The universities' large iron gates slammed shut, one only open a crack in order to accommodate the people actually allowed on campus-- those with a CU ID. Students used to wandering in and out of the university at their leisure queued up outside the open gate, many muttering in annoyance. As they entered Columbia, they immediately encountered the first forum of free-speech exercise, the official student group-led rally. Attendance at the Columbia Coalition rally was larger than recent anti-war protests on campus, but not particularly boisterous or even all that big. A parade of speakers meandered to the microphone and launched soft-spoken intellectualized critiques of Iran, or American foreign policy, or both. The overwhelming tenor of the speeches was that Iran was a bad place, but the way to make it better wasn't to bomb it-- although at least several members of a large contingent of the university's Jewish community remarked to me that the two things "really had nothing to do with each other." Away from the official speak-out, but still on campus, a melange of fliers decked university buildings, ranging from the passionate to the bizarre. All-in-all, a prime example of University President Lee Bollinger's dream of good campus dialog: nuanced, intelligent ... and, to be frank, dreadfully dull.

There was something to be said for the ballgame-esque gaggle of students watching the simulcast event, and the lucky six-hundred or so people with tickets to the Ahmadinejad speech were quickly funneled away from the growing crowds outside the University gates and entered the second "free-speech zone" -- Roone Arledge Auditorium, host of the Big Event itself. In the end, Ahmadinejad's speech was probably highly confusing to most of the people in the audience (and to be fair, much of it was fairly dull, though it might have been also the translation.) Ahmadinejad tried to link what seemed an idiosyncratic (to Western Enlightenment ears, anyway) notion of "empirical science" to American foreign policy. The end of the talk-- dealing with Palestine and Israel-- probably made more sense, at least in terms of what people were expecting Ahmadinejad to say. Bollinger preceded the talk with a sharply worded, even bellicose attack on Ahmadinejad's foreign policy (as well as on his intelligence, which seemed a pretty low blow). By far the most entertaining, as well as illuminating, aspect of the actual talk itself was the back and forth between the acting SIPA dean and the President of Iran, which touched on topics ranging from holocaust denial (Ahmadinejad said he wanted "more research," and asked why the Palestinians had to pay the price for the Holocaust), homosexuality (the statement "there are no homosexuals in Iran," was probably Ahmadinejad's biggest PR blunder of the day) to nuclear weapons.

All the while, everyone else was stuck outside the gates. And that's where the free speech sounded really, really free: unhinged, unclear, and as spontaneous as possible given the presence of the NYPD and the ubiquitous protest pens. Organizers claimed "tens of thousands," which seemed unlikely-- though to be frank, there was more energy at the outside protest than there usually is at such events. The somber intellectuals having retreated inside, the street was dominated by Israeli flags, giant flags harkening back to the days of the pre-1979 Iranian monarchy, and the occasional giant orange poster (courtesy of the World Can't Wait) reading "Ahmadinejad is bad, Bush is Worse." Men in kilts with bagpipes and giant banners played "God Bless America"; "we'll bagpipe him back to Tehran," one student muttered sarcastically.

"Insanity," noted the student blog, Bwog, succinctly.

So, oddities all around. Administration approved "protest" on the Columbia Campus. A bizarre quasi-sermon delivered by a world leader with whom we'll soon probably be at war. An opening statement by the University President that could easily come to serve as an advance briefing for that very war. Insanity indeed.

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