Bill Buckley, whose conservativism no one will question, once successfully persuaded the Yale Union to rescind an invitation to speak that it had extended to American Communist Party Leader Gus Hall.
In an address before the Yale Union in 2006, about a half dozen years after Buckley had decided to give up public speaking, he recalled the moment to mind: “David Boren, the president of the PU, invited me to appear before you, and I accepted. A week later I saw in the Yale Daily News an article listing the speakers the PU had lined up for that fall. It included the General Secretary of the Communist party of the United States, Gus Hall. I sent a note to Mr. Boren and told him to drop my own name from the fall list, as I declined to appear on any roster of speakers that included an official of the Communist party. This was about the time Solzhenitsyn published his first book about life in the Gulag Archipelago, and I and a few others thought to seek an appropriate response to the conditions described, even in such attenuations as this little protest against the incorporation of a defender of the Gulag on a guest speakers' list.
“But, I said to President Boren in my letter, I would agree to appear provided the resolution of the house was altered to read, ‘Resolved, The Yale Political Union should rescind its invitation to Gus Hall to appear as guest speaker.’”
Buckley pressed his points before the Yale Union in October 1963. After having painted in some detail the historic horrors of Communism, Buckley concluded: “... some of you may feel the obligation to externalize your knowledge that you know he is here to defend the indefensible. You may jeer him, as he has been jeered by those who wrestle for their livelihoods with their hands, who especially despise him because he claims to speak for them (Buckley was here recalling the rigorous opposition of labor leaders to the communist enterprise); some of you may treat him with that terrible coldness that is the sign of the intellectual foreknowledge that you cannot, at your level of attainment, take seriously the man who speaks and works for a kingdom which it is the very purpose of your education to know to despise… Fight him, fight the tyrants everywhere, but do not ask them to your quarters if you cannot spit on them. To do the one is to ambush a human being as one might a rabid dog; to do the other is to ambush oneself, to force oneself, in disregard of those who have died trying to make the point, to break faith with humanity.”
Wise words those, but unheeded by Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, who invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak to students at the college.
Before Ahmadinejad’s appearance at Columbia, Bollinger gave out signals that although a) free speech and free inquiry compelled him to extend the invitation, b) he would ambush the speaker and pierce him with trenchant questions and remarks, which is simply a polite way – the president of Columbia is nothing if not polite – of spitting on his guest.
The city of New York’s reception of Ahmadinejad was more in line with Buckley’s apprehensions. Ahmadinejad thought to pay a visit to the footprint where once the Twin Towers had stood. They were brought to ruin, Bollinger will remember, by jihadists whose purposes Ahmadinejad has furthered by training and supplying terrorists. Without spitting upon Ahmadinejad, the city of New York denied Ahmadinejad access to the spot for “security reasons.”
Family members who lost loved ones during 9/11 will appreciate the Hemingwayesque understatement. There is really no need to mention that a breach in security might have entailed bodily harm to Ahmadinejad, when everyone knows he would not have been in danger of being struck by a falling debris from the World Trade towers in the footprint of which he wished to lay a wreath to commemorate… what exactly? Some supposed he wanted photographs to bring home as trophies, bruit testimony to his resolve to strike back at blinkered New Yorkers, like Bollinger, who had invited a fox into his henhouse.
Ahmadinejad having left New York for Iran, it is now possible to discuss the question of one-upmanship.
An Associated Press story covering the “tense showdown” is suitably cold, almost but not quite disdainful. Reporters are, after all, under an obligation to be “objective,” a journalistic term of art that is the equivalent of the more prosaic “polite.” If a resurrected Hitler or Stalin were to address the Columbia students, an AP report on the encounter the following day would refer to the two respectively and respectfully as the German or Soviet “leader.”
Ahmadinejad, the AP story said, “provoked derisive laughter by responding to a question about Iran's execution of homosexuals by saying: ‘In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country ... I don't know who's told you that we have this.’”
In fact, they jeered.
The Jews in the audience were more polite to the Holocaust denier than the gays, but both groups probably had, in their studies, reached a level of attainment that allowed them to properly appreciate Ahmadinejad’s overt and covert lies, and the gays in the audience could not restrain a natural response.
When Ahmadinejad, responding to Bollinger's opening remarks, characterized them as "an insult to information and the knowledge of the audience here," the audience groaned inwardly.
But Ahmadinejad did not go to Columbia to convert the unconverted. None of the Jew in the audience could reasonably believe that Ahmadinejad did not, in his heart of hearts, wish to push Israel into the sea, and none of the gays there could reasonably believe that the Ahmadinejad regime could not persecute gays because none were to be found in Iran.
Ahmadinejad came to New York so that he could address true believers in the Arab world from the city that had been attacked twice by jihadists and show the folks back home that he could brave the quiet insults of the Great Satan in pursuit of the goals to which he and other jihadists in the Arab world have dedicated themselves.
What a pity Bollinger had not consulted Buckley -- or, indeed, former Mayor Koch of New York -- concerning his invitation to Ahmadinejad. He might have learned to feel, as Buckley certainly did decades earlier, what wretches under the thumb of jihadists feel. And then he could have exercised his freedom to refuse an invitation to speak to a notorious liar.