Monday, September 24, 2007

He came to Columbia University to experience what he cannot at home: freedom of speech

The late William Allen White, the iconic Kansas newspaper publisher, once wrote: "Liberty is the only thing you cannot have unless you are willing to give it to others."

This struck me in the heart and soul as I read the various attacks on Columbia University for inviting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's president, to speak. That supposedly patriotic Americans would vilify this fine educational institution on that basis is profoundly unpatriotic.

Yes, I believe Ahmadinejad is a dangerous moron adrift in a sea of kindred spirits in a part of the world where peace, freedom and liberty are beyond the grasp of the common person.

The world of repression Ahmadinejad represents is contrary to the very fabric of American life and his self-serving diatribes only reinforce that he is another source of world terror and unrest.

Nonetheless, Columbia University did absolutely nothing wrong by inviting him to speak and, in fact, by doing so it upheld the quintessential integrity of higher education. As stated in the 1910 Republican Party of Wisconsin platform: "Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found."

When Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia, he got what he could never have experienced in Iran: a hostile, diverse audience led by Columbia's president who minced no words in calling Ahmadinejad "a petty and cruel dictator." He got to see what freedom of speech is really like.

If you love liberty and this nation, you must be willing to extend our freedoms even to those with whom we are sickened for not to do so cheapens the sacrifices of the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve our freedoms.

In fact, the greatest antidote for terrorism is celebration of freedom. It's a shame that the post-9/11 manta of our government has been to restrict freedom. And it's not just the Bush administration.

Here in Kenosha, a former Nazi soldier was invited to speak at the Kenosha Military Academy to students who were studying military history. The acting school superintendent, Joseph Hentges, had a hissy fit. He was wrong.

It was in Hitler's Germany that books were burned and freedoms extinguished. These students had the opportunity to hear first-hand (under their teacher's supervision) from someone who fought Hitler's battles -- perhaps a chance to ask him why he would do such a thing -- and more important, to fulfil the reality that if you want to understand your enemy, you must study him.

I thought then that nothing smacked more of Hitler's suppression of free inquiry than Hentges' response. I think the same about those who complain about Ahmadinejad speaking at Columbia.

Freedom of speech doesn't mean freedom only for the speech you like. Freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom to worship only your religion. Freedom of the press doesn't mean freedom only for the views you want disseminated. The true test of American patriotism is to defend those rights for people whose beliefs and practices we oppose with every waking breath.

Publisher White wrote: "You say that freedom of utterance is not for time of stress, and I reply with the sad truth that only in time of stress is freedom of utterance in danger… Only when free utterance is suppressed is it needed, and when it is needed it is most vital to justice."

And I remind you that our forefathers never promised us a rose garden, only a constitution.

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