Lisa Anderson, dean of the Columbia University School of International Public Affairs, spent Thursday, March 23 with 100-plus academics and Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi. Few of the participants were fazed by the event's deliciously ironic title, "The Prospects for Democracy: A Libyan-American Dialogue." Rather, after two days of "rigorous debate and discussion," academics from around the globe concluded the symposium with an hour-long teleconference and discussion with Qaddafi.
Admittedly, such things used to astonish me. Under the guise of scholarship, academics incessantly advance their own political goals. Consider Columbia's World Leaders Forum, held in the fall semester. University President Lee Bollinger's pride and joy, the lecture series received heavy promotion via e-mails and on the master Web site. Only three days before the event, another speaker, whom the administration had known would speak and yet excluded from the ticket reservation process, was added to the list: Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez. Incidentally, University policy demands an absolute minimum of four days to organize a "level-three" protest—which, in this case, would have amounted to little more than students on the sundial, not in or around the Low Rotunda event. Having contacted security and club advisers, the College Conservatives had the temporary OK of the administration. Only two days before the event, the College Conservative Club adviser warned that her "higher-ups" (her word) had warned against any disruptions; any attempt to protest would result in our expulsion and the loss of all privileges for the club. Luckily for President Bollinger, a supposed "free speech" lawyer, the dictator's pressing schedule forced him to cancel his attendance at the event.
This time, the University wasn't so lucky. Fate was on our side. On the same day that Columbia welcomed Qadaffi, the U.S. State Department announced that Libya would remain on the list of states supporting terrorism. Similarly, this event was sponsored by Libya. A perceptive John H. Fund, writing before the event, commented in the Wall Street Journal online: "[Qaddafi] will speak by video to a conference at Columbia University that his regime is cosponsoring. (Columbia won't answer questions about how much funding it got from Libya or what implied strings were attached.)" In a recent New York Sun article, Anderson then acknowledged Libya's payment for ‘only' the "housing and travel costs of their academics" and the teleconference. How comforting to know that only part of a Columbia event was sponsored by a terrorist state. To be fair, "event" isn't the right word. Neither is "conference." The entire fiasco was merely a concerted propaganda effort.
A Malaysian paper, the Star, which covered the event (interestingly, the Spectator failed to report the event once over the past two weeks) wrote: "[Qaddafi] touted Libya's political system as superior to ‘farcical' and ‘fake' parliamentary and representative democracies in the West. ... ‘There is no state with a democracy except Libya on the whole planet,' he said." Praising Libya's Jamahiriyah (political) system during his speech, the Star quickly undercuts Qaddafi's rants, facts seemingly neglected by the academics, by turning to the CIA fact book. The CIA describes Jamahiriyah as "(a state of the masses) in theory, governed by the populace through local councils; in fact, a military dictatorship." Sure, there's a prospect for democracy ... Well, just so long as "democracy" means "military regime."
Don't tell that to Anderson and company, though. They still consider the event legitimate. The editors of the always astute New York Daily News opinion page put it simply: "In fancy robes and looking like a Saturday Night Live character, [Qaddafi] responded at length to Anderson's deferential questioning, which did not extend to Libya's role in blowing Pan American Flight 103 out of the sky or the country's refusal to admit an interfaith peace march [recently] because it included Israelis. (...) Scholarship it wasn't."
Yet again, common sense surrenders to raving moral abstractions. The Star reported that the co-moderator of the event, Jon Alterman, commented at the affair's end: "One of the hard things when you haven't talked to somebody for more than 30 years is we don't really understand how we sound to them, and they don't understand how they sound to us," he said. "We obviously have a way to go until we're speaking the same language."
The strongman of an oppressed third-world nation cannot, and will never, "speak the same language." This is a man with blood on his hands for the murder of all those aboard the Lockerbie Pan Am flight, a purported bankroller for Black September (among others terrorists groups), a Hamas supporter. The infamous deeds go on. Libya is on the same short list as Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Syria. While the country made "progress" in renouncing non-conventional weapons, that just makes Qaddafi a victim of Bush policy, not moral enlightenment. If Columbia is gullible enough to host this farce, what's next? Is Castro to speak on the right of dissidents? The Mullahs on religious tolerance? The Chinese premier on free speech in Tibet? With Columbia, you just don't—actually, let me stop here. They still might expel me.