Perhaps the best testimony to the educational value of an appearance by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the fact that all the available seats were gobbled up within about an hour of the announcement of his talk. In years past, when I was director of the Middle East Institute, I sometimes invited controversial speakers, including some whose views were looked upon as positively evil by some members of the Columbia community.
I twice invited commandants of the Afghan mujahidin, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, their most radical personage. I invited a delegation of Taliban. I invited a representative of the self-designated—and, from a Greek perspective, illegitimate—Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. I sponsored a conference on Palestinian nationalism that did not include Jewish speakers. A few people protested these events, but there were plenty of unfilled seats. Education about Middle Eastern affairs before 2000, when I left the directorship, was in comparatively small demand.
How times have changed. President Ahmadinejad will be up for re-election in August of 2009, seven months after George W. Bush leaves office. At the moment, the tide of domestic favor does not seem to be running in his favor. The likelihood is that both men will have settled into retirement before the first of the much-ballyhooed Iranian nuclear weapons reaches the test stage. If that ever happens. Thus those who want a war over Iranian nukes may have to rush things to get it in before their bogeyman leaves the scene.
Yet you would never guess from surveying his American press coverage that the Ahmadinejad phenomenon may be nearing its proverbial "last throes." Judging from the e-mails I have received over the past few days, the comparison group he belongs in consists of Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, and Robert Mugabe—proof that the Vilest of the Vile Club is open to people whose primary weapon is inflammatory rhetoric. Some people will doubtless attend President Ahmadinejad's speech just to see how the reality corresponds to the hype. That in itself is educational, although it may teach the audience more about the Bush-era press than about the Iranian president. A more serious educational take-away will be a first-hand feel for the leadership of a country with whom the United States could well be at war in the foreseeable future.
We never saw Saddam Hussein up close in a question-and-answer session with an American college audience. My guess is that if we had, we would have found him odious. But I'm not absolutely sure because, like everyone else, I relied on a journalistic profession that was undergoing a (temporary?) lapse of scruple. Today's speaker may change no minds. His words and demeanor may simply confirm every listener's assumptions. But Columbia's students, including those who may one day find themselves on a battlefield, will have had a chance to see and hear for themselves. That is an educational experience that students elsewhere will not have. And that is why we cherish free speech, even when we disagree with the speakers.
Richard Bulliet is a professor of history.