Whoever signed off on inviting Meles Zenawi to speak at Columbia University’s World Leaders Forum probably figured that the Ethiopian dictator’s obscurity would protect the school from any criticism. Let me be the first to prove that person wrong: Zenawi is like a watered-down Robert Mugabe meets a watered-down Omar al-Bashir; a strongman who has impoverished his own people in order to maintain his stranglehold on power, and who has exploited his country’s strategic significance in order to gain the backing of the United States. I suppose he could offer Columbians a hell of a seminar on dictatorial self-preservation—on how to install puppet governments in neighboring nations with the military and diplomatic blessing of the most powerful country on earth; on how to violently steal elections while provoking minimal global outcry; on how to run a country that’s 171st on the UN’s Human Development Index. One wonders, however, whether such a master class in the infliction of widespread human misery is really worth both the aggrandizement of one of the world’s worst tyrants—and the potential hit to Columbia’s reputation that could come as a result. Like what could possibly justify this?
The first answer, which is heavily implied in the World Leaders Forum’s webpage for the event, is that Zenawi is a figure worth honoring:
Under the seasoned governmental leadership of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, now in his fourth term, and vision of the Tigrai Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), Ethiopia has made and continues to make progresses in many areas including in education, transportation, health and energy.
Note also that the talk is taking place in the Low Library Rotunda, the location of the University President’s office and the school’s semesterly University Lecture, and upon whose steps the University’s annual commencement exercises take place. It is a venue that confers honor upon the people who speak there—unlike the less stately Roone Arledge Auditorium, where I, as a slightly enraged Columbia sophomore, sat four rows away from Iranian President Mahmood Ahmadinejad in 2007.
Which brings to mind the second possible justification for inviting tinpots to speak at major American universities, a justification voiced by Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger during his now-infamous introduction of Ahmadinejad:
Second, to those who believe that this event never should have happened, that it is inappropriate for the University to conduct such an event, I want to say that I understand your perspective and respect it as reasonable. The scope of free speech and academic freedom should itself always be open to further debate. As one of the more famous quotations about free speech goes, it is “an experiment, as all life is an experiment.” I want to say, however, as forcefully as I can, that this is the right thing to do and, indeed, it is required by existing norms of free speech, the American university, and Columbia itself.
Third, to those among us who experience hurt and pain as a result of this day, I say on behalf of all of us we are sorry and wish to do what we can to alleviate it.
Fourth, to be clear on another matter - this event has nothing whatsoever to do with any “rights” of the speaker but only with our rights to listen and speak. We do it for ourselves.
We do it in the great tradition of openness that has defined this nation for many decades now. We need to understand the world we live in, neither neglecting its glories nor shrinking from its threats and dangers. It is consistent with the idea that one should know thine enemies, to have the intellectual and emotional courage to confront the mind of evil and to prepare ourselves to act with the right temperament. In the moment, the arguments for free speech will never seem to match the power of the arguments against, but what we must remember is that this is precisely because free speech asks us to exercise extraordinary self- restraint against the very natural but often counter-productive impulses that lead us to retreat from engagement with ideas we dislike and fear. In this lies the genius of the American idea of free speech.
For Bollinger, “free speech” has less to do with the right to speak freely than with the responsibility to tolerate other people’s speech. Free speech manifests itself in our paradoxical ability to tolerate the intolerable, and it is justified through our “intellectual and emotional courage to confront the mind of evil” and, nevertheless, “act with the right temperament.” When we tolerate the presence of murderous dictators on college campuses—when we act with that “right temperament”—we prove that we’re up to the challenge of living in a free society whose limits of tolerance must be constantly tested.
But in the case of Ahmadinejad—and especially in the case of Zenawi—the whole “we do this for ourselves” justification is deeply selfish. There was just an election in Ethiopia. Zenawi’s party won 99% of the vote amidst widespread allegations of fraud. In the case of Zenawi’s speaking invitation, any expansion of our own understanding of free speech (which is a dubiously self-reflexive justification for free-speech, if you haven’t noticed) will come at the expense of the actual free speech of Ethiopia's opposition, whose oppressor will soon be feted at one of the top universities on earth. The irony, of course, is that those whose free speech is curtailed on a daily basis likely understand that the concept is more than just an abstract exercise in achieving the “right temperament”—and that free speech is hardly protected by honoring those who have absolutely no respect for it.