Dictators on Campus: A Free Speech Issue?

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.

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  • junior||

    Who's the 22 year old Ivy Leaguer that posted this?

  • a||

    He's an alumnus of one of the top universities on earth.

  • Jonas||

    I don't often pay attention to the names of the posters because one can generally figure out who's posting by the style of their writing. I definitely had to go back and look, though, when I saw, Like what could possibly justify this?

    Like, for real, you know? As if!

    Not a bad post otherwise though.

  • ||

    First of all, who are you?

    Second of all:

    free speech is hardly protected by honoring those who have absolutely no respect for it.

    In most cases, someone deserves freedom of speech even if they don't believe in it themselves. But seeing as how Zenawi is a direct tyrant and violator of human rights, I don't think he deserves free speech at all.

  • ||

    Ah, the intern. Not bad for a first go.

  • junior||

    Yes. I just wanted his name.

  • ||

    Well, the solution is obvious, as Justice Breyer has been kind enough to point out:

    Threaten violence if the event goes forward. Maybe even throw a pre-emptive riot or two.

  • ||

    I was just thinking what a wonderful training exercise this would be for up and coming snipers.

  • ||

    Sic semper tyrannis

  • obnoxious||

    The author's primary concern seems to be the potential hit "one of the top universities on earth" could take by inviting this guy, and telling us how he also attended Columbia, less so on the free speech concerns

  • DADIODADDY||

    one of the top universities on earth...Columbia?? hahahahahahahahahaahhahah rofl

  • DADIODADDY||

    not even one of the top universities in NY....

  • Cyto||

    Well, it's no Rutgers, but it is pretty good.

  • ||

    lol

  • ||

    Ya know...looking into Zenawi, he's nowhere near the Pol Pot type he sounds like from the article. He sounds like the typical corrupt leader in those parts, but definitely a substantial improvement over his genocidal Communist predecessor(s).

  • ||

    Whoa... don't know how the text I entered at the bottom of the page ended up here...but...

  • Old Mexican||

    Dictators on Campus: A Free Speech Issue?

    Don't be naive, this has nothing to do with speech or free speech, but with the fact that leftist university academics love left-leaning dictators.

  • MNG||

    I don't think most leftists find Ahmadinejad to be a "leftist leaning" dictator...

  • Apogee||

    You're correct. Leftists love power, and pretty much any dictator will do.

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: MNG,

    I don't think most leftists find Ahmadinejad to be a "leftist leaning" dictator...

    Maybe not . . . I don't know anymore, the world being upside down and all...

  • Old Mexican||

    As one of the more famous quotations about free speech goes, it is "an experiment, as all life is an experiment."

    Imagine going through life experimenting everything just to have the notion of it. Many a broken bone would be the result, just for starters. It is clear this guy is very fond of faux philosophers, which makes him an unthinking idiot, or he simply has no regard for logical discovery and deduction.

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    Here's a question. What could this two-bit dictator possibly have to say that's worth hearing, anyway?

  • Congressperson||

    I'll be taking notes.

  • Joe_D||

    It's often interesting to watch for how these people view themselves. Even the most vile people rationalize that they are a good person... maybe just doing what's necessary. This can be exacerbated by being "honored" by a big US university. Trying to understand the stunning heights cognitive dissonance can achieve is interesting.

  • Joe_D||

    It's often interesting to watch for how these people view themselves. Even the most vile people rationalize that they are a good person... maybe just doing what's necessary. This can be exacerbated by being "honored" by a big US university. Trying to understand the stunning heights cognitive dissonance can achieve is interesting.

  • ||

    This is the funniest article I have ever read.
    I am an Ethiopian & I know that Pm Meles is the best leader ever to exist in Africa. Any one, come & ask about him on the streets of Addis, any body would tell u to the front that he is a genius.
    Live your own life & start bothering about your children suffering in Afghanistan & Iraq.live us alone.
    We don't want your crocodile tears.

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: Meareg,

    I am an Ethiopian & I know that Pm Meles is the best leader ever to exist in Africa [...] any body would tell u to the front that he is a genius.

    The soviets thought very highly of Stalin as well . . . they had to.

  • ||

    Get a life man.
    Who can speak about their leader better than the people themselves.
    We are tired of people like you.

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: Meareg,

    Who can speak about their leader better than the people themselves.

    Of course - what other choice would they have, right? The man's a genius, you said so - how could anyone speak ill of a veritable genius that holds all power?

  • girma||

    People like Meareg believe that Meles is the best leader in the world just because they are from the same ethnic group of Meles (which is just 5% of the Ethiopian population). However, most Ethiopians have been deprived of basic human rights under Meles' dictatorial regime.

  • ||

    I agree with Girma. People like Maereg knowingly try to hide Meles's narrow mindness since they are the only ones being benefited from the dictatorial and ethnocentric regime.

  • girma||

    So Aite Meareg, when did Ethiopians get the chance to freely express their views about Meles?

  • ||

    Live your own life & start bothering about your children suffering in Afghanistan & Iraq.live us alone.

    This.

    As to the rest of the post, you sometimes get the govt you deserve.

  • ||

    you must have lost half of your brain in Iraq.

  • ||

    Did you find it? Because I've been looking everywhere.

  • ||

    Garbling on about "tolerating" murderous dictators and all kind of misses the point. Its not like these scumbags just show up. They are invited, accomodated, given a forum. That's not "tolerating" someone, that's enabling and supporting them.

  • ||

    Exactly. I have free speech rights. But that doesn't mean that I am entitled to speak at the invitation of Columbia or that my free speech rights are in any way lessened by that fact.

  • MNG||

    We should stop up our ears and refuse to acknowledge they exist.

    It's in everyone's interest to hear what the guy has to say. Same for Ahmadinejad. The moment where he denied they had homosexuals in Iran was worth the whole thing, it made his regime look to be the fool it is. Speech is nearly always good for a polity.

  • ||

    The problem with your theory is that this infers legitimacy to dictators, which they don't deserve from anyone, let alone democratic nations.

    They deserve scorn and ridicule from us, nothing more. Of course, if this is being done to expose these fucks loud and verging-on-violence protests outside, all the better, but I'm not holding my breath that Columbia is doing this out of some noble sentiment.

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: MNG,

    It's in everyone's interest to hear what the guy has to say.

    I just love it when you presume to know what are the best interests of people you do not know.

  • ||

    "It's in everyone's interest to hear what the guy has to say.
    I just love it when you presume to know what are the best interests of people you do not know."

    look who is talking..?lol

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: Meareg,

    look who is talking..?lol

    Hey, Meareg - grow up. I'm not even American, much less pro-Imperial.

  • ||

    The thing about kleptocratic megalomaniacs is that they usually can't shut up. If anyone cares what these guys have to say, its not hard to find out without giving them a forum, de facto support, and legitimacy.

  • Apogee||

    It's in everyone's interest to hear what the guy has to say.

    As long as the guy has the correct politics.

    Will there be violent protests similar to the one aimed at the Minuteman speaker Gilchrist?

    Since it's all about free speech, then will "Temesgen Zewde of the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party", or "Another opposition leader, Dr. Beyene Petros", be allowed to speak as well?

    I'm all for free speech, but inviting one side only seems more like propaganda than a 'discussion'.

  • ||

    Stupid Eritrean!!!!
    you don't even have a single opposition voice in your country & yet you try to teach us about free speech and giving a chance to every one.

  • ||

    So you think the forum at Colombia university is about free speech and Ehtiopian politics? Banana head Eritrean go and find out why Meles is invited.

  • ||

    won by 99%....& the writer cries faul...ha ha.
    Millions were out to celebrate the win all over the country.the Pm Meles party won cause it was developing the country & also because of weaker opposition.
    When the result was announced not even a single stone was thrown leave alone a single bullet was fired.
    The election result was not disputable Eprdf won fair & square.

    I live in Addis.....proud to be Ethiopian

  • Cyto||

    Is this a spoof? 99% is de-facto proof of fraud. You couldn't get 99% of any large group to agree on anything. Heck, only 97% of men agree that pussy is better than dick.

    I often wonder why these 3rd world dictators like to post these ridiculous numbers as election results. Why not put something a little closer to plausible. Say 60-40, even 75-25. Better to have a token resistance with some credibility than no resistance at all.

  • ||

    I think Meareg just proved why these guys post such preposterous numbers. Big lies are easier to believe, especially if you don't think.

  • girma||

    Meareg, please keep your 99% story for ETV. Don't be the laughing stock of the whole world.

  • ||

    a) Good job.

    b) This is what we expect of Columbia. Used to be good; now it's a shithole useful only as a marker of the horrific: any politician honored there is sure to be among the worst on the planet. This judgment will only change when every single student and every single professor at the school boycotts this kind of speaker. Until then, you literally have only yourselves to blame, and we will ignore you.

  • ||

    there is a saying in Addis"....Some people can make u believe that a stone is a bread but Meles can make u believe & u even end up eating the stone"
    This is how much he is appreciated.
    he is one of the best orators the world has ever seen.may be second to Obama

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    This joker is a troll, right? Has to be.

  • ||

    look who is talking ....a Slut... lol

  • The Memory Pit||

    At least sluts provide a useful social service.

  • ||

    And also a disease or two.

  • ||

    I keep expecting to be offered a once in a lifetime opportunity to help with some kind of funds transfer.

  • Apogee||

    Hopefully he's a troll - he just called the dictatorial leader of his country a manipulative fraud.

  • ||

    whether you like it or not.
    Meles is a Genius and will pull his country out of poverty.

  • ||

    Apogee Apogee...where do i know this name...?
    does it mean DUMB in your naitive Eritrea?
    may be you are one of the son/daughter of the war monger Eritrean president Isaiyas Afeworki

  • EJM||

    I'm surprised it took this long for a mention of Eritrea to pop up--and still no reference to the ONLF.

  • ||

    Re:Apogee& Slut

    You are missing the point.
    "philo 101 Fallacy"
    by doing so, you are only cheating yourself.

  • Joe_D||

    It's worse than him calling the leader a fraud. He said that calling the leader a fraud is a "saying" in Ethiopia. Also, they think being a manipulative fraud is a good thing.

    I guess it makes sense that the Nigerian Scan would arise from a culture where 'con-man' is a highly respected profession.

  • ||

    Re:Joe_d
    Don't miss the point my brother.
    try to read between the lines.

  • Joe_D||

    Which point? Assume I'm incapable of reading between lines.

  • ||

    Dude, I totally have your t-shirt. You know, the one with Bob Marley's face looking one way, and you looking the other way. It goes great with smoking weed and pretending there's spiritual significance to it.

    Jah! Rastafari!

  • cynical||

    So he's great because he can convince people to eat rocks? I'm not sure that inducing self-destructive delusions in people is a positive trait.

  • Old Mexican||

    Re: Meareg,

    he is one of the best orators the world has ever seen.may be second to Obama[...]

    And that's all a people need in lieu of freedom and property rights: A good orator.

  • Elias Kifle||

    Stop wagging your tail for a blood thirsty dictator. You are embarrassing yourself.

  • ||

    You have no problem wagging your tail to the worst dictator on Earth, Isaiass Afewhisky of Eritrea.

  • My Irony Key is Borken||

    I also got a bridge to sell ya.

  • ||

    I've only known one Ethiopian personally and I see that his insufferable gnat-like powers to annoy and miss every conceivable point are not restricted to him alone.

  • ||

    RE:JW

    Sorry to read your post.
    reason.com shouldn't have let you post your racist remarks.

    shame....shame...

  • ||

    Racist?

    You want racist?

    I can give you racist.

  • ||

    Technically his remark was restricted to Ethiopians. Unless you're going to tell us that Ethiopians are a race all unto themselves, which I guess Eritreans would agree with.

  • ||

    And thus.

  • Warty||

    a strongman who has impoverished his own people

    You know, strongman is a noble profession. I hate when people use the word to describe shitfuck dictators.

  • mIaa||

    Y'all need to go back to work....at 7/11...dumb balls...there is no country called Ethiopia ever....Oromiya shall be free.

  • Warty||

    WINNAR

  • ||

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  • mIaa||

    Albert you are scum....shove your money to your ass.

  • ||

    I wasted my time reading your nonsense gossip.I wonder why you really devote your time to write about such unacceptable matters? I think you need a medical treatment so that you can differenciate the seeds from the weeds.

  • ||

    What do you expect from the Euroamerican conceptualization of Africans and their leaders? You reflected the myth of the Dark Continent metaphor hammered on you by your "top university on earth" as it is the norm to demonize everything African on that side of the word. I know if you attend his speech you will be enlightened and eat back your mumbo-jumbo of freedom of speech you spit it out anyhow.

  • ||

    Armin, thanks for a great piece. I posted a couple of excerpts on our web site, EthiopianReview.com. The majority of Ethiopians who are being brutalized by Zenawi will appreciate what you have written.

  • ||

    Elias Kiflai,

    I know you are the service of Isaiass Afewhiskey of Eritrea. How much is he paying you to be his whore?

  • ||

    I am an Ethiopian and I don't appreciate it because what Armin saying is not true. Please don't speak on behalf of the Ethiopian people, but you can speak about your country Eritrea.

  • ||

    Are are some of Meles Zenawis' victims (warning: too graphic):

    http://www.ethiopianreview.com/album/thumbnails.php?album=25

  • ||

    Blen the Bantu from Eritrea,

    Are you not ashamed to pimp that filthy website on this forum?

  • ||

    Please people go to this website called http://www.ethiopianreview.com.....p?album=25 and post a commont in support of Meles Zenawi and you will never see your commont posted on the website. You will never get your comments posted if you have anything good to say about Ethiopia. If you want to know the truth check it out.

  • ||

    Armin Rosen,

    Aren't you acting holier than thou? The Ethiopian leader has every right to be there and present his case to who ever chooses to hear him talk. If you don't like it, stay in your dorm and play with a dildo, little cunt.

  • ||

    Take notice how Zenawi's thugs conduct themselves.

  • ||

    Blen the Eritrean Bantu,

    I conduct my self better than an Eritrean bantu.

  • ||

    Let's speak plain. The University is being used by two brokers of dictators - Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz - for their own personal benefits. These people are running a bussiness of self-aggrandizment in the name of free speech, academic/scholarly exchange of ideas, poverty, development, ...., whatever found to be fitting their purpose. You just google and see for yourself what they have been doing with regard to Ethiopia, Meles, and his dictatorial rule over the poor Ethiopians.

  • DL||

    I think that the writer needs to do a bit more research about Ethiopia and its leader. The facts about the growth of Ethiopia in the past several years speak for themselves. One measure of the stability of the country is the number of Ethiopian exiles who are emigrating back.
    2) Anecdotal stories by a vocal minority do not reflect on the what is really going on. By that standard, should we believe Governor Jan Brewer when she says there are beheadings in Arizona? I think that the same can be said of the critics of the gov't of Ethiopia who resort to hyperbole since facts and figures can't bolster their arguments
    3) Does Meles Zenawi administration need to improve? Absolutely they do. I bet if the writer went and engaged in a debate with the PM, he may become better informed about the country.

  • ||

    I am assuming most if not all of the comments posted here are from EDUCATED individuals. Why is it that dialogue and respectful discourse is not on the menu when Ethiopians sit at the dinner table of Politics? Why is poison only served. Or is it the same with other ethnic communities too.

  • ||

    The author is an amatuer writer.

  • ||

    Very insightfull and very descriptive of a dire and abysmall life in Ethiopia under this dictator.

    He has deprived the Ethiopian people everything, their land, their livelihood and their freedom. I guess everything, he is slowly killing them of through starvation and with a barrel of a gun if they resist the unbearable.

    So far, the people have been subdued like the slaves in America, but it will not be long before they revolt. Obama is not Abrahm Lincoln, so there is no hope for a liberator from America. It is things as usual under Bush or Obama, besides funneling our tax dollars to prop up dictators, especially Meles with the tune of one billion.

    In fact, some African dictators appear to embolden by the naivity of the American foreign policy and the current administration failure to put an end to their horrendous criminal enterprise.


    Great piece and timely.

    Dula Abdu

  • ||

    He is a racist murderer africa has never seen in history before. Turn him back to his palace in Addis.He can't keep on cheating the west for ever. Truth prevails!

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