SILENCE, SILENCED, SILENCING
by Michael Winship
There is no truth to the rumor that, in honor of the late mime Marcel Marceau, the nation of France will pause to observe a moment of noise.
Nevertheless, as the saying goes, a mime is a terrible thing to waste (somebody stop me). So let me take unseemly advantage of Monsieur Marceau's demise to make a couple of points about something that at first glance might seem antithetical to his art: the power of speech. Free speech.
By now, you probably have seen the YouTube video of University of Florida student Andrew Meyer being roughed up and tasered -- tasered! -- by campus police after he refused to relinquish the audience microphone at an appearance by John Kerry.
Granted, Meyer was rude, obnoxious and disorderly -- the kind of boor about whom Woody Allen complains in "Annie Hall," saying, in exasperation, "What I wouldn't give for a large sock of horse manure!"
But zapped with 20-50,000 volts of electricity? That goes way beyond harshing this kid's mellow. Hell, you can flash toast marshmallows with that kind of juice. As The Orlando Sentinel editorialized, "Mr. Meyer spoke only for about a minute and a half. Mr. Kerry, moreover, said he'd take his question. The answer Mr. Meyer received -- getting taken from the hall and tasered by police -- proved more disruptive than anything Mr. Meyer had to say. And like other schools' attempts to stymie speech invariably do, it now is the only thing people want to talk about."
Which is just one reason Columbia University was wise to allow Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak on its campus Monday. As Columbia President Lee Bollinger said, a university "is committed to confronting ideas -- to understand the world as it is and as it might be."
Bollinger promised to confront the Iranian leader with tough questions, but in fact, Ahmadinejad proved to be his own worst enemy; evasive, rambling and in a perpetual state of denial. He said that further research is needed to prove the Holocaust occurred, that women are treated equally in Iraq and that homosexuals have not been executed in his nation because, well, there just aren't any. "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country," he said. "In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who's told you that we have this."
Robert O'Neil, former president of both the University of Wisconsin and the University of Virginia, told the Associated Press, "I'd be very surprised if the Columbia community did not, as a result of Mr. Ahmadinejad's appearance... learn a great deal more about what's wrong with contemporary Iran than they would have learned if President Ahmadinejad had been turned away. If you suppress a viewpoint by disallowing or barring a controversial speaker you make the speaker a martyr."
That would have played into the hands of both Ahmadinejad and the Bush administration, which has labored long and hard to make the Iranian president appear to be more controlling and influential than he really is. In fact, the real boss in Iran is "The Supreme Leader," Ayatollah Ali Khameni.
"Pat Robertson has more power than Ahmadinejad," Reza Aslan, the Iranian-American scholar and author of "No god but God," said at a seminar I attended last spring. "He does not control the army, or the budget or foreign policy. Everyone in the American government knows this. The president of Iran is powerless. Pretending Ahmadinejad is Hitler and Iran is 1939 Germany is not just offensive, it's absurd."
Which doesn't mean he isn't worth hearing. As Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank observed, "Without listening to Ahmadinejad, how can the world appreciate how truly nutty he is?"
Columbia President Bollinger's introduction on Monday leaned toward cover-your-ass bluster. "You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated," he told the Iranian. "I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions."
Such bloviation is another lamentable but unavoidable by-product of free speech. Witness the flap over the MoveOn.org "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?" ad. Bloviation to the left of me, bloviation to the right.
Don't shoot or tase me, bro, but it was, in my opinion, a dumb and puerile headline -- "The Walter Crankcase School of Humor," as a friend of mine calls it, taking a famous name and turning it into something childishly silly. Lame Madison Avenue wordplay.
The pity of it is how the headline so grossly distracted -- first, from the valuable information in the body of the advertisement itself, and, more important, from the gravity of the vast fatal issue at hand, allowing Republicans and the Bush White House to glom onto the ad and try to distract us from the horror of this rotten war.
Thus, no progress is made in the Senate toward putting an end to the madness, but the one resolution they're able to pass -- 72-25 -- is a non-binding measure condemning MoveOn and the ad. Strike a blow for freedom.
The day after, an editorial in the New York Times headlined, "In Search of a Congress," declared, "Mr. Bush's only idea is to keep the war going until he leaves office, and that means that other co-equal branch of government, the Congress, will have to lead the way out.
"Democrats and Republicans who oppose the war have a duty to outline alternatives. Those who call for staying in Iraq have a duty to explain what victory means and how they plan to achieve it. Both sides are shirking an obligation to deal with issues that must be resolved right now..."
In other words, saying nothing is wrong -- unless you're Marcel Marceau, desperately struggling against an invisible wind.
Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York
Albion Monitor July
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30, 2007 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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