"The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas," Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in Abrams v. U.S. (1919). "The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market."
Holmes' words mirror the purported philosophy of Columbia University's administration, which allowed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak on its campus this week. "If Hitler were in the United States and wanted a platform from which to speak, he would have plenty of platforms to speak in the United States," stated John Coatsworth, dean of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs. "If he were willing to engage in debate and a discussion to be challenged by Columbia students and faculty, we would certainly invite him."
Why would Columbia University open its arms to a man who is by all accounts responsible for the murder of Americans, a man who proclaims lust for another Holocaust, a man who sees himself as the advance guard for the Islamic messianic age? Because, NPR's Juan Williams explained on Hugh Hewitt's radio show, Ahmadinejad had to face the scrutiny of Columbia students -- and that scrutiny, Williams opined, undercut Ahmadinejad's credibility. "I think that the more exposure that this guy gets, the less people will put any credibility, any stock in what he has to say. Let the light shine, and let people see him for what he is," said Williams.
The Holmes/Columbia/Williams argument is an attractive one. It is also shockingly naive. There are some messages that ought not be given exposure in America -- messages issued by terror-sponsoring foreign governmental officials, directed toward undermining American interests.
Ideas have consequences, as Richard M. Weaver memorably put it. Columbia's legitimization of Ahmadinejad -- and by extension, his ideas -- allowed Ahmadinejad to posture as a moderate for the consumption of the international community while simultaneously demonstrating America's fecklessness to the Islamic world.
Americans largely brushed off Ahmadinejad's message -- here Holmes' principle worked. But the larger audience for Ahmadinejad's speech had no knowledge of the Holmesian quest for truth. The real audience for Ahmadinejad's speech was the Islamofascist and the Islamofascist-appeasing international community, which will see Ahmadinejad's speech the same way it saw Yasser Arafat's 1974 United Nations General Assembly address -- as the legitimization of a terrorist on the world stage.
Ahmadinejad knew his audience -- the millions who shun liberty and embrace darkness. Those millions are not involved in Holmes' marketplace of ideas. There is a difference between pandering to the lowest common denominator and engaging in fruitful debate. Columbia refused to recognize that difference. Ahmadinejad may have seemed the fool to American eyes, but he looked like a hero to his true audience.
"I must not measure the speech of a statesman to his people by the impression which it leaves in a university professor, but by the effect it exerts on the people," Hitler wrote in volume two of "Mein Kampf" in 1927.
Hitler's grasp of public relations was certainly more sophisticated than that of the Columbia administration. So is Ahmadinejad's. The day before Ahmadinejad's Columbia speech, he spoke with the leaders of the terrorist group Hamas, reaffirming his support for their agenda. Speaking to Columbia students masked Ahmadinejad's true agenda -- appealing to his Islamofascist base. Ahmadinejad was tacitly scoffing at the foolish, blustering Americans who threaten war while allowing him free rein at one of their most prestigious centers of learning. Responsibility for Ahmadinejad's PR coup lies with the Columbia administration -- a group of people so self-centered that they believe their repudiation of Ahmadinejad's political program is the final word.