Ever hear the joke about the guy who couldn't afford a personalized license plate for his car so he changed his name to XJR-321?
Weirdly, I kept thinking of that joke this week as the entire brainiac world debated the half-pint whack-job Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's appearance at Columbia University. Defenders of A'Jad's address insisted that "such core American principles as academic freedom and freedom of speech" were being shown "disrespect" by critics, in the words of a Los Angeles Times editorial.
But here's the thing, whether you favored or opposed the teeny dictator's lecture: Free speech had nothing to do with it.
You have to stay on your toes, like Ahmadinejad at a urinal, to grasp this point since it's so often confused in our public discourse: Free-speech rights aren't violated when private institutions deny speech in their name. My free-speech rights have not been denied by the fact that for years the Democratic National Committee has refused to invite me to speak at its confabs. Nor would it be censorship if this newspaper dropped my column. Freedom of speech also includes the right not to say something.
In other words, had Columbia denied Ahmadinejad a platform, it would have been exercising freedom of speech just as much as it was when it invited him to give his prison-house philosopher spiel.
Which is why I kept thinking of poor Mr. XJR-321. Both the left and, on occasion, the right are guilty of simply changing the name of the problem rather than tackling it head-on. Not every controversial decision or statement is a free-speech issue simply because you get flak for it.
Remember, shortly after 9/11, when then-Georgia Rep. Cynthia McKinney tried to sweet-talk blood money out of a Saudi Prince who wanted to blame the attacks on America's Israel policy? When criticized, she immediately claimed that such criticism amounted to an attack on her "right to speak." Well, criticism of speech is still, you know, speech.
Admittedly, McKinney's not sharp enough to slice warm Jell-O, but she's hardly alone in employing this tactic.
When Cindy Sheehan was still a darling of establishment liberals, they defended her increasingly batty statements by saying, in the words of Fox News' Juan Williams, "she's an American, she has the right to her opinion." Absolutely, and I have the right to my opinions, too. But somehow I'm anti-free speech when I voice them.
This whole line of argumentation is a sign of intellectual weakness or cowardice. Take, for example, that mossy cliché "I may disagree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it!"
The only reasonable response is, "Who gives a rat's patoot?" If I deny the reality of the Holocaust, or insist that "2 plus 2 equals a duck," or that I can make 10-minute brownies in six minutes, responding that you may disagree with what I say but will defend my right to say it is a shabby way to sound courageous while actually taking a spineless dive. How brave of you to defend me from a threat that doesn't exist while lamely avoiding actually challenging my statements.
Similarly, there's been a lot of high-minded gasbaggery over this elusive idea of "academic freedom." A more selectively invoked standard is hard to come by. Somehow, when former Harvard President Larry Summers, one of America's most esteemed economists, told a group of academics that the distribution of high-level cognitive abilities may not be evenly spread out among men and women, activist feminist professors got the vapors and claimed, from the comfort of their fainting couches, that their hysteria could only be cured by Summers' head on a platter. But Ward Churchill, a penny-ante buffoon who seems to have downloaded his Ph.D. from cheapdegrees.com, compares the victims of 9/11 to Holocaust planner Adolf Eichmann, and suddenly academic freedom demands Churchill keep his tenured job forever, at taxpayers' expense.
More to the point, academic freedom wasn't at issue in the Columbia case. Unlike Summers and like Churchill, Ahmadinejad wasn't trying to explore the truth. Holocaust deniers aren't truth-tellers, they are deliberate liars and hucksters. Ahmadinejad didn't want "dialogue," he wanted propaganda points. He was there as the mouthpiece for a dangerous, oppressive regime. But many opponents of the Bush administration think the Iranian regime has been inappropriately demonized, and the Columbia crowd thought they could help defuse tensions. The irony is that Columbia's decision backfired, and the university actually magnified that alleged demonization.
But let's not forget that Columbia didn't have the courage to say honestly that it wanted to dabble in foreign policy and controversy, not free inquiry. Saying it was all about free speech doesn't make it so.