Sunday, September 30, 2007

Notes From My Knapsack 10-7-07
Jeff Gill

Free Speech Works Oddly, But Works

President Ahmadinejad of Iran managed to show off one of free speech’s best features at Columbia University.

Some voices argued with great passion and pretty decent debating points that he shouldn’t be given a public platform, given his use of “free speech” to argue against the Holocaust (all just a misunderstanding), for the obliteration of a country (Israel has no right to exist), and that Iran only wants nuclear plants so he can make that cool glow-in-the-dark paint for watch hands (OK, not quite).

But when he was in New York City for the opening of the United Nations’ General Assembly, he dropped by Columbia for a little meet ‘n greet with the students and faculty.

Turns out Columbia has a president, too, and Lee Bollinger took the podium first to tee off on the human rights record of Iran under the ayatollah-ite regime, and their lack of political freedom, such as restricting the right to breath for some dissidents, hanging a number of peaceful Bahá'ís, along with a quite a few Jews accused of spying on flimsy pretexts. Pres. Bollinger covered it all, with citations.

Pres. Ahmadinejad countered by saying, loudly, clearly, in unambiguous Farsi with a very skilled translator removing all doubt, “There are no homosexuals in Iran.”

Don’t know about you, but that one statement justified Columbia giving him a platform more than any excoriation by the school’s executive officer. Knowing that this fellow thinks he can say something like that with a straight face (sorry, I know) puts us all on the same page about the viewpoint of the current regime.

The great thing about free speech is that if it really is as free as possible, we all learn where one another are coming from, and what we intend. Press releases and sound bites can’t quite deliver that sense of who and what a person’s about.

You could call it the “give ‘em enough rope” philosophy, but that assumes this only works as a negative check and balance. I like thinking of it as more of a “Glass cleaner” approach, with more than a little circle rubbed through the dirty window, but a wide field of view showing as much as possible.

If a candidate for school board says at an election forum, “We have no kids with special needs in our district,” or a municipal candidate says “We don’t need more economic development around here,” or a township trustee race evokes the comment “We don’t have any roads or bridges that need upkeep,” I’d wonder if that was possibly what they meant as a one-line quote in an election guide.

When they keep talking after the room breaks out in laughter, as if everyone were nodding their heads up and down, I’ve learned something useful.

We’re a month away from what I think of as the “real elections,” when school boards and local councils and trustee panels go before the voters. Millions of dollars worth of TV ads during presidential campaigns can cloud men’s minds more surely than The Shadow, but in a local election, not so much.

There are irrational people running for local positions, though, and they often have one rational line they’ve ridden on the road to Election Day. You need to hear the whole statement sometimes, or hear their tagline in a broader, conversational context, to realize “this person is nuttier than grandma’s banana bread.”

If your area has a candidates’ night or election forum, make the effort to drop by and spend an hour listening. What you hear is free speech at its best, and the best solution to the problems people claim come from the wrong kind of speech is more free speech, not less.

Speak out, too, but make sure to listen to some of that free speech first; there’s a price for not doing so.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he’s met politicians who are unhinged and tightly buttoned down, sometimes in the same person (different days). Tell him your Election Day story at

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