Think about this.
Item: Columbia University has issued an invitation inviting Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak on its campus, loudly proclaiming devotion to the idea of dissent and open debate. A new invitation to Minuteman spokesman Jim Gilchrist, however, was withdrawn. It was Gilchrist whose speech at Columbia last year was stopped by students physically charging the stage to prevent him from speaking
Item: The University of California rescinds a speaking invitation to ex-Harvard President Larry Summers because he once wondered aloud whether there was some inherent difference between men and women when it came to the study of math and science.
Item: The president of a liberal mainline Protestant church that claims to take pride in its acceptance of diversity gives a speech huffing that the church should not be a "big tent" and that dissenters within the denomination are "serpents in our midst." At the church's national meeting the spectrum of speakers reaches across the intellectual range from Barack Obama to Bill Moyers.
Item: When challenged on a piece of pork he had obtained for his congressional district, a furious Democratic Congressman John Murtha angrily threatened Colorado Republican Mike Rogers on the floor of the House. When a startled Rogers replied "this is not the way we do things here -- and is that supposed to make me afraid of you?" Murtha said: "That's the way I do it."
Item: Singer Barry Manilow refuses to appear on Barbara Walters's TV show The View if he has to be interviewed by co-host Elizabeth Hasselbeck, whom he describes as "dangerous." After a barrage of criticism, Manilow relents.
And then there's Newt Gingrich. Among the moderators for his upcoming American Solutions conclave that he has specifically designed to encourage dissenting views he includes two high-powered Democrats. The first is former Colorado Governor and former Chairman of the Democratic National Committee Roy Romer. The second is Dr. Elaine Kamarck, a Harvard University lecturer as well as a longtime adviser to Bill Clinton and Al Gore.
IN ALL THE FUROR OVER THE APPEARANCE of Iran's Ahmadinejad at Columbia, something is being missed. Running in a straight line through the first five incidents involving Columbia, UC, the United Church of Christ, John Murtha and Barry Manilow -- and ultimately at its very end to the likes of Mr. Ahmadinejad himself -- is not simply the very real American question of tolerating dissent. Columbia president Lee Bollinger's harsh introduction of Ahmadinejad notwithstanding, the issue at hand, bluntly put, is whether you take your fascism watered down in the style of the American left, or whether you take it straight up in the fashion of the powerful and hard-edged Iranian.
Question: Has Columbia University ever issued an invitation similar to the one offered to Ahmadinejad to George Bush? How about Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld? Have they tried to secure the Rev. James Dobson to discuss his views on homosexuality? (For the record, Dobson quite publicly opposes same-sex marriage and believes homosexuality to be a sin. His opposition is limited to speeches and political activism well within the mainstream of American democracy. Ditto with the U.S. military, barred from Columbia supposedly because of its congressionally mandated "don't ask, don't tell" policy put in place by Bill Clinton.) It is passing strange that a Dobson appearance would never have occurred at this point yet Ahmadinejad, who runs a government that literally executes those found to be gay -- after whipping them -- gets Columbia's prestigious platform.
The real mind-set at Columbia is the same dark view that was provided by the University of California's Board of Regents when news surfaced that they had invited former Harvard President Summers, Bill Clinton's Secretary of the Treasury, to a dinner in Sacramento -- and promptly disinvited him. In this case, members of the UC faculty took offense at Summers's off-hand musings about the possibility of an innate gender difference between men and women when it came to the study of math and science. Summers, of course, lost his job at Harvard because he said this.
The same view of real dissent that prevails at Columbia and UC was exhibited by the national leadership of my own church, the United Church of Christ. President John H. Thomas actually authorized television commercials with actors playing the role of "bouncers" turning away would-be parishioners who were presumably gay (the national UCC -- unlike its member churches -- has endorsed same-sex marriage). Another commercial showed those with differences literally being ejected from church pews as if they were in the front-passenger seat of an old sports car belonging to James Bond. As with Columbia, Thomas makes much of diversity, as those commercials were designed to suggest. But in practice he carefully tries to suppress dissent, suggesting that those members dissenting from the church's liberal leadership should, well, get out.
Murtha, of course, is a throwback to the days when the Democrats ran the House with an iron fist, conducting House business behind closed doors while keeping the GOP minority outside.
And Barry Manilow? One gets the distinct impression he'd happily sing away for an event with Ahmadinejad in the audience, although never for an event featuring -- yes -- Elizabeth Hasselbeck! Because the real danger in the world, you see, is the wispy blonde with mildly conservative views on a morning talk show, not the guy who denies the Holocaust, wants to destroy Israel, and is seeking the nuclear weapons presumably to do just that.
Quite aside from its feverish pursuit of nuclear weapons (other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?), the Ahmadinejad government's toleration of dissent strums the same philosophical chords as Columbia, UC, the UCC, Mr. Murtha and Mr. Manilow, only more so squared. According to Human Rights Watch, not exactly an outlet of the Bush Administration, dissenters are tortured, newspapers have been systematically closed, journalists, writers and intellectuals arrested and so on. Suffice to say, there will be no invitation forthcoming from Tehran University for George Bush to speak. Why? Well, as Mr. Ahmadinejad might quote John Murtha: "That's the way I do it."
THE PLAIN FACT IS THAT THE HARD LEFT has always had a fascination with fascism. They don't want diversity -- they want conservatives to SHUT UP! Whether they were making excuses for Lenin or Stalin and their brutish successors, went sweet on Cuba's Castro, Nicaragua's Ortega or now Venezuela's Chavez, they are irresistibly attracted to those opposing freedom. Why do you think they want talk radio to be "balanced" (i.e.: turned off) with the Fairness Doctrine? Because in their heart of hearts they think they know better than anyone else. They want to do what they want to do in the public sphere without being questioned. Period. American liberalism is awash in this sentiment, which makes having rational discussions about national issues difficult if not impossible.
Which brings us back to Newt.
As conservatives love to say, ideas matter. Ideas have consequences. And so they do. This is precisely why from Columbia to UC to the UCC, Jack Murtha and Barry Manilow (and the list goes well beyond two universities, a church, a congressman and a pop star), the freedom -- and the willingness -- to tackle large issues and genuinely engage dissent in the American dialogue is so critical.
Without question one of the single most important aspects of the modern conservative revolution has been its intellectual vitality. And no small part of that vitality has been provided by Newt Gingrich. Long before the 1994 Contract with America that laid the intellectual foundation for the first GOP-controlled Congress since 1954, Gingrich's unique combination of intellectual rigor, curiosity, endless imagination, energy and blunt language was already throwing into relief (sometimes a decidedly uncomfortable relief) both the intellectual and actual corruption of the American left as well as the internal problems of the Republican Party.
As a triumphant GOP gathered in Dallas in 1984 to write the party platform that would sweep Ronald Reagan to an overwhelming re-election, it was Gingrich who started teeth grinding with his observation that Senator Bob Dole, then the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, was "the tax collector for the welfare state," thus highlighting the problems with what Barry Goldwater had once called the "dime store New Deal." He was particularly stark in his later appraisal of the forty-year Democratic-majority in the House of Representatives, repeatedly painting its leadership (notably Speaker Jim Wright) as "the corrupt left-wing machine" that existed solely to run "the corrupt liberal welfare state." These kinds of remarks and the actions that went with them (it was Gingrich's filing of ethics complaints against Wright that eventually led to Wright's downfall) engendered a fierce backlash among Democrats, making Gingrich target number one for any and all comers as he finally succeeded in driving Democrats from the cozy precincts of unchallenged Congressional power. A perch they had occupied with only two two-year interludes since 1932.
His own ascension to the House Speakership made him one of the most powerful Speakers in American history. The triumphs (the passage of the Contract with America) and the failure (resignation from the House following the Clinton impeachment furor) similarly threatened to take him straight from the top to the political bottom. But Gingrich is nothing if not resilient, and his intellectual voltage made a return of some sort to the center of the nation's political life almost a certainty.
No one who has spent time listening to Newt Gingrich on television or in person, can have any serious doubt that he has successfully emerged in a role once predicted by the late Republican National Committee chair Lee Atwater: "He can truly be a national political guru for our party. He can be a spokesman, he can be a philosopher, he can be a strategist for our party. As Teddy Roosevelt once said about the bully pulpit, Newt Gingrich has an opportunity to be as big a man as he can be."
THE QUESTION OF THE MOMENT for some is whether all of this opportunity includes a race for the GOP presidential nomination. But whether Gingrich does or doesn't run, whether he ever becomes president or never becomes president, he has already well-established himself as perhaps the most influential individual thinker in the modern Republican Party and perhaps in the national political life -- period.
It is no slap at any of the potential-GOP nominees now actively campaigning -- or for that matter to George Bush and Dick Cheney -- to acknowledge that Gingrich stands alone as someone who has aggressively spent a lifetime making himself at home in the world of ideas. Indeed, like the two American politicians he perhaps most resembles in this regard -- President Woodrow Wilson and the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- Gingrich, a former history professor, holds a Ph.D.
So quite beyond the insistent question of whether Gingrich will or will not run for president and the inevitable discussion of his political assets and liabilities, the real focus with Gingrich must always include a consideration of "what's Newt thinking?" The answer at the moment is typically Newt. Given the current climate where the left is intent on strangling dissent, it is noteworthy that Gingrich has gone out of his way to make several days worth of an upcoming program he calls American Solutions (americansolutions.com) genuinely inclusive and intellectually diverse. Dissent is, in the eyes of Newt Gingrich, a good thing. Listening to his critiques of his former House colleagues and the current state of the GOP may cause some to chafe, but maybe -- just maybe -- they should.
If you want to know what Newt is thinking lately about government, health care, national security, religion and all the rest, he, unsurprisingly, wants to know what you think. There is no small irony that the place to go for a genuine dialogue about America is the Internet (americansolutions.com).
Sadly, Lee Bollinger's sharp remarks to Mr. Ahmadinejad notwithstanding, you won't find much dialogue, let alone American solutions, at Columbia University. Or for that matter with the Regents of the University of California, or in the Reverend John Thomas's United Church of Christ or in a debate on the floor of the U.S. House with John Murtha. Or even in a conversational duet with Barry Manilow.
That's not only too bad -- in a free country, it's dangerous.
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