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Well, Maybe I'll Bring Popcorn

The Big Brotherish posters aside, I'm quite in favor of John Ashcroft's visit. Controversial speakers who come to Columbia give us a lot to think about. The Waldron/Yoo torture debate held at the law school last year, for instance, may have raised some passions, but it remains one of the most informative and entertaining of my law school experiences.

Of course, this is Columbia, and we wouldn't be an elite Ivy League university without students wanting to show that they have both an unalienable right to free speech and a complete lack of self-restraint. The Columbia Federalist Society is hosting, so it's no surprise that the formal etiquette is impeccable. In an email today, they invited the student body to come up with questions to ask Ashcroft. But before that email arrived, this bit of hate mail popped into my inbox, forwarded by the ever-obliging student services mailing list:

JOHN ASHCROFT COMING TO COLUMBIA

NOVEMBER 30, 2005

If you are against TORTURE, BIGOTRY, SEXISM, CLASISM [sic], AMERICAN THEOCRACY*, and just plain mean people who can’t sing-

JOIN the Campus –Wide “Ashcroft Welcoming Committee”

Meetings are scheduled for:

Monday, 11/21- 10:00 PM in Lerner 555 – BRING POSTER IDEAS- quotes, stats, the works
Monday, 11/28- 10:00 PM in Lerner 555
Tuesday, 11/29- 6:00 PM in Lerner 501


This, of course, is what constitutes a "welcome" at the Ivy League. It's quite possible that the protestors are spending more time getting ready to mock Mr. Ashcroft than his hosts have given to marketing him. Considering the accusations in the email, I sincerely hope that they can hold the tune of "Kumbaya," or whatever the kids are chanting in unison these days. Wasn't loud and lousy singing outside Noriega's compound considered a form of torture?

Let me make it clear: there's nothing wrong with objecting to Mr. Ashcroft's ideas, and I've hardly considered him the most persuasive Republican spokesman. Nonetheless, he is the guest of three student societies sanctioned by the university to which the emailer belongs. To send out an email like the one above shows a stunning lack of class, tact, and comity with one's fellow students. To protest a guest of one's university not only suggests that one has no respect for one's fellows, but that one feels no duty to actually welcome a guest of the university to which one belongs. Sadly, such behavior doesn't reflect badly upon Mr. Ashcroft but upon us.

[1]: What if you happen to be against the overuse of ALL CAPS SHOUTING IN EMAILS?

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I was struck by the protest email, as well. The conspiracy theorist in me immediately wondered whether student services intended to give the protestors a head start by sending out their rant (and all the other events emails) several hours before the Fed Soc's invitation, but - in light of student services's well documented and longstanding incompetence - I will give them the benefit of the doubt on this one. What I really don't understand is why the proponents of 'civil dialogue' seem consistently to cast aside their principles whenever someone they don't like comes to town. If one were to poll the Ashcroft protestors, I'm sure 100% would agree that free speech and the free exchange of ideas are a bedrock principle of our society. Why, then, can't they resist the urge to try to shout down their opponents? Yes, the liberals at Columbia can yell louder than the conservatives, but is this really a surprise? Can a liberal go home and rest more easily knowing that more of his classmates agree with him than with big, bad Mr. Ashcroft? Perhaps it's just me, but I would feel much happier with myself if I asked a pointed question to my opponent that exposed whatever it was that I didn't like about him. There is enough in Mr. Ashcroft's past that it shouldn't be that difficult for an intelligent liberal to formulate such a question. By doing so, they might succeed in making Mr. Ashcroft look silly, but by resorting to clever signs and a "welcoming committee" they are only making themselves look silly and immature. But - hey - that's Columbia liberals for you (official slogan: "Making the World a Better Place By Standing Outside on a Cold Winter Day Holding Signs that Cleverly Say Things We Already Know About Someone Who is No Longer in Office and Couldn't Care Less Anyway"). Me? I'll be inside with the rest of the vast right-wing conspiracy.
I agree that reasoned and informed debate is the heart of democracy. When Ashcroft comes to campus, I'll be in the room listening, not outside shouting. In addition, the ACS hopes to host an informative discussion of Ashcroft's policies in the war on terror, including consideration of what policies we might have preferred (with attendant costs and benefits), earlier that day. Everyone is welcome, regardless of political leaning. --Mary Kelly, current Columbia ACS President
Doing my bit for people who protest... There's nothing that says you can't be outside shouting when he arrives and inside listening/questioning once he's in. Of course without a better idea of who these folks are they may be from the unhinged loon brigade - or right minded folk with a terrible idea about how to write emails I can't say too much. Now, if Ashcroft was met by twenty people standing silently on boxes with bags over their heads, arms outstretched and crocodile clips attatched (but silent) would that be more polite? Or perhaps just a gentle Amnesty style caged protest while dressed in fetching guantanamo orange? Of course if they really wanted to shock the poor guy I imagine a few classical statues of the fair sex, prominently displayed in reception would do the job.

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