Dictators on Campus: Still Not a Free Speech Issue – Armin Rosen

September 22nd, 2010 Print Print Email Email

Over at the Huffington Post, Political Science professor Alemayehu G. Mariam argues that Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi’s upcoming talk at Columbia University is in fact a free speech issue, a notion that I tried to debunk last week. (more…)

Over at the Huffington Post, Political Science professor Alemayehu G. Mariam argues that Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi’s upcoming talk at Columbia University is in fact a free speech issue, a notion that I tried to debunk last week. Mariam is no Zenawi supporter—he’s a passionate and extremely well-versed opponent of Ethiopia’s apparent president-for life, and his description of the country’s ruination under Zenawi is pretty enraging (especially when you consider how much the United States has done to prop up his regime).

Yet Mariam defends Columbia’s invitation, arguing that free speech should be treated as a kind of categorical imperative, existing outside the messy real world of politics and human rights:

But as a university professor and constitutional lawyer steadfastly dedicated to free speech, I have adopted one yardstick for all issues concerning free speech, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” I underscore the words “everyone” and “regardless of frontiers.”

No one’s arguing that the United States government—a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—has jeopardized Meles Zenawi’s right to free speech. Neither has anyone argued that it should. The applicable free speech issue here is instead whether American universities, which should be society’s vanguards of free speech, are actually advancing free speech by valorizing those who have made a political career out of taking it away from others.

I think the answer is no, but my notion of free speech is different from Mariam’s. He believes that free speech is a universal right, but also a pretext for teaching people things:

I want the event to be a teachable moment for him. Perhaps this opportunity will afford him a glimpse of the clash of ideas that routinely take place in American universities. He may begin to appreciate the simple truth that ideas are accepted and rejected and arguments won and lost in the cauldron of critical analysis oxygenated by the bellows of free speech, not in prison dungeons where journalists and dissidents are bludgeoned and left to rot.

By this logic, the more oppressive a dictator is, the more urgent it is for us to use the powers of “free speech” to educate or perhaps even pacify him. Dictators, however, realize that free speech is, in fact, a civil liberty essential to any free society, which is probably why they’re none too fond of the concept.

ከዋሺንግተን ለተቃውሞ ሰልፍ የተነሳው አንዱ ቡድን በመንገድ ላይ – ፎቶ በቴዎድሮስ መክብብ

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  1. cc
    | #1

    Former Ethiopian cadets stranded in Kyrgyzstan
    By PETER LEONARD (AP) – 5 hours ago

    TOKMOK, Kyrgyzstan — Softly singing along to the wistful strains of Ethiopian music, Haymanot Tesgaye and his friends are transported back to their homeland in Africa, far from this Central Asian nation where they have been stranded for two decades.

    Over that time, the men have withstood horrific racial abuse and struggled to piece together a living — testament to the ways in which lives are irrevocably changed when empires and regimes crumble.

    Tesgaye, once an aspiring fighter pilot, was one of 80 Ethiopian cadets sent to a Soviet military training facility in the remote republic of Kyrgyzstan in 1989 to master the art of flying combat aircraft.

    “At that time in Ethiopia there was a military government, and because of an agreement between the Soviet Union and Ethiopia, they used to train pilots for the country’s air force,” Tesgaye explained.

    Within two years, both the Soviet Union and Ethiopia’s Marxist regime had collapsed, forcing the cadets to think carefully about their options for their future in a strange and foreign land.

    Almost 20 years later, still fearing reprisals back home for the small role he played in the brutal rule of deposed Marxist leader Mengistu Haile Mariam, Tesgaye is marooned here — a world away from a family that has grown older without him.

    Some of the Ethiopians found ways to leave in the early days, emigrating or seeking asylum, while others risked returning home. A few that stayed behind were murdered.

    Only nine of them now remain in Kyrgyzstan and they form a tight-knit group, meeting often to eat familiar food, sing old songs and reminisce.

    Listening to silky, free-flowing Ethiopian jazz, Tesgaye fights back the tears, overcome with yearning for a real home.

    “When I hear this, I lose myself. I am in the air without a compass and I don’t where I am going,” Tesgaye said.

    “Especially now for us … I don’t have the words to explain this, it’s from here,” he said, pointing to his heart.

    Some of the Ethiopians eke out a living as taxi drivers in Tokmok, the small town that once housed the military base.

    A model of an Ilyushin-28 bomber still stands on a pedestal by the side of the main road to remind motorists passing through this sleepy and dusty spot of its aviation past. But the former training area, just a short walk from Tesgaye’s cramped Soviet-era apartment, is now a desolate waste ground overrun by weeds and trash.

    Kyrgyzstan is a rich blend of diverse ethnic groups, including Uzbeks, Russians, Koreans, Germans and Meskhetian Turks. But ethnic relations are often problematic, as best shown by devastating ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and minority ethnic Uzbeks earlier this year that claimed hundreds of lives, mainly among Uzbeks, and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes.

    While tensions between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks are a symptom of historic grievances over land and power, the kind of widespread intolerance that the Ethiopians and many other African men have had to endure in Kyrgyzstan stems from incomprehension and ignorance.

    Upon first arriving in Tokmok, when Tesgaye and his companions ventured outside the confines of the garrison, the prevailing reaction was bewilderment.

    “At that time, people in the Soviet Union, in Kyrgyzstan, thought that we were rich … and if they met us outside the garrison they wanted to get something from us,” Tesgaye said.

    Curiosity soon turned into something harder, however, and when they lost the protection of their military hosts, attacks and abuse became commonplace.

    Tales of abysmal intimidation and violence are told with disarming lightness, as though they have become so common that their gravity no longer registers.

    Another former cadet, Nassir Dyde, tells of a fellow countrymen called Haptam who was savagely beaten to death by the relatives of a girlfriend with whom he had broken up.

    “When the police found him they couldn’t bring themselves to touch his body, because of his skin, so they summoned us to take him to the morgue,” Dyde said. “They didn’t even want to wash his body down, so we did it ourselves.”

    Dyde then showed the multiple scars across his own body where he has been stabbed or beaten.

    Tens of thousands of Africans also went to Russia during Soviet times, most to study at universities. Thousands have stayed, including some more recent arrivals.

    Most stay because they fear for their safety in their home country, for instance if there is a war, while others stay for economic reasons, said Valence Maniragena, a native of Rwanda who heads a nongovernmental organization called Ichumbi, which helps Africans in St. Petersburg, Russia.

    Africans face discrimination and abuse in Russia, and some have been killed in racist attacks, but Maniragena said the situation has improved somewhat in recent years.

    In Uzbekistan, a populous country west of Kyrgyzstan, thousands of Afghans are experiencing a similar predicament, living in a state of limbo since the fall of the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan in 1992.

    While yearning to go abroad, the former Ethiopian cadets have largely resigned themselves to their fate and some, like Tesgaye, have married local women and had children.

    “When we walked down the street, people driving past used to wind down their windows to stare or spit at us, but we walked proudly with our child,” said Dilnara Tesgaye, after serving out platefuls of a tangy Ethiopian lentil dish she learned how to make from her husband.

    The cruel irony in the Ethiopians’ plight is that hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz people forced to travel to Russia in search of work themselves face frequent verbal and physical abuse at the hands of racists.

    Sisay Wondumagnehu, another Ethiopian who came to Tokmok to train to fly the Soviet-made Mi-8 helicopter, said they have repeatedly tried to seek asylum, but have failed every time.

    “I would like to go another country, but I have no way out, and so here I am.”

    Associated Press Writer Irina Titova in St. Petersburg, Russia, contributed to this report

  2. visitor
    | #2

    I THINK AT THIS TIME OF STAGE IT IS NOT CONSTRUCTIVE TO CALL NAMES AND CRITTISIZE WHAT O0NE SAID.THE BEST THING TO DO
    AT THIS MOMENT IS TO GO OUT AND PROTEST AGAINST THE BUTCHER OF ADDIS ABABA MELESSE ZENAWI.WE ALL KNOW PROFESSOR ALEMAYEHU IS A VOICE FOR VOICELESS,HE DESERV PRAISE NOT CRITISISEM WHAT HE SAID ABOUT THE SPEECH GOING TO TAKE PLACE AT COLOOMBIA BY ONE OF AFRICA’S NOTORIOUS DICTATOR MELESSE ZENAWI IS CORRECT AND THE RIGHT ONE.THOSE WHO OPPOSE HAS TO GO OUT AND PROTEST HIS PRESENCE AT COLOMBIA AND MAKE THE VICE HEARD.GOD BLESS THE ETHIOPIAN PEOPLE AND MAY THEIR SUFFERING UNDER THE BUTAL REGIME OF MELESSE ZENAWI THE BUTCHER OF ADDIS ABABA END SOON

  3. tufa
    | #3

    Dear All,

    God Bless Ethiopian abroad that tierlesly trying exposing killer Zen awi. We Ethiopians living under mercenary rule are very proud of you. And continue your support for Ethiopians living in a very destitute way due to racist Zenawi

    God Bless Ethiopia

  4. Anonymous
    | #4

    ሰላም እንደም አላችሁ ውድ ወገኖች በሙሉ የሰላም የፍቅር ዓመት እንዲሆንልን ስመኝ ብ በደስታና በፍቅር ነው::

  5. Anonymous
    | #5

    what is new is it the agenda of tplf plan secretly and distroy the people in the name of development the government is dispalcing the urban dewlers to pass it to their mafia group and so called forigen investors who come to the country to borow
    from the local banks to make money.If this goverment is honest(which they are not) lend the same money to ethiopians who can do the same investment if it Has concern for Ethiopia and Ethiopians.How many expernced qualified Ethiopians pushed out from work sitting in their home due all opprtunity closed to give way to the less expernced questanble diplomas/degrees and eprdf loyals with no experncie and the corupted offical(as found out easly make millions from such investors) distroying Ethiopians and Ethiopa…reporter it good writing about such issue but please tell them to stop,do not try to advise them at the cost of the distryed and in the process of beying distroyed,

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