In case you're not convinced the American university system is broken, consider the reactions of two college communities to two different speakers.

Four years ago, Smith College invited former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to be its commencement speaker. The Smith community was outraged and flew into action. At the graduation ceremony, students handed out pamphlets claiming that Albright was guilty of "crimes against humanity." When she took the stage, many graduates and others in attendance turned their chairs about and sat with backs to her. For the first seven minutes of her speech, she faced constant heckling and booing from the crowd; she was forced to beg the audience to allow her to continue. Twice during the short speech, protestors rushed the stage in an attempt to disrupt the event.

Contrast that with the reception Columbia University gave Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this week. Sure, there were anti-Ahmadinejad protests outside (one sympathetic soul counter-protested with a sign reading "May Allah Make a Mushroom Cloud Over 'Israel'!"). Unlike Albright, Ahmadinejad was given a combative introduction by Columbia President Lee Bollinger. But the audience of Columbia students and faculty was much more respectful with Ahmadinejad than the Smithies were with Albright.

When Ahmadinejad began his remarks by swinging back at Bollinger, several in the audience actually applauded him. More applause occurred when he called for Palestinian self-determination (which is, in itself, curious, since Palestinians have recently self-determined that they want to be led by the Iran-backed terrorist group Hamas). When Ahmadinejad claimed that Iran was the victim of U.S.-sponsored terrorism and was "the first nation that objected to terrorism," there was even more applause. When he defended Iranian executions by asking, "Don't you have capital punishment in the United States?", more applause. When he said that nuclear weapons go against "the whole grain of humanity," more applause. When he suggested that George W. Bush was "retarded," more applause. And when he finished his performance, there was another spate of applause, just for good measure. How hospitable of them.

Of course, it wasn't all hearts and flowers. When Ahmadinejad suggested we may not know the real truth about the Holocaust, the audience was largely quiet, with some scattered moans. Likewise, it was impassive while he asked "who was really involved" in 9/11. And it was positively derisive - moved to actual boos and laughter! - when Ahmadinejad said, regarding homosexuality, that "in Iran, we do not have this phenomenon."

I mean, really, you can rewrite the history of the Second World War, call for the destruction of Israel, insult our leaders, and lie about nuclear weapons while waging a low-grade war against American soldiers - but the bounds of civilized discourse only go so far!

Of course, that's the point. The academy has become so warped that it seeks civilized discourse with dangerous madmen, yet it spews rage and protest against rational people with whom it has political disagreements. The political is no longer merely the personal; it is the alpha and omega. A civilizational divide over human rights or sharia or theocracy - the sort of things wars are fought over - must be discussed politely. A political disagreement over State Department functions - that's where discourse is replaced by the brute intimidation.

This philosophical inversion would be pathetic were it not so pernicious.

It is pernicious because events such as the Columbia debacle do not take place in a vacuum. The Iranian media reported his speech as a triumph, noting how "the audience on repeated occasion[s] applauded." No mention was made of Bollinger's criticisms. (Ahmadinejad's own Web site portrays the speech as a big success, but edits out Bollinger completely.) To suffering Iranian liberals and dissidents, this must be a body blow.

In case you've forgotten, in Iran, real people face real repression every day. Liberal political dissidents are routinely tortured. Men and women who commit adultery are stoned to death. In 2004, Atefah Sahaaleh, a 16-year-old girl, was executed for being the victim of rape. (She was convicted of "crimes against chastity.") Here is Human Rights Watch describing part of the Iranian penal code: "Iranian law punishes all penetrative sexual acts between adult men with the death penalty. Non-penetrative sexual acts between men are punished with lashes until the fourth offense, when they are punished with death."

Oh, but how the audience guffawed when Ahmadinejad said Iran doesn't have "the phenomenon" of homosexuality.

They really showed him.