Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Thoughts on Ahmadinejab's Visit

Columbia President Lee Bollinger staked out a very bold position by inviting Ahmadinejab to speak this past week. Though Mr. Bollinger is a First Amendment expert, it is important to recognize that this position is based on the rights of members of the university community to listen to him, rather than any putative right of Ahmadinejab to speak at Columbia. Ahmadinejab may rant as he chooses, but he has not right to have an invitation to let him speak to us. But that invitation is where the controversy lies.

In ordinary circumstances, I cannot imagine an expert in etiquette or protocol approving the practice of inviting someone to speak to your group, and then denouncing them in the strongest terms and discounting their ideas in advance as a load of crap. (Perhaps this is accepted in New York City, but here in the Deep Midwest where I live, this would be considered bad form.)

Nevertheless, I couldn’t agree more with the substance of what President Bollinger said. Among his comments were these gems:
· On Ahmadinejab’s record on human rights, “you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator”;
· On Ahmadinejab’s denial of the Holocaust and his attention to “debate” on that subject, “For the illiterate and ignorant, this is dangerous propaganda. When you come to a place like this, this makes you, quite simply, ridiculous. You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated.”
· On Iran’s support of terrorism, “[Y]our government is now undermining American troops in Iraq by funding, arming, and providing safe transit to insurgent leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr and his forces.” Further, “A number of Columbia graduates and current students are among the brave members of our military who are serving or have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They, like other Americans with sons, daughters, fathers, husbands and wives serving in combat, rightly see your government as the enemy.”
· On Ahmadinejab’s intellectual honesty: “Frankly, and in all candor, Mr. President, I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions. But your avoiding them will in itself be meaningful to us. I do expect you to exhibit the fanatical mindset that characterizes so much of what you say and do.”
· Finally, Mr. Bollinger closed his introduction with these words: “I am only a professor, who is also a university president, and today I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for. I only wish I could do better.”

Mr. Bollinger is a thoughtful person. He was a law professor at Michigan when I was a student, and he was well known then – as now – for asking very good questions. He also posed tough questions to Ahmadinejab, but unlike the classroom, he got no reasonable discourse; he got the ranting he expected.

Mr. Bollinger’s comments reflect an astonishing degree of moral content. Ahmadinejab’s behavior is judged as “petty and cruel”. His ideas are characterized as “dangerous” and he is deemed “ridiculous”. He is “rightly” seen as an enemy of our country. (And yes, our soldiers are “brave” – how about that!) “Revulsion” is also a very strong word – very judgmental, in fact.

In the academic world, moral judgments are rarely exhibited with such frankness, unless, of course, it involves an area of substantial consensus in the community. Moreover, the sensibilities of others typically receive high consideration – sometimes this consideration is even paramount to the truth. Here, truth won out over the sensibilities of the speaker. However, it is likely that this occurred only because of the sensibilities of outrage expressed in this community over the visit. I wish it were true thathis comments reflected a moral consensus in the academic community, but I am not sure that is so, particularly when it comes to defining our enemies and supporting our troops in the field.

This event got a lot of publicity for Columbia University. But if you really believe all these things about a speaker, and you feel you must say them before he speaks, then perhaps you should not have invited him in the first place. Life is short, and not all ideas are worth listening to – especially when they are the rantings of a madman. Mr. Bollinger nevertheless deserves credit for having the courage to provide some critical comments that made a bad situation a little better.

If you want to judge for yourselves, you can read the full remarks here:


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