September 26th, 2007

The dictator at the tea-party: if you invite, must you be polite?

The Columbia/Bollinger/Ahmadinejad controversy has had several stages. First there was the shock that the university had extended the invitation. Then there was the event itself. And now there’s the reaction.

The notion of freedom of speech has come to include the idea that in order to protect it we must bend over backwards to provide a forum for enemies to promulgate their ideas. But I really can’t imagine that freedom of speech would have meant that, in the 30s, a major university would—or should—have given Hitler a similar invitation.

Of course, there’s always the argument that greater exposure to such pernicious leaders makes more people aware of their dangerousness, and thus enables us to evaluate and prepare to counter them. But that doesn’t really convince me; it’s not as though heads of state such as Ahmadinejad (or Hitler, in his day) lack the ability to speak, and for their words to be covered and spread around the wolrd by the press. There are few people with more opportunity to spread their word; we’re not talking about silenced voices here.

Bollinger probably thought that exposure to Ahmadinejad’s ideas would make it even clearer how destructive and even ludicrous (no homosexuals in Iran?) they are; certainly they sounded so to much of the Western audience. Bollinger is also to be commended for the fact that he took off the kid gloves when he addressed Ahmadinejad, and used harsh words to condemn him.

But why set the situation up in the first place? Why does Ahmadinejad need more publicity, especially at the hands of an institution with the stature of Columbia? Events such as this play one way here, and another in the Arab and Muslim world—the audience that probably matters most to Ahmadinejad.

I am fascinated by the criticism Bollinger has received from those who consider him to have been improperly impolite to Ahmadinejad. Here’s an example:

….Hamid Zangeneh, a professor of economics at Widener University in Pennsylvania and editor of The Journal of Iranian Research and Analysis. “I was disgusted by the uncivilized behavior by President Bollinger,” he said. “I don’t think it is becoming for the president of a university to engage in such behavior. It wasn’t academic. It wasn’t common sense.

“Instead of behaving like a scholar, a president,” he said, “he behaved like a hooligan.”

Hamid Zangeneh is not alone in his emphasis on Bollinger’s failings in the finer points of etiquette. Even though the entire event was a political one, Bollinger was supposed to behave as though the ivory tower was intact, and to ignore the very real issues involved—those of life and death, and good and evil—hardly academic in this case, since Ahmadinejad is the perpetrator himself.

Politeness reflects on both the person exhibiting (or not exhibiting) it, and on the recipient as well. One can be polite to someone in order to honor and respect them, to get something from them, or to show one’s own good breeding. Those who were critical of Bollinger for what they perceived as lack of the requisite politeness seem to think of the situation at Columbia as akin to inviting a person to one’s house and then treating him/her rudely. And it’s true that they have a certain point; if Bollinger had such a poor opinion of Ahmadiinejad, why invite him in the first place?

But an invitation to speak at a university is not really the same as an invitation to a tea party; a speech and a debate sometimes require hard-hitting truth-telling. And a university auditorium is not a home, it is a public forum.

The critics also seem to think that the most important thing for us in the West is to keep our hands squeaky clean, to lead by the example of moral and behavioral purity. It’s an old theme I’ve explored here and here.

But I would instead paraphrase Ecclesiastes and say there is a time to be polite, and a time to speak the truth. And I am with William Lloyd Garrison, as well, who asserted:

With reasonable men, I will reason; with humane men I will plead; but to tyrants I will give no quarter, nor waste arguments where they will certainly be lost.”

Ahmadejad’s appearance at Columbia, and Bollinger’s fighting words, were the waste of an argument. Our side thinks we won, Ahmadinejad and his supporters think he did, and the Left is only concerned (as usual) with moral perfection on our part. But sometimes, moral behavior requires harsh words—surely the Left, not known for its exquisite politeness, is aware of that fact.

22 Responses to “The dictator at the tea-party: if you invite, must you be polite?”

  1. Kate Says:

    At least no one gave him the PR moment of visiting Ground Zero in New York City. Though I did have the momentary wish that someone had offered to let him visit Ground Zero if he also agreed to visit the Holocaust museum. But, that was only a fleeting wish.

  2. Roundhead Says:

    hello neo-neo:

    Lords knows I have my issues with Columbia university (and most of the rest of academia).

    However, I support bringing this little fascist to speak – and be spoken to – in the manner that he was.

    As for those who bemoan the “impoliteness” of what’s-his-name’s reception, did these people also protest against the “impolite” reception given the Minuteman leader? Of course not.


  3. The Unknown Blogger Says:

    I’m inclined to go with Foxman on this one:

    Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Mr. Bollinger’s speech was counterproductive.

    “If you invite someone, you have to be polite,” he said. “Ahmadinejad scored points, especially in their culture. If you permit an enemy to come into your home, you still treat him with dignity and respect. Therefore, we lost. The points that President Bollinger made were fine. But to close with insulting words almost undid everything he said before. It was not a good teaching experience.”

    “The points Bollinger made were fine.” I think the problem is more in the finger-wagging, scolding, insulting tone Bollinger took, rather than with anything he said.

    It may have felt good in the short term, but it’s unlikely to have had any lasting positive impact whatsoever, and could actually backfire.

    It’s not about “moral perfection” it’s just about acting civilized.

  4. Vanderleun Says:

    “It’s not about “moral perfection” it’s just about acting civilized.”

    No, I must disagree. It is a propaganda exercise. This whole talking point about politeness misses the point. It is, as neo notes, anything but a tea party.

    Bollinger wasn’t polite? Well, perhaps, in this instance it is relevant to return to an old American phrase of yesteryear, “So what?”

    Why are so many, many of whom would agree with every point, so high-horsed about the “politeness” of the moment?

    Indeed, since we are at war with this death dwarf and his minions, I would think that anything less than shooting him on the spot would be the very essence of politesse.

    The other argument, seen here in cameo, is that it was a propaganda victory for the Iranians since they will be able to cut and paste the encounter as they wish and frame it any way they like. Again, “So what?”

    This would have happened no matter how the event turned out. What is important is the effect of Bollinger’s remarks on people outside of Iran’s orbit of control. In this regard the encounter has made it possible, if only a little bit, to be able to sanction or hit Iran if necessary. Every little bit helps.

    On the other hand, getting the dwarf into the position where you glean a film clip of him claiming there are no homosexuals in Iran. This clip, now proliferating throughout the free video sites of the web, is absolute gold. This clip will be around long after the Columbia kerfuffle is long forgotten.

    As somebody once said, “A revolution is not a tea party.” Neither is a war.

  5. DC Says:

    Bollinger’s role was to provoke, and he succeeded, but only slightly. He didn’t need the tone, just the questions. He wasn’t up to the job, perhaps his own world view is too simple.

  6. Vanderleun Says:

    Perhaps he needed “more rehersal.”

  7. Laura Says:

    It was a photo op for both us and them. As Vanderleun points out: “In this regard the encounter has made it possible, if only a little bit, to be able to sanction or hit Iran if necessary. Every little bit helps.”

    What Bollinger delivered to his audience and the world appeared pat. It’s as if to say, “see, we invited him here and now we’re going to spit on him here.” He shouldn’t have been invited in the first place.

    An Iranian student once said to my husband, a professor of Economics, “they (President Bush and Ah*&mllck?) need each other”…both populations of each country afraid of the other. Both to advance a power position and appear to be threatened by the other. While I may not believe that myself, I feel that giving him a forum in the first place gave him more audience where there should have been none. I just hope the people of Iran will help him find the exit and quick. If not, I fear that we will indeed be facing another war.

  8. Zhombre Says:

    I concur with Vanderleun above, this was a sickening spectacle and Ahmadinejah should never have been given the podium in the first place. That Bollinger “got tough” in my mind puts Bollinger on the same level as the rabbit who attacked Jimmy Carter.

  9. strcpy Says:

    The problem was that Ahmadinejad was not invited to debate, he was invited as a guest speaker. Guest speakers are supposed to treated fairly nicely, it is MUCH closer to being invited to a tea party and the host wailing on you. Had he been invited as a debate then by all means Bollinger did just fine.

    What he should have done, if his initial intention was to blast Ahmadinejad (personally I think he felt stuck in a rock and a hard place was surprised by the reaction to inviting him, and was trying to CYA) is invite one of Ahmadinejad’s main detractors. There would have been no mistake *what* was intended at that point. Colleges are smart enough to know to do this and the do it quite often, that they didn’t do it and initially defended the choice in the way they did is why I think it was all a CYA act.

    And to one of the above posters, yes the treatment of the minuteman guy was terrible too.

    And, finally, these types of speeches are supposed to be for the betterment of the students, not some zany political agenda. As far as I can tell neither of the two possible guest speakers should have been on the list. The school acted terribly in who it choose *and* how it acted. This should *never* have been an issue in the first place.

    Bollinger’s actions were better than fawning over Ahmadinejad like he was some prince, but that is like saying drinking a little poison is better than drinking a lot – yep but neither is very good.

  10. PostLiberal Says:

    How politely did the Iranians, future President Dinner Jacket among them, treat the US Embassy hostages?

  11. Promethea Says:

    This so-called debate just gave Columbia U. a chance to preen. As others have remarked, would Columbia U. have invited a speaker who wanted to reestablish black slavery? We all know the answer–there are only certain speakers that Columbia U. would have allowed to speak.

    Bollinger’s “speaking truth to power” was just one more chance for metrosexual pussycats to run-off at the mouth with no cost to themselves. There was nothing brave about Bollinger and his speech. It was just more blah, blah, blah.

    The “freedom of speech” issue is a red herring or diversionary tactic that liberals use to avoid discussions of major issues, like, for example, “what should the U.S. do, if anything, about Iran?” I didn’t hear anyone at Columbia publicly discussing this, yet it is the central issue of our time.

    Are we going to depend on empty-suit talkers like Bollinger to save us? Do we need saving? Does the military play a role? Do we avoid talking about Islam because we rely on Muslims to help us in the Persian Gulf area? There are lots of good questions that could be discussed in a well designed discussion format. Letting a genocidal maniac run off at the mouth has just given him a forum and a propaganda victory on al Jizira, but hasn’t informed anyone about matters that are worth discussing in a polite way.

  12. Matt Says:

    At what point do we no longer consider colleges like Columbia to have great “stature”?

    As I understand it from other blogs, Bollinger’s remarks were censored out in Iran. For Muslims elsewhere the pont about hospitatlity is very real and the Americans looked obnoxious and weak.

    For us Westerners, the rissy, old-womanish college president scolded the dictator. Big F****ing deal. It was cheap moral posturing of the sort we expect from liberals.

  13. Tatyana Says:

    If you have zero respect for someone, don’t invite him. If invitation is given, behave as a host. Do not spit in your guest’s face, however he deserves it – or it just shows your weakness: you’ll lose your reputation with your side (you extended an invitation to an undeserving person) and with the snubbed guest’ side: you humiliated him on your territory.

    I’d rather sympathize with off-chance thunderbolt (or a spray from a semi-automatic) to A-jad’s head on a street, than with this disgrace.

  14. Jimmy J. Says:

    From OPFOR:
    “While Ahmmy Does the Big Apple….
    By John


    BAGHDAD, Iraq – Coalition forces arrested an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps – Quds Force officer in Sulimaniyah today.

    Contrary to recent diplomatic initiatives, this individual has been involved in transporting improvised explosive devices and explosively formed penetrators into Iraq. Intelligence reports also indicate he was involved in the infiltration and training of foreign terrorists in Iraq.

    The Quds Force is a covert action arm of the Iranian government responsible for aiding lethal attacks against the Iraqi government and Coalition forces.”

    I’m sayin’ it’s kinda like inviting Hitler to speak in London while the Wermacht is killing British Tommies at Dunkirk.

  15. DBrooks Says:

    “It was cheap moral posturing of the sort we expect from liberals.”

    These days, I try hard not to swing such a broad blade, but I have to agree that Matt’s comment is all-too-accurate about certain elements within the liberal “movement.” They posture, and they assume an affect, but it’s mostly a lot of nonsense. Does any reasonable person believe that it is possible to be rude to an individual who willfully supports and encourages burying women up to their chests, and then throwing stones at their exposed heads until they are killed? The idea that propriety should be observed with such an individual, and that such observation somehow empowers us and diminishes him, is absurd. Yet I see such inanities thrown around with the confidence once reserved for serious thought.

  16. Tom Says:

    That Bollinger took even the minced-word position he took is a step in the right direction. He’s dealing with, and really speaking only to an ‘elite’ university faculty and student body, at the same school that doesn’t do ROTC, was the home to Edw. Said and houses a lot of loonies.
    So good for him for going in the right direction. A journey of a thousand miles….

  17. Tatterdemalian Says:

    You’re all setting your standards too high. These days, it takes all the willpower university faculty can muster just to avoid spewing profanity. Politeness in academic discourse is a thing of the past, a relic of the pre-post-modern age.

  18. Talkinkamel Says:

    The whole thing was a farce. Ahmadenijad should never have been invited to speak, and, I suspect, Bollinger only challenged him in the first place because he was beginning to worry that some of the alumni might withdraw their financial aid from the college.

    I also suspect that the whole Invite-Ahmadenijad-be-NICE to him routine we’ve been getting is part of the Left’s strategy to build up opposition against going to war with Iran, or pre-emptively taking out their nukes. They want their ducks all in a row when Code Pink, Answer and all the rest of them take to the streets to protest our “aggression” against Iran.

  19. Jason C. Says:

    On “freedom of speech”:
    The first amendment only prohibits the government from enacting laws which interfere with free speech (like the FCC?), not individual institutions from determining their own curricula. Further, a public university cannot claim to be supporting “free speech” by inviting a foreign tyrant to speak while banning the U. S. military from its campus because it disagrees with military policies.

  20. Bugs Says:

    During the Cold War, according to some people, we were pandering to dictators – which was a bad thing. Now, according to some people, we’re not pandering to dictators – which is also a bad thing.

    Maybe we should just let those people handle the dictators while we go to Disneyland.

  21. Thomas Says:

    Dear Neo,

    While I agree that talking to Ahmadinejad is certainly a waste of an argument, I don’t think Bollinger’s conduct was laudatory in the least. To Mr. Ahmadinejad, the only audience that matters is the one back in the Middle East; not our silly kangaroo press here in the States.

    They can boast to their Mideastern compatriots and fellow travelers, “You see, they are weak. They don’t have longevity and they’re going to pull out.”

    Instead of showing up the ridiculousness of Ahmadinejad’s claim that there are no gays in Iran (something over-covered by our lopsided press), they will probably show clips of the 20-something thunderous applause he received from Columbia University’s student body.

    Our soldiers and our objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan may suffer tremendously for this piece of “academic” propaganda on the ground.

    The fact that Bollinger denounced the Iraninan dictator at the 11th hour to his face does not impress me. To my way of thinking, he almost didn’t have a choice. Congress and the people of the US were calling for his head and a special investigation into his university. His berating introductory comments seemed to be a simple case of covering his own behind.

    Although, Neo, you could be very correct and I be very wrong on this subject. Perhaps Bollinger did invite Ahmadinejad to berate him and to show America just how dangerous he is. I am skeptical given Columbia’s recent history, but it could very well be the case that Bollinger, however misguided and ineptly, was trying to provide a service for Americans.

  22. Messana Says:

    That was a great post…I love this site.. Thanks

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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