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.
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.