Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Bollinger Critic

Scanning today's newspapers, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger seems to be getting near universal praise for his surprisingly harsh introduction of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The New York Sun said Bollinger did "pretty darned well"; The Daily News, which has led the charge against the appearance, said "Bollinger did a creditable job."

But not everyone appreciated Bollinger's toughness: Columbia undergrad John Host took to the Huffington Post to express his wish that Bollinger had "done better."
I found his petty insults (at one point he charged "I doubt you have the intellectual courage to answer these questions") to be unnecessarily aggressive and uncivil. He promised a "robust discourse" and delivered a bait-and-switch public admonition, to which Ahmadinejad rightfully took offense, as a guest of the University.
Now, there is a case to be made that Columbia breached standards of decorum by inviting a guest to its campus only for its chief to bash him. But it's odd Mr. Host took exception to the line, "I doubt you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions." First, it's more a prediction than a slur. Second, Bollinger said far more caustic things ("you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator"). But mostly because it was obvious this is precisely what Ahmadinejad would do, and Bollinger, having some experience in intellectual skirmishes, knew it would be more effective acknowledging this up front, rather than pretending to be aghast afterward that his questions went unaddressed.

Meanwhile, harsh introductions aside, Ahmadinehad has already succeeded using his Columbia speech for purposes of propaganda. If Iranians believe the things they read in state-sponsored media, the Columbia appearance garnered him unearned legitimacy.

UPDATE: For those still unsure what to think about Columbia's invitation, I highly suggest Roger Kimball's blog post at Armavirumque:
Universities are institutions dedicated to the pursuit and transmission of learning and the furtherance of civilization. They are not circuses for the exhibition of politically repugnant grandstanding. Free inquiry is not a license for moral irresponsibility. At a university, as at every other human institution, freedom can thrive only when it is limited by allegiance to certain positive values--the value of historical truth, for example, or the moral truth that human dignity is worth preserving.

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