Published in THE POST SEP 29, 2007
“It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas, or the weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas or our naiveté about the very real dangers inherent in such ideas”; Lee C. Bollinger, President Columbia University pointed out, as he launched into a 19 minute invective against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; the speaker for World Leaders Forum, held at Columbia University on 24 September 2007; thus sparking the controversy that Ahmadinejad had been expected to ferment. While these words illustrated the sentiments of the university administration, they were merely a sample of the brutal character assassination that followed soon after.
Lee Bollinger may have been just a professor and the University’s President, as he put it but his diatribe lacked the finesse expected of an academics or the decorum exhibited by Americans on global platforms. He did, however, attack like a true politician. Crossing the line between candor and contempt, his statements referred to matters damning on their own and had he simply allowed recorded facts like Iran’s alleged human rights abuse for instance, to speak for themselves, a far stronger moral foundation could have been set up for debate.
As it is, valid concerns got mixed up with invalid personal attacks in an introduction that seemed more befitting for Hitler, Jack the Ripper or perhaps Osama. Bollinger hogged Ahmadinejad’s airtime as he labeled him to be some one ‘who exhibits all signs of a cruel and petty dictator’, whose denial of the Holocaust renders him ‘uneducated’ and ‘ridiculous’ with a parting shot that Ahmadinejad would lack ‘the intellectual courage to answer the questions’ praising the nation that does have emotional courage to confront the ‘mind of evil’.
"I should not begin by being affected by this unfriendly treatment." It was not a raving lunatic who finally took the stand to utter these words. He, admittedly tap danced around many thorny issues but remained mildly reproachful of the insults and pointedly observed that Iranian culture respects invited guests as does America. While answers were evasive and not always convincing, he attempted to skip controversy on the Holocaust, merely asking for more research of that phenomenon.
When his previous statements about the destruction of Israel were brought up, Ahmadinejad claimed to respect all nations and that Palestine needed to decide its own fate. He also thought ‘Iranian women were respected and free’ and served in high government positions when asked about lack of human rights. Perhaps some responses were thought to be unsatisfactory and others ludicrous; nonetheless, women in Iran can hardly be more oppressed than other Arab women so this particular accusation was perhaps, unfair.
Contrary to the City Council speaker’s opinion, it was not the Iranian who stood out for any “hate-mongering vitriol” given that Mr. Bollinger’s abrasive remarks made the initial headlines. As to what prompted Mr. Bollinger to lash out at a not so honored guest; well it could have been the fear that after the media has built up such a terror of the Iranian regime and hatred for its agenda, Ahmadinejad may come across as benign and bring up actual valid talking points. Or, it could have been to appease the numerous critics opposed to the Presidents visit.
Sadly, this belligerence merely serves as an indicator of possibly opening hostilities with Iran in the near future and not “to help us better understand this critical and complex nation in today’s geopolitics.” as was the university’s intention even as an admiring foreign publication confers the dubious distinction of ‘U DA MAN’ on Bollinger. Just this once, there is little to separate the men from the boys.
Academics believe that the invitation, whether courted or willingly extended, will ultimately hurt the university’s fund raising capacity with rich donors. According to ‘The New York Sun’, talk of legislatures reducing capital funding and financial assistance to the school has already begun.
To date, according to the CNN poll, some 65% consider the harsh introduction to be well deserved and 35% believe that it was out of line. Since then, many Americans dismiss Bollinger’s remarks as a brutally frank statement of truth; others believe that the vilification of Ahmadinejad served to elevate his stature among Iranians while demeaning US standing in the rest of the world. Already Iranian Jews have joined with American voices to express their outrage and while Salt Lake Tribune may not be a fan of Ahmadinejad, it does applaud Colombia University for granting him a forum, and condemns Bollinger for yielding to pressure from Jewish activists. Ahmadinejad and his historic visit may have faded from memory but for Bollinger’s conduct which has immortalized the Iranian as ‘the gentlemanly adversary’ for some in the Columbia round.
Images Courtesy of: http://www.columbia.edu/~rlh2/low4.gif