The Magazine

The Tough-Guy Liberal

Lee Bollinger tries to take on Ahmadinejad.

Oct 8, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 04 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

In his grand confrontation with the Iranian president, President Lee Bollinger of Columbia University did his best to satisfy his American critics. He was tough, not soft; he avoided euphemisms, called the man whom he was addressing a "petty and cruel dictator." President Ahmadinejad had been invited to the Columbia World Leaders Forum, but in the event the neutral term leader was denied him, and he became the first invitee to Columbia's World Dictators Forum. Bollinger further declared that he was meeting with the "mind of evil." Sounds like President Bush! No liberal relativism here.

But Bollinger's critics should not be satisfied, nor should he. Bollinger did not do so well with his toughness as he believes, and he showed a very confused understanding of free speech.

He did not seem to see why President Ahmadinejad came to Columbia. He came there to impress a world audience with a moderate but telling criticism of the United States for trying to "manage the world." He wants to get nuclear weapons for Iran, and for this he needs to disarm and mollify doubtful or neutral powers who might oppose him.

A man who denies the Holocaust and calls for wiping Israel off the map did not need to show that he was tough. He could be moderate in Machiavellian style just by taking the edge off his toughness, just by explaining that in the spirit of inquiry one should always question conventional wisdom and that Israel would be wiped off the map by a free referendum of all Palestinians ("Jewish Palestinians, Muslim Palestinians and Christian Palestinians"). This might be enough to dissuade those many leaders and countries from acting against Iran's nuclear ambitions who rather agree that the United States is trying to manage the world and who in any event are not eager to act. Bollinger's invitation gave him the opportunity to complain in fairly polite terms that the United States, not Iran, is the bully. Ahmadinejad rather adeptly used Bollinger's toughness to align him with American bullying. In a visit to Iran, Bollinger would not be subjected to such abuse, one would suppose.

In his introduction Bollinger hinted openly that Iran might be subject to a "velvet revolution" of the kind that displaced Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. He even suggested that Columbia might facilitate this event by harboring Iranian dissenters. (By doing so, Bollinger did not say, Columbia might begin to make up for all the harm it has done by honoring, and glorifying, Edward Said and other anti-Western professors.) He added that the arrest of possible dissenters by the Iranian government was "unjustified." A dictatorship has no right of self-preservation by dictatorial means, implying that all regimes should be democratic--again a point of contact between President Bollinger and President Bush.

How true! But this suggests that free speech has political consequences in which Columbia as a university is involved. It is not simply a matter of free inquiry but of velvet revolution, at present focused on Iran but in principle worldwide. Columbia, like the United States, seems to want to manage the world.

Bollinger, however, presented his invitation to Ahmadinejad as the occasion for free speech, the particular business of a university. Free speech is "robust debate" over ideas. We must always, he says, restrain our impulses against "engagement with ideas we dislike or fear." Yet, strange to say, Bollinger does not restrain his own impulses of this kind. He has nothing to say about Ahmadinejad's ideas or about any ideas. His reproaches to Ahmadinejad concern his deeds--arrests, executions, denial of the Holocaust, demanding the destruction of Israel, promoting terrorism, advancing a nuclear weapons program. These are matters the Secretary of State or anyone commenting on foreign policy might raise, but one would expect the president of a university, speaking for the university, and claiming that a university stands for ideas, to add something to the debate that is the peculiar contribution of a university. Instead, Bollinger dismissed Ahmadinejad's ideas before he heard them, saying that they will reveal a "fanatical mindset"--which in fact they did not. Imitating Bollinger, the questioners at the speech also avoided ideas.

It was Ahmadinejad who spoke of ideas. He began with the invocation of Almighty God and later said that piety was the only guide to life. Science arises from piety and is not opposed to religion. Science means "illumination" rather than control or command over nature, and so science includes but surpasses the experimental sciences of the West. Bollinger had said to Ahmadinejad that he wanted to express his revulsion "at what you stand for." Well, here it is: what is the basis of Bollinger's revulsion? Here is his chance to show up the "mind of evil," but he has nothing to say.