The Magazine

The Tough-Guy Liberal

Lee Bollinger tries to take on Ahmadinejad.

Oct 8, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 04 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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Ahmadinejad chose to present Iran as one country like all the others, not endowed with fanatical purpose and also not inspired with wrongful ambition like the government of a certain other country he could name. Appropriating the language of American liberals, he maintained it was necessary to look to the "root causes" of the disputes Bollinger complained of. He, the man of science in the expanded sense, could see better than we, who lack a sense of history--the wrong done to the Palestinians is 60 years old!--and are overcome by partiality. In Iran, he said, we respect women as mothers, and accordingly we believe in talk, not guns.

Ahmadinejad had a better understanding of the conditions of free speech than did Bollinger, who thought it was possible to invite and listen to an enemy without honoring him. So Columbia at this time was not guilty of honoring what should be dishonored. Well, yes, if you separate ideas from deeds. But can you do that? Bollinger the velvet revolutionary thinks you cannot, but Bollinger the apostle of inquiry thinks you can. You can refrain from honoring Ahmadinejad while still engaging his ideas by reading his speeches and writings and by listening to him. But you cannot help honoring him if you invite him to speak at a place where ideas are taken seriously for their truth. It's no doubt a good experience for students at Columbia and their innocent professors to spend an hour listening to a man who they have to know is lying to them through his teeth. This will help them learn about politics. But you cannot pretend that no tuition is being paid for what you learn.

Ahmadinejad made another instructive point. He said to Bollinger that in Iran, people don't introduce speakers by insulting them, but rather give them respect. Bollinger, however, seems to think that free speech is quite compatible with offering insults; he gave the impression that insults are speech at its freest and finest. He also believes that freedom of inquiry can go together with the desire to "express revulsion." The latter is the hope of universities ever since the late sixties. But insults harm free speech by drawing attention away from the ideas of speakers, and expressing revulsion harms inquiry by discouraging or preventing cool, dispassionate analysis.

By inviting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia, President Bollinger got himself confused between the business of politics and the virtue of a university. He tried to bring his university into the political arena, and he meant well to our country, but instead of embarrassing our common enemy he embarrassed himself.

Harvey Mansfield is professor of government at Harvard and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.