Many have written wisely on the way that Columbia University’s president Lee Bollinger was unwise or, in Arnold Ahlert’s technical term, idiotic to have invited Iran’s dictator Ahmadinejad to a debate. Bret Stephens in today’s Wall Street Journal, the historian Arthur Herman in today’s NY Post, and Anne Applebaum in a subtle piece in today’s Slate have all pointed out the unwisdom of Bollinger’s decision to invite this murderer of students, homosexuals and Americans. However Bollinger’s plucky and eloquent performance has blunted some of the criticism - all pay some tribute to his words, and one of his strongest critics, the New York Sun’s editorial page, seems to have changed its mind about Bollinger’s actions entirely.
I endorse all of these views - both those who criticize Bollinger’s wisdom and those who judge his performance to have been commanding. But I must confess that Bollinger’s very eloquence made me a bit sick. It’s not what he said - but the situation in which he said it. Bollinger’s magnificent verbal pyrotechnics were made possible not by his own courage in speaking truth to power, but by a larger power he does not recognize. Bollinger’s scolding of Ahmadinejad, however brilliant, was only made possible by the military power of the United States, which, figuratively, pinned Ahmadinejad’s arms while Bollinger slapped him.
There are several ironies here. Many have correctly pointed to Bollinger’s hypocrisy about the free exchange of ideas, because he does not permit our own armed forces to recruit on Columbia’s campus or to allow a Columbia ROTC unit. He has on the other hand permitted Columbia’s premises to be used by students physically to assault speakers - like the leader of the anti-immigration “Minutemen” - whose views are unpopular. He has winked at - not to say connived at - the suppression of the free expression of ideas in courses given by many professors in Columbia’s Middle East Studies program.
But this is different. Bollinger - to the applause of many and the reluctant admiration of a few - has taken advantage of the sacrifice of our men and women under arms verbally to slap Ahmadinejad around. He forgets that the only thing holding Ahmadinejad in check is our military power (which, in turn, is deployed only by our civil authorities).
His performance, however skilled, was illusory and narcissistic, both for himself and for his admiring audience, precisely because Bollinger and his cultured admirers deliberately forget that it is not human ideals that defeats human nature, but human ideals given force by political and military institutions that involve sacrifice and danger. He prefers to think, no doubt, that it is his own idealism - and his skill at projecting it - that is defeating his victim. If Bollinger had to live as Ahmadinejad’s citizens do, he would know that idealism does not suffice.
Without the risks taken and the sacrifices made by our armed forces - and those minor sacrifices made by us poor taxpayers who support them while safe in our beds - the only eloquence that Ahmadinejad permits would be in his torture chambers. In these places of horror, any number of his victims may have been just as eloquent as Bollinger, for all we know, but we will never hear their voices. They don’t have the privilege of Bollinger’s preening and the comfort of his illusions. They are dead.
At Columbia yesterday, Bollinger was in the position of an effete mob boss in any number of gangster movies - slapping his victim around while the poor guy’s arms are pinned back. Ahmadinejad is no hero, and deserves no sympathy, but that shouldn’t stop us from regarding Bollinger as a weakling, and being rather disgusted by the spectacle.
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