Monday, September 24, 2007

I agree

An email from Lee Bollinger discussing today's circus:
Dear fellow members of the Columbia community:

I would like to share a few thoughts about today’s appearance of
President Ahmadinejad at our World Leaders Forum. I know this is a
matter of deep concern for many in our University community and
beyond. I want to say first and foremost how proud I am of
Columbia, especially our students, as we discuss, debate and plan
for this highly visible event.

I ask that each of us make special efforts to respect the different
views people have about the event and to recognize the different
ways it affects members of our community. For many reasons, this
will demand the best of each of us to live up to the best of
Columbia's traditions.

For the School of International and Public Affairs, which developed
the idea for this forum as the commencement to a year-long
examination of 30 years of the Islamic Republic in Iran, this is an
important educational experience for training future leaders to
confront the world as it is -- a world that includes far too many
brutal, anti-democratic and repressive regimes. For the rest of us,
this occasion is not only about the speaker but quite centrally
about us -- about who we are as a nation and what universities can
be in our society.

I would like just to repeat what I have said earlier: It is vitally
important for a university to protect the right of our schools, our
deans and our faculty to create programming for academic purposes.
Necessarily, on occasion this will bring us into contact with
beliefs many, most, or even all of us will find offensive and even

But 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. It is a critical
premise of freedom of speech that we do not honor the dishonorable
when we open the public forum to their voices.

The great majority of student leaders with whom I met last week
affirmed their belief that this event, however controversial, is
consistent with the values of academic freedom we share at the
center of university life. I fully support, indeed I celebrate, the
right to peacefully demonstrate and engage in a dialogue about this
event and this speaker, as I understand a wide coalition of our
student groups are planning for today. That such a forum and such
public criticism of President Ahmadinejad’s statements and policies
could not safely take place on a university campus in Iran today
sharpens the point of what we do here. The kind of freedom that
will be on display at Columbia has always been and remains today
our nation’s most potent weapon against repressive regimes
everywhere in the world. This is the power and example of America
at its best.


Lee C. Bollinger

I think Bollinger is spot-on here, and I'm ecstatic about Ahmadinejad's visit. Today's event (as long as nothing goes wrong) will demonstrate the freedom of American democracy, the incoherence of Ahmadinejad's ideas, and the stupidity of those who would censor bad or evil speech. Or so I hope. What do you all think?


Blogger The Sheriff said...

I think you need to get your poster signed or you're squandering the opportunity of the 21st century.

11:59 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

I think it confirms my belief that being Lee Bollinger has and continues to be a really tough job. He's kind of World-Historical in that he is constantly surrounded by some the most critical debates of our time domestically (race relations, freedom of speech, etc.) and internationally (Israel-Palestine, Middle East politics, Austin-5000 goes to law school, etc.).

12:31 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

I also like how everyone (me included) gets a bit into what Stanley Fish would criticize as "liberals believing their rational criticism will like a powerful thunderbolt expose the incoherence and contradictions of Ahmadinejad's thought, and force him to reconsider his positions."

There's a lot more to these kinds of debates and protests than just this, but there's always that rather irrational hope in rational discourse.

12:37 PM  
Blogger Josh said...

Absolute genius!!!

If you can think of a better way to rise up in the US News rankings, please do tell.

1:42 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

It looks like Lee brought out the hammer in his introduction. He's definately playing the part of philosopher-king of Morningsde

3:15 PM  
Blogger kushakov said...

I think it's abundantly clear to all those assembled, in favor of or against Ahmedinejad's speech, that his ideas are nonsensical, incoherent, absurd, etc. There needed to be no special appearance by the man himself to confirm this, and I assume that the debate this event has generated does not regard the validity of his ideas but rather the validity of academic programming that gives him a public voice - and, I assume, some manner of honorarium. Of course, I do think this is a worthwhile provocation, and that American universities will fail us if ever they decline to spark this debate for fear of reprisal. In the 1960s, free speech went hand in hand with the mantra, "What's he got to say?" That the bright young minds of America (or, as is more likely the case, a horde of rather dim ones) throws itself at the barricades of this anti-Iranian PR war is proof that the society of listening - "What's he got to say?" - must really be defended.

3:28 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Eh, I'm not that happy with the whole process. It's obvious that A'Jad's appearance did not have the purpose of "furthering" in any way some kind of "dialogue" between himself and...other people/the US/everyone? Bollinger pretty much admits that the point of the exercise is not freedom of conscience, since we have all collectively decided beforehand that A'Jad's conscience is intolerable, but rather freedom of speech, i.e. our nation's liberalism and niceness in allowing this asshole to utter words (who cares what they signify) on our college campuses without, I suppose, us siccing a thousand hounds with bees in their mouths on him. Kushakov is right in this respect.

I guess this could be considered pretty good PR for "our American way of life," but then again, Bollinger says: "this is an
important educational experience for training future leaders to
confront the world as it is -- a world that includes far too many
brutal, anti-democratic and repressive regimes." In other words, an exercise in realpolitik.

Unfortunately, the glaring irony here is that *our own government won't do this*, and so we end up with a situation in which our non-governmental institutions, like the university system and the press, begin to look like state-run talking points bins. (See, e.g., Bollinger's intro, Scott pelley's interview on 60 Minutes, Mike Wallace's earlier interview.) This provides fodder (and not just cynical fodder, but to a degree truthful fodder), not just for A'Jad domestically, but for other govts around the world to say that the US's values are hollow because their public fora appear to be dictated and delegated by the govt. Perhaps it will not be seen this way abroad, but it unfortunately looks like that from my angle.

I'm not saying that private citizens shouldn't take to the streets to protest A'Jad's policies, of course. I hope that they would (with my own personal stipulation being that they do not do so in a way that promotes war with Iran, but that's me).

Also, if I had been consulting on whether or not to invite A'Jad to Columbia campus, I would have taken security very much into consideration, probably to the point where I would veto the whole idea. I'm sure Columbia provided the best security possible, but still, this is a man that hundreds of thousands, probably millions of Americans want dead. Also, our countries are walking a tightrope right now between war and extremely strained relations. If anything had happened, a military escalation could have occurred which would have involved US troops in another war. And that really is a big deal.

However, I was slightly amused by the actions of the frothy "he's the new Hitler!" right-wing of the blogosphere today. Gabriel Schoenfeld had a post up at the Commentary Magazine "Contentions" blog basically saying that A'Jad should be assassinated, like Hitler almost was by Georg Elser, but otherwise people were just really pissed about the whole thing. But if the guy *really is* the new Hitler, don't these people have a moral duty laid upon them to at least attempt to kill him on the spot? Some of them must live in New York. Isn't it a little sad that Cindy Sheehan gets arrested, like, every day for calling Bush a terrorist in the halls of congress but the right can't scrounge up one warrior to get tackled by security, bravely attempting to fight this 'mass murderer'?

6:49 PM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

I watched outside with all the protesters, and it was an interesting experience. I expected to be slightly more anticlimactic than it was; Bollinger really laid into him much harder than the Times article makes clear. I think A'jad was quite taken aback by it, and he rambled on like a moron for a while before hitting the usual provocative topics.
All in all, it wasn't a huge victory for American democracy or anything else, but I think it's good for us as a country. It's a bit harder to start a war with someone when they come and make speeches at your universities, maybe. Maybe he profits from the recognition, but we do too: it's not insignificant that we let the leader of an enemy state just come and chat here, and I think the Islamic world will recognize that.
Finally, as someone who wants to see Columbia's US News ranking rise, this was a pretty nice little event. Bollinger worked Columbia into his speech about 90 times, somehow while indicting A'jad with each breath.
I can't be objective here; I give the benefit of the doubt to anything that brings (more) excitement to my corner of the world.

9:15 PM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

Also, I totally agree with Scantron's thoughts about the security issues. Being designed to keep the non-elite denizens of NYC out, Columbia is slightly more secure than other campuses. But that means nothing. There's no good, security-related reason why there isn't a large crater in the Columbia campus right now, but I'm certainly glad that there isn't.

9:20 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Austin, did you catch who the Ahmadinejad cheerleaders were? Who the fuck would honestly applaud that dude?

I saw the Bollinger remarks on CNN as they were happening. You're right; pretty brutal. Also, yeah, what in the name of pete was A talking about? Science, angels, or something...

Just to register another thought: Is anyone really annoyed that people in the press and on blogs keep referring to him as a "madman", "delusional," a "nut"? I mean, I guess if this makes people feel better in their case against him, but you can plainly see from the video that he's a rather boring soft-spoken person. It's not like he has to take time in between paragraphs to run his finger up and down his lips and say "bee buh bee bee buh bee bee bee." Although I'd pay to see that.

9:46 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

Al Jazeera's take on the event is an interesting read. While they certainly don't let A-Jad (hat tip Scantron) get away with anything, they do appear to "balance" their report in odd ways. Chief among them is to give the impression that the protesters were overwhelmingly Jewish:

"Thousands of people gathered outside the United Nations headquarters on Monday to protest against Ahmadinejad's visit.

The speakers, most of them politicians and officials from Jewish organisations, proclaimed their support for Israel and criticised the Iranian leader over remarks questioning the Holocaust....

Outside the university lecture hall where Ahmadinejad was to speak, several hundred protesters raised their objections to the event. Some linked arms and sang traditional Jewish folk songs about peace and brotherhood."

Besides the Jews and their pawns, the politicians, can our own genteel and gentile correspondent confirm or deny that there were people of other faiths and ethnicities protesting?

10:44 PM  

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