Monday, September 24, 2007

Columbia University: A Needless Blunder

At first I found myself cheering Columbia University President Lee Bollinger's "introduction" to the infamous speech by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad yesterday. I have no great love for this nasty little man, and I think Bollinger had it right when he lectured the Iranian President for exhibiting"all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator,” and accused him, for good measure, of being "either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated."

Before Bollinger's introduction ended, though, I was already feeling uncomfortable. The one quality I respect--no, respect is not quite the word: "acknowledge" would be better--in Ahmadinejad would be his sharply cunning mind, and I began to suspect how Bollinger's remarks could easily be turned to his advantage; how the scold could be used to provoke Ahmadinejad's real audience--the Arab world--to further hostility and rage. It is, after all, widely known that hospitality is considered an essential courtesy in that world, and Bollinger's words were among the least hospitable I have ever heard. They were nothing less than a public dressing-down, a humiliation calculated to infuriate those in Ahmadinejad's world who already feel humiliated, and who resent what they see to be the bully tactics and the lecturing posture of America in the world.

Sure enough, the ever-cunning Ahmadinejad took pains to point out, astutely enough, that there was something of a contradiction inherent in preaching the ideals of liberty and freedom of speech while castigating another's before he has had the chance to utter a word. Had Bollinger restrained the impulse to use his introduction to somehow justify what was clearly a wildly controversial decision by his university by loading the dice in advance, Ahmadinejad would have done the hatchet job nicely on himself. The mendacity and absurdity of much of what he said was summed up in that wonderful moment when he claimed, with a smile of icy determination on his face, that there were "no homosexuals" in his country--a remark that got the derisive laugh it deserved and marked the Iranian President for the lying martinet that Bollinger had prematurely described.

People do tend to reveal themselves, even while they lie. It would have been wiser, in my view, to allow Ahmadinejad the privilege of condemning himself in his own words.

But, please... As a healthy antidote to all this nonsense, I came upon this wonderful post in Robin's Karma. Please check it out. For me, it is Buddhism in a nutshell. Thanks, Robin, for drawing my attention to this teaching.

UPDATE: Here's what an LGBT blog had to say about Ahmadinejad's remarks.


thailandchani said...

I thought the introduction was rude also. It was unnecessary to propagandize the situation. I'd much rather hear Ahmadinejad speak for himself without the filtering through the propaganda system.

Even the people we might least like might have something of value to say.

When it comes to geopolitics, I'm not sure the truth is to be found. Nevertheless, I'd still like to hear someone speak for himself without such "introductions".



robin andrea said...

I hadn't considered the cultural blunder it was to have introduced Ahmadinejad that way. I think Bollinger could have been more subtle and poetic, and still conveyed his contempt.

Mark said...

I was on board with the President of CU until he started making statements like, "You display all of the symptoms of a petty dictator" and such. The rest seemed like a pretty empirical attack, which doesn't bother me a lot.

David said...

Peter, I agree. Regardless of what Bollinger thinks of the guy, I think it was a mistake to castigate him in the introduction to his talk. Better to let him say what he wants, and comment on it within the context of a reply or discussion.

It kind of invalidates the idea of inviting someone to speak when you dismiss anything they might say before they open their mouth. You'd think the president of Columbia would trust the students at his university to be smart enough to form their own opinions. Instead he came off as an arrogant bully, which only serves to justify the opinions many in the world now have of Americans. A better host would have been someone like Warren Olney. Or maybe Borat :)

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I had the exact same reaction to Bollinger's introduction. At first, there was a small internal "yayyyy," instantly followed by considerable horror at the rudeness of treating a guest, any guest, in that fashion.

And you are right that Ahmadinejad would have condemned himself more elegantly than any detractor could have done, if only it had been left to him.

When people speak out of political expedience, they usually blunder.

Robin said...

Thanks for the link.

I am glad you enjoyed my little blog.