About Columbia. Is it just me or did Bollinger seem arrogant on a grand order? In the first place, he assumes the right to free speech rests upon Columbia’s platform. This confusion often is voiced in academic surroundings – not supporting a particular kind of art or scholarship or speech is not censoring it – despite the artist’s or scholar’s or speaker’s belief they deserve support; this only has weight in a world in which all art or scholarship or speech is cleared through and supported by the government. Then, there is the irony of Bollinger’s position in relation to army recruiting and the Minutemen.
Of course, Bollinger’s guest is responsible for ieds that have killed American soldiers and for hostage-taking. Anyone with a minimal sense of solidarity with the “us” our soldiers represent would hesitate before inviting such a man to speak in such a forum. He is not muzzled. He has his own forums – in his nation, at the United Nations. But he is no more an appropriate guest speaker than does Lynne Stewart belong on a panel discussing legal ethics. (As Reynolds observes, who could make this stuff up.)
But Bollinger chose to invite him to stand on that stage. While the college president may have seen himself as speaking truth to power (a phrase I’ve grown to mistrust), the tradition and conventions of our society (as well as those of the Middle East) recognize that the host has the power – this is his court. An introductory speech that says “Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator” is inappropriate – that there is a good deal of truth in Bollinger’s statements does not mean he is the appropriate carrier of that message. A clearly defined debate would, of course, clarify the positions. The conventions of a referee and two battling positions has arisen because it, too, is appropriate. Bollinger’s speech provoked no debate. And the truth is that Ahmadinejad is at once more and less dangerous than such a description might imply. His role in his country, the motivating forces that drive him are ones Bollinger does not confront. Nor was this the forum for that.
His “hard line” attempted to “frame” the speech, but makes us suspect Bollinger’s motives – a debate is give and take, free speech is not encouraged by a “frame.” He wanted to “manage” a situation, but this was preening egocentricism, full of cliches and a false consciousness betrayed in his conclusion:
I am only a professor, who is also a university president. And today I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for. I only wish I could do better. Thank you. (Cheers, extended applause.)
The Bollingers of the world do not do the evil the Ahmadinejads do. They have none of the fanaticism described in the book review noted above; they have none of the terrorists’ blindered passion. This is petty egoism, petty cya so donors won’t become all that enraged. He demonstrates a lost ability to pierce to why we feel a solidarity with our nation’s soldiers, why the man in front of him makes choices that appall Bollinger. Men (and women) like this have squandered the respect their positions should draw from us – squandered it through ambiguities, dishonesty with us and, one suspects, with themselves.