Opinion: A Sampling of Views on the University's Choice and Monday's Encounter
|Even before he stepped on the campus of Columbia University on Monday, the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had become the focus of a firestorm of controversy from those who objected to the university's giving him a platform to speak. Once there, Mr. Ahmadinejad faced hostile attacks -- not the least from Lee C. Bollinger, Columbia's president -- about his views on the future of Israel, human rights and academic freedom in Iran, and the Holocaust (see article). Following is a sampling of views about the Iranian leader's visit, before and after: |
Mr. Bollinger: To those who believe that this event should never have happened, that it is inappropriate for the university to conduct such an event, I want to say that I understand your perspective and respect it as reasonable. ... As one of the more famous quotations about free speech goes, it is "an experiment, as all life is an experiment." ... This is the right thing to do and, indeed, it is required by existing norms of free speech, the American university, and Columbia itself. (Comments before introducing Mr. Ahmadinejad on Monday)
Joe Klein, columnist: This was a terrific event. Columbia President Lee Bollinger totally, and very effectively, trashed the guy in his introduction. I would have liked a sharper question on the Holocaust: What specifically do you think is incomplete about the current research? Do you believe that six million Jews were killed? What do you think further research might reveal? And how to do you evaluate Adolf Hitler as a national leader? Bottom line: This sort of freedom always works to our benefit. Those who screeched that an Ahmadinejad appearance would be terrible, a travesty of something or other, seem sort of silly now. (Actually, I thought they seemed sort of silly before.) (Swampland, Time)
Jonah Goldberg, columnist: I was against the invitation, I still am. I am no great fan of Bollinger's. But I must give credit where due. His opening statement is about as hard-hitting and tough as one could hope for. This may still be a debacle, but there's a possible benefit more plausible than I imagined just minutes before this began. If the video of Bollinger's statement is distributed throughout the Middle East in general and Iran in particular, it could have a very positive effect. Time will tell. (The Corner, National Review Online)
Deborah E. Lipstadt, Emory University: Bollinger was first rate. He told [Ahmadinejad] his Holocaust denial makes him ridiculous. He attacked him for his persecution of scholars, women, and dissenters. He called him to account for his threats to destroy Israel. It was powerful, and it was moving. If this event had to happen, this was the best beginning possible.
I am sure there will be those who will critique Bollinger for being so hard-hitting. I say bravo, but also dissent from his attempt to say this appearance is a fundamental reflection of free speech. As soon as Ahmadinejad began to speak, it was clear that he was not prepared for such a statement. He made it sound like he did not even know who Bollinger was. Said it was insulting to have to listen to such things. Ahmadinejad probably never had to sit through such a hard-hitting critique of his record. (Deborah Lipstadt's Blog)
Hugh Hewitt, blogger: Whenever Lee Bollinger steps down as Columbia's president, some poor fool will toast him for his "stirring" speech today, for speaking truth to power, blah blah blah. Nonsense. President Bollinger gave Ahmadinejad a microphone and a stage and then tried to use the underbilling to redeem his university's sorry complicity in the legitimizing of this fanatic's place in the world. Columbia ... can deliver stern lectures that go unheard in the Islamist world, but it won't remove the stain on its own reputation: It played a role of accessory to many lies today, delivered by a killer of our troops. (Townhall.com)
Andrew Sullivan, blogger: I haven't gone off on the Columbia invite because it seems superfluous. I take a very broad view of free-speech rights in America, but I would never have invited a dictator and religious extremist like Ahmadinejad. So far, it seems his usual blend of glibness, guile, and gall is exposing him to ridicule, as it should. If there are no gays in his country, why is he hanging so many of them? But I wonder: Would Columbia ever invite a right-wing extremist with the same views as Ahmadinejad on women, gays, Israel, and the Holocaust? Or do you have to be a brown-skinned, terrorist-enabling, nuclear-proliferating, certifiable nut-job to get the invite? (The Daily Dish, TheAtlantic.com)
Bradley Burston, columnist: Let us look, instead, at what the Iranian president represents for us, the Jews who live in the state he has suggested he'd like to see erased. Let's face it. We need all the help we can get, on the diplomatic sphere as well as in the area of international understanding of our defense concerns. That's where our man in Tehran comes in. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is simply one of Israel's premier diplomatic and security assets. His expressed views make Israel look pragmatic, clear-eyed, non-paranoid. ...
Let the man talk. Let the Iranian president speak his mind, all he wants. You never know what favor he's going to do us next. (Ha'aretz)
William Kristol, editor: It should go without saying that the appropriate thing to do, when the Iranian ambassador called Columbia, would have been to say: No thanks. Or just, No. But that would be to expect too much of one of today's Ivy League university presidents. ...
Meanwhile: As Columbia welcomes Ahmadinejad to campus, Columbia students who want to serve their country cannot enroll in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) at Columbia. Columbia students who want to enroll in ROTC must travel to other universities to fulfill their obligations. ROTC has been banned from the Columbia campus since 1969. In 2003, a majority of polled Columbia students supported reinstating ROTC on campus. But in 2005, when the Columbia faculty senate debated the issue, President Bollinger joined the opponents in defeating the effort to invite ROTC back on campus.
A perfect synecdoche for too much of American higher education: They are friendlier to Ahmadinejad than to the U.S. military. (The Weekly Standard)
Juan Cole, University of Michigan: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to New York to address the United Nations General Assembly has become a media circus. But the controversy does not stem from the reasons usually cited. The media has focused on debating whether he should be allowed to speak at Columbia University on Monday, or whether his request to visit Ground Zero, the site of the September 11 attack in lower Manhattan, should have been honored. His request was rejected, even though Iran expressed sympathy with the United States in the aftermath of those attacks and Iranians held candlelight vigils for the victims. Iran felt that it and other Shiite populations had also suffered at the hands of Al Qaeda, and that there might now be an opportunity for a new opening to the United States.
Instead, the U.S. State Department denounced Ahmadinejad as himself little more than a terrorist. ... The real reason his visit is controversial is that the American right has decided the United States needs to go to war against Iran. Ahmadinejad is therefore being configured as an enemy head of state. (Salon)
Danny Postel, journalist: While Ahmadinejad occupies center stage, we would be well served to consider another Iranian, the dissident and former political prisoner Akbar Ganji, who has just issued an open letter to the U.N. secretary general that refuses what Slavoj Zizek calls the "double blackmail": Ganji describes the human-rights crisis currently gripping Iran -- the severe crackdown on dissent, the crushing of progressive voices; while at the same time he denounces the Bush administration's saber rattling and underscores that Iran's democratic struggle wants no financial assistance from the U.S. (or any foreign government), and is in fact put in grave jeopardy by such maneuvers.
The letter is signed by some of the preeminent intellectuals and writers in the world (Jürgen Habermas, Orhan Pamuk, Noam Chomsky, J.M. Coetzee, and, appropriately enough, Zizek).
It's dangerously easy to become distracted by the circus surrounding Ahmadinejad's visit, a disfigured drama in which right-wing political figures and their stenographers in the media feverishly attempt to whip up jingoistic feelings. That right-wing assault can run an interference pattern on our thinking, where we react by protesting Ahmadinejad's shabby treatment at the hands of a bellicose political and media establishment. (Comment Is Free, Guardian Unlimited)