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“Confronting Ideas” at Columbia

Regarding Columbia University President Lee Bollinger’s invitation to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak this coming Monday on the Columbia campus, the Columbia Spectator today reports:

David Feith, CC ’09 and editor of the Jewish affairs publication the Current, expressed his concern that there was a difference between refusing to suppress hateful speech and actively inviting and providing a platform for it. Bollinger responded that the invitation very well may serve to help controversial speakers, but that the negative is “far outweighed by the importance of confronting ideas and not shielding ourselves from the world as it is.”

And what ideas will the Columbia community confront when it hears President Ahmadinejad of Iran? Denial of the Holocaust and pleas for the destruction of Israel. As Victor Davis Hanson writes on the Corner, “This is not a matter of free speech but of common decency and the most elemental common sense.”

I would add that Bollinger’s move is also a flagrant exploitation of the notion of dialog that universities cherish. Dialog is not possible with a madman (or someone who adopts insane political positions for tactical reasons) as interlocutor. And there can be no doubt that Ahmadinejad falls into one of those two categories. Would Lee Bollinger invite the British Holocaust denier David Irving so that students could “confront ideas” about Auschwitz? What about Jean-Marie LePen, to help students “confront ideas” about racism and xenophobia?

Here are just a few of the criticisms of Bollinger’s decision. But note the absence of criticism on TNR’s the Plank or the Huffington Post. Where is the liberal outrage? Aren’t these people allegedly anti-theocracy? They are when it comes to the far milder effusions of American evangelicals. Isn’t Ahmadinejad precisely the kind of theocrat they should hate? Yet Josh Marshall, at Talking Points Memo, can’t understand why Ahmadinejad wouldn’t be allowed to go to Ground Zero, “[e]specially when free speech and letting even the obnoxious have their say are supposedly central to who we are?” If only “obnoxiousness” were the Iranian president’s primary character flaw.


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