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Contentions

Two Shades of Black

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s September 24 speech at Columbia University seems like ancient history. The news media has long since turned its attention to other obsessions, such as what a helluva nice guy Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee is, or just how low our expectations for the upcoming Annapolis conference should be. But professors at Columbia apparently have remarkably long attention spans, and the handling of Ahmadinejad’s speech remains deeply contentious among faculty members.

The fault lines of this dispute are numbingly predictable. Last week, over 100 faculty members signed a petition, protesting Bollinger’s leadership in light of the Ahmadinejad circus:

The president’s address on the occasion of President Ahmadinejad’s visit has sullied the reputation of the University with its strident tone, and has abetted a climate in which incendiary speech prevails over open debate. The president’s introductory remarks were not only uncivil and bad pedagogy, they allied the University with the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, a position anathema to many in the University community.

Not to be outdone, as of Monday, 70 faculty members had signed a counter-protest petition defending Bollinger, disputing the notion that the president’s combative introduction of Ahmadinejad allied Columbia with (heaven forbid) the Bush administration:

As the publicly available transcript confirms, these remarks addressed sequentially: 1) Holocaust denial; 2) Ahmadinejad’s stated intent to destroy Israel; 3) Iran’s funding of terrorism; 4) Iran’s proxy war against US troops in Iraq; and 5) Iran’s nuclear program. Only the fourth item refers to the war in Iraq, and only in the context of Iran’s role in financing and arming terrorist attacks against our troops.

Last week, my contentions colleague Noah Pollak applauded the pro-Bollinger professors for standing up to the “tenured thugs,” who have undertaken “the setting of ideological boundaries by purging and intimidating those who would ignore them.”

Yet, for everything that one finds troubling about the anti-Bollinger petition—most especially, the presumption that we should be hospitable to Holocaust-denying dictators—it is hard to sympathize with Bollinger’s defenders. Indeed, the debate among Bollinger’s supporters and detractors obscures the fact that, no matter ones views of Bollinger’s firm introduction of Ahmadinejad, the entire affair should never have occurred in the first place. By inviting Ahmadinejad, Bollinger granted an academic forum to a most academically dishonest leader, dangerously boosting Ahmadinejad’s credibility where the United States can least afford it: among Iranians.

Again, this is all old news and you’ve probably heard it before. But here’s a new twist: I hereby declare myself the first contentions writer openly to obey a Rashid Khalidi-signed petition: after all, the anti-Bollinger petition decries the “intervention” of outsiders in faculty matters. Thus, as it is impossible to choose between the president that invited Ahmadinejad and professors who would have been more accommodating, I abstain from taking sides. Bollinger and his miffed opponents deserve one another completely.



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