Commentary Magazine


Bollinger Still Doesn’t Get It

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of attending my sister’s graduation from Columbia University (congrats, Rachel). As one might expect from a university of Columbia’s ilk, virtually every facet of commencement was rooted in well-established tradition. The procession opened with the ringing of the Class of 1893 Bell above St. Paul’s Chapel. The students donned Columbia blue caps and gowns (that’s powder blue for 1980s baseball fans). The Class Day speaker was a distinguished Columbia alumnus. And, as is Columbia tradition, the University president-rather than an outside figure-delivered the keynote commencement address.

Given the continuity with which Columbia imbues its graduation ceremonies, perhaps it is unsurprising that Columbia University President Lee Bollinger’s speech demonstrated that he still doesn’t get it. Indeed, nearly eight months after inviting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia, Bollinger still believes that the entire affair was a test of free speech. With the Ahmadinejad incident strongly implied, Bollinger thus used his address to warn of the “Censorship Impulse”:

It is said: A speaker will persuade people to think bad thoughts and do bad things; will offend some and make others angry and resentful; will ruin the minds of our youth; will lead others to think we approve the message or don’t care enough to oppose it; will bring instability, divert us from other more important tasks, and make it more difficult and perhaps even impossible for experts to handle the situation. We limit speakers in other ways, too, when claiming that others will be “chilled” and thereby diminish speech overall or that it will reflect badly on the rest of us.

Now, here’s the interesting point: All these arguments about the costs of openness are very often true – in the sense that they point to consequences that are real. Indeed, that’s why freedom of speech and academic freedom are continually under siege, even in a nation that says it places this value at its core, because “reasonable people” can always make freedom seem foolish and foolhardy.

Yet the “reasonable people” who protested Ahmadinejad’s invitation–myself among them–weren’t primarily concerned with what Ahmadinejad might say. After all, calls for Israel’s destruction are old news at the infamous Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC), while few expected that Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial would sway Columbia students. Rather, “reasonable people” argued that giving Ahmadinejad the pulpit at one of America’s top universities would legitimize his insidious views in the Middle East, and boost his credibility in Iran. “Reasonable people” further asked what standing Columbia University had to interfere in international politics in this deleterious manner.

One is therefore left to wonder whether the phrase “Censorship Impulse” implies that Bollinger’s recommended response to perceived censorship is to act impulsively. Indeed, Bollinger seems to believe that he strengthened the university’s role as a “forum”-”where everything under the sun can be debated and discussed,” as he said in his address-with his harsh introduction of Ahmadinejad. Of course, “reasonable people” recognize that Bollinger merely affirmed his own political immaturity with this sad spectacle. “Reasonable people” therefore resist his pompous attempts to teach us a lesson on censorship by framing the Ahmadinejad incident in the inaccurate trope of free speech.