I join my colleagues around the virtual Hot Air water cooler in surmising that CU President Lee Bollinger’s barrage on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a face-saving gesture. Having heard the rancor that his university’s invitation to the tyrant had created, he had little choice but to go on the attack. So he did. That it was a fine and well-deserved attack doesn’t alter the fact that the invitation itself was a mistake and that the entire spectacle diminished Columbia even while it also diminished the tyrant, somewhat.
Nevertheless, The Australian takes the ambush and runs with it in an editorial.
A WEEK ago, Lee Bollinger was dismissed as a terrorist-coddling liberal egghead whose invitation for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia University was a monument to everything wrong in American academia.
Today, after his brutal and unexpected denunciation of Ahmadinejad as a cruel and ridiculous tyrant, the Columbia president has suddenly gone from a leftie pariah to a rolled-gold American hero.
Carried live on cable TV around the world, Bollinger’s Charles Spencer moment was not just a surprise, it was also one of the great political ambushes of modern times.
Sitting alone under a spotlight on the darkened stage, Ahmadinejad looked silly, vulnerable and under arrest as Bollinger coldly and methodically demanded the Iranian leader explain his Holocaust denial, his support for terrorism, his crackdown on academic dissent and his threats against Israel, the country he wants “wiped off the map”.
As much accusation as inquiry, the questions seemed to go on forever, before ending with a putdown that was the verbal equivalent of being beaten with a baseball bat.
“Frankly, and in all candour, Mr President, I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions,” Bollinger said.
“But your avoiding them will itself be meaningful to us. I do expect you to exhibit the fanatical mindset that characterises so much of what you say and do.
“I feel all the weight of the modern civilised world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for. I only wish I could do better.”
I only wish that last part was true. The fact is, the weight of the modern civilized world can’t even agree that al Qaeda, never mind the Iranian government, is a collection of brutes and terrorists. I’ve told this story before, but I used to work at one of the most prestigious scientific institutions in the world. A nice chunk of the riches of the modern civilized world went toward building the object that we managed there, the billion dollar Hubble Space Telescope, and toward paying the extremely educated scientists and engineers who worked there. Within a day or three of 9-11 — not months or years later, but while the hole was still smoking and while there was still a dim hope of recovering living victims from the rubble — I overheard a conversation between several of those scientists. One of them is destined to win a Nobel for physics within a decade or two, but I won’t name him here because I don’t want to embarrass him. He and his esteemed colleagues couldn’t agree that 9-11 was in fact a terrorist act. They couldn’t agree that mass murder of civilians going about their business constituted terrorism. These half dozen brilliant minds could be engaged at the drop of a data set in a passionate, heated argument over whether Pluto is in fact a planet or just one distant body among many, but they could not take a stand that the hijackers were wrong and that it would be right to destroy the organization that supported and directed them.
So it’s not true that the weight of the modern civilized world yearns to express revulsion at Iran’s terrorist president any more than those scientists yearned to flip a bird at Osama bin Laden. Most of the weight of the modern civilized world yearns to pretend that there are no threats save the one at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. Most of the modern civilized world is like the woman that we met on the train, living more in fear of the world’s present polarity than that one side, the bad guys, just might end up on top and be in a position to dictate terms to the rest of us.
Other than that, Bollinger made some good points, and it’s good that some in the world are picking up on them. But he still shouldn’t have invited Ahmadinejad in the first place. Mahmoud’s send-off before heading to New York was a giant, Nazi-like goose step parade featuring banners that said “Death to America.” The weight of the modern civilized world barely batted an eyelash at that.