Something has been nagging at me about Lee Bollinger’s evisceration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad yesterday. On the one hand, it was, of course, thrilling to know that Ahmadinejad was forced by circumstance to sit through a point-by-point denunciation of his repellent ideas and even more repellent conduct. I was sitting in a room at the Columbia Journalism School with most of the working press watching it unfold on a movie screen, and the gasps in the room and the spontaneous applause at the end were indications of how surprising and powerful Bollinger’s words were.
And yet, though I can barely believe I am writing these words, A’jad had a point when he whined immediately upon the conclusion of Bollinger’s words that he had been treated poorly.
Before Bollinger spoke, Dean John Coatsworth (who was universally considered a doctrinaire Marxist buffoon to avoid at all costs when I was a student and he was a professor at the University of Chicago) made a big show of talking about the civility the audience should show toward this invited guest. “Our responsibility is to listen with restraint,” he said. Free speech requires us to show “patience and maturity,” he said.
You may use all kinds of words to characterize Bollinger’s statement, but “civil” wouldn’t be one of them. He called his guest “astonishingly uneducated,” denounced his “absurd remarks,” called him the possessor of a “fanatical mindset,” and concluded by saying he felt “all the weight of the modern civilized word yearning to express the revulsion at all you stand for.”
All this is true. It’s also a good reason not to extend the invitation in the first place, or to retract it once it has been foolishly extended. To invite someone to your institution and subject him to a brutal scolding by way of introduction is, when you think about it, more than a little weird. There’s a little whiff of Ugly Americanism surrounding it.