So let me get this straight. An Ivy League university has issued an invitation to a representative of a fascist government -- one that rules by thuggery and intimidation, one that kills homosexuals and "loose" women, one that supports terrorism around the world. Didn't I hear this story last year about Yale and its admission of a former Taliban deputy minister? After a massive outcry not just from concerned alumni, but from all sorts of outraged Americans, Yale backed off and left Rahmatullah Hashemi to stew in Pakistan. Its justification for doing so was less than honest; it claimed that his rejection was merely due to a tightening of academic standards in its non-traditional student program. But everyone knew what had happened was that the alumni had demonstrated a sense of shame about its decision that Yale's administration was lacking.
Apparently Columbia lacks that sense of shame as well. Columbia's President Lee Bollinger is going to introduce Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Monday night. Bollinger is attempting to mitigate his ridiculous decision by claiming that he will deliver a fierce tongue-lashing to Ahmadinejad before he introduces him. I'm certain that the prospect of a dressing-down from an American law professor has Runty the Terror Gnome quaking in his bloodstained platform shoes. (Meanwhile Iran's government shows its high regard for American academics by kidnapping them at knifepoint and imprisoning them, and releasing one just before he's invited to speak. That's magnanimity.)
The curious thing is that President Bollinger didn't need to extend to Ahmadinejad the legitimacy of a soapbox at Columbia to criticize the regime he leads. Bollinger is welcome to speak his mind about the evils of Iran's Revolutionary Government, and would probably be given editorial space in any major newspaper to expound exactly that view. I imagine someone in Iran would have made Ahmadinejad aware of it.
Yale tried to hide the behind the noble savage argument, pretending that its pet Talib needed to be educated in the wily ways of the West. This was a dodge, of course -- Hashemi was quite smart and well-spoken, having risen through the ranks of the Taliban by defending their loathsome oppression to gullible Western audiences. He wasn't dumb; he was evil, and it makes Yale's little gambit of disqualifying him on academic grounds doubly outrageous.
Columbia cannot even offer this flawed defense. Ahmadinejad is no young whelp in need of a bit of Ivy-League housetraining, but a full-grown wolf. And he is coming to Columbia not to be educated, but to educate all of us. Again, as with President Bollinger, this man does not lack for a soapbox for his noxious views -- he only lacks one as prestigious as Columbia's. Through the magic of the Internet, one can read his ceaseless harangues against the West and the Zionists in the state-controlled Iranian press translated into English. (One can also see the greatest hits of Iranian state TV subtitled at MEMRI -- I particularly recommend this one, in which Ahmadinejad explains how international goodwill, of the sort he hopes to generate tonight, will keep Iran safe from confrontation.)
The invitation to Ahmadinejad isn't about giving a voice to the voiceless, and it's not about educating Ahmadinejad. It's about a mystical belief in the power of the academy to bring peace upon the earth. Just as Yale thought it could tame the Taliban's mouthpiece and make him good, Columbia believes that by granting Ahmadinejad access to its prestigious forum, something magical will happen as he is exposed to the glowing truth of liberal values that emanate from its gentle hearts, and his own hidden goodness will shine forth, and we will all understand each other, beat our centrifuges into tamborines, and lead a global chorus of "We Are the World."
As valuable as rigorous scholarship may be in understanding the world, it has its limitations. The fact is, exposure to education doesn't necessarily make people more virtuous or more peaceful. The most enlightened among us can also be the most vicious and the most brutal. As art critic Robert Hughes wrote of another "Wolf" in The Culture of Complaint:
Nobody has ever denied that Sigismondo da Malatesta, the Lord of Rimini, had excellent taste. He hired the most refined of quattrocento architects, Leon Battista Alberti, to design a memorial temple to his wife, and then got the sculptor Agostino di Duccio to decorate it, and retained Piero della Francesca to paint it. Yet Sigismondo was a man of such callousness and rapacity that he was known in life as Il Lupo, The Wolf, and so execrated after his death that the Catholic Church made him (for a time) the only man apart from Judas Iscariot officially listed as being in Hell -- a distinction he earned by trussing up a Papal emissary, the fifteen-year-old Bishop of Fano, in his own rochet and publicly sodomizing him before his applauding army in the main square of Rimini.
Even Hitler had artistic pretensions, and as it turns out, Columbia's dean now admits the university would have invited him too -- as long as he took questions from the audience. Apparently a surfeit of education hasn't done much for the moral discernment of Columbia's leadership, either.
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