Some have said that during Monday’s event at Columbia, President Bollinger redeemed himself with his appropriately fierce harangue against President Ahmadinejad before the latter’s address. But—apart from the fundamental obscenity of Ahmadinejad’s presence—the “debate” that followed the Iranian premier’s talk nullified any supposed redeeming value.
Bollinger, after first denouncing Ahmadinejad as a heinous barbarian, found himself engaged in earnest back-and-forth with him, pondering his assertions, sometimes looking flustered and unsure of himself, straining to make a point. And if Ahmadinejad was ludicrously exposed for a moment when he spoke of a homosexuality-free Iran, Bollinger did not do much better with the Iranian leader’s repeated claim—widely applauded—that the Palestinians “paid the price for the Holocaust.” To this Bollinger gave no answer at all—either, presumably, because he does not know enough of the history to refute it or because the notion strikes a responsive chord in him.
Instead this charge of European and Jewish culpability and Palestinian victimhood was widely headlined and spread like wildfire through the Internet, prompting further “debates” with scores of talkbacks on news sites. In other words, Columbia and Bollinger with their invitation to the despot created a situation in which civilized, knowledgeable people were left with a choice of either letting the lie stand or refuting it and—being drawn into the “debate,” treating the genocidist as an interlocutor and a participant in the democratic discourse.
And what of the claim that the Columbia event was a chance to “challenge” Ahmadinejad and expose him to a kind of confrontation he’s not used to in his dictatorship back home? Did the experience cause him to rethink his views and wonder whether, after all, Jews, homosexuals, and women who have nonmarital relationships have a right to live, or whether Iraq and Lebanon’s best hope lies in pluralism rather than Shiite dictatorship? Instead Ahmadinejad’s main “challenge” was to pause while his words evoked spontaneous ovations that resounded on TV screens all over the planet.
Columbia has besmirched itself by failing to grasp two points that should be obvious to any thinking person. First, there are legitimate views and illegitimate views. Anti-Semitism, sexism, and homophobia—and not as those terms can be carelessly applied but in their true, most virulent form—are illegitimate views that ideally are seen as excluding their proponents from the discourse. The fact that an individual gains political power and is able to act on these views, actually threatening and killing Jews, homosexuals, and women, does not make him more but even less legitimate as a debater. It makes him not only a crank but also a criminal. Columbia by giving Ahmadinejad a podium conferred legitimacy on criminality.
Second, people who hold illegitimate views believe in them just as much as—if anything, more—than people who hold legitimate views. Even in debates between people who hold contending legitimate views, the presumption is not that one of them will be “defeated” and convert to the other opinion, but that the audience will have an illuminating experience. Western people, however, have trouble believing that anyone truly holds Ahmadinejad-type views and think such individuals, if not whole movements, can be talked—or bribed—into changing them.
Western people believe genocidists can be deflected from their course if they are given enough. Give them Czechoslovakia, give them Gaza, give them the West Bank, give them guns, money, and land, give them tough questions and reasoned positions in interviews and debates. It is to that dire tradition of appeasement that Columbia—a nongovernmental body that cannot invoke the excuse of desperately trying to save its nation from terrorism and war—has added another chapter. Columbia did it out of its own unforgivable stupidity and perversity.