ON NOVEMBER 12, 70 Columbia university professors issued a "statement of concern" criticizing university president Lee Bollinger's various failures of leadership, including his handling of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's September 24th speech at Columbia.
Had the faculty rebelled against Bollinger for turning their prestigious university into a podium for a leader of one of the world's most totalitarian regimes? Not quite. These professors were concerned with a greater threat: Bollinger's criticism of Ahmadinejad. Their letter stated that Bollinger's September 24th remarks introducing Ahmadinejad "were not only uncivil and bad pedagogy, they allied the University with the Bush administration's war in Iraq, a position anathema to many in the University community."
It's a bit of a head-scratcher (pedagogically speaking) trying to figure out how Bollinger had supported Bush or the war in Iraq. But the concerned faculty members' reductio ad Bushum goes a little something like this: Bollinger criticized Ahmadinejad. Bush criticizes Ahmadinejad. Therefore, Bollinger supports Bush's war in Iraq.
That seemed to be the argument of Columbia history professor Eric Foner who, according to the New York Times, "read aloud some of Mr. Bollinger's remarks to Mr. Ahmadinejad" at a November 13 faculty meeting criticizing Bollinger and said, "This is the language of warfare at a time when the administration of our country is trying to whip up Iran, and to my mind is completely inaccurate."
Which lines in Bollinger's speech did Foner think were bellicose and "completely inaccurate"? Was it Bollinger's statement that women, homosexuals, scholars, and religious minorities are persecuted in Iran? Or that Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust and desires Israel's destruction? The Times didn't say. So I asked Foner via email which remarks made by Bollinger were untrue.
"As I am sure you know, quotations in newspapers are not always correct," Foner replied. "I used the word 'inaccurate' to describe the impression given by those remarks that Iran is responsible for the violence there."
During Bollinger's introductory marks, he said to Ahmadinejad: "your government is now undermining American troops in Iraq by funding, arming and providing safe transit to insurgent leaders like Muqtada al-Sadr and his forces. . . . General David Petraeus reported that arms supplies from Iran, including 240-millimeter rockets and explosively formed projectiles, are contributing to, quote, 'a sophistication of attacks that would by no means be possible without Iranian support.'"
Foner doubts the veracity of Petraeus's testimony. He says that "given this administration's record of, shall we say, inaccuracy, on issues like weapons of mass destruction, quoting the commanding general will not do." But was there any evidence that led Foner to dispute Petraeus's testimony? Could any evidence provided by the military or the Defense Department convince him that Iran is involved in the Iraq war? What did he make of independent press reports of U.S. forces capturing Iranian and Hezbollah agents in Iraq, of Moktada al-Sadr seeking refuge in Iran, and of insurgents using Iranian weapons to attack U.S. troops?
Foner refused to answer any of these questions, claiming he was overwhelmed with work from his courses as the semester draws to a close. But Foner and his confederates may yet have to admit whether their beliefs are informed by reality or merely ideology.
In response to the "statement of concern" against Bollinger, over 60 Columbia professors--many of them left-wingers, according to the New York Sun--issued a dissenting letter that defended Bollinger for his remarks about "Iran's role in financing and arming terrorist attacks against our troops."
Bollinger's defenders appear to have most liberal foreign policy observers on their side, according to Andrew Grotto, a senior national security analyst at the left-wing Center for American Progress. Grotto says it's simply a fact that Iran is "financing and cooperating" with "certain Shia insurgent groups" in Iraq. "I'm not aware of any serious debate that Iran is not meddling in Iraq," he says.
"Serious" is the operative word in that sentence, of course. Grotto is a critic of the Bush administration, but he says, "We need a serious debate about Iran policy, and we can't have that unless we're pretty straight on the facts." Grotto also thinks it's unproductive for people to argue that "if Bush says it, it must be false."
With any effort, Bollinger's defenders might hold their misbelieving colleagues accountable. They could start by bringing in Grotto or any other liberal analyst to talk to Foner and his cohorts about the facts on the ground in Iraq and Iran. It also couldn't hurt to repeat the adage attributed to former New York Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan at least a few times: "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts."