Lee Bollinger Muffs It

Lee Bollinger has gotten a lot of criticism for his extremely harsh introduction of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, before a Columbia University audience on September 24th. Most of the criticism has been that it was a rude way to treat a guest. I’m not sure I buy that one: a politician coming to give a speech is not quite the same thing as a guest in one’s home, and anyway Bollinger telegraphed quite clearly in advance that he would not be sparing in his remarks; Ahmadinejad could have cancelled if he were worried about how he would be treated. (For what it’s worth, Ahmadinejad’s own speech contained passages so nonsensical as to be indistinguishable from the sort of insane mumblings that usually cause passers-by to cross to the other side of the street. No, really — check out the transcript. That dude’s a looney!)

Bollinger started his remarks with a detailed explanation of his motives, so there would be no mistaking what he was trying to do. Good for him: he tried to do the right thing. I actually think most of what he said was justified, if a little over-the-top and needlessly ponderous in tone. He made Will Franken very happy, anyway.

Nonetheless, I think Bollinger muffed it. He elevated Ahmadinejad’s importance by attributing Iran’s policies to its president. But everyone knows Ahmadinejad isn’t running the show over there: the mullahs are. When Bollinger said to Ahmadinejad “you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator”, he was exactly wrong. Far from being a dictator, Ahmadinejad is barely a president. He was elected from a filtered set of acceptable candidates (anyone objectionable to the religious council was not allowed on the ballot), and his every move is supervised by those who really run the show. Ahmadinejad is a figurehead; it’s doubtful he could have gotten elected in a truly open field. In a way, it hardly matters that the President of Iran is an incoherent conspiracy theorist with at best a shaky grasp of science and history — even were he a savant, he would effect little good, so perhaps it’s better that he’s an obvious joke.

What I wish Bollinger had asked was “Mr. President, why did you ally yourself with the perversion of democracy by standing for office in an election in which many legitimate candidates were not allowed to run? Do you believe in democracy, and if so, will you publicly call on the religious leaders of Iran to allow truly open and fair elections next time?”

Instead, Bollinger treated Ahmadinejad like he matters, which is exactly what Ahmadinejad wanted. It will probably give him a boost in the polls back home, too. Sigh.


  1. I don’t think Mr. Bollinger was mean to the Iranian president. In fact I think what he said is what the majority of Iranians say every day about this crazy person and personally I agree with whatever Bollinger said. The president of Iran is a big lier and a very dangerous creature and the sooner he is stopped the better it is for the entire world.

  2. What were the nonsensical passages of his speech? I read the whole thing and it seemed coherent. It’s pretty clear he’s not psychotic. Parts of it could have been lifted from many Baha’i sermons, and, I infer from their occurrence in this talk, from many sermons of Shia Islam as well.

    And he has at least one good point: criminalizing Holocaust denial is not an effective way to rebut it. In the US, unlike in most parts of Europe, the Holocaust denialists have full freedom to investigate and seek evidence for their point of view; the fact that they have come up with nothing very believable is a strong reason to believe that the Holocaust happened. In a few cases, they have even been instrumental in debunking particular urban legends about the Holocaust — I think the soap myth was one.

    I don’t agree with his point of view in many cases — among other things, I think it’s important to recognize that the epistemological foundations of science do not depend on divine revelation — and I think there are a lot of issues he’s not being honest about in this speech, but he certainly doesn’t sound like “an incoherent conspiracy theorist with a shaky grasp of science and history”.

  3. You’re right, he’s not insane, my language was too strong. (I’ll leave it unedited, in the interests of preserving a fair record.) However, he’s still a pretty… uh, loose thinker. For example, this is more or less nonsensical, or perhaps “content-free” would be a better description:

    In our culture, the word “science” has been defined as “illumination.” In fact, the “science” means “brightness” and the real science is a science which rescues the human being from ignorance to his own benefit. In one of the widely accepted definitions of science, it is stated that it is the light which sheds to the hearts of those who have been selected by the Almighty; therefore, according to this definition, science is a divine gift, and the heart is where it resides.

    If we accept that “science” means “illumination,” then its scope supersedes the experimental sciences, and it includes every hidden and disclosed reality. One of the main harms inflicted against science is to limit it to experimental and physical sciences; this harm occurs even though it extends far beyond this scope.

    Realities of the world are not limited to physical realities. And the material is just a shadow of supreme realities, and physical creation is just one of the stories of the creation of the world. Human being is just an example of the creation that is a combination of the material and the spirit.

    And another important point is the relationship of science and purity of spirit, life, behavior and ethics of the human being. In the teachings of the divine prophet, one reality shall always be attached to science. The reality of purity of spirit and good behavior, knowledge and wisdom is pure and clear reality. It is — science is a light. It is a discovery of reality, and only a pure scholar and researcher, free from wrong ideologies, superstitions, selfishness and material trappings, can discover the reality.

    As is this:

    My first question was, if, given that the Holocaust is a present reality of our time, a history that occurred, why is there not sufficient research that can approach the topic from different perspectives? Our friends refer to 1930 as the point of the departure for this development; however, I believe the Holocaust, from what we read, happened during World War II after 1930 in the 1940s. So, you know, we have to really be able to trace the event.

    (I completely agree with you about the suppression of Holocaust deniers in certain European countries, by the way, and Ahmadinejad is right to call out the hypocrisy. But just because he’s right about one thing doesn’t mean that the other things he says make sense.)

    Calling for freedom for people to investigate the Holocaust, and to say whatever they want about it, is a fine thing. But he is being disingenuous here, because in fact he is doing more than calling for someone’s freedom: he himself is one of the questioners of well-attested facts (although this transcript does not show it). It is silly to pretend that this kind of attitude makes him somehow the friend of free inquiry. Spreading FUD is not scholarship. He is not showing any signs of wanting to make a serious contribution to historical study here; rather, he is using the abstract principle of freedom as a way of defending people who say false things. Just because freedom of speech is good doesn’t mean there is no such thing as bad speech! It just means that the solution to bad speech is not suppression. Ahmadinejad has come out in favor of free speech, but has failed to come out against bad speech.

    This next one is obviously false; he’s either lying, or he’s crazy enough to believe it:

    In Iran, we don’t have homosexuals like in your country. (Laughter.) We don’t have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who’s told you that we have it.

    I think he probably genuinely doesn’t understand what freedom means when he says this:

    Those in Iran are genuine true freedoms. The Iranian people are free. Women in Iran enjoy the highest levels of freedoms.

    In a country that is actually ruled by a supreme religious council, even Ahmadinejad himself doesn’t enjoy true freedom.

  4. The long passage you quote is about epistemology, and it is not at all content-free, although like most statements about epistemology, it is quite difficult to put to any kind of empirical test. Some of it could be interpreted as being intended to tell the audience how highly he values them — this is a traditional element of Persian epistolary style, and perhaps (although I am too ignorant to know) of Persian oratory style as well.

    But if you were to come up with concrete recommendations based on the idea that that section is correct, you could come up with a few:
    1. Since direct personal divine revelation is the source of scientific knowledge, do not reject scientific theories on the grounds that there is no empirical evidence for them; consider instead the probability that their originator has been selected for such a revelation by the Almighty.
    2. Given a text whose contents are generally accepted as divinely revealed, consider its contents of equal weight with empirical evidence.
    3. Consider fields of study such as theology and discussions of divinely revealed law as equals to the physical sciences, and do not separate them from science in the organization of the university.
    4. Consider as suspect the experiments and theories of scientists who are impure of heart — who are attached to “wrong ideologies, superstitions, selfishness, and material trappings”, or whose behavior is bad.

    Of these points, the fourth seems sensible to me, although it’s obviously easy to take it too far; and, taken together, I suspect they may go a long way to explaining the differences between academia in Iran and academia in, say, Germany.

    So I don’t think that passage is content-free at all. Ahmadinejad is explaining what he thinks is wrong with the way Columbia is run, and how it should be restructured, while avoiding statements that sound controversial.

    I don’t think I have anything anything else productive to say about the Holocaust denial. I don’t understand the point he’s trying to make in the paragraph you quoted.

    I have the impression that he was speaking through a translator, which might explain some of the little inadequacies of the speech. Maybe the paragraph about the 1930s and “tracing” made more sense in Farsi, and was slightly mistranslated?

    I suspect translation explains the otherwise crazy remark about “homosexuals”. That’s a concept that is referred to with euphemisms or slang in most languages; common translations include things like “male whore” and “eunuch”. It’s entirely plausible that Iran really doesn’t have transvestite streetwalkers like in the US.

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