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Tehran on the Hudson

Published: October 1, 2007
Section: Opinions


Im not afraid of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad;

Columbia President Lee Bollinger, on the other hand, makes me a little nervous. Ahmadinejad was in New York this week to address the UN General Assembly. His presence on US soil caused a bewildering amount of controversy. He was not allowed to pay his respects to the victims of 9/11 at Ground Zero even though international law and diplomatic protocols give Ahmadinejad the right to travel freely within a 25 mile radius of UN Headquarters.

But the ludicrous Ground Zero affair, and indeed Ahmadinejads UN speech itself, have been overshadowed by the Iranian Presidents engagement to speak at Columbia University on Monday. The address itself was fairly uninteresting. He said what he has been saying for years in highly publicized speeches and a series of surprisingly erudite, although often wildly unfocused, letters to President Bush. The closest thing to a revelation was Ahmadinejads comments about Irans gay community. He said that homosexuality doesnt exist in Iran, and he was flabbergasted that anyone would think that it did.

That aside, the real story of Ahmadinejads Columbia visit was the introduction delivered by Columbia President Lee Bollinger. In a move which shocked many of the events organizers, Bollinger decided to make the introduction his own personal JAccuse, only without Zolas biting irony and unimpeachable intelligence. Most notably, he accused Ahmadinejad of exhibit[ing] all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.

Bollingers statement is, of course, laughable. I think it is safe to assume that one of the signs of a petty and cruel dictator is supreme political power. Ahmadinejad doesnt have this. The real power in Iran rests with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Iranian presidency is weak, and Khamenei has only made it weaker during Ahmadinejads tenure. Bollingers statement, however, betrays the real purpose of his comments. They do not represent a reasoned critical engagement with Ahmadinejad;

they are nothing more than one last shot of ideological indoctrination for the benefit of those in the audience who disagree with Ahmadinejad before they confront his ideas. This concept, namely that it is fine to listen to those with whom we disagree, but only as long as weve first inoculated ourselves with a healthy dose of certainty in our own beliefs is an infantile intellectual response, but one which we at Brandeis are very familiar.

It manifests itself most of all in the call for balance. For example, the claim that Jimmy Carters speaking at Brandeis had to be concomitant with a rebuttal by Alan Dershowitz. Its an insidious ideology because it undermines the very ideas of intellectual openness, tolerance, and curiosity which it claims to defend. Speeches like Carters and Ahmadinejads turn from candid forums where students are exposed to and debate new and challenging ideas to mere intellectual formalities. We sit and listen not to engage, but to build up the credibility we need to denounce the Other even more firmly once the event has concluded.

If this countrys universities are to be something more than just a training ground for the next generation of Americas ruling class, if indeed we want them to be genuine arenas for rational discourse, then we need to realize that other peoples ideas are not threats to be eliminated, but opportunities to be recognized.