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Lee Bollinger’s Illusory Idealism

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

What the Columbia president is forgetting.

Bollinger ImageMany commentators have argued that Columbia University President Lee Bollinger was unwise—or, in Arnold Ahlert’s view, “idiotic”—to have hosted Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. However, Bollinger’s plucky and articulate performance on Monday has blunted some of this criticism. Even skeptics have since praised him for his skewering of the Iranian dictator; indeed, one of Bollinger’s strongest detractors, the New York Sun editorial page, seems to have changed its mind entirely.

I endorse all these judgments—both those that criticize the wisdom of inviting Ahmadinejad and those that deem Bollinger’s performance to have been commanding. But I must confess that Bollinger’s very eloquence made me a bit sick. It’s not what he said, rather the situation in which he said it. Bollinger’s magnificent verbal pyrotechnics were made possible not by his own courage in speaking truth to power, but by a larger power he does not recognize. Bollinger’s scolding of Ahmadinejad, however brilliant, could not have happened absent the military power of the United States, which figuratively pinned Ahmadinejad’s arms while Bollinger slapped him.

Many critics have (correctly) pointed to Bollinger’s hypocrisy on the free exchange of ideas, since he does not permit the U.S. armed forces to recruit on Columbia’s campus and does not allow a Columbia ROTC unit. During his tenure, Columbia students have physically disrupted a speech by “Minutemen” founder Jim Gilchrist. Bollinger has also winked at the suppression of open dialogue in many Middle East Studies courses.

Bollinger’s magnificent verbal pyrotechnics could not have happened absent the military power of the United States.

But this is different. Bollinger—to the applause of many and the reluctant admiration of a few—has taken advantage of the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform to verbally slap around Ahmadinejad. He forgets that the only thing holding Ahmadinejad in check is American military power (which, in turn, is deployed only by our civil authorities).

Bollinger’s performance, however skillful, was illusory and narcissistic, precisely because he and his admirers forget that human ideals require the force of political and military institutions to guarantee their relevance. He prefers to think, no doubt, that it is his own idealism—and his knack for projecting it—that is defeating his victim. If Bollinger had to live as Iranian citizens do, he would know that idealism alone does not suffice. Any number of Iran’s jailed pro-democracy dissidents might be just as eloquent as Bollinger, but we can’t hear their voices. They lack the comfort of his illusions.

At Columbia, Bollinger was in the position of an effete mob boss in any number of gangster movies: slapping his victim around while the poor guy’s arms are pinned back. Ahmadinejad is no hero, and he deserves no sympathy. But that shouldn’t stop us from regarding Bollinger as a weakling, and being rather disgusted by the entire spectacle.

Sam Schulman is publishing director of The American. A version of this article originally appeared at

Image credit: photo by Shannon Stapleton-Pool/Getty Images.

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