25 Sep 2007

Ahmadinejad at Columbia

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Brett Stephens, in today’s Wall Street Journal, remarks on the futile aspects of liberals listening to dictators.

In a March 1952 essay in Commentary magazine on “George Orwell and the Politics of Truth,” Trilling observed that “the gist of Orwell’s criticism of the liberal intelligentsia was that they refused to understand the conditioned way of life.” Orwell, he wrote, really knew what it was like to live under a totalitarian regime–unlike, say, George Bernard Shaw, who had “insisted upon remaining sublimely unaware of the Russian actuality,” or H.G. Wells, who had “pooh-poohed the threat of Hitler.” By contrast, Orwell “had the simple courage to point out that the pacifists preached their doctrine under condition of the protection of the British navy, and that, against Germany and Russia, Gandhi’s passive resistance would have been to no avail.”

Trilling took the point a step further, assailing the intelligentsia’s habit of treating politics as a “nightmare abstraction” and “pointing to the fearfulness of the nightmare as evidence of their sense of reality.” To put this in the context of Mr. Coatsworth’s hypothetical, Trilling might have said that in hosting and perhaps debating Hitler, Columbia’s faculty and students would not have been “confronting” him, much as they might have gulled themselves into believing they were. Hitler at Columbia would merely have been a man at a podium, offering his “ideas” on this or that, and not the master of a huge terror apparatus bearing down on you. To suggest that such an event amounts to a confrontation, or offers a perspective on reality, is a bit like suggesting that one “confronts” a wild animal by staring at it through its cage at a zoo. …

So there is Adolf Hitler on our imagined stage, ranting about the soon-to-be-fulfilled destiny of the Aryan race. And his audience of outstanding Columbia men are mostly appalled, as they should be. But they are also engrossed, and curious, and if it occurs to some of them that the man should be arrested on the spot they don’t say it. Nor do they ask, “How will we come to terms with his world?” Instead, they wonder how to make him see “reason,” as reasonable people do.

In just a few years, some of these men will be rushing a beach at Normandy or caught in a firefight in the Ardennes. And the fact that their ideas were finer and better than Hitler’s will have done nothing to keep them and millions of their countrymen from harm, and nothing to get them out of its way.

My own problem with all this simply has to do with the fact that it is obviously regarded as daring and being leading-edge to invite Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to give an address at Columbia, when Larry Summers is considered too wicked to be allowed to speak at UC Davis, and Stanford views Don Rumsfeld the way vampires look at crucifixes.

It is quite traditional for universities to feature speaker programs, often affiliated with an undergraduate debating forum, which will host speeches from all sorts of public figures currently in the news. The exposure of undergraduates to celebrities right out of the day’s headlines, the opportunity afforded young people to meet famous men, shake their hands, and interact with them by asking a few questions has real educational value. If nothing else, it provides the young with the understanding that famous men get tired, make slips of the tongue, and sometimes get drunk, too.

There is obviously something, though, which smacks of a canine appetite for intercourse with the headlines in inviting a figure as lurid as Ahmadinejad, associated with the most fatal kind of international relations, head of an extraordinarily barbarous and repressive regime, who is such an avowed enemy of the United States.

This invitation provokes the suspicion that Columbia invited Ahmadinejad, not despite his hostility toward the United States, but because of it. There was a distinct air of Leonard Bernstein hosting the Black Panthers (a lá Radical Chic), with only faintly-concealed pride at pulling off the catch of the season, about the whole thing.

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