Bollinger v. Ahmadinejad

Larison nails it:

On reading the blog account of the big to-do at Columbia today, it occurs to me that Ahmadinejad must have found Bollinger’s “sharp challenges” much as Francis Urquhart described Prime Minister’s Question Time: “very frightening -- like being mugged by a guinea pig.”

Consider this “challenge”:
Why do you support well-documented terrorist organizations that continue to strike at peace and democracy in the Middle East, destroying lives and the civil society of the region?
You could almost imagine Ahmadinejad replying, “I thank the honourable gentleman for his concern for peace and democracy, which my government has always shared. We have always worked to bring peace and democracy to the rest of the world, because we love all of the nations of the world. Naturally, we abhor terrorism and I refer the honourable gentleman to my previous answer.”

In his speech, Ahmadinejad did actually say, “we love all nations.” ... The point is that posing such questions to a demagogue simply lends meaning and importance to whatever the demagogue says in response. It sets him up to blather on about whatever he would like to say. If he ignores the questions, nothing has been proved that we did not already know, and if he answers them he will invariably spin them to his advantage. Demagogues often have a good knack for turning a phrase and playing to a crowd - that’s how they got to be demagogues.

The core of the problem, to my mind, is summed up by Bollinger's remark, in his email to the school, that this was an opportunity for Columbia students to "listen to ideas we deplore." This sort of earnest liberal piety demonstrates a fundamental inability to grasp what someone like the Iranian President is all about. If Ahmadinejad were interest in making a serious, sustained case for political Islam, or even if he were presenting a David Irving-style brief on the Holocaust, there might be some value in having him appear at Columbia and face questions - perhaps not from the university president, but from someone well-suited to engage with his arguments. (If Sayyid Qutb were alive and writing, for instance, I would be very interested to watch him debate a liberal, secular Ivy League political philosopher.) But the Iranian President was never going to actually elucidate or defend his most controversial ideas before a Western audience - and certainly not at Columbia University, of all places! Not when he could further his objectives by refraining from saying anything at all.

So ask him about the Holocaust, and he'll say that further research is needed, and besides, why should the Palestinians suffer for whatever may or may not have happened to Jews sixty years ago? Ask him if he wants to destroy Israel, and he'll tell you: "We love all nations. We are friends with the Jewish people." Ask him about women's rights, and he'll say: "Women in Iran enjoy the highest levels of freedom." Ask him about the execution of homosexuals, and he'll tell you that there are no homosexuals in Iran. Ask him about nuclear weapons, and he'll tell you that Iran wants to live in peace with its neighbors and the world. And so on and so forth. There are no controversial ideas here; there are, in fact, no ideas at all. Which is why it didn't matter what Bollinger said: He was being played for a fool right from the beginning.