Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Closing of Columbia's Mind

Harvey Mansfield has made the best criticism of Lee Bollinger and Columbia's decision to invite the Iranian President to campus for a discussion. Although conservatives feared that Bollinger was giving a platform to an enemy of America, Mansfield shows that Bollinger failed from the perspective of free inquiry. Bollinger showed little understanding of what the purpose of a university is with his rudeness. Mansfield's criticism is the most serious kind that one can level against a university president.

First, Bollinger was tough, calling Ahmadinejad a "petty and cruel dictator" and actually sounding like Presdient Bush. However, Mansfield notes that Bollinger didn't understand that Ahmadinejad came to Columbia to criticize the U.S. for managing the world and to mollify opponents of Iran's nuclear ambitions. Ahmadinejad came off as moderate. With his tough guy credentials already established, he merely had to explain that a free referendum of all Palestinians would end Israel's existence. Ahmadinejad used Bollinger's toughness to "align him with American bullying" according to Mansfield, and Bollinger himself seemed to want to manage the world as well by calling for a kind of Velvet Revolution in Iran.

Bollinger also did not speak to Ahmadinejad in a spirit of free debate by insulting him. Bollinger attacked Ahmadinejad on matters of policy in a way the Secretary of State might, dismissing his ideas before he even heard them. Similarly, "[i]mmitating Bollinger, the questioners at the speech also avoided ideas."

Ahmadinejad, by contrast, spoke of illumination. He also implied that science was compatible with religion by invoking "Almighty God" and argued that science simply wants to understand nature rather than command and control it. On this score, Bollinger had nothing to say.

Bollinger's problem is that he didn't understand the conflicts between politics and free inquiry. He wanted to be both a Velvet Revolutionary, attacking an enemy, and an academic, honoring freedon of inquiry. Bollinger thinks that inquiry is compatible with expressing revulsion -- a residue of the late sixties, as Mansfield says. "But insults harm free speech by drawing attention away from the ideas of the speakers, and expressing revulsion harms inquiry by discouraging or preventing cool. dispassionate analysis," according to Mansfield.

So Bollinger embarrassed himself in the most serious way for a university president by displaying confusion about the business of politics and especially about what thinking requires.

This was arguably Harvey Mansfield at his most liberal -- though liberal in the best sense of upholding the university's standards. The remark about the sixties wasn't conservative at all; instead it shows that the student radicals were illiberal enemies of free inquiry.

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