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REGARDING MEDIA

A pulpit of shame for Iran leader

September 29, 2007|TIM RUTTEN

ONE of the world's truly dangerous men, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left New York a clear winner this week, and he can thank the arrogance of the American academy and most of the U.S. news media's studied indifference for his victory.

If the blood-drenched history of the century just past had taught American academics one thing, it should have been that the totalitarian impulse knows no accommodation with reason. You cannot change the totalitarian mind through dialogue or conversation, because totalitarianism -- however ingenious the superstructure of faux ideas with which it surrounds itself -- is a creature of the will and not the mind. That's a large lesson, but what should have made Ahmadinejad's appearance at Columbia University this week a wholly avoidable debacle was the school's knowledge of its own, very specific history.

In the 1930s, Columbia was run by Nicholas Murray Butler, to whose name a special sort of infamy attaches. Butler was an outspoken admirer of Italian fascism and of its leader, Benito Mussolini. The Columbia president, who also was in the forefront of Ivy League efforts to restrict Jewish enrollment, worked tirelessly to build ties between his school and Italian universities, as well as with the powerful fascist student organizations. At one point, a visiting delegation of 350 ardent young Black Shirts serenaded Butler with the fascist anthem.

Butler also was keen to establish connections with Nazi Germany and its universities. In 1933, he invited Hans Luther, Adolf Hitler's ambassador to the United States, to lecture on the Columbia campus. Luther stressed Hitler's "peaceful intentions" toward his European neighbors, and, afterward, Butler gave a reception in his honor. As the emissary of "a friendly people," Luther was "entitled to be received with the greatest courtesy and respect," the Columbia president said at the time.

It was such a transparently appalling performance all around that one of the anonymous authors of the New York Times' "Topics of the Times" column put tongue in cheek and looked forward to the occasion when "the Nazi leaders will point out that they were all along opposed to any measures capable of being construed as unjust to any element in the German population or as a threat to peace in Europe."

Arrogance, though, is invincible -- even to irony.

Three years later, Butler sent a delegation of Columbia dignitaries to participate in anniversary celebrations at the University of Heidelberg. That was after Heidelberg had purged all the Jewish professors from its faculty, reformed its curriculum according to Nazi educational theories and publicly burned the unapproved books in its libraries.

It would be interesting to know if any consideration of these events -- and all that followed a decade of engagement and dialogue with fascism -- occurred before Columbia extended a speaking invitation to a man who hopes to see Israel "wiped off the face of the Earth," has denied the Holocaust and is defying the world community in pursuit of nuclear weapons. Perhaps they did and perhaps that's part of what motivated Lee Bollinger, Columbia's president now, to deliver his extraordinarily ill-advised welcoming remarks to Ahmadinejad.

BOLLINGER clearly had an American audience in mind when he denounced the Iranian leader to his face as a "cruel" and "petty dictator" and described his Holocaust denial as designed to "fool the illiterate and the ignorant." Bollinger's remarks may have taken him off the hook with his domestic critics, but when it came to the international media audience that really counted, Ahmadinejad already had carried the day. The invitation to speak at Columbia already had given him something totalitarian demagogues -- who are as image-conscious as Hollywood stars -- always crave: legitimacy. Bollinger's denunciation was icing on the cake, because the constituency the Iranian leader cares about is scattered across an Islamic world that values hospitality and its courtesies as core social virtues. To that audience, Bollinger looked stunningly ill-mannered; Ahmadinejad dignified and restrained.

Back in Tehran, Mohsen Mirdamadi, a leading Iranian reformer and Ahmadinejad opponent, said Bollinger's blistering remarks "only strengthened" the president back home and "made his radical supporters more determined," According to an Associated Press report, "Many Iranians found the comments insulting, particularly because in Iranian traditions of hospitality, a host should be polite to a guest, no matter what he thinks of him. To many, Ahmadinejad looked like the victim, and hard-liners praised the president's calm demeanor during the event, saying Bollinger was spouting a 'Zionist' line."

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