POLITICS OCTOBER 5, 2007
To the terrors of public speaking--the dry throat, the nervous bladder, the fear that your notes are not in your pocket (even though two copies were there, and a third one folded into your shoe, when you checked 30 seconds ago, and a minute ago, and a minute and 30 seconds ago...), the fear that no one will show up to hear you, the desperate hope that no one will show up to hear you, concern that your material will fill about 20 minutes of the hour you are expected to entertain, alarm that you'll only be halfway through that same material when your hour runs out and the fellow in the first row starts looking exaggeratedly at his watch and making mad decapitation gestures, mental self-abuse and visions of Alzheimer's because you cannot remember that fellow's name even though you just spent two hours at dinner with him--and he is wearing a large badge (you cannot read the badge, which is a relief because it means that you are wearing your reading glasses, something that otherwise would also be weighing on your mind as the moment approaches)--to all these and more must be added a new horror: You might be introduced by Lee Bollinger.
Bollinger, as we all know (which was part of his purpose, of course) is the president of Columbia University. Last week, speaking of mad decapitation, Columbia invited the president of Iran whose name escapes me--Gordon Brown? John Edwards? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Something like that--to address the students of Columbia on global warming and other pressing issues of the day. Not everyone--not even every head of state who is in New York for the annual opening of the United Nations--is invited to speak at New York's most prestigious university. President Bush, for example, was in town for his traditional opening-day role of throwing the first U.N. resolution into the wastepaper basket, and he probably could have wrangled an invitation from Columbia, but they didn't exactly come chasing after him.
And not everybody who is invited to speak at Columbia gets introduced by the president. Until last week, most people would probably have considered that an honor. Enough has been written about Ahmadinejad lately, in connection with this very speech among other reasons, that Bollinger could have honestly gotten away with the classic "this is a man who needs no introduction." Listening to what Bollinger had to say, Ahmadinejad no doubt felt that he certainly didn't need this introduction.
Bollinger is a lawyer and a scholar of the First Amendment. To the vexing problem of free speech for people you really wish would shut up, he has found a novel and unique solution: Let them speak, but be extremely rude. In the technical parlance of academia, Bollinger "drilled him a new one."
Or at least that was his apparent intention. Bollinger noted all the people who have been executed by Ahmadinejad's government, Iran's interference in our interference in Iraq, Iran's nuclear ambitions, its oppression of women and homosexuals, and so on. All this was no news to Ahmadinejad, nor did it require any particular courage for Bollinger to say it. There is no more captive audience than a speaker listening to his introduction. Ahmadinejad is proud of the record Bollinger outlined. Bollinger's only truly wounding remark was when he accused Ahmadinejad of being a "petty and cruel dictator." Petty? Petty?? What does it take to qualify as a real dictator in Bollinger's book? Throwing down this particular gauntlet may have been no favor to the world.
We don't all oppress minorities and women, plan to develop nuclear weapons, or execute people for crimes committed when they were children (though on this last item, the United States is right up there with Iran and only one or two other countries, as Bollinger might have found out if he'd done a bit more research and/or reflection before adding this to his "parade of horribles," as lawyers call this rhetorical device). But we do all have our faults. Will future Columbia speakers be introduced as "one of the phoniest pseudo-intellectuals of our day?" Or, "A man who has spilled soup on his tie in every major restaurant in New York, and is renowned for his small tips"?
Forever, universities have tried to provide good role models for their students. The result, especially at graduation ceremonies, has been a tradition of boring, bromidic, and vain speakers whose subtext generally is, "You should try to be as wonderful as I am. But you can't." Perhaps it's time for a new approach. Some wealthy Columbia graduate could endow a speaker series: "Jerks, Lame-brains, and Moral Degenerates." The idea would be to expose Columbia students to the kinds of bad influences they should not use as role models. With the death of Saddam Hussein, there is currently a shortage of high-wattage bad guys in the heads-of-state category. Oh, there are plenty of bad governments. But there is an opening for a charismatic evil dictator type at the moment. Many feel that Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, or Fidel Castro (who needs no introduction), or Russia's Vladimir Putin or others might qualify. But each of them has fans as well. The great catch would be Osama bin Laden, of course. I wonder who his agent is.
In any event, it wouldn't be hard to put together a terrific speakers series anyway. Who wouldn't come to hear O.J. Simpson on "How To Save Your Marriage," or Dick Cheney on "Power and Image in Post-Industrial Society"? Lee Bollinger could do the introductions, of course, making each of them feel truly unwanted.
Michael Kinsley is a contributing editor at The New Republic.
By Michael Kinsley