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Lee Bollinger Muffs It

Lee Bollinger has gotten a lot of criticism for his extremely harsh introduction [1] of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, before a Columbia University audience on September 24th. Most of the criticism has been that it was a rude way to treat a guest. I’m not sure I buy that one: a politician coming to give a speech is not quite the same thing as a guest in one’s home, and anyway Bollinger telegraphed quite clearly in advance that he would not be sparing in his remarks; Ahmadinejad could have cancelled if he were worried about how he would be treated. (For what it’s worth, Ahmadinejad’s own speech contained passages so nonsensical as to be indistinguishable from the sort of insane mumblings that usually cause passers-by to cross to the other side of the street. No, really — check out the transcript [2]. That dude’s a looney!)

Bollinger started his remarks with a detailed explanation of his motives, so there would be no mistaking what he was trying to do. Good for him: he tried to do the right thing. I actually think most of what he said was justified, if a little over-the-top and needlessly ponderous in tone. He made Will Franken very happy [3], anyway.

Nonetheless, I think Bollinger muffed it. He elevated Ahmadinejad’s importance by attributing Iran’s policies to its president. But everyone knows Ahmadinejad isn’t running the show over there: the mullahs are. When Bollinger said to Ahmadinejad “you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator”, he was exactly wrong. Far from being a dictator, Ahmadinejad is barely a president. He was elected from a filtered set of acceptable candidates (anyone objectionable to the religious council was not allowed on the ballot), and his every move is supervised by those who really run the show. Ahmadinejad is a figurehead; it’s doubtful he could have gotten elected in a truly open field. In a way, it hardly matters that the President of Iran is an incoherent conspiracy theorist with at best a shaky grasp of science and history — even were he a savant, he would effect little good, so perhaps it’s better that he’s an obvious joke.

What I wish Bollinger had asked was “Mr. President, why did you ally yourself with the perversion of democracy by standing for office in an election in which many legitimate candidates were not allowed to run? Do you believe in democracy, and if so, will you publicly call on the religious leaders of Iran to allow truly open and fair elections next time?”

Instead, Bollinger treated Ahmadinejad like he matters, which is exactly what Ahmadinejad wanted. It will probably give him a boost in the polls back home, too. Sigh.