An Academic Winston Churchill: Lee Bollinger

Although I’ll have to paraphrase this, there is an urban myth surrounding a time long ago when Winston Churchill held the door open for a women whom, it seems, was deeply involved in womens’ rights movement.

“You don’t have to hold the door because I’m a woman” she rudely snipped at him.

“I didn’t,” he said. “I did it because I am a gentleman.”

In his efforts to bring Mahamoud Ahmadinejad to Columbia University this week, Mr. Bollinger demonstrated the finest that is free speech and the epitome of what America can be: a gentleman that holds the door, regardless of qualities (or lack thereof) of the woman walking through.

Much noise has been made about Iran’s despotic whackjob of a president coming and speaking in our country – even more so because of the place that he spoke. The outrage seems to be that Columbia is too prestigious of a place for such a thug – and we grant him too much authority and legitimacy by speaking there. But I argue that the exact opposite is true: in demonstrating by example, Lee Bollinger has give the rest of the United States, and indeed the world, a lesson in what free speech really looks like. It was a brilliant move that will, most probably (and unfortunately), be lost on the Fox News Sheeple.

Lee Bolinger:
“…to be clear on another matter – this event has nothing whatsoever to do with any “rights” of the speaker but only with our rights to listen and speak. We do it for ourselves.

We do it in the great tradition of openness that has defined this nation for many decades now. We need to understand the world we live in, neither neglecting its glories nor shrinking from its threats and dangers. It is consistent with the idea that one should know thine enemies, to have the intellectual and emotional courage to confront the mind of evil and to prepare ourselves to act with the right temperament. In the moment, the arguments for free speech will never seem to match the power of the arguments against, but what we must remember is that this is precisely because free speech asks us to exercise extraordinary self- restraint against the very natural but often counter-productive impulses that lead us to retreat from engagement with ideas we dislike and fear. In this lies the genius of the American idea of free speech.”


Breathtaking. Intelligent and precise in a way that our country now seems to scorn. Completely lost, however on the moronic members of Congress that do not understand the simple principals that they have been elected to uphold and further. Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-CA) for example, made it very clear that “…he plans to follow through on his threat and will now “initiate legislation, and try to get as many people as can see it my way, to cut off funds to Columbia University.”

His position is simply that even listening to people not on the approved Republican list is tantamount to some form of treason. “Giving a megalomaniac a megaphone” is not the right idea – to paraphrase him further.

But I’d argue that nowhere in this event did Columbia bow down and kiss the ground that Ahmadinejad walked upon – in fact, quite the opposite.

At the beginning of President Bollinger’s introduction:

Lee Bolinger:
“It should never be thought that merely to listen to ideas we deplore in any way implies our endorsement of those ideas, or the weakness of our resolve to resist those ideas or our naiveté about the very real dangers inherent in such ideas. It is a critical premise of freedom of speech that we do not honor the dishonorable when we open the public forum to their voices. To hold otherwise would make vigorous debate impossible.”


And finally how Ahmadinejad was introduced and his first question, which is again, breathtaking in its candor and clarity:

Lee Bolinger:
“Let me now turn to Mr. Ahmadinejad.


Over the last two weeks, your government has released Dr. Haleh Esfandiari and Parnaz Axima; and just two days ago Kian Tajbakhsh, a graduate of Columbia with a PhD in urban planning. While our community is relieved to learn of his release on bail, Dr. Tajbakhsh remains in Teheran, under house arrest, and he still does not know whether he will be charged with a crime or allowed to leave the country. Let me say this for the record, I call on the President today to ensure that Kian Tajbaksh will be free to travel out of Iran as he wishes. Let me also report today that we are extending an offer to Dr. Tajbaksh to join our faculty as a visiting professor in urban planning here at his Alma Mater, in our Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. And we hope he will be able to join us next semester.

The arrest and imprisonment of these Iranian Americans for no good reason is not only unjustified, it runs completely counter to the very values that allow today’s speaker to even appear on this campus.

But at least they are alive.

According to Amnesty International, 210 people have been executed in Iran so far this year – 21 of them on the morning of September 5th alone. This annual total includes at least two children – further proof, as Human Rights Watch puts it, that Iran leads the world in executing minors.

There is more.

Iran hanged up to 30 people this past July and August during a widely reported suppression of efforts to establish a more open, democratic society in Iran. Many of these executions were carried out in public view, a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party.

These executions and others have coincided with a wider crackdown on student activists and academics accused of trying to foment a so-called “soft revolution”. This has included jailing and forced retirements of scholars. As Dr. Esfandiari said in a broadcast interview since her release, she was held in solitary confinement for 105 days because the government “believes that the United States . . . is planning a Velvet Revolution” in Iran.
In this very room last year we learned something about Velvet Revolutions from Vaclav Havel. And we will likely hear the same from our World Leaders Forum speaker this evening – President Michelle Bachelet Jeria of Chile. Both of their extraordinary stories remind us that there are not enough prisons to prevent an entire society that wants its freedom from achieving it.

We at this university have not been shy to protest and challenge the failures of our own government to live by these values; and we won’t be shy in criticizing yours.

Let’s, then, be clear at the beginning, Mr. President you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.

And so I ask you:
Why have women, members of the Baha’i faith, homosexuals and so many of our academic colleagues become targets of persecution in your country?

Why in a letter last week to the Secretary General of the UN did Akbar Gangi, Iran’s leading political dissident, and over 300 public intellectuals, writers and Nobel Laureates express such grave concern that your inflamed dispute with the West is distracting the world’s attention from the intolerable conditions your regime has created within Iran? In particular, the use of the Press Law to ban writers for criticizing the ruling system.
Why are you so afraid of Iranian citizens expressing their opinions for change?

In our country, you are interviewed by our press and asked that you to speak here today. And while my colleague at the Law School Michael Dorf spoke to Radio Free Europe [sic, Voice of America] viewers in Iran a short while ago on the tenets of freedom of speech in this country, I propose going further than that. Let me lead a delegation of students and faculty from Columbia to address your university about free speech, with the same freedom we afford you today?

Will you do that?”


As usual, the right wingnuts will move hard to portray this event in the light of liberal acquiescence to Iran. Then they’ll try to paint this as some kind of dire picture in an effort to assist Bush and Cheney in getting Congressional approval to go to war. Yet again.

Perhaps Mr. Bollinger should make further use of Winston Churchill’s brilliant and courageous oration:

“We have nothing to fear, but Fox itself.”


  1. marierocks says:

    So much to share, so little time, BUT lots of space – congratulations! I’ll be one of your ‘followers!’

  2. Lupus says:

    I’m not sure who owns Columbia University or how it is funded. But, if they take money from, or are owned by the Government then we need to sell this off with the rest of the Government buildings to help pay for commitments we’ve already made.

    If Columbia university is privately owned and funded then they can have whoever the hell they want come and visit and speak. It is none of your business, Bush’s business, or anyone elses.

  3. perkiset says:

    Coumbia Unsiversity is a private college.

    Interesting – “Sell this off for commitments we’ve already made” – since Columbia is the one of the oldest colleges in New York, I’d love to know what commitments we made BEFORE it’s existence that we’d need to pay off in any case. Isn’t a commitment to our own people more vital than a commitment overseas (if that is what you are inferring)

    Regarding who speaks there – I agree, and that’s the essence of my post – free speech exists without my involvement and needs to continue that way. When the government inhibits free speech because it interferes with their agenda we have lost as a country.

  4. Lupus says:

    Columbia is private. How much money have they taken from the government since their inception?

    By the sell off remark, what I mean is. Right now the government has a huge amount of debt. A quite remarkable amount really. It grows dramatically every day. Additionally the government has made commitments to people like to take care of soldiers, pay people back their social security money. To get out from under that debt the government can sell off all the land it owns, and the buildings on it. Not sure if it’d cover everything, but it’d be a start.

    Agreed on your final paragraph.

  5. perkiset says:

    I’m afraid that I’d see the sell off of American Universities as the first and most important act of us becoming a fascist dictatorship rather than a democracy. The very thing that keeps our country alive is education – it is what created us in the first place.

    I do not see the sell off of what is arguable one of the most important things we offer to pay for soldiers as a valid thing. Simply put, since the war in Iraq is now approaching 1 trillion dollars, and if we simply stepped back a bit we’d have more than enough for a well equipped, well funded standing army. And their healthcare, FFS. It is a crime that we give money to Haliburton yet the best of our young people are wasted in horrible imperialistic excursions.

  6. Lupus says:

    So sell off all the DEA building first. Then go ahead and sell off the DoA buildings. Once we get through all the ABC named agencies we can assess where we are at.

    Also, I’m strictly speaking of federal resources and assets. The states are free to govern themselves as they see fit. If a state chooses to fund schools through force, then that is their choice. But, at the federal level we need to wane power, not grow it.

  7. perkiset says:

    @ Smaller Fed, stronger State: Now you’re at the essence of why the GOP exists and I’m rather more akin to this way of thinking than Federalism.

    Particularly when we have such a corrupt central government it is clear why the founding father feared the monarchy and built our union the way that they did. It is bothersome that contemporary Republicans have completely forgotten this notion, embracing the “Values Voter” instead – which, IMO, is absolutely the opposite of where they should be pushing.

  8. Lupus says:

    It’s important to note that the founders did not really form a union. That was done by Lincoln under the guise of ending slavery.

    I’m not advocating stronger states. I’m just saying, if you want to live in a state with a large government, then go ahead. Personally, I’ll live in the state with the smallest, or no government. This model at least allows for competition between the states. Competition always improves the product for everyone. Government or not.

  9. perkiset says:
    “It’s important to note that the founders did not really form a union. That was done by Lincoln under the guise of ending slavery.”

    Um, Lupus may I quote a little known document that is rapidly losing credibility and impact, but is nonetheless a pretty good read: “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect union…” Now I’m no Constitutional Scholar, but since that document’s been around for a while I’d say that the framers knew what they were talking about.

    @Competition: I agree. That is the most wonderful thing about these United States (see, there goes that whole “Union” thing again…) that individual states can operate in a way that they see best. I think it’s healthy, right and absolutely Constitutional.

  10. Lupus says:

    Maybe union is not the word I was looking for there. There was a state the US was in before the civil war. The south wanted a (to maintain?) confederacy. Lincoln saw to it that a huge step was made into centralizing fedgov power. To accomplish this he used the slavery issue to gain support for his movement. It was so successful that our government run schools now teach slavery as the big reason behind the civil war.

    The states are constantly having their powers swindled from them by the federal government. Usually it comes in the form of dependency. Much like most of the democratic platform the federal government likes to get the states dependent on federal grant money. It goes like this.

    The supreme rulers of the federal government have decided that at age 21 you will know how to drink. They want all states to raise their drinking age to 21. The states may or may not want to do that. So, the fed goes ahead and starts giving the states millions of dollars to help fund highways. After several years the states become dependent on that money. Then the fed comes back and says if you intend on getting that grant next year then you must raise your drinking age.

    This sort of tatic is used again and again by the fed. It is evil, and the fed shoudn’t even have the money to do this in the first place.

  11. perkiset says:

    Accurate? Most probably.

    Evil? Well, it’s the nature of power that it corrupts, man. But here’s a little something: States do the same to Counties which do the same to Cities etc. Power is always in the hands of the people that were most hated in high school.

    It is probably arguable that any form of government or societal concession is evil in that it hinders the free spirit of a man. But the problem is that we are not living on the prairies separated by hundreds of miles between us… we have to drive on the same roads as people that are shit drivers, underaged nincompoops, roadragers, sleepy grandmas, Mr. Briefcases and so on and so forth… it’s horrible but it’s the truth. Laws are simply a concession that we all make to live together. Now: Are many wrong? Are many used by authorities to oppress? Are many simply an unrepresented tax? Absolutely 100% on all accounts – but you will not be able to throw out the bath water without tossing the baby as well.

  12. vsloathe says:

    Regarding debt: It’s not the agencies, the bonds, or the debts to the people that is the problem. It’s the fact that the government has been borrowing from a private institution who is also the sole printer of money for decades now. In order to pay back the debt, they borrow more from the same institution. It’s one of the biggest rackets going and there’s little anyone can do about it now, unless we want to go back on an arbitrary standard like the gold standard.

  13. perkiset says:

    Agree. Another issue is that the sums are so large that your average Joe cannot get his arms around it… so he complains that the local garbage man took a 2 hours lunch, but cannot understand .01% of the waste at the government level that REALLY affects him.

  14. vsloathe says:

    Absolutely Perk. All Average Joe has to go on his experience, and the experience of a single individual and his family financially are just plain worlds apart from the mechanics of an Economy. It’s not like the federal government goes and says “Hey China, we need a loan”, it’s so terribly hard to understand how money actually works for someone who has lived his entire life dealing in nothing but the very narrow spectrum of consumer finance that most people just plain don’t get it.