The president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, really gave it to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He really did. He called Ahmadinejad a "petty and cruel dictator" and many other harsh names. All richly deserved. And it is likely that President Bollinger felt that he had done a good thing.
In fact, however, as many of us predicted, it was Ahmadinejad who won. The very moment the Iranian Holocaust-denier was given a university platform, he won. Even the deserved insults gave Ahmadinejad a victory. Most people do not like their leaders publicly insulted abroad, even if they agree with most of the insults. I thought little of President Bill Clinton, but if a foreign university president had invited him for a speech and insulted him -- even if I agreed with the content of the insults -- I would have been offended as an American. And Iranians are more nationalistic and place more emphasis on saving face.
It is not difficult to imagine how the average Iranian viewed Ahmadinejad's visit to America. Not only the average Iranian: According to Mohsen Mirdamadi, one of Iran's leading reformist politicians, "The blistering speech against Ahmadinejad only strengthened him back home and made his radical supporters more determined."
But this does not matter to Lee Bollinger and his liberal defenders. What matters to them is feeling good -- feeling good about demonstrating Columbia's commitment to freedom of speech (if an invitation to speak at Columbia is a function of freedom of speech, such freedom rarely applies to conservative speakers), and feeling good about criticizing Ahmadinejad. Contemporary liberalism is about feelings, from compassion as the basis of social policy to the promotion of the self-esteem movement.
He and his supporters are mistaken, however.
In case it is not obvious how damaging Columbia's invitation to Ahmadinejad was, ask yourself whether inviting any other Holocaust-denier to Columbia would have been a good or bad idea. The answer is so clear that it may take an Ivy League Ph.D. to miss it. The net result of Ahmadinejad's visit to Columbia University was to render Holocaust-denial a little more respectable -- "more research on the Holocaust" will make sense to some people; and that's all Ahmadinejad and other Holocaust-deniers say they are asking for. So, too, the elimination of Israel seemed slightly more respectable -- just let all Palestinians vote on its future.
Why, then, did Columbia extend the invitation and why did so many liberals -- such as the New York Times and Los Angeles Times -- laud the invitation?
For two reasons.
First, because liberals judge social policies largely on the basis of how they feel rather than how policies actually play out in real life. It felt good to show how committed liberal universities are to freedom of speech and it felt good (for some on the left) to give Ahmadinejad hell.
Second, because today's liberals are, by definition, naive about evil. Since the Vietnam War, the American left, including liberals, have been naive about evil, just as the European left became naive about evil after World War I.
That is why there was universal liberal editorial condemnation of President Ronald Reagan for calling the Soviet Union an "evil empire." That is why there was universal liberal editorial condemnation of Israel for destroying Saddam Hussein's Osirak nuclear facility. That is why prominent liberals -- with no exception of which I am aware -- all condemned President George W. Bush's use of the term "Axis of Evil" to characterize the regimes of Iran, North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
In a nutshell, Columbia invited a Holocaust-denying, homosexual-executing, women-suppressing, genocide-advocating, terrorist-supporting national leader because its president is the quintessential liberal. He is a man with many good intentions who, like other liberals, judges policies primarily by intentions, and liberals know that their intentions are noble (that's why they rarely acknowledge that conservatives can be good people).
But intentions matter little in policy making. Wisdom matters infinitely more. And there is little wisdom on the left.
There is little wisdom not only regarding evil, but regarding taxation, the size of government, illegal immigration, the effects of affirmative action on blacks, bilingual education, male-female differences, boys' needs, high school textbooks (revised in the name of multiculturalism), reasons for violent crime and terror (unemployment and poverty rather than awful values), the promotion of self-esteem in schools, early sex education, early withdrawal from Iraq, and just about every other major social issue.
In each case, just as in the disastrous invitation to Ahmadinejad, liberals feel good about their intentions and therefore about their decisions. But few, if any, of those decisions are wise. This is not surprising. A generation whose primary goals have included overthrowing Judeo-Christian values, which once said, "Don't trust anyone over 30," and which has rejected external moral authority (God, parents, teachers, religion) is not going to be wise. And absence of wisdom is why Columbia University and the New York Times thought inviting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a good idea.