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.
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."
All of this was bad enough, but the almost willful refusal of commentators in the American media to provide their audiences with insight into just how sinister Ahmadinejad really is compounded the problem. There are a couple of reasons for the media's general refusal to engage with radical Islamic revivalists, like Ahmadinejad. He belongs to a particularly aggressive school of radical Shiite Islam, the Haghani, which lives in expectation of the imminent coming of the Madhi, a kind of Islamic messiah, who will bring peace and justice -- along with universal Islamic rule -- to the entire world. Serious members of this school -- and Ahmadinejad, who was a brilliant university student, is a very serious member -- believe they must act to speed the Mahdi's coming. "The wave of the Islamic revolution" would soon "reach the entire world," he has promised.
As a fundamentally secular institution, the American press always has had a hard time coming to grips with the fact that Islamists like the Iranian president mean what they say and that they really do believe what they say they believe.
Finally, there's the fact that the neoconservative remnants clustered around Vice President Dick Cheney are beating the drums for a preemptive military action against Iran before it becomes a nuclear nation, as North Korea already has, thereby constraining U.S. policy in northwest Asia. After being duped by the Bush administration into helping pave the way for the disastrous war in Iraq, few in the American media now are willing to take the Iran problem on because they don't want to be complicit in another military misadventure.
Fair enough -- but that anxiety doesn't exempt the press from being realistic about who Ahmadinejad really is and the danger he really does pose to all around him.