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Saturday, September 29, 2007

Columbia's sorry history makes Ahmadinejad a winner

When I enrolled at Columbia College in the mid-70's, no one talked about this stuff. The school had endured devastating student strikes that violently shut down the campus in 1968, 1970 and 1972, and when I enrolled in 1974, both my class and the one ahead of me had large contingents of Orthodox Jews. At the time it seemed that the college was seeking to stop the violent radicalism by taking people who would more likely be 'safe.' There was only one serious demonstration in my four years on campus (it had to do with El Salvador if I recall correctly) and not a single strike.

But Columbia's history of anti-Semitism rivals that of Harvard. Growing up in Boston, I was told that my uncle was denied entry to Harvard Medical School due to the 'Jewish quota.' Funny, he still thought it important enough to fly to Cambridge to attend the 350th anniversary reunion a few years before he passed away (he had gone to Harvard College). Harvard has nothing on Columbia as pointed out by Tim Rutten in the Los Angeles Times:
In the 1930s, Columbia was run by Nicholas Murray Butler, to whose name a special sort of infamy attaches. Butler was an outspoken admirer of Italian fascism and of its leader, Benito Mussolini. The Columbia president, who also was in the forefront of Ivy League efforts to restrict Jewish enrollment, worked tirelessly to build ties between his school and Italian universities, as well as with the powerful fascist student organizations. At one point, a visiting delegation of 350 ardent young Black Shirts serenaded Butler with the fascist anthem.

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.
But like Butler before him, points out Rutten, Bollinger came out the loser this week, unless he wanted to help boost Ahmadinejad's popularity:
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.
I disagree with the media having been 'duped' on Iraq, but I wonder how many in the American media other than Rutten are willing to look at Iran independently of what happened in Iraq. Apparently, not many.


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