There’s an old game in my closet called Melody Dicer. They gave you a bunch of single measures of Mozartean piano music, each one with a number. Rolling the dice, you strung together your own sonata. Inevitably each tune sounded the same.
I debated Columbia President Lee Bollinger once, on Affirmative Action.
I took my standard position, that racial preferences in university admissions made sense as a temporary policy in the seventies and early eighties, but that today, a more effective and just policy would be preferences based on socioeconomics.
Mr. Bollinger played Melody Dicer. He strung together all the buzz terms: disadvantage, legacy, Still Have a Long Way to Go, segregation, opportunity, Diversity Helps People Learn, Diversity Prepares People For the World. Nothing he said addressed what I said or what anyone else has. He was parroting lines.
Yet there is nothing unique about Mr. Bollinger in this. Today’s university leaders rock the P.C. boat at their peril. They are paid to be the face of what the campus orthodoxy considers the moral way to think, all the better for fundraising. The attention Mr. Bollinger has attracted is only because of the prominence of Columbia and, previously, the court cases on racial preferences at the University of Michigan, his previous roost. University heads everywhere must do things just as Mr. Bollinger has.
Years ago one of them sought a meeting with me about Affirmative Action (long story). I said my piece, upon which the actual response was, “I know you’re right, but I can’t say that. Can you give me something to say that I could?”
As such, it certainly didn’t surprise me a couple of years ago when Mr. Bollinger watched Muslim professors engaging in verbal smackdowns with Jewish students and had nothing to say in public but boilerplate. If it had been Jewish professors doing the same to Muslim students, those professors would have been asking for change at 116th Street and Broadway a week later. But campus culture hates Israel and sees the Palestinians as Freedom Fighters. As such, Mr. Bollinger was doing well not to diss Israel outright.
However, it did surprise me to see Mr. Bollinger sucker-punching Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Monday night. Given the aforementioned campus culture and Mr. Bollinger’s previous ordinarinesses, we had all right to assume that Mr. Bollinger was shoring up anti-Israel bias in the name of “dialogue” in the university, and so hell-bent on that as to let pass little things like Mr. Ahmadinejad’s unenlightened notions about the Holocaust, homosexuality, and women, his waging war by proxy with this nation, and so on.
My, my, Dr. B. Not even just one genuflective line, but treating Iran’s cocky president like a medicine ball in an old movie. “You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated” — get him into a corner, make him choose between a rock and a hard place. Mr. Bollinger’s attacks actually treated Mr. Ahmadinejad as a human being, by assuming he has the basic intellectual equipment and moral compass as the rest of us, and judging him accordingly. Now, there’s “dialogue” for you.
I wonder if we are perhaps seeing a crack in the dam. Universities are condemned more and more as being as ideologically rigid as the orthodoxy the counterculture broke down. Smart people — or at least some of them — cannot help seeing the truth in that.
Not long ago I watched another university head make a speech in which the point was that campus diversity policies should not seek only, or even mostly, black Americans, but should focus on genuine diversity, including foreigners, poor people, rural folk.
Mind you, this was all very carefully worded, including all the buzz words despite the content. No university head could express such a message straight out in quotable form and keep their job. None of the audience questioners seemed to even pick up on the fact that they had heard a rather unique speech. However, the speech was a first step.
Mr. Bollinger’s big moment was also a first step. Few Israel-haters warmly salute Mr. Ahmadinejad’s cagey calls to wipe Israel off the map, and forget his medieval notion that no one is gay in Iran, where the ample number of gay people are given to noting that in Persian, he and she are the same word. I doubt many Columbia students have posters of Mr. Ahmadinejad up next to the one of Che Guevara.
Mr. Ahmadinejad was a relatively easy target. We can be pretty sure Mr. Bollinger would have mustered no such rhetorical firepower against Yasser Arafat. Nevertheless, I disagree with those assuming Mr. Bollinger just did a performance in the face of the criticism over his inviting Mr. Ahmadinejad in the first place. Mr. Bollinger knew what he was getting into — how could he not have, after all? No one has ever accused the man of being a cretin, and only a cretin would go home surprised at the picketing.
Mr. Bollinger took a step. That’s the best anyone in his position can do in 2007. He did it. Bravo.
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