Larry Summers Can Come to My House Any Time

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published October 03, 2007, issue of October 05, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Here’s something to think about (I think): Imagine that an acknowledged world-class economist, a former secretary of the Treasury and former president of a major institution of higher education, is invited to present a lecture to the board of a university. Imagine that there are protests from some professors at the university who object to various comments the economist has made in the past.

Imagine further that the chairman of that board, both as a matter of conviction (and perhaps as well for fear that the controversy over the invitation might depress the university’s fundraising), decides that the form of his introduction will be an indictment of the economist’s views on a variety of subjects and will include as well an array of ad hominem insults. Indeed, the board chair demands that the economist apologize for his controversial views.

Sounds vaguely familiar, no? But only vaguely, because I have here conflated two events that occurred in temporal proximity to each other: the by-now notorious appearance of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia University and his introduction there by Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, on the one hand, and the disinvitation of former Harvard president Larry Summers by the trustees of the University of California, where Summers had been invited to address a meeting of the regents of the university.

You may have missed the Summers episode. He was to have spoken to a University of California Board of Regents meeting in Sacramento, but a group led by female professors at nearby University of California, Davis, objected: “Inviting a keynote speaker who has come to symbolize gender and racial prejudice in academia conveys the wrong message to the university community and to the people of California.”

Summers came “to symbolize gender and racial prejudice” during his tenure as president of Harvard, where molehills are easily transformed into mountains. Summers had offered an inept suggestion to explain the underrepresentation of women in tenured positions in science and engineering in America’s top universities, and had earlier provoked an easily provocable black professor. But neither Summers’s tin ear nor his brass mouth render him a plausible “symbol of prejudice.”

Ahmadinejad “yes” and Summers “no”? The differences between the two would seem to point in exactly the opposite direction.

My own instinct back when Columbia’s invitation to Ahmadinejad hit the news was to apply Justice Louis Brandeis’s classic dictum, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” What better way to discredit the Persian thug than to give him the platform to discredit himself, which he was sure to do?

Then, however, I read the words of David Schizer, dean of Columbia’s Law School, and thought they had much merit: “This event raises deep and complicated issues about how best to express our commitment to intellectual freedom, and to our free way of life. Although we believe in free and open debate at Columbia and should never suppress points of view, we are also committed to academic standards. A high-quality academic discussion depends on intellectual honesty but, unfortunately, Mr. Ahmadinejad has proven himself, time and again, to be uninterested in whether his words are true. Therefore, my personal opinion is that he should not be invited to speak.”

So, as happens with depressing frequency, I was torn, relieved that it wasn’t my call to make.

And then came the Ahmadinejad introduction by Bollinger, a rip-roaring rudeness that had me cheering (the words) and cringing (the occasion). If all that Bollinger had to say about Ahmadinejad is true — and I believe it is — then how in the world can the invitation have been justified?

If you know in advance, in an academic institution, that the person you’re inviting lacks “the moral courage” to speak the truth, that he “exhibit[s] all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator,” that he is “ridiculous,” “either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated,” has a “fanatical mindset,” is given to “preposterous and belligerent statements” — if all that is so, then inviting him is for purposes of a freak show, not an academic convocation.

If, as Bollinger did, you feel compelled to tell your guest that your purpose is “to embarrass sensible Iranian citizens” so that he and his party will be defeated back home — then please, don’t drape the event with highfalutin language about the importance of free speech. I am very nearly an absolutist on free speech, but that does not mean I believe that anyone must be invited to speak everywhere.

But then comes my inner Tevye and says, “On the other hand.” On the other hand, Ahmadinejad did perform as expected, did discredit himself. The one utterly straightforward response he gave to the set of rather flabby questions that were put to him, when he claimed there are no homosexuals in Iran — “in Iran, we don’t have this phenomenon” — was indeed preposterous, and appropriately begat derisive hoots from the audience.

And his remarks and responses to a variety of other questions offered overwhelming evidence of a pattern of thought so thoroughly half-baked that it managed to be both raw and overcooked at the same time, a mind that travels a road of nothing more than ruts and off-ramps. I have, from time to depressing time, had students who resemble him, not by virtue of their evil but by virtue of their inability to think systematically, preferring instead to think wholly in tangents. Such students were invariably a lost cause.

I can say these things without apology because I have not invited and would not invite Ahmadinejad to speak in my house; he is not my guest, I owe him no special courtesy. And while on balance I am personally grateful to Columbia for mounting this sinister amusement, I conclude, sadly, that the idea was both mistakenly conceived and crudely executed.

Larry Summers? He can come any time.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.