Larry Summers Can Come to My House Any Time

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published October 03, 2007, issue of October 05, 2007.
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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.

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