To put this in the context of Mr. Coatsworth's hypothetical, Trilling might have said that in hosting and perhaps debating Hitler, Columbia's faculty and students would not have been "confronting" him, much as they might have gulled themselves into believing they were. Hitler at Columbia would merely have been a man at a podium, offering his "ideas" on this or that, and not the master of a huge terror apparatus bearing down on you. To suggest that such an event amounts to a confrontation, or offers a perspective on reality, is a bit like suggesting that one "confronts" a wild animal by staring at it through its cage at a zoo.Can anyone imagine an Adolph Hitler "engaging" in an honest debate, ready to be persuaded by anything that the good students of Columbia might say to him?
And, of course, the Hitler of the 1930s wouldn't have been telling American students about his plans to invade his neighbors or try to exterminate the continent's Jewish population. He would have spoken of his peaceful intentions and his country's righteous complaints about the Treaty of Versailles. He would have spoken about the economic strength of Germany and all that he was doing to build his country up again. He would have seen a reasonable man. Would that have made him a reasonable man.
There is this self-deceptive naivete today that thinks that all we need to do is reason with our enemies and that we can avoid conflict. You see it in the strong support that the United Nations has despite all the evidence to the contrary about their efficacy in stopping conflicts. You see it in the 9/11 Commission's beliefs that we must engage with Iran to solve the strife in Iraq. You see it in the belief that somehow there is some non-military solution to the problems between the Hamas and Israel if the sides could just sit down and talk.
I hear my high school students express these thoughts all the time. Well, they're just teenagers who don't know much world history. My husband asked last night if I could think of one example from world history when an aggressor nation was stopped by talk. Even all the compromises over slavery in our nation's history just served to forestall the eventual outbreak of war. This idea that you can "reason" and "debate" with someone whose ideas are inimical to your own and somehow reach some sort of peaceful accomodation that will end all possibility of conflict is just so naive. As if there was anything that anyone could have said yesterday at Columbia that made Ahmadinejad go home and stop cracking down on student protestors in Iran or stop funding and arming fighters in Iraq or stirring up trouble in Lebanon.
More good commentary from Caroline Glick, a graduate of Columbia,
What matters is that by inviting Ahmadinejad to its campus, Columbia University announced that supporting or opposing the genocide of the Jews is a legitimate topic for discussion. In so doing, as an institution Columbia has taken itself beyond the pale of legitimate discourse.And from Anne Applebaum,
Ahmadinejad's agenda, though, differs from that of the traditional autocrat. His goal is not merely to hold power in Iran through sheer force, or even through a standard 20th-century personality cult: His goal is to undermine the American and Western democracy rhetoric that poses an ideological threat to the Iranian regime. Last winter, when he invited a host of dubious Holocaust-deniers to discuss the Holocaust in Tehran, he claimed that it was in order to provide shelter for the West's "dissidents" -- that is, for Western thinkers "who cannot express their views freely in Europe about the Holocaust." This week, he declared that his visit to New York would help the American people, who have "suffered in diverse ways and have been deprived of access to accurate information." Thus the speech at Columbia: Here he is, the allegedly undemocratic Ahmadinejad, taking questions from students! At an American university! Look who's the real democrat now!
This sort of game is both irritating and dangerous, particularly when it is being played by a man whose regime locks up academics for the " crime" of organizing academic conferences and regularly arrests the Iranian equivalent of the students who listened to him speak yesterday. Iran is experiencing an unprecedented wave of political executions and death sentences -- more than 300 since January, according to the Boroumand Foundation -- and there is renewed pressure on the media.
In that atmosphere, it was deeply naive to imagine that the Iranian president would enter into a "vigorous debate" with students who were deploying their "powers of dialogue and reason," as Columbia University President Lee Bollinger stated before the event, or that he would answer the appropriately aggressive questions Bollinger put to him -- which of course he didn't. (To a question about persecution of gays, Ahmadinejad responded: "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country.") All things being equal, Columbia would have done better to ignore him, instead of feeding the media circus that serves his purposes.