Bret Stephens, writing in the Opinion Journal, is not impressed with Columbia University's invitation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak there. He looks at their justifications and finds them seriously lacking. He imagines what an appearance by Hitler at Columbia would be like, assuming that today's academic standards were in place.
In a March 1952 essay in Commentary magazine on "George Orwell and the Politics of Truth," Trilling observed that "the gist of Orwell's criticism of the liberal intelligentsia was that they refused to understand the conditioned way of life." Orwell, he wrote, really knew what it was like to live under a totalitarian regime–unlike, say, George Bernard Shaw, who had "insisted upon remaining sublimely unaware of the Russian actuality," or H.G. Wells, who had "pooh-poohed the threat of Hitler." By contrast, Orwell "had the simple courage to point out that the pacifists preached their doctrine under condition of the protection of the British navy, and that, against Germany and Russia, Gandhi's passive resistance would have been to no avail."
Trilling took the point a step further, assailing the intelligentsia's habit of treating politics as a "nightmare abstraction" and "pointing to the fearfulness of the nightmare as evidence of their sense of reality." 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.
If you were walking about in a jungle, came across a tiger and poked it with a stick, some people might put aside obvious questions about your lack of sense (or sanity) and think you were brave. Past tense, of course, since the praise would likely be posthumous. If you were walking through a zoo, came across that same tiger in a cage and poked it with a stick, you'd be up on felony animal abuse charges – if the crowd at the zoo let you live long enough. Longtime readers might recognize that analogy, I have used it before when discussing the "comedy" routine Stephen Colbert used at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006.
We have already seen how this all is playing out in the world press. Yeah, Bollinger either rope-a-doped Ahmadinejad or ambushed him, depending on your interpretation. Yeah, he spoke truth to power and called Ahamdinejad what he indeed is, a petty tyrant. But the point is that Hitler in 1939 was not much more than a petty tyrant, either. As Stephens puts it after imagining that hypothetical 1939 talk by Adolph at Columbia:
So there is Adolf Hitler on our imagined stage, ranting about the soon-to-be-fulfilled destiny of the Aryan race. And his audience of outstanding Columbia men are mostly appalled, as they should be. But they are also engrossed, and curious, and if it occurs to some of them that the man should be arrested on the spot they don't say it. Nor do they ask, "How will we come to terms with his world?" Instead, they wonder how to make him see "reason," as reasonable people do.
In just a few years, some of these men will be rushing a beach at Normandy or caught in a firefight in the Ardennes. And the fact that their ideas were finer and better than Hitler's will have done nothing to keep them and millions of their countrymen from harm, and nothing to get them out of its way.
You do not give evil a soapbox. Poking a tiger in a cage is not confronting evil.