Center for Strategic Communication

by Kelly McDonald

On September 24 Columbia University hosted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as part of its annual World Leaders Forum series. Past guests for the series have included leaders from both US allies and competitors on virtually every continent. Following an introduction by Columbia’s President Lee C. Bollinger Ahmadinejad’s prepared were remarks followed by a question and answer session with the audience. The event, particularly Bollingers introduction, received considerable critical attention from inside and outside the university.

In a strongly worded editorial, the New York Daily News wrote that Columbia and President Bollinger were “so damnably wrong” to host the Iranian leader. The speech itself evoked considerable controversy. From the audience attending the presentation, catcalls, hissing and laughter were audible in the background and picked up by reports of the event. A recent editorial in The New York Times, Blogging Ahmadinejad in Tehran, noted the criticism of the Iranian President’s remarks even from within his own country.

While the event itself was provocative for student and community groups alike, reaction to the introduction and remarks by Columbia President Bollinger has become a story of its own. Bollinger’s blistering fifteen and a half minute introduction preceded the Iranian leader’s remarks. Focusing on what he called “a few critically important points to emphasize” Bollinger denounced human rights abuses within Iran, Ahmadinejad’s statements denying the holocaust, and his call for the destruction of Israel. When Ahmadinejad spoke next, opening with a recitation from the Qur’an and then chastising Bollinger’s introduction, his remarks were met with cheers and jeers.

Georgetown University Professor of Law and columnist Rosa Brooks argued that Bollinger’s harsh introduction was ineffectual and crude, while the Iranian leader likely gained some domestic and international popularly as he stood up to “crass American bullies.” Given the criticism heaped upon himself and his university for hosting President Ahmadinejad, Bollinger’s introductory remarks warrant closer scrutiny. The withering charges he leveled against Ahmadinejad illustrate what the late literary critic Kenneth Burke described as “scapegoating.”


“Scapegoating” comes from Burke’s Iron Law of History, where he wrote that “Order leads to Guilt, Guilt Needs Redemption [and] Redemption needs a Redeemer” (Rhetoric of Religion, p. 4-5). The redeemer, as in the biblical story of Abraham and his son Issac, is the vessel which takes on the sins of an individual or group. Purification, or restoration of order, is achieved through sacrifice of the redeemer, or what Burke termed “the kill.” This kill can be symbolic (a “fall guy”) or material (a real, bleating sacrificial lamb).

In his 1974 book, The Philosophy of Literary Form, Burke describes the “projection device” which allows for “purification by dissociation,” whereby the failures or inadequacies of a group can be piled on an individual who is then collectively shunned Order, the Secret, and the Kill.” He argues that humans are socialized toward a devotion to the kill through language and symbol systems, that we are focused on the maintenance or restoration of Order; and that the true motives of sacrifice may be concealed or manipulated (p. 264-266). It is in the context of Burke’s notions of scapegoating and the maintenance of Order that Bollinger’s comments take on significance.


Prior to his term as the nineteenth President of Columbia University, Lee C. Bollinger’s career as teacher, researcher, and administrator focused on the first amendment and free speech. Author of The Tolerant Society and Images of a Free Press, Bollinger’s bona fides as a free speech advocate and internationalist are without question. In 2003, he helped oversee the launch of the World Leaders Forum, among many efforts to increase Columbia’s global outreach.

The Columbia President’s credentials allow him to sacrifice Ahmadinejad – his “projection device” – to purge his collective and individual guilt over Columbia’s invitation to the Forum and his own image as a staunch free speech advocate. Noting that he is “only a professor [feeling] all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for,” Bollinger positions himself as the collective voice for those whose disdain would sacrifice the foreign leader and his ideology. He referred to the Iranian president as likely lacking “the intellectual courage” to address the issues he raised, predicted that Ahmadinejad’s “fanatical mindset” would “embarrass sensible Iranian citizens,” and forecast continued electoral defeats for the President’s party. Bollinger portrayed the Iranian President as a leader pushed out by the world community and his own nation.

Before providing Ahmadinejad the Forum to speak to the assembled audience and the world, Bollinger raked him over the coals. The significant issues he raised in his speech were contradicted by the fact that Bollinger was providing a venue for the leader’s remarks, but that very contradiction allowed him to make his “kill.” Bollinger’s disgust with Ahmadinejad was meant to isolate him and constrain his remarks. Aiming for redemption for himself and those he claimed to represent, Bollinger dissociated Ahmadinejad and made him the vessel of our collective frustrations by naming him the scapegoat: “Mr. President you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator.” Through his attacks on President Ahmadinejad and his apologies to those who might be hurt by the leader’s presence and remarks on campus, Bollinger was able to restore Order for himself and his university with many communities – both foreign and domestic – who were unsettled by the guest’s appearance.

Tragically, though, his introduction may have served the Iranian President’s goals better than Bollinger’s own by amplifying the rhetorical skill President Ahmadinejad demonstrated in the Columbia forum. While Bollinger’s points were damning, President Ahmadinejad cleverly averted addressing their substance. He also contained and deflected much of Bollinger’s criticism by linking his personal treatment to that of his nation in world forums. From Ahmadinejad’s point of view, the two speeches were only further evidence of brutal American attack and heroic Muslim defense.

Bollinger underestimated the skill of the scapegoat. As I, and others, have argued elsewhere, we must very carefully listen to Ahmadinejad and then respond with closely engaged, culturally appropriate and timely strategic messages. Bollinger’s openly challenging, oppositional and isolating framework, despite being cloaked in an offer of a podium, meant only that another moment for effective strategic communication was lost.

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