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Monday, September 24, 2007

An Exercise in Machiavellianism

Having seen almost all of Ahmadinejad Fest '07 here at Columbia, I personally believe that the event was a huge success for both Columbia University and all who oppose Ahmadinejad's policies alike. In my opinion President Bollinger really hit the nail on the head with his introductory remarks; he invoked the need for an open intellectual debate to truly disarm malignant ideas, while unabashedly attacking Ahmadinejad for his positions on the Holocaust, Israel, civil rights for homosexuals and women, nuclear proliferation, and more. Bollinger went so far as to directly insult Ahmadinejad, calling him "dangerously uneducated" while noting his resemblances to a "petty and cruel dictator." He reminded all observers that as a prestigious forum for important ideas and debates, Columbia's invitation to the otherwise reprehensible Ahmadinejad does not amount to Columbia's approval of any of those ideas, but merely a desire (if not a responsibility) to engage those ideas on their own terms in order to expose their lunacy. Bollinger noted with some clairvoyance that even if Ahmadinejad danced around every question, it would demonstrate to critical thinkers in Iran that Ahmadinejad is avoiding these questions because he lacks of a reasoned response. This front for attack on Ahmadinejad had been tragically underutilized and the event today was an excellent step in the right direction.

Ahmadinejad started off by registering his disdain for the "insults" that Bollinger had slung, and proceeded to make a few "in my country" statements about manners and the proper decorum when one invites guests. As to what Ahmadinejad substantively said (if the shoddy translator was a fair representation, which is subject to some serious doubt, I imagine), his comments reinforced his image of a dictator armed with a copy of Noam Chomsky's latest book. He started his comments by claiming to be a scholar more than anything and launched into a relatively benign discussion of the purposes of science from an Islamic point of view, with convoluted statements about how science is really the pursuit of truth, which is misguided when it seeks after material truths, which are inferior to the spiritual truths that Islam has to offer. Then, he acted indignant at the "insults" that Bollinger had heaped upon him, but refused to address any of his allegations directly, with the exception of the nuclear proliferation (he claimed total compliance with IAEA requirements).

Most of his comments were an exercise in sleight of hand. He would respond to direct questions with questions of his own that were at best tangentially related to the original question, and almost always seemed to be an evasion of a simply put, direct question to him. His responses had the distinct flavor of a liar who denies undeniable factual conditions in order to advance his clearly illusory image of the world. Essentially, one could tell that he was lying through his teeth, even if you came to the debate from a fairly neutral point of view (and if so, I'd like to meet you). Most of his comments were an exercise in sleight of hand. If asked a question directly on the state of affairs in Iran, he would point his finger at the flaws of the United States. One poignant example was when he was asked about civil rights and capital punishment for women and homosexuals, and he responded that capital punishment existed in America, so why shouldn't it exist for those who had committed grave offenses (he cited drug trafficking as an example here). The moderator pressed the point further and asked about homosexuality very directly, and Ahmadinejad said, "In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I do not know who told you that we have it." On nuclear proliferation, he claimed that the United States was the real party responsible for dangerous proliferation, while Iran was only pursuing peaceful energy programs. His strategy is certainly understandable, since he was making some legitimate criticisms of certain American and Israeli policies, but came across as a total hypocrite because of the effective moderator, who ensured that the focus was on his policies, not anyone else's.

On the more contentious issues, the Holocaust and current policy towards Israel, Ahmadinejad attempted to be even more elusive. His comments on the Holocaust amounted to an extreme form of intellectual relativism, in which he claimed that there can be no absolute historical truth, which always gives legitimacy to any further efforts to reexamine the past. Again, he attempted to marshal some other positive value (education) for his Holocaust denial conferences, and other efforts to that effect. He specifically connected Holocaust studies to invoke the need to reexamine policy towards Palestinians and whether their current condition is justified based on the existence of the Holocaust (implying that the Holocaust is internationally accepted as the only legitimate reason for Jews to occupy the state of Israel). However, one major point in this event was that Ahmadinejad acknowledged that the Holocaust occurred as a historical fact. He did call for more investigations, but nonetheless conceded this fundamental point. On his Israel policy, he was asked a direct question on whether he seeks the destruction of the Jewish state currently controlling Israel, and he again responded with attention only paid to the plight of Palestinians and claimed that their condition needs to be defended, but did not answer the question at all.

For a man who was so upset about the "insults" slung at him by President Bollinger, he didn't even have the manners to respond to the questions put to him; he avoided most questions and answered with the voice of a hypocrite for the rest. It seems as though President Bollinger's hope, that Ahmadinejad would be ridiculed and exposed as the "dangerously uneducated...cruel and petty dictator" he really is has come true.

I think Columbia won out on this gamble, but I don't speak for the Federalist Society as a whole, and am more than willing to entertain a discussion for those who disagree. Comments are open.


Blogger Liberaltarian said...

To follow up, writers from both the prestigious Volokh Conspiracy and the even more prestigious Fark.com have been putting out positive reactions to the event today. Hopefully, the rest of the news media will follow suit.

3:39 PM  
Blogger Andy said...

I'm boggled by his comment that there's no homosexuality in Iran. It would, of course, be impossible for him to be unaware of the actions of religious police in Iran, religious police who are currently executing gays.

From what I read on the wiki-internets (apply salt liberally), sexual orientation is an alien concept to many in Iran, just as it would be to many in Elizabethan England or Ancient Greece. Randy stuff might happen in Iran, but these acts would not make someone other than heterosexual in the eyes of Ahmadinejad. (Of course, so characterized, Ahmadinejad's beliefs are barely a stone's throw away from the views of ex-gay groups currently active in the US.)

Fine, so there are no gays in Iran. But if you've defined them out of existence, why do you claim that these non-existent people are present in the West? Well, this is just more of the same chauvinism that Ahmadinejad displays at every turn. Gays in Western society? Naturally this must do with some polluting factor poisoning our souls. To Ahmadinejad's mind, this appears to be the only rational argument.

9:12 PM  
Blogger PG said...

The Iranian government actually takes a rather complicated view of homosexuality, in that perhaps someone who thinks he is attracted to a man is actually a woman trapped in a man's body. Once she is freed from the male body, she can marry and have sex with the man she desires.

I'd personally rather be celibate than have to live as a woman in Iran, but not everyone feels that way.

9:41 PM  

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