This week, the UN General Assembly is in session in New York. AS is tradition, numerous heads of state show up and give a short speech. Bush updates his target list; Chavez gives one of his flamboyant speeches; and some who would never get a visa if it weren’t for the UN take the opportunity to engage American audiences.
One of those, in case you haven’t read the papers or watched the news for some time, is Iranian president M. Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad is not a moderate person; all that’s left of his political persona - which started out as part challenge to the Iranian establishment, part re-invigoration of the Iranian revolution - are a sharp reactionary turn domestically, and very public enmity towards the United States and Israel internationally.
Now it happens that the last time Ahmadinejad was in New York, Columbia University was going to invite him to speak, but canceled on short notice, caving to right-wing pressure. So they tried again this time, and stuck to the invitation. However, Columbia President Lee Bollinger apparently felt the need to do something to avoid losing donations and decided that he would greet Ahmadinejad with the standard litany of accusations, dressed up as questions. Echoing the standard neo-conservative talking points, he accused Iran of “being a state sponsor of terrorism”, having said that “Israel should be wiped off the map”, and “fighting a proxy war against the US” (in Iraq).
Some other accusations, regarding the oppressive policies Iran engages in against women, homosexuals and political dissidents at least had the advantage of being correct.
So far, I wasn’t surprised; anyone who knows Bollinger’s penchant for intellectual cowardice - signified by his acquiescence in the witch hunt against Columbia’s own Middle Eastern Studies faculty some years ago - wouldn’t wonder if Bollinger had made similarly aggressive remarks when Pervez Musharraf, President of Pakistan visited in 2005 (you can watch his exercise in sucking up here); or if Bollinger asked about death squads and torture in Iraq when President Jalal Talabani spoke the same year. Of course he hadn’t!
However, I was amazed by the reaction to Bollinger’s boorish behavior. Apparently, I am told, Bollinger is a hero. A hero of free speech; a hero of liberal American academia; someone who “speaks truth to power”. I suppose that’s what heroism is in this modern age: dropping bombs from 30,000 feet; lambasting invited speakers if and only if it is sure to get you brownie points with the ruling class; baiting people with ammunition so you can shoot them in the head.
The true heroes are the women demonstrating for their rights in Iran; the independent thinkers challenging the stifling intellectual climate there without falling into the role of “native informers”. They, after all, are risking a great deal. On the other side of the line, challenging dominant discourse in the US doesn’t, for most of us, risk incarceration. It is all the more disappointing when those who have a platform - like the president of a major university - use it to bravely stand up to the powerless.
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