Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The great Ivy debate

It is not everyday that the son of a poor cobbler wows the prestigious Ivy League. For starters the illustrious Columbia University – part of an elite panel of eight premier American universities where an admission makes you are the luckiest/snobbiest person on earth – decided to invite the polemic Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmad-e-Nijad. It was in the spirit of the famed American tradition of free speech.

No sooner did Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger announce his decision, all hell broke loose. Yeah, you guessed it right. The right wing media. The neo-cons. Hard line hacks. Those shrill Jewish organizations. The world attention shifted base – from the annual UN general body meeting to the Columbia campus. That is not much of a distance – Both UN HQs and Columbia are in NY -- but suddenly no one was interested in what those boring heads of states cared to say. A new stage was already set.

It was a game of brinkmanship. The atmosphere was clearly charged. Ahmadenijad came. The Columbia president was harsh in his introductory remarks. The protesters hollered. A frenzied media scanned every single pause and rune of the Iranian leader. Bollinger bollixed it up in the very beginning. He called Ahmadenijad intellectually bereft, faffing the fact that the Prez was a topper in academics and holds a doctorate in transportation engineering. In the next 40 minutes Ahmadenijad held Columbia -- and rest of the world -- captive and proved he ain't no simpleton. Ahmadenijad spoke candidly from the pulpit of America's highest academic atelier, much to the chagrin of White House, Israel Lobby and the distempered neo-con gang. And he made the Ivy dons look like complete fools.

If it was a battle of PR, the Iranians won Round-I. You can make that out from a quick gleaning of the US media. The rightwingers are clearly on backfoot, going to the extend of using swear words. [They often do that -- harass at the consecrated alter of big media, don't they] Bollinger, who is under much fire for giving the platform to Ahmadenijad began by saying, “Let's, then, be clear at the beginning, Mr. President you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator." He continued on with a litany of many of the most hot-button talking points used most often by neocon hacks but not at all proven and accepted as gospel throughout academia, or the world at large. Reading from a carefully prepared text, Lee looked like a petty, rude host and nothing more than a sidekick of the loud zionist mill.

Should Ahmadenijad have been invited to and allowed to speak at Columbia? Well, the guy is not without baggage. He has made loony, wild statements in the past but that doesn't make him an outcast. After all Bush Jr lied to his country about going to war with Iraq. Of course Mr Denijad should have been invited. The jeers come in because of Lee Bollinger's performance in berating the invited speaker. Iranian President Ahmadenijad was invited to speak. The whole affair looked in the end, and believe me this is the way it will play out in the Arab media and the Middle East as a whole, like Ahmadenijad played the Americans like fools. Ahmadenijad will be able to show how he manipulated the vaunted American Press and he will be quite correct.

Mildly chafing the Columbia dean, before begining his speech, the Prez said that 'Lee insulted the audience's intelligence because he tried to innoculate them without even listening to what I have to say'. "In universities we let people make their own opinions," he said to an applause [from a mostly hostile gathering].

Asked about Holocaust, he remarked, "Granted this happened, [but] what does it have to do with the Palestinian people?" Why should you deprive them of what is rigtfully theirs. When pressed on about why he wanted its revision, Ahmadenijad was categorical," Can you argue that researching a phenomenon is finished, forever done? Can we close the books for good on a historical event? There are different perspectives that come to light after every research is done. Why should we stop research at all? Why should we stop the progress of science and knowledge? You shouldn't ask me why I'm asking questions. You should ask yourselves why you think that that's questionable? Why do you want to stop the progress of science and research? Do you ever take what's known as absolute in physics? We had principles in mathematics that were granted to be absolute for over 800 years. But new science has gotten rid of those absolutisms. There has been more research on physics than it has on the Holocaust, but we still continue to do research on physics. There is nothing wrong with doing it.

Not exactly the best of ideas but clearly worth a thought. Ahmadenijad was challenged by another audience member that Amnesty International figures showed that people were executed in Iran this year. "Don't you have capital punishment in the United States? You do too. You inject poison, we hang those on the death row, he remarked. Simple. The student quickly slunk back in his chair. What happens is that when countries [read US] disagree with other countries [read Iran], they spread these lies, [which are nothing but lies] Ahmadenijad added for a good measure. Mostly the Iranian Prez was impressive. Only once in response to a question about gays in Iran, he appeared weak. “In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I do not know who told you that we have it.” All one can say to Ahmadenijad is "Sir, of course there are gay people in your country" - but according to every known measure, you want to hide them. Please stop giving such holier-than-thou answers.

In hindsight, Columbia University was right in inviting Ahmadenijad; we need to see these people – first hand -- because clearly, we cannot hope to ever get real information about them from the folks currently in power in the US. But Columbia suffered a black eye in this face off because of the broadside issued by Bollinger prior to Ahmadenijad’s speech. Bollinger had the entire United States reputation in his hands. He elected to make the Americans look like school children trying to score quick points to stay in the game.

As a parting shot, Ahmadenijad quipped "From this platform, I invite Columbia faculty members and students to come and visit Iran, to speak with our university students. You're officially invited and welcome. There are over 400 universities in our country. And you can choose whichever you want to go and visit. We'll give you the platform. We will have our students sit there and listen to you, speak with you, hear what you have to say. We'll respect you 100 percent. It is our culture." Columbia was rent with cheers. An ovation followed. It was the final mortification of Bollinger, albeit in a more dignified, cultured way.

And instead the despot that America loves to hate, because the big media told them so, Ahmadenijad looked more the gentleman.

Pic: Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Prez Iran