Monday, September 24, 2007

In No Mood for Mahmoud

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of Iran, appeared at Columbia University in New York today. The whole city buzzed with various reactions to this event.

Some nodded approval: a civilized and free society should allow even the most despicable views to be expressed; it’s up to each individual if he so chooses to lend an ear. Others got their panties in a bunch: how dare a respectable American university give the floor to the leader of a nation that is known to harbor terrorists!

Columbia students and elected officials held a rally to protest the event. I attended Columbia from 2000-2002. During that time, I recall only one professor ever expressing his surprise that Columbia students at that time did not protest the results of the 2000 election or the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision. At that volatile time, not a hint of vibrant nor even visible political activity existed on campus.

Why now? Why this?

This morning, WNYC’s “Brian Lehrer Show” featured a discussion about Mahmoud’s Columbia visit. One part of the talk focused on academic institutions as places to exchange ideas, and radio talk show guests expressed their concern that by having Mahmoud speak at Columbia, the institution was tolerating his ideas. Columbia’s president Bollinger defended the decision, proclaimed it a reasonable gesture in an open society that extols the virtues of free speech. The talk radio guests didn’t buy this argument. The whole discussion made me wonder why Columbia’s President Bollinger is challenged with such passion by the community and today’s students? Why no news of students taking equally passionate grievances to President Bush that denounce his continuing campaign to destroy the U.S. with thoughtless foreign policies that show no regard for the possibility of civil dialogue? It would seem that Bush’s “might is right” approach to foreign policy threatens the core existence of Columbia’s School for International and Public Affairs. What distorted legacy runs through the veins of that university that allows students and the press to give voice and go nuts over certain objections and not others? The vigor that this event stirs seems to reveal a host of misplaced attention and energies, the symptoms that we are one hell-of-a distracted and deluded nation.

I wasn’t surprised by Hillary Clinton’s claim that if she were president of Columbia, she would not invite Mahmoud to speak. But her original vote to go to war with Iraq shows that when she’s in office she will not be able to come up with an effective diplomatic approach to the problem of Iran. A vote for her would be equivalent to voting for “More Of The Same” for the future. Is she eager to occupy Iran, too? How will she confront this enemy and encourage it not to pursue nuclear weapons when her approach is likely to be no less reliant on brute force? Unfortunately, Hillary comes off as showing no reverence for conflicted discussion in the academic arena; hence, this Flash Fiction blogger is loath to endorse her.

Hillary is a bit off subject, so back to Mahmoud: I would argue that after the bloodbath of these past six years, I am a tiny bit relieved at Columbia’s bold gesture: someone out there is attempting the Talking and Listening approach. Cynics won’t think it’ll work, but encouraging the dialogue approach must survive somehow!

WNYC’s “Brian Lehrer Show” invited listeners to call in with a question they’d ask Mahmoud if they could attend the talk at Columbia. One listener suggested this: it’d be even better if Mahmoud were questioned by an excellent trial lawyer rather than fielding questions from heads-in-the-clouds academics. According to the caller, a trial lawyer has the skill to use the art of questioning to make the interviewee look bad.

I’m not a trial lawyer, but in that spirit I did try to think of a question that might reveal Mahmoud as a crackpot-clumsy-drip of a leader. Here’s my question:

What useful end does Mahmoud’s “death to America” campaign serve his own economically poor people in Iran? Is this campaign misplacing his energies and effectiveness as a leader and distracting and deluding his people?

I realized through my own question and those of all the callers to the radio program that questions have a similar reflective quality as the surface of a mirror. All questions revealed as much about “Us” and about “Them.”