Friday, October 05, 2007

Deconstructing Ahmadinejad

[Chet has forced me to place a temporary moratorium on Memphis-themed posts to this blog. But it's only temporary.]

I was tied up with Merleau-Pontyans shortly after the Columbia University speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but I did actually watch his speech in its entirety on CSPAN and wanted to offer my $0.02 on some of his criticisms (and the way it was subsequently taken up in American media).

A prefatory remark: if I wasn't already disciplined and conditioned by our domestic media to be suspicious of Ahmadinejad, I think I would have been very impressed with him on the basis of his Columbia University speech. He certainly wasn't the raving lunatic that we've been trained to expect. He showed poise in the face of significant hostility from his hosts--you may remember that he was introduced by Columbia University President Lee Bollinger as "exhibit[ing] all of the signs of a cruel and petty dictator"--and he repeatedly insisted on framing the forum as a conversation between intellectuals, frequently appealing to his audience's sense of academic integrity. Of course, we all know that rhetorical skill can easily mask what is otherwise repulsive content, but Ahmadinejad should be credited for his restraint.

You can read the entire transcript of Ahmadinejad's visit to Columbia here. There's too much there for me to attempt a point-by-point commentary, so let me just address the two main issues that were taken up in the media after the event. First, contrary to media reports, Ahmadinejad did not deny that the Holocaust happened in that speech. The majority of his remarks in reference to the Holocaust were framed in the context of an appeal for "responsible" scholarship. Ahmadinejad claimed that the Holocaust has become so sacrosanct in our (global) culture that intellectuals are forbidden from investigating the "truths" associated with it. He noted that no other "truths" are protected with the same vigilance--not in history, not in physics, not in economics, nowhere. By his reckoning, what academia desperately needs is to fill the void in scholarship surrounding the current situation and plight of Palestinians. Such scholarship, of course, would inevitably call into question the policies and right to existence of the state of Israel. As touchy as this subject may be, he is probably right about that.

Second, although Amhadinejad did in fact say that there are "no homosexuals in Iran," the context of this statement was elided. The American media reported this clip from his speech as if Ahmadinejad actually believed that homosexuals didn't exist in Iran. But what he said was "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country. We don't have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon." As much as it horrifies and disgusts me to think of the manner in which homosexuals are treated in Iran, I can understand how what Ahmadinejad said was, in a sad way, true. In Iran, they don't have homosexuals like in our country. That is, in Iran, they don't have a homosexual "problem"-- because, in Iran, unlike in our country, homosexuals are not allowed to rise to the status of a "problem." Think of it this way: Most people here in the United States would say that "we don't have slaves in our country. We do not have this phenomenon." Of course, that's not true. (If you don't believe that human trafficking and slavery are still a "problem" in the United States, see here, here , and here. Or read Kevin Bale's excellent study Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy.) Most of us know, somewhere deep down inside, that such atrocities still occur here, but we would have probably answered the question the same way that Ahmadinejad did.

Last point, tthe media failed to address any of the legitimate criticisms that Ahmadinejad leveled against the U.S. in his speech and chose instead to focus on these two points that seemed both ignorant and ridiculous. The fact is, though, that the majority of Ahmadinejad's address was aimed at calling into question the United States' (political, economic and ideological) hegemony. This reminded me of a similar phenomenon a few years back after South African President Thabo Mbeki claimed that HIV doesn't cause AIDS. The way that was reported was as if Mbeki was simply a "backward" and ignorant simpleton, who refused to grant any authority to Western science. But the truth is, there was another omission of context going on. What Mbeki claimed was that AIDS was not merely caused by HIV-- he said that AIDS was a "disease of poverty." This, of course, is also true. And Mbeki's suspicion of Western science and Western medicine turned out to be prescient, as a couple of years later the U.S. was forced to admit that the ARV (anti-retroviral) drugs we had been sending to South Africa were experimental and were causing an immense amount of damage to the HIV-infected population we were purporting to help.

We have lost an ability to hear critical voices. Especially when those voices are coming from Africa or the Middle East. Of course, I cannot endorse a large part of Ahmadinejad's address, nor can I endorse many of the things that Mbeki said, but it frightens me that we are so comfortable with turning them into buffoons or madmen, and then muting them altogether.


Chet said...

Thanks for pointing this out. I had planned to blog on it, but then I read the transcript myself.

I don't think there's much to say to defend Bollinger. While these comments didn't come out of the vacuum as they were presented elsewhere, they still seem to poison the well, so to speak.

Reading the transcript was enlightening. I think in general I would be willing to offer the same latitude as do you to Ahmadinajad in his comments on the Holocaust and homosexuality.

Yet perhaps my obtuse head can't figure out what would result from these alternative accounts of the Holocaust--the research to come from this. Certainly we might talk about the aftereffects of the Holocaust. This would be an incredibly rich area of research. I suspect that, if Ahmadinejad is denying the Holocaust (his position is uncertain to me) the effects of the Holocaust would be the primary focus of his concern.

Superficially, we might say there is something fascinating about the status Hitler has above arguably more murderous, although perhaps not as ethnically systematic, figures such as Stalin or Chang Kiasheck (sp?).

Back to the lecture, I had to find his comments about the esteem of learning questionable in relation to the suppression of journalism, the university, etc. It is true that "learning" (not withstanding Leigh's most recent post) can be employed for "evil" purposes. I would take the basis for our invasion of Iraq as a case in point.

Clearly there is a lot we can say about the relation of the university to powerful institutions, the limitations of academic freedom, etc.

anotherpanacea said...

I'm glad you pointed out that our experience of Ahmadinejad is framed by a media determined to make him fearful. Nonetheless, his later rejoinder to outcry on the 'no homosexuals' line was, within that frame, hard to read as anything other than threatening:

A Voice of America correspondent, Nazzy Beglari, asked about Ahmadinejad’s statement Monday at Columbia University that there are no homosexuals in Iran. When she begged to differ, saying that she knows several Iranian homosexuals, she was met by Ahmadinejad’s laughter. ‘Give me their address’, he said with a smile.