Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Bullying Pulpit

This past Monday the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, spoke at Columbia University. There was much opposition to the invitation --and a great deal of protest. The latter is a way of life in America, an example of our freedom to speak (even if what we sometimes say is rather silly or asinine).
Columbia President Lee Bollinger -- perhaps feeling some heat for issuing the invitation -- chose to introduce his guest in the rudest of ways. In many ways he showed America at its worst -- as the bully we can often be. The Iranian President -- whose own power is limited -- showed himself to be out of touch (no gays in Iran?) and more. But as he himself noted, if one is invited to speak in Iran (that is of course a big if) one is treated with some respect. Americans seem not to understand the idea of honor/shame which is very prevalent in many cultures -- including most Islamic cultures.
The LA Times has offered to op-ed pieces the past two days that address this.
First, today, William Alexander, writes about "bad intros." He notes that they can be common place, so much so that Mark Twain chose to do his own. And so he writes:

There are rules for introducers as well, of course, and Bollinger broke several. The first, inviolate rule is: Never upstage the speaker. The introducer's role is that of catalyst, not newsmaker. The second rule, until Monday thought so obvious that it goes without saying, is: Don't insult the speaker. Bollinger's introduction was akin to pulling the welcome mat out from under his invited
guest. While he was standing on it. And the neighbors were watching.

What the world saw and heard wasn't Ahmadinejad's rambling tirade, they saw and heard a boorish American bully shaming his guest.
Rosa Brooks wrote a piece on Friday about the "Bollinger/Ahmadinejad Farce." She hits Bollinger for his so called "courage" at humiliating his guest during his intro. In the course of the event the Iranian President cme off pretty well -- globally.

Ahmadinejad was playing to global public opinion, and though he lost some PR points for incoherence and general bizarreness of message ("In Iran, we don't have homosexuals"), he gained some for coming off as a bit more mature than his prissy, infantile host. ("In Iran, when you invite a guest, you respect them," Ahmadinejad observed dryly.)

Brooks writes that Bollinger would show more courage if he were to introduce President Bush in such a way and subject the President of our country to such stern questioning. Now that would be courage.

Or -- stay with me here -- if Bollinger had invited President Bush to Columbia and made those same unvarnished remarks to him, and Bush had toughed it out and struggled to answer half a dozen unfiltered, critical questions from an audience not made up of his handpicked supporters . . . . Well, that too would have been free speech at its best.

Unfortunately, that's not the kind of thing you're likely to see in America.

It's odd, because Bush -- like Ahmadinejad -- makes plenty of statements that, to paraphrase the eloquent Mr. Bollinger, could be characterized as ridiculous, provocative, uneducated and fanatical. (Take Bush's repeated suggestion of a link between Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 attacks, for instance.) And as in the case of Ahmadinejad, some of Bush's preposterous and belligerent statements contributed to the GOP's defeat in the last elections.

That's simply not the American way! We choose to speak to power only when its someone else's loony!

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