Much ado about nothing

On the surface, it has the trappings of a controversial historical event. Ahmadinejad assents to visit Columbia University, protestors of all stripes camp outside the gates, Lee Bollinger springs a rhetorical ambush on him, Ahmadinejad cries foul, public opinion is inflamed and polarized. Fierce debates ensue: Is Bollinger in the service of Neocon and Israeli interest groups? Was the invitation a stage for Ahmadinejad to legitimize his infamous views? Did Bollinger’s critical introduction backfire and allow Ahmadinejad to steal the mantle of advocate of free speech? What happened at Columbia on Monday has spiraled far beyond the well-manicured grounds of the Morningside Heights campus, and like a steroid-fuelled game of Telephone, has totally changed its meaning.

Only I am not sure what all the fuss is about-this was a carefully planned and staged event that both sides were privy to in advance. After withdrawing Lisa Anderson’s 2006 invitation to Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia, Bollinger sent a conditional invitation to Ahmadinejad, which he accepted. It was known well in advance (in fact posted on the Columbia website) that Bollinger supported the event insofar as he would be able to speak frankly and level critical questions about sensitive topics (e.g. detained scholars and journalists, homosexuality, the nuclear issue, the Israel comments). Was Bollinger perfect? Far from it. Could he have made his remarks more eloquent without the Geraldo Rivera-like personal comments? Absolutely. But he spoke truth to power, and his choice to make the opening salvo that of the issue of Iran’s repression of its own people, journalists, and scholars deserves nothing but praise. No one else has said that to an official of the Islamic Republic and escaped unscathed. Bollinger, for his part, may have transformed the symbolic power of the Islamic Republic by asking about issues that affect Iranian journalists, women, dissidents, scholars, minorities, etc.—he transgressed discursive taboos in Iranian politics and correctly predicted that Ahmadinejad would not clearly answer those questions. Whether this act will have constitutive effects on political discourse in both the US and Iran remains to be seen. Will this event, similar to the reformist press of the late 1990s, open discursive space for Iranians to level similar questions against officials of the Iranian government?

In his rebuttal, Ahmadinejad invoked Iranian traditions of hospitality to guests and spent 15 minutes of his allotted time speaking vaguely about knowledge and science as God’s gifts to mankind, and how some put these gifts to misuse, or seek to deny others those gifts, at times clumsily dancing around concrete questions directed at him. This allows for speculation and interpretation as to “what he really means” and Orientalist tropes about the meaning of metaphor and allegory in the Persian language and that kind of conjectural bullshit. He stressed his credentials as an academic and denied homosexuality in Iran, drawing jeers and laughter from inside the auditorium and a roar of disbelief outside from the crowd assembled between Butler and Low Hall. He elicited applause and cheers with his remarks about Palestinians paying the price for European transgressions against the Jews. And many listeners in the crowd cheered his remarks in defense of Iran’s position vis-à-vis the US on the nuclear issue, myself included. People there actually listened to his statements and evaluated his comments in a civil fashion according to their own beliefs, and that was amazing to witness.

And then it was over-the event ended and the campus seemingly went about its business, while the media and the pundits were just getting started. Ahmadinejad’s visit was billed as the powerful devil incarnate sullying an Ivy League campus with his message of hate and intolerance. Ahmadinejad’s visit has since been overshadowed by Bollinger’s remarks to him, which have been characterized as rehashing a laundry list of US and Israeli complaints. Personally, I understood them as a textbook, if occasionally clumsy, exercise in free speech and did not take offense to them as many others seem to have done so.

Was Monday’s event truly significant? Ahmadinejad wields no real power (control of the military, power to declare war and peace, etc.) in Iran and yet has emerged as the IRI’s point man on distracting attention away from the real issues by repeatedly pushing the US and Israel’s buttons on topics that excite passion rather than elicit reason. Symbolic meaning and stature has been accorded to him and his political position in Iran that do not exist materially or constitutionally–his power, appeal, and importance have largely been generated external to Iran by his own vaguely constructed statements about Israel and the Holocaust and the “Western” media’s inability (or refusal) to aggressively decode his comments. A living self-fulfilling prophesy, Ahmadinejad has successfully molded himself in a symbolic power that does not exist in real life, thus transforming the reality of his position. The resulting effect of this transformation can be seen in all the discussions that have followed his visit to Columbia–more is made of a largely ceremonial leader’s visit to Columbia than of the very issues he was to be questioned on. Symbolism eclipses reality in order of importance. Ahmadinejad knew what he was getting into, and so any surprise or offense taken to Bollinger’s remarks is pure performance, albeit masterful. The visit itself has taken the issues hostage, diverting attention away from them and leaving them unfinished and underdiscussed. Most commentaries struggle to determine who was right and who was wrong, rather than to dig deeper into the program of discussion. The symbolism of the event, with all of its spectacle, has eclipsed the original reality. What theater!

In the end, it was an interesting day-although the reactions to the event interest me far more than what was said and what remained unsaid during Ahmadinejad’s brief hour on stage. This was no courtroom trial or cross-examination, it was all good times. Despite the appearance of and even yearning for controversy, both Bollinger and Ahmadinejad came away with a handsome quid pro quo, generating a tremendous amount of publicity and cultivating their symbolic power in the public eye. Dr. Bollinger, as an avid defender of academic free speech who took a risk by inviting a notorious leader to speak at his school, and Dr. Ahmadinejad, as an avid defender of free speech who took a risk by agreeing to a no-holds-barred appearance at on of the elite centers for higher education in the United States. As the talk drew to a close, there were no hard feelings, and even rumblings of a sequel. Bollinger announced plans to lead a delegation to Iran, and Ahmadinejad thanked his audience and invited all and any Columbia students and faculty to come visit Iran and participate in similar exchanges. To my counterparts in Iran: Good luck getting seats for Lee Bollinger at Tehran University. >>>Photos

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