Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Truth Hurts, Get a Helmet

Blunt? Perhaps. But also "true".

If one were to take statements issued by Iranian state radio as the holy gospel, a person would be pretty convinced that the Iranian people were deeply offended by the comments of Columbia University president Lee Bollinger, who yesterday told Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in no uncertain terms, what he thinks of him.

While the "petty" and "cruel" remarks have seemingly found the most traction in the media, Bollinger's attack was fierce, and pulled no punches.

"Over the past two weeks, your government has released Haleh Esfandi ari and Parnaz Azima and just two days ago, Kian Tajbakhsh, a graduate of Columbia," Bollinger noted. "Tajbakhsh remains in Tehran under house arrest, and he still does not know whether he will be charged with a crime or allowed to leave the country."

"The arrest and imprisonment of these Iranian-Americans for no good reason is not only unjustified, it runs completely counter to the very values that allow you to even appear on this campus," he added.

"But at least they are alive," Bollinger conceded. "According to Amnesty International, 210 people have been executed in Iran so far this year, 21 of them on the morning of Sept 5 alone."

"This annual total includes at least two children - further proof, as Human Rights Watch puts it, that Iran leads the world in executing minors."

"There is more," Bollinger continued. "Iran hanged up to 30 people this past July and August during a suppression of efforts to establish a more democratic society. These executions and others have coincided with a wider crackdown on student activists and academics accused of trying to foment a so-called 'soft revolution.'"

"Mr. President, you exhibit all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator," Bollinger asserted.

"Why have women, members of the Baha'i faith, homosexuals and so many of our academic colleagues become targets of persecution in your country?" he asked. "Why are you so afraid of Iranian citizens expressing their opinions for change?"

Bollinger after went after Ahmadinejad for his denial of the Holocaust. "In a December 2005 state TV broadcast, you described the Holocaust as 'a fabricated legend,'" Bollinger noted. "One year later, you held a two-day conference of Holocaust deniers."

"For the illiterate and ignorant, this is dangerous propaganda."

"When you come to a place like this it makes you simply ridiculous," insisted Bollinger. "You are either brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated. The truth is that the Holocaust is the most documented event in human history."

"Frankly, and in all candour, Mr President, I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions," Bollinger said, "but your avoiding them will itself be meaningful to us. I do expect you to exhibit the fanatical mindset that characterises so much of what you say and do."

"I feel all the weight of the modern civilised world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for," Bollinger concluded. "I only wish I could do better."

Iran's state radio station had its own response for Bollinger. "The surprising point of the last night meeting is the behavior of the university president," the station reported. It described Bollinger's comments as "full of insult, which was mostly Zionists' propaganda against Iran."

Seven chancellors of Iranian universities also responded to Bollinger.

"Your insult, in a scholarly atmosphere, to the president of a country with a population of 72 million and a recorded history of 7,000 years of civilization and culture is deeply shameful," the chancellors collectively insisted. "Your comments, filled with hate and disgust, may well have been influenced by extreme pressure from the media, but it is regrettable that media policy-makers can determine the stance a university president adopts in his speech."

For his part, Ahmadinejad (as Bollinger predicted) had no answers to this confrontation.

"I think the text read by the dear gentleman here, more than addressing me, was an insult to information and the knowledge of the audience here, present here. In a university environment we must allow people to speak their mind, to allow everyone to talk so that the truth is eventually revealed by all," Ahmadinejad replied.

"In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country," he claimed. "We don't have that like in your country. ... In Iran we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who's told you that we have this."

In regards to the Holocaust, Ahmadinejad had some rather predictable responses. "Why is it that the Palestinian people are paying the price for an event they had nothing to do with?" he asked. "My question was simple: There are researchers who want to approach the topic from a different perspective. Why are they put into prison? Right now, there are a number of European academics who have been sent to prison because they attempted to write about the Holocaust or research it from a different perspective, questioning certain aspects of it. My question is: Why isn't it open to all forms of research?"

One has to question Ahmadinejad's definition of an academic environment. In an academic environment (as one finds at a university), one is not expected to disregard the truth in order to allow a polite reception for anyone, even if they are an invited guest.

The very purpose of these insitutions is to disseminate information. Lee Bollinger did a masterful job of this by not only providing people with important information about the activities of Iran's oppressive regime, but by doing so in Ahmadinejad's presence he effectively did so to Ahmadinejad's face, in the public eye. Ahmadinejad's inability to effectively refute or deny the accusations against his state becomes in effect a masterfully-extracted mea culpa wherein Ahmadinejad practically admitted his state's guilt in these affairs by failing to deny them.

Ahmadinejad was also provided with something he otherwise would not have had: an opportunity to defend himself. He effectively declined, at least on the basis of the grievances raised.

Ahmadinejad (and, conveniently, Iranian state radio, its state FARS news network, and the aforementioned university chancellors) have instead chosen the response most offered by those who know they've been defeated.

They changed the subject, responding not with facts or even denials, but instead with a myriad of questions regarding media pressure, Israel, and Iraq. Some of them may be fair enough questions in their own regard, but they don't serve to explain away the many offences of Ahmadinejad's regime in Tehran.

Unsurprisingly, a statement of solidarity has been released by another authoritarian leader who cannot explain away his transgressions. "I congratulate him, in the name of the Venezuelan people, before a new aggression of the US empire," said Venezualan president Hugo Chavez.

Bollinger should accept the invitations of these individuals to meet them in an open debate, although one simply must expect that an Iranian university simply will not be a conducive site for a discussion of the Iranian regime and its various human rights abuses.

If these seven university chancellors want to confront Lee Bollinger (hopefully, along with a team of similarly informed academics), they should be more than prepared to do so at a site on neutral territory.

And the end of the day, however, the most important thing is this: if the Iranian regime is truly so offended by Bollinger's remarks (all of which happen to share the virtue of being true), they know what they need to do -- change their practices.

If they aren't willing to do so, then one hopes that there are plenty more inviduals like Lee Bollinger who are prepared to hold Iran accountable for its misdeeds. No one should feel obligated to help them hide from the truth.

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