Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to the United States caused a lot of political static. I see the encounter as a learning opportunity and test of strength for our own expressed democratic values. As such, I give us about a C-.
The "welcome" of Columbia President Lee Bollinger was outrageous – self-serving pandering to potential political fallout. The confrontive reaction of CNN to its own expert’s criticism of the statement (“a fontal assault”) made Fox News look wimpy by comparison.
What exactly was President Bollanger’s characterization? “Exhibiting qualities of a petty dictator”, and “Being dangerously uninformed about world events.” Etiquette aside, this sounds a little close to home. He was talking about the Iranian president, wasn’t he?
Can you imagine the probable reaction to President Bush being invited to speak at a major Iranian university, and being attacked and ridiculed by the university's president in the same way?
Walking off the stage would be quite understandable, as would other manifestations of umbrage at this breach of diplomatic standards. It’s difficult to predict. As we know, our president has trouble reacting quickly to unexpected news and events. He might have just kept reading whatever he was reading.
To his credit, President Bush’s words were on target. The Iranian president’s appearance was a testimony to confidence in our system and values. We don't fear ideas that are critical of our own. I'm glad the right speechwriter was on duty that day. Good going, Mr. President! I wish I could believe he wouldn’t have squashed the whole visit, could he have done so.
To be clear, the Iranian president is quite a piece of work. His government, if not he personally, have been responsible for much persecution and pain in his own country, and quite probably terrorist attacks as far away as Argentina. I’m personally offended and sometimes frightened by his ideas that the Holocaust didn't happen and Israel shouldn't exist. If he wasn’t one of the people that invaded our embassy and took our people hostage way back when, he certainly could have been, or perhaps would have liked to be.
Buddhists have a concept that people sometimes come into our lives to facilitate our learning. President Ahmadinejad's visit forces us to rise to our own rhetoric, with regard to free speech and also our willingness to take in uncomfortable views – perhaps to improve our understanding of our place in the today’s world.
Many of the Iranian president's views challenge assumptions that many Americans have come to see as just the way things are. How can one country tell another country it can’t develop nuclear energy? Some would question the right of countries to prohibit others from even developing nuclear weapons, at least without some agreement involving those earlier nuclear countries.
How can a country self-righteously berate another country for “interference” in an adjoining co-religionist country, when that country itself has more than 150,000 troops there, having overthrown the country’s government and destroyed its infrastructure? Oh yeah, the same country that sets up “no-fly zones” in other countries and calls it aggression when those countries resist.
Some assumptions that came to be accepted by the U.S. and others, and silently tolerated by a large part of the world, are now being questioned. The questioning may begin by obnoxious, “Who-do-they-think-they-are” kind of leaders that, mercifully for us, don’t have the elegance to do it more effectively.
The most dangerous lies and slander occur under the radar, like the belief that the U.S. government was behind the 9/11 attack. For many of the current generation, especially from other parts of the world, the Holocaust, as real as it is for us, is just another historical reference – in this day of omnipresent Internet news, much of it of questionable validity.
We should welcome arguments that challenge our world view, legitimate and otherwise, coming into public view, where we can shed light for others, and perhaps learn something for ourselves. In any case, people will most remember how we act more than what anyone says about us. We make our own credibility.
If we believe in the values of the free marketplace of ideas, we must be up to countering even outrageous arguments, from Iran or Fox News. Dismissing the ideas or their presenters as “evil” doesn't cut it anymore. There are too many in today’s flatter world that don't automatically share our assumptions of “good” and “evil”.
What used to be” obvious”, isn’t so obvious anymore, even if much of it is ultimately right. Thank you, Mr. Iranian President, for our opportunity to learn something and set some records straight.
© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.