September 25, 2007

In Defense of Prickdom

The Significant Other and I enjoy each other's company tremendously. One of the things we like most is that we can't get away with intellectual laziness around each other. As she puts it:

"Bring your 'A' game, boyo: I'm worth it."

It makes for occasional awkward conversations when we have a guest or two, and they're not quite prepared to defend positions they espouse; but for us, it works. In keeping each other sharp, we end up with more rhetorical blades than just Occam's Razor to duel with.

We're having a bit of a debate now over whether the United States has a "healthy" or "unhealthy" democracy: it could be a few months before common ground emerges on this one.

And since there is no argument that is worth breaking up our marriage over, we always speak respectfully to each other, even when the demands for justification are utterly unreasonable. Sometimes, playing Devil's Advocate puts me (or her) on a precarious platform, logically speaking: so the perpetual debates enhance our sense of balance, too.

But back to the real world.

So there have been a couple examples of free speech at a couple different institutions lately. In both cases, it seems appropriate to use perhaps the most famous quote on free thinking in history:

"Monsieur l'abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write."

-Voltaire, in a letter written to M. le Riche, 1770

And I can't say I disagree with that view, though in another of the SO and my disagreements, I am more likely to consider the effect of speech on individuals or groups in society while she tends more towards individual rights of expression: I support hate laws, she opposes them. We found this difference during this gentleman's extradition hearings.


There is also such a thing as politeness.

In one case, there was a student who ended up on the sharp end of electricity; and in the other there was a world leader who received the edge of a school administrator's tongue. Where lay the difference?

Case the first:

The event was a talk by former presidential candidate John Kerry at the University of Florida. The student, Andrew Mayer, was, unfortunately, deliberately combative in his questioning, which wasn't a good approach, and he didn't have his question well prepared, even knowing that he'd only have one minute to speak. He ended up going over the one minute limit, and that gave the enforcers there the excuse to drag him away from the microphone, where things escalated to a ridiculous degree.

Was he being a bit of an obnoxious jerk? Yes.

Was he resisting arrest, fighting security, or behaving in a threatening manner to anyone? No way in hell. The most physical act he did was wave a copy of Greg Palast's Armed Madhouse; and while it's a potentially dangerous book intellectually, the copy in question was a small, yellow paperback edition, and tremendously inefficient as a club. Now, Mr. Mayer is being threatened with five years in prison for resisting arrest.

And, thanks to the brouhaha that followed, Kerry didn't have to answer the question.

(Get on Greg Palast's mailing list here: the right people will be pissed off that you did.)

Case the Second:

The current President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, recently gave a speech at Columbia University. This, naturally enough, incited plenty of debate as to whether the man should have been invited to do so, or even be allowed in the country.

Alas, much of the debate was essentially incoherent, boiling down to either outrageously uninformed ("He caused 9/11!") or spurious ("He's icky!").

Don't get me wrong: this guy is, as far as I'm concerned, a BAD MAN. He's a conservative hard liner who got into power (first as the mayor of Tehran in 2003, then president in 2005) using the invasion of Iraq as the wedge to stir up a new paranoid nationalism. With that, he's rolled back a number of freedoms in what was arguably the most liberal Arabic nation.

He's a deliberate goad and confrontationist, dividing the world into Us and Them to prompt his populace into a fight/flight response, and encouraging them to think of him as their sole chance for survival.

And he's also very, very good at telling people what they think they want to hear.


I wonder if those opposed can come up with a better statement than this, made by Lee Bollinger, the president of the university:

"[Secondly] to those who believe that this event should never have happened, that it is inappropriate for the university to conduct such an event, I want to say that I understand your perspective and respect it as reasonable. The scope of free speech in academic freedom should itself always be open to further debate. [...] I want to say, however, as forcefully as I can that this is the right thing to do, and indeed it is required by the existing norms of free speech, the American university and Columbia itself."

War is failed diplomacy.

War is the ultimate expression of failure; that we could not communicate well enough to prevent death. For communication to happen, we need to hear what other people have to say. Tragically, this includes people we don't agree with.

Of course, this doesn't mean we can't question what those people say... Again, from Mr. Bollinger:

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

And this lovely closing to his introduction:

"A year ago, I am reliably told, your preposterous and belligerent statements in this country, as at one of the meetings at the Council on Foreign Relations, so embarrassed sensible Iranian citizens that this led to your party's defeat in the December mayoral elections. May this do that and more."

An interesting (to say the least) introduction of a speaking guest, who is also the elected representative of a democratic nation (well, a theocratic republic, anyways). As some have already asked, did Bollinger invite Ahmadinejad here just to insult him? Is this some kind of Political Celebrity Roast? If so, where the heck is Patton Oswalt?

At heart, to invite someone to present their side of a story only to trot out their criminal record for the audience immediately before they speak is tremendously dickish behaviour.

And I'm okay with that.

Because what the president of Columbia University said about the President of Iran wasn't hearsay, and it wasn't rumour, and it wasn't simple malice: it was all straight forward fact, on public record and available to any person who wished to look. Information is never a bad thing: and unlike John Kerry, there would be little in the way of distractions to prevent the Iranian leader from responding. In fact, he would be given two hours to do so, if he wished.

But wait - aren't I the same person who criticized Mr. Mayer's being a dick?


Excuse me while I slip on the tap shoes...

Part of the answer is what, or rather who, Ahmadinejad represents: he is an official representative of the nation of Iran. It is extremely important to communicate with that nation, as the frank belligerence he is projecting has been often disguised in his speeches, and must be revealed and countered so those people around the world (including in his home nation) can hear and see what our (the west's) view on those words actually is.

When he is here, the eyes and ears of the Arabic nations will turn here, too; this also happens when the leaders of our nations travel to foreign countries. Even if film or radio is edited, invariably a transcript turns up that reveals the whole of a speech, or exchange, or debate; and that can be found by everyone in the world. Without communication, there is no understanding. Without understanding, there is no diplomacy. Without diplomacy...

Mayer, on the other hand, had an important point (or three) to make, but because of either his lack of preparation or his deliberate inciting of security, he let himself become the story. For want of decorum, the point was lost.

It comes down to this: there is a time and a place for everything. Both Bollinger and Mayer had the right time and place, but Meyer did the wrong thing.


posted by Thursday at 4:44 pm


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