"But war, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice – a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice – is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

"The Devil came here yesterday"

To quote the words of the immortal Hugo Chavez; and perhaps President Bollinger of Columbia University still has a whiff of sulpher about him. I refer, of course, to the appearance of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad yesterday in the bastion of academic freedom known as Columbia; a place so free-thinking, in fact, that its president would have invited Hitler to speak there (though he wisely draws the line at allowing groups more repressive than Hitler or Ahmadinejad on campus, like the Reserve Officer Training Corps. Because ROTC and the American military insist on the oppressive, exclusionary, and authoritarian policy of "don't ask, don't tell" concerning homosexuals, whereas Hitler simply killed his gays and Iran, blessed state that it is, doesn't even have any).

In some ways, the Iranian president's speech and the events surrounding it were quite educational. We saw that Mr. Bollinger had the courage to denounce his guest speaker as a "petty and cruel dictator", though not the courage of simply refusing to host him. My heartstrings were tugged a little for poor Mahmoud; expecting a warm reception, he was instead torpedoed by the very man who invited him there. Fortunately, the academic audience made up for the rocky introduction by giving him many rounds of applause. Educational indeed. Mr. Ahmadinejad almost made it abundantly clear to anyone who'd missed his earlier speeches and pronouncements that he has no interest in a truly democratic back-and-forth, preferring instead to recycle high-minded soundbites about freely exploring "alternate ideas" on the Holocaust while side-stepping hard questions about his repression of women and minorities, his nuclear program, and his increasingly well-documented proxy war against American forces in Iraq.

Mostly, however, we saw nothing we haven't seen before. His performance was not unique, save for the forum in which it was delivered. He has said virtually everything we heard yesterday before, and if by now people haven't figured out that he's a tyrant cloaking himself in the rhetoric of democracy, they never will. The fact that he was even invited, as a foreign potentate, to attend an academic institution that claims to cherish free speech enough to host a dictator while banning truly democratic American groups, simply reinforces the well-known hostility to most things American by our learned intelligentsia.

One thing stood out in my mind, particularly concerning the comparison between Ahmadinejad and Hitler. Hitler probably wouldn't have attended a similar forum because he never pretended to be anything other than what he was. He was obsessed with raw power, and all his public displays with marches, uniformed legions, and tools of war reflected that. He truly dictated, never taking questions from an audience or espousing democratic pretensions. Ahmadinejad is a slyer snake in the grass, championing freedom of speech and democracy abroad while quashing it at home. He's a poor public speaker, as yesterday demostrated; he rambles on, contorts his points, clumsily and obviously ducks questions, answering either with falsehoods or more questions. But oh, the pretensions he gives: the hurt at being insulted by his host, his humble academic background, his respect for science and the search for "light and truth", the many references not only to Mohammed but Moses and Christ Himself, his desire for self-determination for the nations of the world, the generosity of inviting any American student to visit an Iranian university, his willingness to field questions in a forum of academic inquiry.

How much farther could Hitler have gotten in the world if he'd wrapped himself in a similar cloak? Ahmadinejad's rhetoric is just silken and clever enough to fool two groups of people: the generally foolish and uninterested, and those full enough of self-loathing for their own culture that they're happy to be fooled by anyone who criticizes it. He is a different kind of devil from Hitler. Hitler was a brazen demon, who declared his intentions to the world and dared people to stop him. Ahmadinejad is the devil who convinces the world he doesn't exist. His is the greater trick and perhaps, in the long run, the greater danger.

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