[Chet has forced me to place a temporary moratorium on Memphis-themed posts to this blog. But it's only temporary.]
I was tied up with Merleau-Pontyans shortly after the Columbia University speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but I did actually watch his speech in its entirety on CSPAN and wanted to offer my $0.02 on some of his criticisms (and the way it was subsequently taken up in American media).
A prefatory remark: if I wasn't already disciplined and conditioned by our domestic media to be suspicious of Ahmadinejad, I think I would have been very impressed with him on the basis of his Columbia University speech. He certainly wasn't the raving lunatic that we've been trained to expect. He showed poise in the face of significant hostility from his hosts--you may remember that he was introduced by Columbia University President Lee Bollinger as "exhibit[ing] all of the signs of a cruel and petty dictator"--and he repeatedly insisted on framing the forum as a conversation between intellectuals, frequently appealing to his audience's sense of academic integrity. Of course, we all know that rhetorical skill can easily mask what is otherwise repulsive content, but Ahmadinejad should be credited for his restraint.
You can read the entire transcript of Ahmadinejad's visit to Columbia here. There's too much there for me to attempt a point-by-point commentary, so let me just address the two main issues that were taken up in the media after the event. First, contrary to media reports, Ahmadinejad did not deny that the Holocaust happened in that speech. The majority of his remarks in reference to the Holocaust were framed in the context of an appeal for "responsible" scholarship. Ahmadinejad claimed that the Holocaust has become so sacrosanct in our (global) culture that intellectuals are forbidden from investigating the "truths" associated with it. He noted that no other "truths" are protected with the same vigilance--not in history, not in physics, not in economics, nowhere. By his reckoning, what academia desperately needs is to fill the void in scholarship surrounding the current situation and plight of Palestinians. Such scholarship, of course, would inevitably call into question the policies and right to existence of the state of Israel. As touchy as this subject may be, he is probably right about that.
Second, although Amhadinejad did in fact say that there are "no homosexuals in Iran," the context of this statement was elided. The American media reported this clip from his speech as if Ahmadinejad actually believed that homosexuals didn't exist in Iran. But what he said was "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country. We don't have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon." As much as it horrifies and disgusts me to think of the manner in which homosexuals are treated in Iran, I can understand how what Ahmadinejad said was, in a sad way, true. In Iran, they don't have homosexuals like in our country. That is, in Iran, they don't have a homosexual "problem"-- because, in Iran, unlike in our country, homosexuals are not allowed to rise to the status of a "problem." Think of it this way: Most people here in the United States would say that "we don't have slaves in our country. We do not have this phenomenon." Of course, that's not true. (If you don't believe that human trafficking and slavery are still a "problem" in the United States, see here, here , and here. Or read Kevin Bale's excellent study Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy.) Most of us know, somewhere deep down inside, that such atrocities still occur here, but we would have probably answered the question the same way that Ahmadinejad did.
Last point, tthe media failed to address any of the legitimate criticisms that Ahmadinejad leveled against the U.S. in his speech and chose instead to focus on these two points that seemed both ignorant and ridiculous. The fact is, though, that the majority of Ahmadinejad's address was aimed at calling into question the United States' (political, economic and ideological) hegemony. This reminded me of a similar phenomenon a few years back after South African President Thabo Mbeki claimed that HIV doesn't cause AIDS. The way that was reported was as if Mbeki was simply a "backward" and ignorant simpleton, who refused to grant any authority to Western science. But the truth is, there was another omission of context going on. What Mbeki claimed was that AIDS was not merely caused by HIV-- he said that AIDS was a "disease of poverty." This, of course, is also true. And Mbeki's suspicion of Western science and Western medicine turned out to be prescient, as a couple of years later the U.S. was forced to admit that the ARV (anti-retroviral) drugs we had been sending to South Africa were experimental and were causing an immense amount of damage to the HIV-infected population we were purporting to help.
We have lost an ability to hear critical voices. Especially when those voices are coming from Africa or the Middle East. Of course, I cannot endorse a large part of Ahmadinejad's address, nor can I endorse many of the things that Mbeki said, but it frightens me that we are so comfortable with turning them into buffoons or madmen, and then muting them altogether.