Swans Commentary » swans.com October 8, 2007  



The Bollinger Effect: Smear And War


by Gilles d'Aymery





"The United States and its allies must reject the concept of preventive war or acts intended to provoke war."
—1954 National Security Policy signed by Dwight D. Eisenhower


(Swans - October 8, 2007)  For reasons unbeknown to me, many people in the U.S. appear to have been shocked, offended, and embarrassed by the opening remarks Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger delivered on September 24, 2007 at the SIPA-World Leaders Forum welcoming Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran. "It was in many ways," a friend wrote me, "a travesty of freedom of speech and no matter how odious the president of Iran may be, the chancellor came out of it like a pseudo-macho ruffian. It was tantamount to inviting a foreign guest to your house for dinner and then shoving his face in the soup-bowl." I was neither surprised, nor upset, and certainly not discomfited by Mr. Bollinger's disrespectful and utterly ignorant tirade, for it immediately reminded me of the Ugly American that Gerard Donnelly Smith reviewed in the last Swans issue ("The Ugliest Americans"). Mr. Bollinger, a $650,000-a-year servant of his masters performed as expected in the halls of one of the most famous Institutions of Higher Indoctrination. He repeated the relentless propaganda that the elites have been advertising (literally) to the American people through the media, the think tanks, and the governmental agencies of all tripe. When you are in the business of regime change to control oil & gas, keep your currency afloat, and foster Wall Street's greed, bring on Hitler and the Holocaust. It never fails. That Mr. Bollinger demonstrated once more the brazenness, rudeness, corruption, violence, ignorance, lies, arrogance, and blind hubris of Americana, or at least her elites, would not have particularly astounded the likes of Eugène Ionesco, Alfred Jarry, Guillaume Apollinaire, or Samuel Beckett. In the Theatre of the Absurd, nonsensical casuistry is pain quotidien. Sadly, concerned citizens don't look in their mirror. If they did, I guess, they would be frightened. They'd see their own biases.

To build our materialistic world we've had to mine the realms, destroy indigenous cultures, and walk over, through violent means, any dissenting party. We have long decided, once and for all, that we were the superior civilization. Any other culture that challenges the inherent premise must be destroyed, for the challenger does not fit the premise, the mold. It's been working for a very long time.

It's no longer working or it ought not to be working any longer. Superiority, in an age of melting ice and global warming, is becoming old real fast. But we cannot change. C. Wright Mills wrote in 1956, "In the name of realism, [the 'crackpot realists'] have constructed a paranoid reality all their own." So, whoever challenges our myopic vision is deemed a terrorist, with the Hitler analogy high up on the map of our own-constructed paranoia. We must defeat the enemy, without once again looking into the mirror. Do not ever look into the health care, the infrastructure, the education of the country. Instead, go fight scarecrows. It will support Wall Street all right. Where's Hitler when we need him?

Easy to invent: Manuel Noriega was Hitler. Sorry, Saddam Hussein was Hitler in 1991 (but not when he attacked Iran). Nope, Slobodan Milosevic was the real Hitler. Sorry again, it's Saddam Hussein after all. Or maybe, as Rumsfeld alluded, it's Hugo Chávez. Forget about them all: the latest Hitler is to be found in Iran. His name? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The event at Columbia University was indeed a travesty of freedom of speech. Actually it had nothing to do with freedom of speech. (1) The event was carefully crafted and staged to first and foremost advance the agenda of the powers-that-be (US administration and the Congress, Israeli hawks, corporate interests) that have been ratcheting the propagandistic rhetoric on their march to military confrontation with Iran. Secondly, it was set to intentionally, and appallingly, provoke the Iranian president through deliberate verbal insults, offensive accusations, ad hominem attacks, and belittling comments, with the hope or the expectation that Mr. Ahmadinejad would lose his courteous countenance and respond in kind, thus further demonstrating to the public his "extremism." Finally, it was shrewdly devised to mollify the critiques of that visit and the major financial donors to the University.

Bollinger, who is reputed for his scholarly work on the First Amendment, could have politely introduced President Ahmadinejad, told him that he profoundly disagreed with the Iranian theocratic regime and the views that he, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, holds against the USA, Israel, the Holocaust, Iranian civil liberties, etc., yet extend the invitation in the spirit of the famous aphorism attributed to Voltaire, "I do not agree with what you are saying but I will fight to the end so that you might say it." Then, he could have civilly broached the six issues he raised: 1) the crackdown on scholars, journalists, and human rights advocates; 2) the denial of the Holocaust; 3) the destruction of Israel; 4) funding terrorism; 5) proxy war against US troops in Iraq; and finally, 6) Iran's nuclear program and international sanctions. All legitimate topics and concerns open to frank debate. Instead of bullying his guest, he could have made use of a simple rhetorical tool: Questioning, asking for clarification. For example, Bollinger could have said:

Mr. President, there are wide-spread reports in the West and in Israel that you have vowed to "wipe Israel off the map." Could you clarify? Have you really said what is widely reported? Do you actually want Israel destroyed?

Also, Mr. President, you appear to be on record as claiming that the Holocaust did not happen. Are you, Sir, a Holocaust denier?

Each of the six issues Bollinger raised could have been framed in that spirit, without resorting to petty, rude, classless smears, and abusive pit bull-like biting attacks. But Bollinger's assigned role was that of a gatekeeper, an attack dog in the service of the citadel, not that of a polished host to a controversial, often-loathed guest. Had he allowed Ahmadinejad to clarify his alleged statements, the president of Iran could have answered that:

I've never threatened to "wipe Israel off the map." Beside the simple fact that I do not have control over the Iranian armed forces, what I've simply said in Farsi is, "Imam ghoft een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad," which any of your esteemed and accurate translators within your Department of Middle East Studies will tell you means, "The Imam said this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time." He, the Iman, was referring to the Zionist regime in Jerusalem, not the country of Israel, which Iran could presumably recognize, much alike other countries in the region are willing to do, were Palestinians granted the justice they deserve. In other words, within your own repertoire of which your government has made ample use (remember 1953?), we are calling for regime change.

As to the Holocaust, I do not deny that it happened, but I object to the fact that it cannot be further scrutinized or studied, and that its occurrence has been used for sixty years to deny justice to the Palestinians who had nothing to do with it in the first place. I further note that we organized a conference on the Holocaust -- which included what you call Holocaust deniers but we call historians and researchers (I understand we may disagree on these definitions) -- within a specific context in which the Prophet Mohamed had been insulted in a series of cartoons published in the Netherlands and reproduced in many countries. We felt that if your freedom of speech allowed for such desecration, our freedom of speech could question an issue that seems to be taboo in your land of free speech.

Hopefully, dear President Bollinger, these explanations will satisfy your inquiring mind, which deserves much respect and understanding, and will help bridge the gap between our two cultures, as well as dissipate any potential misunderstanding.

Actually, Mr. Ahmadinejad could have referred Mr. Bollinger to Professor Juan Cole's post of May 03, 2006 on his Web site, "Hitchens the Hacker; And, Hitchens the Orientalist -- And, 'We don't Want Your Stinking War!'" Bollinger, however, wouldn't touch reality with a ten-foot pole. That's not his job. That's not his role.

He did not want his indoctrinated students, and by extension the public at large, to find out which countries attack other countries, which countries support regime change and finance actual terrorism (our "freedom fighters"), which countries keep waging war in the name of peace. Mr. Bollinger was about following a script and acting, however absurdly, in the service of his masters.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been so deeply demonized that nobody really bothers to listen to what he is actually saying. Not one organ of the corporate media, or the Blogosphere for that matter, has studied or carefully reported on either his remarks at Columbia University, or his speech at the U.N. the next day. For that, you need to look elsewhere; for instance, the excellent draft analysis by Anthony Judge, the former Assistant Secretary-General of the Brussels-based Union of International Associations: "Who's Afraid of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?" His belief system may look absurd to an occidental mind but it should at the very least be fruitfully debated, without prejudice.

But why try to understand a different culture? It's so much easier and satisfactory to blow hisses and boos at Ahmadinejad's comment that "homosexuality does not exist [in Iran]." It immediately adds to the image you have of the Other; but what about doing some useful homework first? Read what William O. Beeman -- a professor and chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, who's been studying Iran for three decades and is fluent in Farsi -- has to say about homosexuality in that part of the world: "No Gays in Iran... But Many Same-Sex Couples" (New America Media, September 26, 2007).

Again, assuming you consider the Other your opponent and your enemy, would you not want to clearly understand his frame of reference before acting on your biases and interests?

Not in America. Here, we joyfully embrace cultural ignorance and bullying tactics. After all, we are the head bully on the block. What we say and do is the name of the game and we back up our assertions with our military. Get it?

Iraq is demonstrably a bulletproof testimony to our worldwide dominance and moral rightfulness... Right? (Please, excuse the sardonic irony.) Total hogwash and absurd silliness that we keep repeating blindly.

As stated in the introduction, when you want to control oil & gas, keep your currency afloat, and foster Wall Street's greed, you bring on Hitler and the Holocaust. Ervand Abrahamian, a professor of History at Baruch College, City University of New York, and Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, have laid out for everyone who's not blind or prejudiced the set up (Democracy Now!, September 25, 2007):

1)  It's 1938 all over again, and Iran is the contemporary Germany.
2)  Ahmadinejad is a latter-day Hitler.
3)  Therefore, talking to Ahmadinejad is like Chamberlain talking to Hitler -- Munich redux.

Seems far-fetched?

Listen to Mr. Netanyahu, the leader of the Israeli Likud Party. He's been using metaphor #1 and #2 for years. Listen to Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, who jumped on metaphor #3 the very next day after the Columbia event. Listen to the entire American punditocracy that keeps repeating the same propaganda. Listen to the creepy John Bolton who calls for bombing Iran and for regime change. Listen to the Democrats who keep passing resolutions condemning and sanctioning Iran. Listen to the presidential candidates who repeat in unison that all options remain on the table. In that context, Mr. Bollinger's harangue resembled very much the language of US diplomacy. We don't talk nor negotiate with "evil"...which renders war rather inevitable. It looks so much like the Halo 3 video game (2) except that real people die and real countries are being destroyed.

Here is a country, Iran, which has not gone to war but in self-defense for over two centuries, and when it had to, its aggressor was supported by Western powers. Here is a country whose regime has been vilified and sanctioned for almost 30 years. Here is a country that has largely played by the book of international standards in regard to nuclear enrichment. Here is a country that, like it or not, does have elections that are not controlled by private companies sympathetic to one particular political party -- certainly far more democratic than during the period 1953-1979 when Iran was ruled by an actual "petty, cruel dictator," and American puppet, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. (Ironically, Columbia granted an honorary degree to the Shah, and in the 1930s invited Hans Luther to speak on campus. Mr. Luther was the Nazi ambassador to the U.S.)

One could add that Persia is an ancient civilization, thousands-old culture, but we know how much we have cared about Iraq's historic past. "Stuff happens," once quipped Donald Rumsfeld. The cradle of civilization is almost totally destroyed. (See "It is the death of history," by Robert Fisk, The Independent, September 17, 2007.)

In retrospect, this has nothing to do with the Theatre of the Absurd. It has nothing to do with human consciousness. It has nothing to do with truth -- "For here we are not afraid to follow Truth, wherever it may lead; nor tolerate any error so long as reason is free to combat it." (Citation inscribed on one of the entrance gates to the Grounds of the University of Virginia.) It has nothing to do with nothing.

What it has to do with is power and wealth.

Mohammad-Ali Khatibi, deputy head of the National Iranian Oil Company in charge of marketing, just stated that, "Iran is selling about 85 percent of its oil in the non-dollar currencies . . . . About 65 percent of the oil sale income is in euros and 20 percent in yen." He added that the remaining 15 percent currently paid in US dollars were going to shift to "other creditworthy currencies."

Perhaps someone could let Mr. Bollinger know about this tiny little news.



1.  Freedom of speech can be quite elastic. For instance, last April, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the South African Nobel Peace Laureate, accepted an invitation to speak in the spring of 2008 on the campus of the University of St. Thomas, in Minnesota. The invitation was overturned by the university administrators on the basis that Tutu had made comments considered hurtful by the Jewish community. In a speech Archbishop Tutu gave in Boston in 2002 on Israel's occupation of the West Bank, he remarked, "People are scared in this country [U.S.], to say wrong is wrong because the Jewish lobby is powerful, very powerful. Well, so what? This is God's world. For goodness sake, this is God's world. We live in a moral universe. The apartheid government was very powerful, but today it no longer exists. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pinochet, Milosevic, and Idi Amin were all powerful, but in the end, they bit the dust." (See "Banning Desmond Tutu," by Matt Snyders, citypages.com, Minneapolis/St. Paul, October 3, 2007, and "Desmond Tutu, Persona Non Grata," by Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Education, October 4, 2007.)

You may want to also ask Professor Norman G. Finkelstein, the author of The Holocaust Industry and a strong critique of the state of Israel who was denied tenure at DePaul University, his thoughts about freedom of speech.  (back)

2.  Last month, Microsoft released Halo 3, its latest shoot-'em-up video game. Here is how Seth Schiesel describes the game in the New York Times (September 26, 2007):

The narrative of the Halo series is fairly standard science-fiction fare. Halo 3 begins in the year 2552 and an alien alliance called the Covenant is continuing its quest to dominate the galaxy by activating immense ring-shaped doomsday devices called, unsurprisingly, Halos.

An interstellar commando known as Master Chief, controlled by the player, must stop them, not through negotiation but rather with an arsenal of high-powered weapons.  (back)


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Gilles d'Aymery on Swans (with bio). He is Swans' publisher and co-editor.



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Published October 8, 2007