On reading the blog account of the big to-do at Columbia today, it occurs to me that Ahmadinejad must have found Bollinger’s “sharp challenges” much as Francis Urquhart described Prime Minister’s Question Time: “very frightening–like being mugged by a guinea pig.”

Consider this “challenge”:

Why do you support well-documented terrorist organizations that continue to strike at peace and democracy in the Middle East, destroying lives and the civil society of the region?

You could almost imagine Ahmadinejad replying, “I thank the honourable gentleman for his concern for peace and democracy, which my government has always shared.  We have always worked to bring peace and democracy to the rest of the world, because we love all of the nations of the world.  Naturally, we abhor terrorism and I refer the honourable gentleman to my previous answer.”

In his speech, Ahmadinejad did actually say, “we love all nations.”  That’s a nice thing to say.  It isn’t true (no one on earth, except perhaps for saints, loves all nations), and it is just so much boilerplate.  Someone probably said to him, ”They think that you hate the rest of the world, so ‘prove’ them wrong and say that you love the world.  That’ll show ‘em!” 

The point is that posing such questions to a demagogue simply lends meaning and importance to whatever the demagogue says in response.  It sets him up to blather on about whatever he would like to say.  If he ignores the questions, nothing has been proved that we did not already know, and if he answers them he will invariably spin them to his advantage.  Demagogues often have a good knack for turning a phrase and playing to a crowd–that’s how they got to be demagogues.  Forest Whittaker’s portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland comes to mind as a good image of how a despot can turn on the charm and have the foreigners laughing while his henchmen are busily eliminating dissenters.  This would hardly be the first time that a nationalist leader or religious fanatic adopts a moderate, soothing tone when speaking to a foreign audience, while saving the polemics for the folks back home.  People who ought to know better, and who see through such tricks when they are being played by our own politicians, are then taken in by this and they say, “He seems like a reasonable fellow to me!  What was all the fuss about?”

The pose that Ahmadinejad strikes on the subject of the Holocaust is typical.  He pretends that Holocaust studies are somehow today moribund and need to be “opened up” to ”alternative” perspectives.  In this, he uses the reality of a certain political dogmatism surrounding the history of the Holocaust to push an entirely different idea: in the name of opening up debate and furthering research, he would like the “alternative” of denialism to be accepted as a legitimate line of inquiry.  This is the sort of line that Armenian genocide-deniers take: there are different perspectives that need to be respected, the past is complex, who can really say what happened, awful things happen in wartime, etc.  To this they add the hilarious complaint that the push to have the genocide recognised is political (always considered a dirty word in these sorts of arguments), since, of course, deniers of the Armenian genocide could not have any agenda or political interests of their own.   

Diasporan Armenians in particular are understandably very passionate about having the genocide recognised, and they mobilise politically to this end, which then leads to Ankara’s apologists outrageously casting themselves as the defenders of free and open historical inquiry (when it is the apologists who are carrying water for a government that supports the active suppression of open historical inquiry inside Turkey and are actively supporting political efforts to halt formal recognition of the genocide in the House) against “political pressure.”  This objection against the use of “political pressure” to have a genocide recognised is a good example of morally bankrupt cleverness, but it can be an attractive view, which is why propagandists and deniers use it. 

It is unfortunately a reminder that genocide recognition often depends on whether it serves the interests of great powers and ideologues to recognise it.  The Armenian and Ukrainian genocides, for example, have not been very useful in this way, and so their status as genocides and their significance remain disputed and contested by those who have some stake in denialism.  Recognition of these genocides is seen as a preoccupation of an ethnic community and not a more important matter of moral and historical truth.  Ninety years ago, it would have been considered an unquestionable reality in America that there had been a genocide of the Armenians (though they did not have the word at the time), but today for all together too many Americans it has become a “complicated” question about which there are many different perspectives.  This change is not the result of an evolution towards more sophisticated and serious treatment of the history of the Ottoman empire, but a clear example of how power interests can corrupt historical understanding.         

Returning to Ahmadinejad, he reportedly said at the conclusion of his appearance:

If the U.S. government recognizes the rights of the Iranian people, respects all nations and extends a hand of friendship to all Iranians, they will see that Iranians will be among their best friends.

The dangerous thing about Ahmadinejad’s visit is that he will occasionally says things that are true when they seem useful to him, thus tarring those true observations through association with him.  The above statement is just such a true statement, and it is one likely to be ridiculed by the usual suspects because it came out of his mouth.  Indeed, it is frustrating to realise that if the U.S. government had recognized “the rights of the Iranian people” in 1953 and for 26 years after that Iran would very likely not now have someone like Ahmadinejad as its President.  Our two countries would almost certainly not be headed towards confrontation.  If the U.S. government respected “all nations,” the “crisis” with Iran would not exist because there would be no question of foreign powers dictating to any sovereign state how it might manage its internal affairs.  If Washington did pursue rapprochement with Iran, which, as my Scene colleague Matt Frost correctly notes, this visit has made even more unlikely, it is very likely that the U.S. and Iran could develop good, mutually beneficial relations.  Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia has helped set back the possibility of such rapprochement by associating the idea of opening any kind of dialogue with the Iranians with his views, which makes rapprochement even more remote than before.  That in turn aids the most hard-line elements in the Iranian regime, thus ensuring that the very repression and misrule that provoked Bollinger’s “sharp challenges” will continue and will probably get worse by strengthening Ahmadinejad’s faction at home by giving him such a forum and raising his profile internationally.