The adolescent hostility faced by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his recent visit to New York City and to Columbia University was in many ways apolitical. It anointed the revival of an uncouthness — frontier-style resentment as birthright — that has come to mar democratic discourse in the free-but-bristling United States.
Here are the facts:
Ahmadinejad was invited to Columbia to lecture ahead of his appearance at the United Nations. Many deplored the invitation because Ahmadinejad has grandstanded Holocaust denial, an indefensibly malign position. Columbia responded citing academic freedom and insisting it would have hosted even Adolph Hitler (a concept, hosting, that ostensibly includes dignity — or so one supposed).
Ahmadinejad is a polarizing figure. A front man for a tough Islamic regime, his demeanor is unruffled, even casual. He projects a scruffy suaveness that makes him a little like an oriental Lech Walesa. His outrageousness is invariably parochial and self-serving.
If he’s indeed a despot he avoids the category’s predictable phrasings. There is no uniform, no pomp, no idiosyncratic flab from which to construct a Charlie Chaplin parody. He is not Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, whose baby-faced yelping nourishes mockery.
Ahmadinejad instead uses meanderings to conjure a predictably nationalist antidote to American supremacy. To those who label him evil or naïve, he responds with a bumpkin’s smile (he is, after all, a former mayor and provincial governor). There’s the rub. Nothing troubles the righteous more than somone who spreads alternative creeds with impugnity. Ideologues dislike confident adversaries who can’t be bought or outflanked. It forces them confront the disingenuousness they believe is theirs alone to sketch and manipulate.
Ahmadinejad’s New York tabloid welcome was pure Yellow Journalism. “The Iranian madman” was among the more generous references. Fox News opted for “foul-smelling fruitbat”.
But the root of the loathing wasn’t Ahmadinejad’s troubling views on Israel, nuclear power, gays, or the Holocaust (reactionary thinking is all around). What galled was his strut: Here was the leader of a pariah state walking into a sheriff-heavy town refusing to kowtow or be cowed. This alone unsettled conformity. In hard and punitive times (said critics), he should not have been invited to Columbia, let alone have be permitted to “take advantage” of local freedoms (much the way the 9/11 hijackers manipulated American civil liberty, since watered down, to plan their attacks).
The post-9/11 period — North Korea aside — has produced only three magnets for official rage: Saddam Hussein, a second-rate secular dictator who was summarily deposed; Osama bin Laden, a cosseted mountain-man who has so far eluded capture, and Ahmadinejad, who infuriates critics because diplomacy removes him from harm’s pre-emptive way — for now. The last man to gnaw so annoyingly at the political establishment was Fidel Castro in the early 1960s. Tabloids howled; Castro laughed.
But there’s a cultural and racial difference between the two men: Castro was a bearded Latino turned Darth Vader communist; Ahmadinejad — his name a jumble and his nation fathomed only in terms of ayatollahs and once-upon-a-time American hostages — is more persuasively alien. Iran’s Persian traditions are no more familiar than those of Arab Iraq before shock and awe. Iran is yet another non-Christian badland run by men who don’t shower.
Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, a former adviser to Iran’s nuclear negotiation team, complained to The New York Times of “reeking intolerance [that] has become all-infecting.”
It’s a fair observation. When a university president introduces an invited head of state as “a petty and cruel dictator” who is most likely “astonishingly uneducated,” the civilized prudence central to evolved democracy is made an accessory to primitivism. Speech is nonchalantly regressed to a suit-and-tie-version of primeval grunting.
In fact, institutional vulgarity so dominates American popular discourse — and Americans so vaccinated against its whooping — that to criticize the offensive as inflammatory and unproductive makes no dent in the daily yell. Shrill is the norm. The public ecology is demagogic.
Improbably, bogeyman Ahmadinejad played New York to a draw. He conquered reality-show circumstances by resisting its provocations. Ideally, he should have walked out or lashed out grossly. He did neither. He waved no fist; he banged no shoe; he did regret being barred from laying a commemorative wreath at ground zero. He complained, rightly, of spectacular impoliteness. He shrewdly resisted entering the rage-machine the United States insists defines its democracy.
Those you can neither ruffle nor depose, you despise for their resilience and insult for show. And yes, it is all-infecting.