Kian, Columbia, and the Iranian Two-Step
It wasn't too long ago on the pages of the Shvitz we were joining in the call for the release of several Iranian-American academics who had fallen victim to the regime's crackdown against supposed velvet revolutionaries. Now, following the long … Read More
It wasn't too long ago on the pages of the Shvitz we were joining in the call for the release of several Iranian-American academics who had fallen victim to the regime's crackdown against supposed velvet revolutionaries. Now, following the long overdue release of Haleh Esfandiari comes the exciting news of the bail of Kian Tajbakhsh, just in time for Ahmadinejad's NYC vacation. So that's one less uncomfortable question he might have to answer. It's easy to see why, alongside, "Why do you deny the Holocaust?," "Why do you sponsor terrorism?," and "Why do you refuse to comply with international guidelines regarding the development of nuclear weapons?," he might not want to also have to answer why he locks up our fellow Americans in Evin prison.
But really, this visit is just a vacation, an end-of-the-summer jaunt in the Big Apple. For all the furor that's been stirred up over tonight's appearance at Columbia University, one must wonder how people on either side of the debate could be bothered to care about such a stooge as he. Free speech advocates say we should let the university serve its purpose as the forum for controversial discussion. That would be well and good if the visiting party were the Ayatollah Khamenei. Then we might have substantive dialogue regarding the Iranian state, its policies and aims–but as it stands we're talking to the receptionist.
Opponents of the visit wonder why a guy like Ahmadinejad should be given a platform at a prestigious place of higher education. To them I can only ask–have you visited a college campus lately? It's a marketplace of ideas, plenty of them obnoxious, idiotic, and offensive. While it's worth asking why somebody at Columbia thought inviting such a troll might be informative, it's not for us to say whether or not it's immoral or should be forbidden. Jean Baudrillard, the fellow who proclaimed that the Gulf War Did Not Take Place, spoke at my school while I was there and the theory hounds swarmed. I could only wonder how it was the people in charge of organizing such events at the New School thought he might be remotely worth the time. Same here with Columbia, but given the sensationalizing currents in higher education, it's hardly surprising.
Opponents and detractors of the current Iranian regime should be more concerned, however, with how their protests play into the P.R. dance at hand. Ahmadinejad is here for no reason if not to ask to lay a wreath at the WTC knowing the request will be denied and that well-meaning Americans everywhere will say, "You see, this is why the world hates us–he just wanted to lay a cute little wreath at Ground Zero and the brutes we Americans are, we won't even let him. I wanna move to Canada." This is analogous to bin Laden talking about global warming.
There is talk of protesters shutting down the Upper West Side this evening. I can't help but picture the clerics back in Tehran grinning with delight. Iranian citizens don't like their president, but also aren't likely to appreciate anything that might be spun as anti-Iranian sentiment on the streets of New York. These bouts seem tailored to drum up tension and anti-American sentiment both at home and abroad. It would seem as if winning at this game would involve the refusal to give the mullahs the reaction they're counting on.
Check out the video below and note how much context matters. At Amir Kabir University, students shouting "Death to the Dictator" simply operates in the network of images differently. The semiotically-minded might say that the signified ends up functioning in the world of signs in a manner independent of the signifier. In other words, while the act of publicly denouncing a theofascist may be the same in Iran as in America, the end product of the collective utterance will not be the same because it will exist in a different network of ideas. There, students risk their bodily safety to protest against the face of a regime that represses them every day. Here, it could be little more than a contest of vanities–a tabloid affair for politicos.