Open University

Thoughts On Ahmadinejad And Iconography


I. Once again, Iran's President Ahmadinejad's reputation was rescued by the ineptitude, rudeness and stupidity of a well- known reporter and then by those opponents of his who reenact the Yeats depiction of a world of discourse in which "the worst are full of passionate intensity." On the "60 Minutes" interview with Scott Pelley, Ahmadinejad showed himself--as in time past he'd done with such other famous and inept interviewers as Mike Wallace and Brian Williams--good- humored, well-informed and patient under rude, persistent, clumsy questioning. So, instead of accepting and building on Ahmadinejad's response to his question about Iran's working toward nuclear weapons, namely, that the day of such weapons' utility had long passed, Pelley accused him of not answering his question. Which of course evoked a rational, still good humored response that he, Ahmadinejad, was not a Guantanamo Bay prisoner being interrogated by the CIA but the elected president of the country in which they sat.

Yesterday, we had the usual, media-selected opposition to Columbia University's invitation to Ahmadinejad to participate in a Q and A with faculty and students. (The anchor robots seemed nervous when unfrenzied students and faculty spelled out the case for open forums, free speech and debates.) Small disappointments: level-headed Hillary Clinton, after, one guesses, a staff cost-and-benefit assessment of responses, said had she been president of Columbia, she would not have issued such an invitation, a version of George Bush's response, except that his was preceded by a more sensible, "It's OK with me, though I don't think I'd have invited him." At least, neither called Ahmadinejad, a "crazy madman," the redundant depiction that went unchallenged by "debaters" on CNBC or a "mean-spirited, petty dictator" which was Columbia President Bollinger's hospitable introduction which Ahmadinejad quickly and quietly disposed of in a two sentence remark about Iranian notions of hospitality.

In Iran's national concourse for university places, Ahmadinejad came out No. 132 out of 400,000. He has an MA in civil engineering, a PhD in transport and planning, was on the short list of 65 (out of 550) outstanding world mayors when he was mayor of Teheran, and ran a skillful campaign to become president of his country. Far from being a dictator, he was rebuked by the ayatollahs for, among other things, suggesting that women be allowed to attend public sporting events (he has two daughters as well as a son), is openly challenged by newspapers and students, and is not in control of the army or other major sources of Iranian power. As for his notorious proclamations about Israel, the Holocaust and--as of yesterday--homosexual freedom, he did as well as a believer could, saying that although he is not anti-Semitic and that Jews in Iran are actually favored as far as parliamentary representation goes, he did not look kindly on the "Zionist state" because it was an occupying power and one unfair to its ethnic minorities. As for the Holocaust, he granted that it may have happened but that like everything else, it should be further researched. (Nobody asked him if he thought the existence of Iran as a legitimate state or the cheese composition of the moon warranted further research.) As for the limitations on homosexuals, he said there were none in Iran. (This drew the loudest laugh, perhaps even from that portion of the audience--estimated at 30%--that was behind him all the way.) As for women, he considered them superior beings and they were so treated in his country. He cited their presence in the universities, business and government: there were two women deputy premiers. It was clear that this unshaven, "casually dressed," necktieless homunculus relished the intellectual sport of university "debate" especially on a worldwide stage, and that he'd mastered the skills of public challenge: circumlocution, good humor, "you- too"ism and "Now-let-me-ask-you-a-question".

A professor for six years, a public figure for many more, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is, like it or not, well on his way to becoming another of the oil-elevated populists who take up that portion of the world stage not dominated by the heads of oil-consuming democracies and out-and-out terrorists.

I suggest that we welcome the best of Ahmadinejad: his Moslem tolerance, if not love, for all people, his proclaimed opposition to war and nuclear weapons, his desire to enter into world debate and world trade. Accept his necktieless ease, unshaven face and his mix of arrogance and pride, answer logically his more outrageous statements, and turn down our own rhetorical burners as a way of persuading him to lower his.

II. Iconography

a) There's a splendid photograph on the back of the latest issues of the Harvard and University of Chicago Magazines. It is, I believe, an ad for NetJets, and shows the company's owner, Warren Buffet, sitting on one of the plane's comfortable lounges beside his young friend, Bill Gates. They are in shirt sleeves, Buffet in suspenders. Gates is smiling broadly and looks relaxed and happy; Buffet, less openly expressive, also looks at ease. In front of them on a table are two glasses of what may be Coca-Cola (another Buffet company), two hands of a card game I can't identify except that it's not the bridge Buffet adores and which they've played together, a section of a newspaper resting on a handsome leather notebook near Gates (another section emerges from his briefcase), a dish of candies, another of some sort of salad, another with halves of a muffin. On a side table in the rear is a vase of fresh flowers. Portrait of Two Amiable, Congenial, Benevolent Billionaires as constructed by well-remunerated P.R specialists

b) At last week's congressional hearings, iconographers could count nine rows of ribbons on the left side of General David Petraeus's uniform each standing for some accomplishment or area of service. They rose toward the four silver stars of his rank and other symbolic insignia which I could not make out on television as he read his clearly- written statement and answered questions from the members of the Armed Services Committees, the first chaired by a Grant Wood-looking sexagenarian, Ike Skelton (perhaps a cousin of the late comedian, Red, whom he resembles). As usual in nationally publicized hearings, the questioning of the general and of his diplomatic Tweedledee, Ryan Crocker, was an occasion for members of the committees to exhibit their own expertise, well-traveled knowledge, high-minded stances, and fitness for even higher office. The general, lucidly, patiently and as openly as his place in--to use a phrase he used often--"the chain of command" allowed, defended his mission, claimed it was en route to being fulfilled and then, once or twice, opened further to say that he did not know how it fit into the larger picture of American security (this in response to a question from John Warner to whom longevity has supplied the kind of weary wisdom respected by colleagues and commentators). No one had apparently read Petraeus's 337 page Ph.D. (Princeton) dissertation dealing with the failures of Vietnam and other American wars fought by too-few troops with too little public support, despite its obvious contradiction of his present mission. Indeed, no one seemed up to the lucid patience of this superbly disciplined soldier who'd emerged from his modest Cornwall-on-Hudson upbringing (his father, Sixtus, an immigrant Dutch sea captain), his graduation from near-by West Point whose Superintendent's daughter he married after graduation. The portrait here seemed to be a version of Patience on a Monument, the "Monument" being the eternal sameness of actionless schmoos.

--Richard Stern

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