Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Challenge declined: the Bush/Ahmadinejad nondebate

White House rejects Iran debate | | The Australian

THE White House today rejected outright an offer from Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to hold a televised debate with US President George W. Bush...Mr Ahmadinejad overnight offered Mr Bush a live television debate as he shrugged off the threat of sanctions ahead of a looming UN deadline for Iran to halt sensitive atomic work.

"I suggest we talk with Mr Bush, the president of the United States, in a live television debate about world issues and ways out of these standoffs. We would voice our opinions and they would too," he told a news conference.
The debate "should be uncensored, above all for the American public," said Mr Ahmadinejad"

President Bush yesterday declined an invitation to a TV debate by Iran's President Ahmadinejad. This was probably a wise move since Ahmadinejad, in addition to being quite a sharp politician is, apparently a pretty smart guy--indeed an engineering nerd prone to nose-bleeds. As he himself notes on his blog.

Even though I was very playful those days, but was aware of my school & education. I was a distinguished student. From that time, I was interested and attached to teaching. I used to teach my friends and others in their houses. The last year of my high school, I prepared myself for university admission test-conquer. And later on that year, I took the test. Although I had nose bleeding during the test, but I became 132nd student among over 400 thousand participants. I was admitted for civil engineering major in one of the technical universities in Tehran. That was three years before the revolution. Even though the revolution was taking place and I was involved in certain activities against the illegitimate regime of the monarch in Iran-the mercenary & puppet of U.S. & Britain- but I was aware of my education and did not give it up.

Reading Ahmadinejad's blog, a political item directed at his base, was illuminating not so much about Ahmadinejad's own psychology as it was about the motives and interests of the "base" to which he was aiming to appeal, in particular "why they hate us." The picture he paints is of a body of people oppressed by a Westernized elite under the Shah, and subsequently humiliated by Western powers, the US and UK in particular, intent on forcing Western culture on them while depriving them of access to Western technology. Iran's nuclear program, he argues, will put Iran on equal footing with world powers as a force to be reckoned with.

The appeal to national pride and the rhetoric of communal honor isn't surprising or unfamiliar. It's the same jingoistic line demagogues everywhere, and in the US in particular, take to command the loyalty of the peasantry. I suppose it appeals to some urge for transcendance--identification with some cause beyond oneself, whether a nation, a football team, a religious tradition or a street gang and a gut level commitment to promoting interests that go beyond, and even conflict with individual interests.

That quest for transcendance, and for "dignity" and "honor" through identification with a nation or people, is one of the dividing lines between educated, cosmopolitan elites and the masses. The Iranian masses care intensely about getting nukes--not, as far as I can see, because they want to blow up Israel, or even because they believe they need them to defend themselves, but because they are after dignity, honor and national recognition, just as the American masses care about the US's position as "leader of the free world."

It all seems childish and wasteful, but not entirely pointless I think. Most people have little opportunity for individual achievement: they work to eat and eat to work, sleep, excrete and copulate. Their only chance to get beyond the brute business of survival and procreation, to achieve "dignity" or "honor," is through identification with the nation, the church or the football team, by identifying with their achievements, stature and status. Maybe that's one of the things that privileged people, who take opportunities for personal achievement for granted, don't get.


Sanpete said...

You'd think the president of Iran would be able to find a better speaker of English to translate his blog. Then he'd seem even smarter. I think Bush was about 132nd in his class, so they have that in common.

Those who grow up in a culture where community is strong don't so much desire membership in something that transcends themselves; they just find themselves part of it. Being part of it, they naturally take it personally.

However, there are no doubt some who lack this and desire it. I don't know if the few are less prone to the desire than the masses. The two classes may sometimes identify with different transcendent things. NPR, a political movement, feminism, an intellectual community, blogging, whatever; all can serve a similar purpose. Listen to those appeals to pride during the pledge drive: "You care about the world and want accurate, unbiased information about it, delivered at a level appropriate to your intelligence. You won't settle for the sound bites that pass for news in the mainstream media. You want to consider all things, in depth. You're a public radio listener ...." The people getting those NPR mugs and T-shirts, or Neal Conan's voice on their home answering machines, aren't the huddled masses.

H. E. said...

You may be right. I just think that "community" shouldn't be strong and that people should fight for all they're worth to extricate themselves.

But, jeez, I would love to see W debate Ahmadinejad! It might be the best shot we have at improving the situation in the Middle East, to have W publicly humiliated. I'm not even that scared of Iranian nukes--not nearly as scared as I am of North Korean nukes. Iran is fundamentally a rational player, a state looking to improve it's economic status and achieve regional hegemony. Good for them. They've got oil, they want to be a semi-major player on the world stage and, even if they make women wear headscarves, women now outnumber men at universities--a first-world pattern. They're rational agents and we can talk to them. They want basic respect--and deserve it.

North Korea is a basket case. They're starving and all they have to negotiate with are their nukes--which they could sell to anyone just to keep afloat. They have a crazy ideology and a crazy but smart dictator who could pull anything.

Sanpete said...

Of course I prefer strong communities. It takes a village, and all that.

If Bush and Ahmadinejad did debate, A. would probably make some fatal mistake like sighing audibly, or giving too many personal examples. And we already know that looking like a deer caught in headlights and stammering incoherently won't hurt Bush any, so a debate might not have the desired effects.

I'm not so scared of Iranian nuclear weapons either. I'm not so worried that Iran would really try to destroy Israel, especially knowing that it wouldn't be healthy for Iran. The bigger threat, also not very big for now, is that Bush will bomb Iran. That would be really stupid, but he has a track record on that. North Korea probably is the bigger threat in terms of proliferation, as you say. Bush has been perfectly boneheaded about that too. Two more years. And five months.