I intend to use this blog as a platform for my daily thoughts on a variety of topics. I welcome comments, objections, and questions.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Mahmoud I'm-a-nutjob in NYC Revisited

Mark, Brian, and Larisa, thank you for commenting on my post. There were several good issues brought up that I'd like to respond to. For those of you reading this that want to see these comments, please go here.

I'll respond in order, so I'll start with Mark. First of all, there are important differences between diplomatic communication and the invitation of the kind given to Mahmoud I'm-a-nutjob. Diplomacy, properly used, can be a valid tool to undermine the legitimacy and/or power of a dictatorship. It made sense to talk with Russia and China given that such an option was less damaging than full-out war. In the case of Iran, I would not be opposed to talking directly with Iran, but only if such talks were of a certain kind. That is, we should never approach talks with Iran on the unstated (or stated) premise that our governments are two legitimate equals. That being said, I currently do not see any way of achieving something with Iran diplomatically without having to seriously compromise one of our own principles. What could we give them to make them stop their nuclear program, end their support of Hezbollah, and end their support of terrorists within Iraq? The answer is that we'd have ease up on one of these issues, or worse, and I find that to be utterly unacceptable. Are you aware of how easily agreeing to diplomacy is used as a con-game by totalitarian regimes looking to buy time? Take a look at how the U.S. has handled diplomacy with North Korea for the past 15 years for a great example.

As for arresting I'm-a-nutjob, that is the action that every principle of justice and morality I believe in demands. I do not believe in the inherent legitimacy of a head of state simply because he is a head of state. A legitimate government (and representatives of that government) exists only when they properly respect the rights of the individual. To pretend that I'm-a-nutjob is a legitimate leader is a total mockery. That being said, we both know such an action would not achieve much, since I'm-a-nutjob has very little real power anyway. Though, it would be a highly symbolic gesture.

As for sinking to the level of the Iranian hostage-takers, I have to give them some credit for actually having some balls. They had a moral premise that the United States is an evil power and they acted on it. They didn't pretend that we're all friends and everyone is correct and legitimate. Do you remember Jason's distinction between power and (moral) authority? In the world stage, we have substantial power, but the Islamic fundamentalists clearly have the upper hand in authority. Do you know why? We are so afraid to act on the moral premise that we are right. We have the absolute right to take I'm-a-nutjob at his word when he repeatedly calls for the collapse of the American government and for the eradication of the state of Israel. We have the absolute right to respond militarily when a government involves itself directly in the murder of our soldiers.

We can debate until we're blue in the face about the correct strategy for confronting Iran (if at all), but at the end of the day, the one principle that I am unwilling to abandon is that the United States, as a mostly free nation, has the right to respond when a dictatorship threatens it directly. (Anticipating an objection to the "threatens it directly" phrase, I will clarify. Obviously we are never going to see a situation where Iran, or similar countries for that matter, attack the United States itself. The asymmetrical nature of military power in that instance requires that Iran take more unconventional measures, specifically, through supporting terrorist attacks against our soldiers that are "hard to trace." That the Iranian government has repeatedly called for our destruction, in itself, justifies a strong response. But it is also obvious that they have been involved in a proxy war with us for quite some time - it could even be dated back to 1979, which deserved a response much stronger than Carter ever attempted).

Finally, Mark, you misunderstood my post entirely if you thought I was saying that Columbia's invitation implied agreement with I'm-a-nutjob's ideas. Rather, the invitation granted his position in the world a legitimacy entirely undeserved. In his speech, did he say anything that we did not already know? Did you expect him to? In what way was the event a "learning experience" that could not be had from reading the myriad of speeches, interviews, and press releases that he has already given? All the invitation represented was an opportunity for a "petty and cruel dictator" to cloak himself in the veneer of academic legitimacy. Most importantly, how do you think this looks in the eyes of the Islamic world? Constantly call for violence against Israel and the US, help implement Islamic theocracy, deny the Holocaust, and you will not be denounced by the West but rather invited to a top American university as a prestigious guest!

Brian, I have to say that I agree with your positive spin on how I'm-a-nutjob was treated by the Columbia University audience. I was pleasantly surprised that he was treated with such candor and mockery. I had fully expected polite disagreement on the mistaken premises that all cultures are equal, there are no objective principles of right and wrong, etc. However, I have an alternative to suggest to you. Would it not be more powerful a statement for our political leaders to speak with the same candor? Or better yet, we could allow our political cartoonists, comedians, and news commentators to blast him for his ideas and the policies of his country. Sadly though, we have all seen the "multi-culturalist" outrage that occurs when someone dares take issue, correctly, with another culture.

The major problem that I have with the way he was invited to speak at Columbia was that he was touted as being able to provide important insight into foreign affairs and political philosophy. Had Columbia invited him on the premise of asking him to defend himself against outrageous beliefs and policies, I would be in total agreement with you. That would in fact be a great opportunity to blast him for everything that makes him vile. But rather, in the public language used for the invitation, he was invited to share his insights. That is a profound mistake, in my view. I'm not sure if Columbia President Bollinger intended to rip I'm-a-nutjob from the start or if he decided to do so to deflect criticism of himself and the university. Either way, I think the outspoken criticism of the event, at least from my perspective, would have changed significantly had the public invitation been different as I stated. This may seem like I'm splitting hairs, but if you think about the implications to I'm-a-nutjob's image in the rest of the world, the difference becomes important.

Larisa! Thank you for your point by point analysis of a few issues. I enjoyed it. You pointed out some good holes in my first point that need to be clarified.

You are right that I did not mention that the right to free speech entails the option to provide a microphone and a platform if a person so desires. Of course I agree with that (it is, after all, the logical extension of the principle I did identify). I didn't mention it simply because I was attempting to refute an idea that seemed implicit in some of the support for Columbia's invitation: that everyone "deserves" to speak their mind to the public.

I am unsure exactly what you meant when you said,
"This statement is one of pure judgment (whether good or bad). And one must consider that “ethical standards” most often are nothing more than individual beliefs at root."
Are you implying that ethical standards consist of subjective whim as opposed to objective principle? I request elaboration. I won't try to support the claim that ethical standards are to be derived from objective facts here. That would make this blog post substantially longer than it already is. I would be happy to discuss the topic elsewhere, however.

You made a very good argument for the use of opposing views in the formation and maintenance of one's own. And correspondingly, you made a good argument as to why the government must protect the unrestricted right of free speech. You are absolutely right that the best course of action is to have your ideas challenged by opposing views, and to use those views to either improve or amend your ideas accordingly. I fail to see however how this event at Columbia University would have improved yourself in this manner. As far as I can tell, everything that was said at the event has been said countless times before. Furthermore, do you really need to hear from this particular variation of dictator in order to test your ideas against those of dictatorship in general? What new ideas does I'm-a-nutjob advocate that have not already be stated (and implemented) by countless others?

I'm sure there are, of course, certain advantages to being exposed to these ideas and their particular variant within I'm-a-nutjob in person, as opposed to through text. However, do these advantages outweigh the harm done by granting a sanction of legitimacy to the speaker? In this case, I think not. And as I have said earlier, if he was invited under a different format, that is, in order to "stand trial" in the court of public affairs so to speak, my outrage against the event would be minimal. But to invite him to a university, the supposed highest center of learning, on the supposition that his ideas are worthy of exposition, is to propose that murder of American soldiers, desire for genocide, and Islamic theocracy are legitimate ideas to be discussed.

Since it is connected, I'll respond to your last note before a few other issues I'd like to bring up. I can't stress enough that I am not outraged by the attempt to challenge ideas. In my own philosophy, rationality is the cardinal virtue of human life, and it requires the unregulated analysis of all knowledge, no matter how different or objectionable it may be. It absolutely requires you to confront issues of whether murder is justified, whether genocide is justified, and if Islamic theocracy is a good thing.

Committing yourself to this inviolate rationality, however, does not require you to provide an open platform for these ideas; especially if you have reached the point in your analysis upon which you are relatively certain that the ideas are invalid. It is important to always be willing to be open to new evidence that will change your mind. But in this case, the format of the forum far outweighed the incredibly minimal chance that some evidence would be presented to justify murder, genocide, or Islamic theocracy.

As for wanting to invite Hitler to a similar forum, I have to assume that you are talking about before he invaded Poland. It would be an absolutely profound mockery of justice if we were to invite him here to speak in the middle of the war and did not detain him immediately.

The last thing I was wondering about was this sentence: "That which invokes anger is more valuable than that which invokes praise, in my humble opinion." Can you elaborate on that? Why appeal specifically to emotions at all? Emotions are simply automatic responses programmed by the values of the individual. What makes one person angry will undoubtedly make another feel praise. This makes the inherent value of anger over praise a dubious claim at best. Seems to me that we should be focused most on appealing to the rational faculty of the individual, and upon agreement through logic and reason. That is, unless there are plenty of people that are too irrational to be appealed to in this manner. I am not emotionally unsympathetic to such a disposition, though I attempt to be more optimistic about our fellow humans than that. :-P

In sum, my primary objection over I'm-a-nutjob's visit has to do with the particular nature of the invitation. Some may see this as nitpicking, but as I have tried to demonstrate, the aura of moral legitimacy granted by the invitation was problematic, if not outrageous.

For those of you still reading, I promise a more cheerful post soon! (Hopefully.)

1 comment:

Tacy said...

Keep up the good work.